Global Pandemic Endows Universities With Big Challenges in the Hunt for New Leaders in 2021

Like for-profit leadership recruiting, the search for leaders at universities and colleges can be a lengthy, involved process. Candidates for academic roles must have a range of skills that go beyond scholarly and research accomplishments. Such assignments also tend to include the need to satisfy multiple constituencies. Recruiters who specialize in the sector offer their insights.

April 12, 2021 – Leadership roles in today’s colleges and universities have become increasingly demanding and complex. Senior academic leaders must balance the needs of numerous constituents—needs that require a cross-section of skills far beyond the traditional set of scholarly and research accomplishments. Interviews with a host of recruiters for the sector reveal the special challenges of their work.

Those who lead today’s universities are CEOs of publicly scrutinized institutions with requirements to fundraise, balance budgets and satisfy numerous demands with scant resources, according to Russell Reynolds Associates. “They compete for students, for faculty and staff members, and for rankings,” the search firm said. “Perhaps unsurprisingly, the average length of tenure in these roles is decreasing, and there is a growing need to attract and retain quality talent that can adjust to the unique challenges and aspirations of each educational institution.”

According to Russell Reynolds, while the senior leaders at colleges and universities contend with these expanded challenges, there is also growing demand for professional endowment leadership at many of these institutions, as pressure from today’s capital markets makes meeting target investment returns increasingly difficult. Complicated times demand complex leaders, say recruiters who specialize in the field.

Driving Consensus

Russell Reynolds Associates’ global higher education practice is composed of a cadre of former senior university officers, tenured professors and professional university staff, along with traditional business leaders, who work together to guide search committees through an orderly, transparent and thoughtful search process to fulfill key leadership positions. The firm works collaboratively with large search committees of trustees, faculty, staff and students, balancing divergent interests while driving understanding and consensus.

Change, of course, is never easy. “Contemplating leaving one institution you love for another you may not know can be especially hard,” said Brian Casey, president of DePauw University. “I was fortunate that Russell Reynolds Associates guided me through the search with a gentle hand and provided me with information, wisdom and respect. I remain grateful for the opportunities they showed me and the help they offered me during the search and during my transition.”

Brian Mitchell, president of Bucknell University, found the executive search process “comprehensive, competent, careful,” which, he said, “enhanced the pool and brought to the university an outstanding choice in Michael Snyder as our new provost. Russell Reynolds Associates understood its role and the importance of this search to us and behaved accordingly.”

From refining job descriptions to launching and managing nationwide leadership hunts, recruiters have become trusted partners in what has become one of the fastest growing sectors seeking expert talent. Reduced state funding, rising tuition costs, soaring student debt and decreased federal research funding have all contributed to a dramatic rise in the role search firms are playing in the recruitment of university presidents and chancellors.

Recruiters, say clients, are adept at managing a process that can be fraught with political and financial intrigue as well as the usual amount of educational issues. Like for-profit leadership recruiting, the search for a university president or chancellor can become a laborious process lasting several months to half a year before a candidate is selected. But unlike searches for companies, academic assignments can and often do include the need to satisfy any number of constituencies – and that more than anything can complicate and lengthen the timeline to find the perfect leader.

Pioneering Recruiters

Greenwood / Asher & Associates is one of a small, but growing cadre of major boutique players serving the higher education leadership needs of colleges and universities. It is a women-owned recruiting firm with a diverse consulting team and extensive experience in executive search, consulting and training for education markets including elementary, secondary, higher education, university systems, campuses and non-profit organizations including associations, service and cultural institutions. The firm is led by Jan Greenwood, president, and partner Betty Turner Asher.

Dr. Greenwood is a pioneer in U.S. higher education, having served as the first woman president of a public four-year and graduate institution in Virginia. She is a licensed psychologist with experience as a psychometrist and with post-doctoral training in group methods. Dr. Greenwood and her team recently placed Gregory Washington as the eighth president of George Mason University in Fairfax, VA. This marks the third president the search firm has placed for the school over the past three decades. Greenwood / Asher has a similar track record with the University of Florida, where the firm has helped recruit their past three presidents.

Returning to Full Capacity

While educational institutions of all stripes have seen a steady rise in calls for outside leaders over the past two to three decades, the global pandemic which started this past spring has wrought big changes.

Navigating the Insular World of Academic Recruiting
Passionate about higher education, recruiters for the academic sector face a range of challenges than those in other areas are unlikely to see, says Shawn M. Hartman, of Washington, D.C.-based Academic Search. Widespread input from across an institution’s community, lengthier searches and state sunshine laws are just some of the issues that executive recruiters working for institutions of higher learning must deftly navigate.

“A significant culture change is underway in higher education as a result of COVID-19 and the utilization of more technology to get work accomplished,” said Ms. Greenwood. “Many searches for deans, vice presidents & provosts, and presidents/chancellors historically are accustomed to a search process that has candidates in-person on campuses for final interviews typically lasting up to two days and meetings with multiple groups of constituents.” Now, some universities are completing their entire search via Zoom, WebEx, Teams or other technology. But the changes run much deeper than how searches are completed and new leaders are picked.

