Colleges and Universities Rely on Search Firms to Find Leaders in Polarizing Times

May 3, 2024 – Academic institutions continue to pump big fees into executive search firms nationwide. Many academic recruiting specialists say business, in fact, has never been better despite some sectors of executive search slowing over the past year. Even smaller recruiting outfits have multiple assignments running concurrently, all at the senior levels, and if there’s any slowdown coming it is to be found at the talent identification stage. With so much activity, it seems, talent demand is far outstripping the supply. The hunt for interim academic leadership is also picking up pace.

In recent months, a number of top schools have announced they are looking for new, high profile leaders to take them into new eras of fundraising, digitalization, sports and, in some cases, globalization. And like many sectors, talent shortages have made it difficult to place senior executives in a timely manner.

Several universities haven’t changed leaders in years or even decades, and their boards of trustees and search committees are finding an entirely new and highly competitive landscape as they set out. It’s another good reason why they’re calling in executive search firms to help out.

“Demographic shifts have created a talent shortage that will continue for some years,” said Heather Ring, managing partner of our academic, non-profit, social enterprise & culture practice at Caldwell. “To attract and secure in-demand candidates in this market, higher education institutions need to find ways to be nimble while continuing to use inclusive, transparent processes and search advisory committees to ensure diverse views are considered in decision making. With functional leaders for non-academic roles, we can offer more options when committees are open to individuals from outside higher education, but with experience in complex, multi-stakeholder environments, and an ability to align with the organizational mission.”

When discussing challenges facing university presidents today, Ms. Ring says that there is increasing pressure to take a position on challenging geopolitical issues, and in an increasingly polarized society, it can be difficult to find a middle ground while also remaining true to institutional values. “These roles are increasing in scope, including requiring massive amounts of time spent fundraising, partly to compensate for reduced government support for our public institutions,” she said. “President roles also are increasing in public profile; leaders and their actions are much more exposed in the age of social media. Public figures are easily targeted and pilloried, and, as we have seen, sometimes forced to succumb to extreme public pressure to resign. And we are living in an era in which education is increasingly under attack and labelled as elitist or irrelevant.”

“In response, institutions need to tell their stories authentically, demonstrate their value to society, and engage with the communities in which they operate,” Ms. Ring said. “Maintaining and/or growing enrollment is a challenge for many but not all institutions. Many students have turned away from liberal arts and humanities programs, and institutions have responded by cutting programs. Balancing rising costs and higher student debt are other concerns, and many institutions are grappling with the challenge of recruitment, retention, and support for international students. There are no simple solutions.”

Ms. Ring also notes that schools are experiencing high turnover rates. “This is because of a confluence of events, including the influence of geopolitical events on higher education communities, state-mandated changes based on political ideologies, demographics creating a talent shortage, competitive and tenacious recruitment of talent from underrepresented groups, employment insecurity for newer faculty, and reluctance to take on administrative leadership roles in the age of social media,” she said.

University searches also typically take longer. “It takes time to consult with the University community and ensure that all constituents have a chance to weigh in on levels,” he says. “And, whenever there is turnover at the top of the administrative structure, there is a ripple effect throughout the organization. Hence, we do anticipate a continuing level of high activity in these demanding jobs.”

R. William Funk & Associates has noted that there is a bit of a trend to hire internal candidates or candidates who have ties to the hiring institution, perhaps to a higher degree than previously. “Some schools are forgoing full-fledged searches when hiring internally and others are not using outside search firms in these instances,” said Mr. Funk. “Interest in women and underrepresented candidates continues to be high. Boards are being more active and taking a greater interest in the search process.”

A Look at One Firm’s Work

AGB Search notes colleges and universities are searching for lead- ers who have expertise in multiple areas. This has kept the search firm busy in recent months helping schools of all sizes in finding senior leaders. AGB is currently leading president searches for Utah Tech University, Wilbur Wright College, Dominican University New York, Northeastern Illinois University, Salt Lake Community College, Metropolitan College of New York, and Mount Saint Mary College just to name a few.

AGB explains that a new president’s job has never been more complex, considering today’s challenges including declining enrollment, escalating costs, cybersecurity threats, and the ongoing need to defend the value of higher education.

