How to Engage Candidates in an Evolving Higher Education Landscape

Jennifer Muller is managing director of Academic Career & Executive Search (ACES). She has more than 20 years of research and development experience in higher education and Fortune 500 companies. She has led over 250 higher education searches both domestically and internationally spanning presidents, vice presidents, associate chancellors, deans, directors, chairs, and faculty level positions. She is former vice chair of the American Council on Education (ACE) Executive Search Roundtable and serves as an advisor in the numerous ACE leadership development forums. Ms. Muller recently sat down with Hunt Scanlon Media to some challenges see is recruiting senior leaders for the higher education sector and how her firm has adjusted.

May 3, 2024 – Jennifer, what are some of the challenges facing executive search firms today within the higher education sector?

There are a number of challenges occurring simultaneously. High turnover equates to more opportunities. Candidates have numerous options and can be discerning in their job search. Most often, they are also in multiple searches. The frequent turnover (retirement/job changes) of presidents and other key leaders creates uncertainty. When appropriate, part of our candidate marketing strategy is emphasizing strong, stable leadership along with institutional strength and the potential of the role. However, the high turnover rates at the presidential and provost levels pose a significant challenge for candidates, they want stability. Of course, as folks leave voluntarily or transition from administrative roles back to faculty, one could argue that this change presents opportunity for search firms. This is also true. Program cuts and shifts in strategic direction are also an issue. This dovetails with the above challenge. Changes in senior level positions can impact the vision and strategic direction of an institution and its programs. Seemingly overnight, focus areas can be shifted jeopardizing the candidate’s alignment with leadership or their role. Candidates are more cautious about where they’re applying.

Many recruiters have suggested that there are concerns over financial stability. Have you seen this?

We frequently deal with this. While it was once more common in enrollment driven private institutions (14 closed in 2023 and seven slated to close spring 2024), more and more, we are now seeing layoffs and consolidation affecting public institutions. These concerns deter good candidates from pursuing positions. Our responsibility lies in getting accurate information and, when we can, promoting the good health and stability of an institution or college by talking about enrollment strength, program growth, capital investments, and other indicators of good fiscal management and stability. Property values and high interest rates are also a concern. Property values have increased nationwide, particularly in certain regions where they have experienced exponential growth. While many have benefited from this rise, it has not been uniform across the board. Since 2020, at least 10 states have seen home prices increase between 47 percent – 60 percent. If you are relocating from a state that hasn’t experienced the same increase, bridging this gap can pose significant financial challenges. We could be asking someone to double their mortgage rate on a significantly higher priced home. Financially that may not be possible.

How does this impact the search firms’ behavior?

Candidates know they have more options for job opportunities right now. They are doing their homework and are better prepared. They’ve researched the institution, reached out to colleagues, and reviewed financial and enrollment data. They’ve reviewed their peer salaries, evaluated the cost of living, assessed school systems, and considered housing costs. They’re often in multiple job searches and come prepared to negotiate. Candidates are also juggling more personal factors that influence their professional decisions. These can range from proximity or caregiving responsibilities for aging parents, children, and/or grandchildren, to logistical considerations such as accessibility to airports and the ease of travel. Despite their professional goals, these factors can cause candidates to decline positions.

How does this impact executive search firms’ behavior?

Finding and engaging candidates now requires more effort on our part. We do a lot more proactive engagement to get candidates attention and engage them. ACES has always been high touch and it’s paying off. Maintaining continual communication and engagement is critical. We need to address and remove potential barriers throughout the search. ACES has also prioritized additional investment in our research and outreach team, we are continually expanding this area. We do our homework. As candidates have done their research, we are ready and anticipating objections
and presenting alternative perspectives for them as they look at opportunities. Listening more carefully to better discern their true drivers and motivations is critical.

Discuss how ACES supports candidates?

An additional priority for ACES is our approach to candidate care. We have always upheld a standard of treating candidates with the highest degree of respect and consideration, ensuring they feel valued. This creates a foundation of trust enabling us to build solid relationships with the candidate. It’s important for search firms to adopt this perspective. Candidate loss is a significant issue. Five years ago, 50 percent of candidates may have been involved in one or rarely two other searches. Now, candidates are concurrently engaged in three, four, and five searches. This impacts how we run searches. We continually adjust, becoming more efficient without compromising the quality of our candidate pools or putting too much stress on our search committees. We’ve also increased the number of finalists we bring forward. The days of having three finalists is behind us.

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