In Changing Times, Higher Education Sector Seeks New Types of Leaders

Colleges and universities face many challenges post-pandemic. In particular, turnover for leaders is high, resulting in more executive-level searches in the sector than at any time over the past decade. Weighing in on what search leaders are facing are: Tobin Anselmi of The Christopher Group, Shahauna Siddiqui and Kenny Gregor of DHR Global, Shawn M. Hartman of Academic Search, Jane Griffith of Griffith Group, and Gordon Lobay and Erik Jackson of Perrett Laver.

July 26, 2023 – Recruiting senior leaders in the higher education sector has become a dynamic and evolving process. As universities face numerous challenges, including financial constraints, enrollment declines, and the need to prioritize diversity and inclusion, the demand for visionary and transformational leaders has never been higher. In recent years, the higher education sector has witnessed a significant increase in leadership turnover. Factors such as impending retirements, the impact of the pandemic, and financial pressures have contributed to this trend. According to data from The Chronicle of Higher Education, more presidents announced their resignations in 2022 compared to the previous year. This wave of turnover has resulted in a surge in executive-level searches, surpassing the numbers seen in the last decade.

When searching for senior leaders, universities want individuals who possess a diverse skill-set and a keen business acumen. The ability to navigate complex financial landscapes, think innovatively to increase revenue, foster relationships, and develop strategic partnerships are highly valued. Moreover, leaders who can inspire and empower others while addressing the pressing needs of the institution are sought after. Institutions require leaders who can drive transformational change and adapt to the evolving higher education landscape.

Search consultants say that recruiting senior leaders in higher education presents its own set of challenges. Boards must engage in thorough pre-search discussions to identify the unique opportunities, challenges, and goals the new leader will face. Without this crucial groundwork, the search process can encounter significant hurdles later on. Moreover, the increasing demand for leaders who can champion diversity, inclusion, equity, and social justice has led to the creation of new positions, such as chief diversity officers. Finding qualified individuals who possess the expertise to address these pressing issues while ensuring inclusivity across the institution is a critical challenge for recruitment.

In recruiting senior leaders for colleges and universities, there has been a growing emphasis on finding candidates who possess a blend of experience in both academic settings and outside education organizations, according to Tobin Anselmi, managing partner, head of interim and consulting services operations at The Christopher Group. “The goal is to identify individuals who can bring diverse perspectives and innovative approaches to address the complex challenges faced by higher education institutions today,” he said. “While academic experience is crucial to understanding the unique dynamics of educational environments, the inclusion of leaders with outside experience helps bring fresh ideas, industry connections, and valuable insights from different sectors. This combination allows for the integration of best practices and cutting-edge strategies that can drive institutional growth, enhance student success, foster interdisciplinary collaboration, and effectively navigate the evolving landscape of education.”

Mr. Anselmi says that universities and colleges face several issues in today’s evolving educational landscape. One is the rapid advancement of technology and the need to navigate the complexities of online learning, which has grown substantially due to the pandemic. “Institutions seek leaders who are tech-savvy, capable of leveraging digital tools and platforms to enhance teaching and learning experiences,” Mr. Anselmi said. “Additionally, they value leaders who possess a deep understanding of the diverse experiences students bring, acknowledging the varied backgrounds, perspectives, and challenges they face. These leaders need to think beyond the traditional on-campus, in-class experience and bring innovative approaches to cater to the evolving needs of students in a digital age. By embracing technology, fostering inclusivity, and promoting alternative modes of education, these leaders can drive transformative change and ensure the success and engagement of students in a rapidly changing educational environment.”

“Schools should prioritize finding leaders who possess a wide range of experiences, are tech-savvy, and demonstrate a deep understanding of the social dynamics and challenges faced by the college-aged population,” said Mr. Anselmi. “With access to information being vastly different than in the past, leaders who can adapt to these changes and leverage technology while also understanding the unique needs and challenges of students today are highly sought after by schools.”

More Senior Leaders Retiring

“More senior leaders are considering retirement, many are facing burn-out since COVID,” said Shahauna Siddiqui, a partner in Calgary with DHR Global. “All hires are requiring more skills in external relations, including government relations. Many colleges and universities are examining curriculum to ensure they are keeping up with the times and are more multi-disciplinary focused as well as adding in more opportunity for innovation and experiential learning. Institutions are facing the challenge of hybrid course offerings, as well as micro-credentials.”