“COVID-19 has necessitated very conservative budget planning for universities for this summer and fall semester,” Ms. Greenwood said. While many universities are continuing searches for presidents, chancellors, vice presidents, provosts, and deans – considered essential roles – many other positions remain vacant and searches to fill them in some cases are frozen and delayed. Some position freezes, in fact, have been mandated by states and others by university policy.

Related: Erie Community College Selects RH Perry & Associates to Find Inaugural President

Once business resumes in full swing, post-COVID-19, academia will have even more reason to hunt down more innovative and adaptable leaders, with “diverse identities at the helm,” said Ms. Greenwood. In demand will be strategic planning leaders who can bring fresh ideas to the table, help rebuild budgets and enrollment, and realign institutions along a new set of best practices. “Although COVID-19 has presented obstacles and uncertainty, higher education remains robust and the searches for new and upcoming leaders will continue,” she noted. In the pandemic’s aftermath, interim leaders will be as important as permanent leaders.

Frozen Searches

Anniston, AL-based Higher Education Leadership offers what it describes as a new model of higher education search. With recruiting consultants from a variety of academic and administrative positions, the firm offers universities and candidates a variety of services: profile development, position advertising, candidate support and recruiting, facilitation of the interview process, as well as complete internet and social-media vetting. Some of the search firm’s clients include Southeastern Oklahoma State University, Arkansas Tech University, Auburn University at Montgomery and the University of Texas Permian Basin, among others.

Alan G. Medders, a consultant with the firm, has spent more than 25 years in public and private higher education where held a series of development and advancement roles. He says that beginning in mid-March, with the full outbreak of COVID-19, higher education recruiting came to a standstill. “The searches we were already contracted to begin were put on hold,” he said. Several of those institutions have now contacted the search firm about starting those searches in early fall.

“I anticipate a slower recovery as institutions both public and private wait to see how state funding, fall enrollment, and state health guidelines will be conducted in this environment and how the virus continues to react throughout the population,” said Dr. Medders. One university HR director, he said, recently indicated to him that universities will become much more discerning, strategic, and cost-conscious when it comes to utilizing search firms to fill a role.

“Like many other sectors of the economy, it is going to take two to three years for higher education search to return to full capacity,” said Dr. Medders, who noted the sector could be a leading indicator of the financial health of institutions in general.

Los Angeles-based Shelli Herman and Associates also focuses on higher education search assignments. The firm has a long roster of clients, including Otis College of Art and Design, Pacific Northwest College of Art, California Polytechnic State University, and University of California, Los Angeles, among others. “At the senior levels, searches are continuing because these roles are mission critical,” she said. “I do not see any slow down with searches at this level now or in the future.” It is with mid-level searches where she sees the possibility of a stall.

Ms. Herman says she can also “see institutions moving away from using retained executive search and trying things on their own. I also see increased pressure on fees and having longer payment schedules along with the extensive use of technology to facilitate searches.” Recruiting, she said, is going to become increasingly more complicated. “I see the COVID-19 crisis impacting higher education in profound ways, some of which we can see now and others which we will realize over time,” she said. “The certainty here is that the old ways of delivering education and a broader co-curricular student experience will forever look different. Campuses that pivot now and embrace change with both hands will thrive.”

“I look at this from a unique lens,” said Cindy Joyce, founder and CEO of Boston-based Pillar Search. In addition to serving as an executive search consultant working with nonprofit and higher education organizations, Ms. Joyce teaches at Harvard, Cornell and Suffolk Universities. “Suffice it to say that I have had many discussions and time to reflect on the issues surrounding higher education lately!” While some colleges and universities may have a hiring freeze on as they try to determine next steps and prepare for the summer and fall semesters, said Ms. Joyce, “many with existing robust remote learning programs are very actively hiring, particularly for areas such as online learning, executive education, and IT. And at many schools with both traditional and with online offerings, hiring is up within the dean of students’ office as the student experience has changed, and will continue to change, considerably.”

Premium on Quality Leadership

Based in Dallas,  R. William Funk & Associates is one recruiting outfit totally dedicated to higher education leadership. The firm, led by R. William Funk, has conducted more than 400 searches for university and college presidents and chancellors over the last 35 years. It just recently concluded the president search for the College of Charleston. Many of the nearly 70 current presidents or chancellors that Mr. Funk has helped recruit lead some of the nation’s most respected universities: Michael V. Drake, president of Ohio State University; Max Nikias, president of the University of Southern California; Carol Folt, chancellor of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill; Teresa Sullivan, president of the University of Virginia; Bernadette Gray-Little, chancellor of the University of Kansas; Robert Barchi, president of Rutgers University; Mitch Daniels, president of Purdue University; James Clements, president of Clemson University; and G.P. Peterson, president of Georgia Tech.

“While the landscape across higher education has certainly changed and the financial state of affairs is a cause for concern, those things place a premium on quality leadership,” Mr. Funk said. “Because of those factors – as well as the age demographics of those in leadership positions – we foresee a similar, if not more active, marketplace in higher education search.”

Related: Why Universities Have Stepped Up Efforts to Involve Search Firms

Contributed by Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief; Dale M. Zupsansky, Managing Editor; and Stephen Sawicki, Managing Editor – Hunt Scanlon Media

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