AGB recently assisted in the recruitment of Jack Warner as the president of Rhode Island College. “The quality of the individuals that had applied for this position was impressive, making it a
very difficult decision,” said David Caprio, chair of the Council on Postsecondary Education, who worked with ABG on the search. “There’s certainly demonstrated momentum by the state of Rhode Island and its leadership’s focus on education from K-12 through the college years. This search attracted a highly competitive pool of candidates for the Rhode Island College presidency, and we are confident that Jack Warner is — and remains to be — the best person to lead Rhode Island College at this moment in its history.”

After a national search, AGB also helped the University of Dubuque in the recruitment of Travis L. Frampton its 12th president. The search firm was tasked with finding candidates with demonstrate compassion, empathy, and humility. They also sought a strategic thinker and innovator, particularly when it comes to identifying opportunities to improve the University’s enrollment, culture, and financial sustainability. “Travis brings a wealth of academic and administrative knowledge,” said trustee Suzanne Preiss, presidential search committee chair. “We are confident that his 20 plus years of experience will continue to guide University of Dubuque into the next phase of transformational leadership.”

Both of these assignments called for AGB to present candidates with a wide scope of skillsets and the firm delivered senior leaders that fit the bill. Many of AGB consultants have served in college and university leadership positions using the past experiences to provide college and universities with top talent.

Financial Challenges

“Higher education recruiting is contracting to some degree because of the financial challenges facing many institutions,” said Carrie Coward, president of Summit Search Solutions. “However, that is being offset in many cases by the sheer volume of positions that are open due to retirements. Some of these searches do require a national search effort and so firms remain robust overall. So, there are many obstacles, but primarily financial challenges due to turnover, enrollment challenges, stimulus money running out, political unrest, and culture wars,” she noted.

“Jobs that require relocation to high cost of living areas or areas where there are housing shortages are especially challenging,” Ms. Coward says. “Colleges and universities that offer any type of remote, hybrid, or flexible position are seeing three times as much interest vs. jobs that firmly require a relocation.”

Ms. Coward also notes that many senior level academics and professionals in academia are opting to leave or to retire if they can manage it financially. Why? She says that “the same reasons that make being a university president challenging also impact the morale of faculty, staff, and administration – finances are tighter than ever, enrollment challenges, political and social unrest. People in academia feel like they are a bit under fire.”

Research has shown that filling president positions for university generally takes longer than typical searches. “Presidential searches are tremendously complex and take more time because there are so many stakeholder groups to involve and to satisfy,” Ms. Coward said. “Some have conflicting interests, so there is a lot to navigate to get to general agreement.” Generally, Ms. Coward explains that traits universities look for include: Grit, positivity, poise, wisdom, creativity, resourcefulness, transparency, political savvy, presence, and credibility.

“The culture, governance, and norms in an academic setting are unique as compared to other industries,” said Ms. Coward. “Academia is more collaborative and inclusive in its hiring practices; thus, you will see search committees in many instances where you would not in another industry. The value proposition of higher education is also broader, as the value of an education goes far beyond the obvious variables, and thus the bottom line is harder to manage to.”

Finding New Sources of Income

“Nearly all higher ed institutions are dependent on tuition as their main source of revenue for the operating budget,” said Meredith Rosenberg, partner and co-founder, NU Advisory Partners. “Amidst declining enrollments of traditional students due to demo- graphics and questions about ROI, some colleges and universities increasingly are recruiting a new type of leader to identify new sources of revenue to supplement tuition and reinforce their brands among constituents,” she added.

“More and more, institutions are creating senior positions with responsibilities for areas including developing programs for new audiences, expanding online or hybrid learning, building immersive off-site learning experiences, forging creative our brand? How do we think about teaching and learning beyond lecturing students in a four-year residential environment?

“When universities conduct a search for a new president, they need to look for candidates with a track record of driving innovation and growth,” Ms. Rosenberg said. “That means attracting people who have launched successful initiatives around new programs, audiences, or modes of instruction. And just as important, they need a track record of engaging with their communities and stakeholders to embrace these initiatives. Finally, a university president also has to think about talent in a new way. They need to break the traditional models and bring in people from unexpected places to add some entrepreneurial DNA to their institutions.”

“The academic sector is currently facing significant disruption and while there is a steady stream of opportunities available we have noticed reduced volume in certain jurisdictions globally, which are offset by both significant movement in other regions,” said Gordon Lobay, regional managing partner, Americas at Perrett Laver. “The general rhythm to senior searches is also shifting with many searches starting at various points throughout the academic calendar.”

“University presidents today are facing times of considerable disruption from high inflation and interest rates coupled with historic challenges around costs of deferred maintenance, to labor disputes, research security issues, executive compensation freezes in certain jurisdictions, enrolment issues in certain disciplines combined with caps on international student numbers in others,” Dr. Lobay said. “All of this amidst major geopolitical conflict; tensions on campus
in areas related to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), anti-racism and Indigenization; student experience; significant elections on the horizon in many major markets, and questions from the public on the role of the university and value of university degrees in contemporary society. There are many other issues at play, but at the same time, great opportunities to make hugely positive impacts in the world.”

Like other recruiters, Dr. Lobay says that searches for university presidents do typically take longer due to the need for significant consultation with both internal and external constituencies at the outset of processes. “Universities are collegial environments where consultation is an expectation,” he says. “These often range from a series of individual, small group, large open fora, to requesting written feedback from many, often external, groups, as well as ad- ministering surveys. These engagements aim to learn what different constituencies feel are the key opportunities, challenges, priorities for the institution at present and into the future – and based upon that context, what they feel are the key qualities, characteristics, and qualifications of the ideal candidate.”

“In addition to consultation, search committees are often large, ranging from 15 to 25 individuals, and in some cases even larger,” Dr. Lobay said. “Scheduling these meetings and the time it takes to run them do require more time.”

“The current state of recruiting senior executives for colleges and universities is in distress. In a post pandemic, higher ed world that is rift with governmental oversight, critical challenges in enrolment, financing, and world affairs – it is increas- ingly more difficult to recruit and retain higher ed executive leaders,” said Karen Whitney, senior consultant with The Registry, part of ZRG.

“College presidencies have always been 24/7 and 360 degree jobs but now there seems to be more competing pressure from competing interest groups almost all of the time, and these pressures always roll upwards,” said Lucille Sansing, senior consultant with The Registry. “Just to name a few: declining trust in higher education as an essential component to success; political and religious schisms that don’t seem to have language to find common ground; intrusion into campus life by outside political and social interests (e.g. erosion of campus DEI work); demographic cliff of 18-22 year olds risking decline in enrollment and cost in tuition discounting.”

Interim Leaders Sought

Since 1992, The Registry has helped colleges and universities across the U.S. and abroad during times of transition with experienced and diverse interim leaders. Presidents have always faced challenges as they interact with their several stakeholders, including boards, alumni, faculty, students, governments and external supporters, funders and agencies, according to Ian Newbould, senior consultant with The Registry. “That said, there are some unique newer challenges that presidents face,” he said. “Social media is pervasive. Difficulties and criticisms can go viral to hundreds of thousands or millions of people around the world in a split second. Boards react to these viral onslaughts, and presidents can be caught in the middle for doing something, or for doing nothing.”

“The unusually divisive political discord in the nation can make it extremely difficult for presidents to avoid,” Dr, Newbould said. “State regulations and interference in university affairs is becoming endemic. Presidents become the focus of attention, with both intended and unintended consequences. If the meme of a college president sitting in a chair with pipe in hand dispensing wisdom was perhaps never true, it certainly is not today. In many respects the job has never been more difficult, and the reduction in presidential average tenure the result.”

As documented recently in both Inside Higher Education and The Chronicle of Higher Education, it is becoming more and more difficult for presidents to identify and hire quality administrators and faculty members for their institutions.

“The challenges of competitive salaries, career mobility and decreased institutional loyalty, uncertain budgets, and complex student expectations, make it far more difficult for new or experienced CEOs to maintain coherence and commitment across their institution,” said James Martin, senior consultant with The Registry. “Additionally, strong demands for accountability not only from trustees, but also state and federal legislators, activist alumni and donors, and engaged parents, can distract even talented, qualified leaders from the reasons they sought the position originally.”