Mental health for students, meanwhile, is still big issue, along with tuition costs, and housing. “The push is on to increase access to post-secondary for underrepresented groups such as low-income students, students whose parents did not attend postsecondary and students with disabilities, and indigenous students,” Ms. Siddiqui said. “Budgeting is increasingly a challenge for many institutions with lower government support/funding and the economy being unstable. Technology is also a big issue, with the increase of digitization required beyond learning/teaching. In Canada, international students are an increasing population and require different sources of revenue support and increasingly higher cost centers.”

“Leaders are pushing for more multi-disciplinary collaboration and research. Leaders require extensive influencing skills and external stakeholder management,” Ms. Siddiqui said. “They need to the skills to ensure their institution stands out amongst an increasingly competitive environment, and yet collaborates internationally on research.”

Significant burnout challenges since COVID within faculties remain, and this has resulted in some senior leaders who might be ready to take on a new leadership challenge to hit pause and remain in their current role, according to Kenny Gregor, associate partner in Calgary with DHR. “Others who are more senior are also starting to opt for early retirement instead of a new challenge,” he said. “Additionally, since COVID, we have found that relocating candidates has become more challenging as many individuals are making more family-oriented decisions including wanting to stay closer to home with aging parents etc. Conversely, we have noticed a trend in Canadian ex-pats wanting to come back to Canada for senior leadership roles for these same reasons. Within Canada, some leaders who may have moved across the country earlier in their career, are becoming increasingly interested in coming back to their former institution closer to home if the right opening comes up.”

Related: Hunt Scanlon Top 50 Non-Profit & Higher Education Search Firms

Many of DHR’s clients have been talking about challenges of AI tools like ChatGPT which have really disrupted the post secondary space. “Senior leaders need to stay up to date on where things are going with this technology and be able to help create, adapt, and enforce policies to address it’s use,” Mr. Gregor said. “That being said, many also view AI as an opportunity to transform the way we teach. Micro credentialing and applied research increasing student experience is also something we are seeing.”

Seeking Candidates from Other Sectors

“There are a variety of individuals who may show interest in higher education after working in another sector,” said Shawn M. Hartman, senior vice president and COO of Academic Search. “Most often, these individuals may be former military leaders, those who have been in higher education earlier in their career as faculty or administrators and left for the corporate or non-profit world. Particularly when looking at the presidential role, those who serve as members of the board of trustees for colleges and universities (many being alumni as well) may turn to higher education. For public institutions where the state government plays a significant role in the appointment of trustees, the governor or state legislature could also encourage political appointees/state politicians to move into this sector.”

“We also see individuals who have run major businesses being encouraged to apply for presidencies,” Mr. Hartman said. “For example, if the board of trustees believes that they need to appoint a leader who can create greater efficiencies and help stabilize the institution’s finances, they may look for someone outside of the higher education sector. The reason why these individuals are attracted to higher education varies significantly–those who have retired early from the corporate world may find a career in higher education appealing as it provides them with a new set of challenges, and they may believe that they have the skill-set to contribute very positively towards the management and operation of an institution.”

The High Demand for Higher Education Leaders Continues
With a new school year approaching, a number of top colleges and universities have announced they are seeking new, high profile leaders to take them into new eras of fundraising, digitalization, sports and, in some cases, globalization. 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 is another reason why they’re calling in executive recruiters to assist.

Those from the military come from environments where they build strong teams, and the higher education environment has a similar appeal, according to Mr. Hartman. “Trustees, particularly those who are alums, have a deep love and care for the institution and believe that their knowledge of the institution as a student and then as a trustee really provides them with a unique ability to strengthen an institution,” he said. “Politicians who take office often do so as their political term of office has ended, and they are seeking the next iteration of their career.”

“We know that in our work at Academic Search, there are times when it is helpful to look at other sectors when recruiting candidates during a search,” Mr. Hartman said. “Individuals from other sectors may bring the right skill-set and alignment with the mission of the institution, along with the desire to make a difference through their role, without having a background of working at a higher education institution.”

