Finding Senior Leaders for Higher Education Institutions

Paula Fazli is senior vice president at Lindauer and co-lead of the firm’s higher education practice. Ms. Fazli has partnered with hundreds of higher education institutions, non-profit organizations, and foundations to recruit individuals for a variety of leadership positions, from provosts, deans, and department chairs to senior leaders in human resources, finance, diversity and inclusion, academic affairs, student affairs, research administration, educational development, and enrollment management. “Throughout her respected career in executive search, Ms. Fazli has helped some of the most prestigious institutions in the country navigate periods of change and bring in leaders who shape future generations,” said Deb Taft, CEO. “Her commitment to serving as a trusted client partner in every aspect of an executive search aligns strongly with Lindauer’s own philosophy.” Ms. Fazli recently sat down with Hunt Scanlon Media to discuss the ever-changing climate for higher education institutions today and how search firms are stepping up to fill senior positions.

May 3, 2024 – What are some challenges facing university presidents today?

It’s clear that over the last decade, university presidents have had to address a slew of growing internal challenges—things like shrinking budgets, declining enrollment, and faculty and graduate student unionization drives—that are connected to the operations and the unique structures of higher education systems. Presidents today need to be able to address and engage with a range of complex, often divisive external challenges—such as global conflict and intense scrutiny from Congress—that are having increasingly greater impact on the culture and climate on campuses. Leaders who came up through the traditional career pipelines of higher education and who are equipped to manage the former, internal challenges are not always exhibiting the kind of crisis management skills needed to weather the latter, external ones.

What are some current trends that you are seeing for recruiting senior leaders for colleges and universities?

From a recruiting perspective, it can be challenging to find candidates who are able to manage these two very different sets of high-level challenges. To adapt to a rapidly evolving landscape, universities are reconsidering their criteria for top leadership and opening themselves to candidates who may not necessarily fit the traditional profile of a university president. As part of this reevaluation, institutions may become more receptive to transformational leaders with experience managing change in industries outside of higher education.

As recruiters how can you assist?

This kind of paradigm shift is never easy, but as the crises facing presidents grow more common and more complex, I think universities are ready to have this conversation. There are a few ways we as recruiters can help search committees think more flexibly about their future leaders; one of the most effective measures is simply to give leaders and search committees an example. I think it is incredibly helpful for a professional who has made the transition from another industry to higher education leadership to share their story with a search committee at the very beginning of the succession planning process. It can provide a proof of concept for otherwise skeptical committees. Exposure to a greater diversity of professional backgrounds is critical to building more resilient institutions and addressing increasingly multi-faceted challenges.

Are schools expecting higher turnover rates?

I would venture to say that yes, turnover rates are expected to increase; but like so much in higher education, the rates vary immensely from institution to institution. Large public universities and smaller, regional colleges experience different challenges. Some turnover, of course, is healthy as it creates opportunities for new talent to bring fresh energy and ideas to the table. Too much turnover, however, can make it difficult for institutions to fulfill their missions.

“Exposure to a greater diversity of professional backgrounds is critical to building more resilient institutions and addressing increasingly multi-faceted challenges.”

Why is this occurring?

It’s not a groundbreaking insight, but I think a primary reason is the growing pay disparity between roles in higher education and equivalent positions in the corporate world—particularly for early-career professionals. This puts the overall talent pipeline at risk. Whereas in the past, the mission of higher education may have been enough to level the playing field in the pursuit of top talent, the job market has become more and more competitive. As universities address student concerns about the value of a college diploma, they are finding it necessary to think more holistically and transparently about their employee value proposition and what professionals need in order to choose this career path. This reevaluation will help improve institutions’ ability to retain existing talent and recruit new talent for open leadership positions.

You recently joined Lindauer to co-lead the firm’s higher education practice, can you reflect on this move?

I’m delighted to carry on the legacy of Sage Search Partners, the search firm I co-founded, with Lindauer, a firm that I have long admired in the non-profit executive search field. Lindauer consultants serve many of the world’s leading causes and offer their personalized, values-aligned solutions to an impressive array of clients. Behind every Lindauer search is an expert infrastructure of research, data, marketing, and administrative support that drives client success. I’m looking forward to bringing Sage Search Partners’ 25 years into this exciting next chapter with Lindauer.

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