Hard Work

Presidential searches are hard work, and those on and off campus who need to be involved are already over-worked in many cases, and the vetting process for top-quality candidates can be exhausting since all major campus groups want a piece of the pie in this process, and a good-sized piece at that,” said James Martin, senior consultant with The Registry. “Search committees and professional search firms learn that the goal of campus consensus can be futile, so institutional leaders increasingly turn to organizations that can provide experienced leaders who can serve as an interim president for a year and keep all the trains running efficiently as the college or university steadies itself and clarifies the characteristics and accomplishments it finally seeks in its next leader.”

“Both public and private institutions contend with increasingly more complex environments due to governmental policies such as student aid and free speech, a lack of general trust in higher education from the public, and technological advancements that may affect both teaching and working environments.”

The difficulty of recruiting senior executives for colleges and universities is directly proportional to the challenges faced by the higher education sector, according to Shawn M. Hartman, SVP and COO of Academic Search. “Both public and private institutions contend with increasingly more complex environments due to governmental policies such as student aid and free speech, a lack of general trust in higher education from the public, and technological advancements that may affect both teaching and working environments,” he said. “Higher education leadership is also impacted by internal forces like budget constraints and answering to a wide range of stakeholders. It’s also important to note that the more current leaders and institutions are attacked by the media, the public, or even members of the institution itself, the harder it is to recruit candidates to roles at those institutions.”

Mr. Hartman also explains that at the most senior level of campus, presidents and chancellors have been seeing shorter tenures, which can be attributed to a variety of factors including burnout from the pandemic as well as new challenges stemming from cultural changes on campuses. “As leadership tenure shortens, there will be more opportunities for executive leadership roles within higher education that will need to be filled,” he says. “While it remains a challenge
on some campuses, we continue to work toward advancing the cause of equity and inclusion. Part of those efforts starts with the recruitment and selection process of leaders at institutions.
We understand that to increase equity and inclusion in higher education leadership, we need to look beyond just recruitment and identify ways in which we can support emerging leaders from all demographics through programs offered in partnership with other higher education organizations.”

To better recruit leaders at colleges and universities, Academic Search believes that it is important to set a strong foundation for the search process where we gain a deep understanding of each institution’s unique culture, mission, and challenges. “This allows our senior consultants at Academic Search to identify and recruit leaders who not only possess the requisite skills and experience but also align closely with the institution’s values and aspirations,” Mr. Hartman said. “As leading institutions becomes more daunting and challenging, finding diverse leaders who have the skill set to lead an institution, while aligning with the mission of the institution may become more challenging. This is why the work we do is so important in identifying and developing the next generation of higher education leaders to fill these critical roles.”

“When universities conduct a search for a new president, they need to look for candidates with a track record of driving innovation and growth.”

Challenging Period

Mr. Hartman also explains that presidents of colleges and universities today are at the helm during one of the most challenging periods in higher education as the sector faces a multitude of pressures and expectations that require not just administrative expertise, but visionary leadership. “Many institutions face financial constraints, with presidents needing to navigate diminishing public funding, rising operational costs, and the need to keep education accessible and affordable,” he said. “Institutions are also facing the rapid pace of technological advancement, which was particularly heightened during the pandemic. But although institutions made major changes to adapt to distance learning during that time, many were also quick to revert to the former model of education in the post-pandemic world. Presidents are now facing the challenge of moving their institutions into the future with more lasting technological changes and course offerings that allow for more equitable access to education.”

The changing demographics of the student body present another layer of complexity, requiring presidents to lead institutions that are responsive and inclusive to a wide range of student needs and backgrounds, according to Mr. Hartman. “Mental health and well-being have also become more prominent, and students have greater expectations to receive support in this area from their institution,” he says. “Along with that, the push towards greater diversity, equity, and inclusion has placed additional responsibility on university presidents to lead by example, fostering environments where everyone feels valued and supported. Amid these challenges, presidents must also contend with the evolving landscape of higher education itself, including shifts toward online learning and the need to demonstrate the value of higher education in tangible outcomes. Leading an institution through these complexities requires not just managerial skills, but a deep commitment to the mission of higher education and the resilience to guide their communities through change.”

Contributed by Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief; Dale M. Zupsansky, Executive Editor; Lily Fauver, Senior Editor – Hunt Scanlon Media

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