“Many universities are continuing to see a large amount of turnover in some senior leadership roles,” said Jane Griffith, managing partner and founder of Griffith Group. “We are seeing a new trend that seems to indicate that many individuals who took on new roles during COVID, a time of high stress and change management, or leaving those roles as we see more stability coming back into the sector. We are continuing to see a high demand for senior student leaders, who have an appreciation and capability to manage those complex portfolios. In Canada, we are also seeing the prioritizing indigenization, equity, diversity, inclusion, and accessibility (I-EDIA) across all campuses and with hiring committees. We continue to see in Canada that there is a greater focus and appreciation on recognizing barriers that have systematically excluded certain identities and ensuring anti-bias measures are integrated at every step of the process.”

No two universities are the same, and so the challenges from institution to institution will vary. “That being said, search competition is at its peak, given its height by global financial instability, increasing costs of globally, and major recruitment competition,” said Ms. Griffith. “Additionally, and what some call ‘the Great Realignment,’ many professionals are prioritizing remote work given the shifting labor status quo in certain industries over the past few years. Institutions of higher education will need leaders who can successfully navigate and steer through the complex and shifting terrain of higher ed, all the while prioritizing their institution’s vision through strategic leadership, collaborative partnerships, and just sense of purpose.”

Many of the senior academic positions are broad in scope and scale and Ms. Griffith is seeing that as a response to the size of these portfolios, which have grown to maintain the commitment, and interest, of senior leaders. “As a result, the next cohort of leaders are inside unit specific roles, which disadvantages many in a competitive search as they do not hold knowledge or experience across the breadth of portfolio,” she said. “We are also seeing many search committees manage risk mitigation with hires, which means opting for candidates who have succeeded in similar roles in the past. However, we do see that universities are promoting internal talent into more senior roles, and supporting them as they grow into those large portfolios. Their internal status removes some of the risk, as they know the institution, its culture, and their values align.”

More Work to be Done

“I have been seeing an emphasis on DEI both in candidate pools and in candidates’ experience advancing the principles of DEI,” said Gordon Lobay, regional managing partner, Americas at Perrett Laver. “This naturally looks different for every institution and universities are grappling with what diversity, equity, and inclusion really mean for them and their unique situation. I have also seen reduced government funding everywhere leading to a desire for leaders with U.S.-style approaches to advancement and philanthropy. Candidates who have demonstrated success as fundraisers, or with experience in innovative approaches to revenue diversification, are highly sought after.”

“Senior administrators are facing many trends impacting senior hiring in academia including, a more intense focus on DEI, anti-racism, and indigenization,” said Erik Jackson, managing partner U.S. at Perrett Laver. “Further to these are debates and challenges surrounding academic freedom, freedom of speech, and the place of universities within society to protect the necessary freedoms essential to a democracy. While COVID-19 restrictions have eased in most jurisdictions the influence of the pandemic is still there particularly in the fatigue apparent in potential candidates. Other recent factors include energy prices, global food insecurity, rises in inflation and interest rates, war and destabilized global geopolitics. Replacing the pandemic, these global challenges are influencing candidates’ decisions in making potential moves.”

“Today’s higher education president is individually held up more and more as the personification of the values and ideals of the institution – and this in the face of unpredictable, rapidly changing, and often threatening challenges from all possible angles and perspectives on all manner of issues and interests,” said Dr. Lobay. “Trust in public institutions cannot be assumed, and the president of any university will be tested repeatedly for the values they espouse and their shaping of the tone, message and values of the university. Senior leaders must also be effective in working with collaborators from industry, government, Indigenous communities, and the civil/social sector. Universities can no longer operate in isolation and funders are seeking to invest in ‘multi-partner’ platforms that are larger than any one institution, yielding social, academic, and economic dividends. The emergence of digital innovations within global higher education are also starting to ‘disrupt’ models for education and research within universities. The pace of change is fast and many institutions feel behind the curve.”

Higher education institutions are discussing DEI regularly in media, internally, and in search committees, according to Mr. Jackson. “The issue is more salient than ever before which is a great thing for the sector,” he said. “There is an increased emphasis on equity in search processes – committees taking issues like accessibility much more serious. Despite this, we still continue to see conservatism in making diverse appointments at the many senior levels. Diversity within recruitment panels, unconscious bias training and the traditional job interview format becoming less of a focus have all benefited addressing diversity in recruitment. Our approach is one of creativity and persistence – using the networks that we have but also going out and finding people that you don’t know otherwise will help deliver on diversity.”

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

Share This Article


Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments