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

July 14, 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 are seeking 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.

Challenges in Recruiting
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.”

Mr. Anselmi also notes that The Christopher Group always casts a wide net to ensure the firm produces diversity in all searches. “In recent years, educational institutions, like many other organizations, have significantly increased their efforts to enhance DE&I,” he
said. “Universities and colleges have often been at the forefront of these initiatives, recognizing the importance of fostering diverse perspectives, representation, and inclusivity within their leadership ranks. While progress has been made, it is important to acknowledge that there are variations among institutions, with some universities demonstrating more advanced DE&I efforts than others. Continued commitment and improvement in these areas are necessary to ensure that all schools effectively promote diversity and inclusion within their leadership teams and throughout their campuses.”

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.”

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.”

DHR has also seen committees that start processes by saying that they are interested in diverse candidate pools that include those who may be earlier in their career and may have not been given the opportunity to take on key leadership roles. That said, at the end of the day when DHR goes to present candidates, committees continue to gravitate to those who are more experienced and those who have already held similar roles. The firm has seen institutions give more junior internal candidates the chance to compete for these senior positions in recent years however, and they view these processes as a learning and development experience for the individual even if they aren’t the successful candidate.

“The focus is clearly there with all of our clients and the results are starting to show in terms of the candidate pools and the successful placed candidates, but there is still more work to be done on this front,” said Mr. Gregor. “The committees we work with are starting to become more diverse than they once were, and they are holding candidates to higher standards when it comes to EDI and indigenization. Candidates more and more need to bring with them tangible examples of initiatives they have led or played a major part in to help improve diversity and inclusion or indigenization efforts at there institution. Just talking about it is not enough and committees want to see action and accomplishments in the space.”

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.”

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.”

Colleges and universities today face various challenges, and the leadership they seek must address these issues, according to Michael J.R. Wheless, co-founder, principal and consultant at Anthem Executive. “Financial sustainability is a pressing concern, requiring leaders who can develop innovative revenue streams, optimize resource allocation, and ensure long-term viability,” he said. “Student success and retention are also paramount, necessitating leaders who can implement evidence-based practices, leverage data analytics, and foster a student-centered culture. Institutions also grapple with demands for greater diversity, equity, and inclusion. They seek leaders who can advance these goals through inclusive policies, practices, and initiatives.”

Mr. Wheless also points to technological advancements and the demand for online and hybrid learning present ongoing challenges. “Leaders must harness technology to deliver innovative educational experiences, expand online offerings, and address cybersecurity concerns,” he said. “To address these challenges, universities seek leaders who possess a clear vision, strategic thinking, and innovation. Collaboration, diversity, and sustainability are also crucial. Leaders must foster a culture of innovation, build strong partnerships, and integrate environmental, social, and economic considerations.”

Younger Candidates
Mr. Wheless notes that a significant factor contributing to the appointment of younger leaders is the population trend and the ongoing mass retirement phase until 2035. “This demographic shift necessitates the consideration of younger candidates due to the scarcity of experienced professionals available for leadership positions,” he said. “While there may be inherent risks in selecting untested candidates, it becomes crucial for institutions to partner with search firms that have expertise in identifying and assessing the potential of these individuals. This population trend is a driving force behind the search for younger leaders who can step into key roles and provide continuity in leadership as experienced professionals retire. With a diminishing pool of seasoned leaders, colleges and universities recognize the need to cultivate a new generation of talent capable of guiding institutions into the future.”

However, appointing younger leaders does come with certain risks. “They may have limited experience and face unique challenges as they navigate complex organizational structures and industry dynamics,” said Mr. Wheless. “To mitigate these risks, institutions must work closely with search firms that have the expertise to identify and assess the potential of these younger candidates. These firms possess a deep understanding of the skills, qualities, and leadership potential necessary for success in senior positions.”

Colleges and universities have made significant strides in upping their diversity and inclusion efforts, but there is still work to be done. “Recognizing the importance of fostering inclusive campus environments, institutions have placed a greater emphasis on diversity in their leadership recruitment efforts,” said Mr. Wheless. “However, achieving true diversity and inclusion requires ongoing commitment and intentional actions. Efforts to enhance diversity and inclusion have been crucial in creating a more inclusive and equitable environment for students, faculty, and staff. While some states have implemented restrictions on DEI initiatives, colleges and universities can focus on promoting an inclusive culture and fostering equal opportunities within the legal parameters.”

Mr. Wheless also notes that recruiting and attracting the best candidates is a shared responsibility between search firms, search committees, and the institutional community. “It is important to implement inclusive search processes that mitigate unconscious biases and provide fair consideration to diverse candidates throughout the selection process,” he said. “While progress has been made, diversity and inclusion efforts should be viewed as an ongoing journey rather than a destination. Colleges and universities must continue partnering with stakeholders to further enhance their diversity and inclusion initiatives. Together, we can build leadership teams that reflect the diverse communities served by these institutions and create inclusive environments where all students and faculty can thrive.”

“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 Executive Search. “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,” 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
Though there is still much work to be done to improve diversity in the higher education sector, Ms. Griffith has seen it moving in the right direction in Canada. “I-EDIA are at, or near, the top of every search conversation,” she said. “There is far more dialogue in early stages of the process to ensure opportunities are advertised in a way that would attract a diverse pool of talent. Furthermore, we are seeing an increase in reflective thought as committees consider candidates at various stages of the process, to ensure unconscious and implicit bias is minimized and all candidates are given equitable opportunity for consideration.”

“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.”

We are in a highly competitive talent market right now, and colleges and universities are beginning to recognize that to recruit top talent they need to be more flexible in how they structure executive level and senior leader positions, according to Susanne Griffin, VP and managing director at Greenwood Asher & Associates. “For example, they may need to be more creative with titles, compensation packages, hybrid work options, health and wellness perks, and consulting flexibilities. When attempting to attract talent, colleges and universities must recognize that the strength of the leadership team and internal culture matters. Candidates have employment options, and they will do their homework to determine if the institution’s current context will set them up for success.”

“Because of the highly competitive talent landscape, we are being asked to support searches for positions that were often handled by the institution in the past,” Ms. Griffin said. “More and more, we are being contacted to assist with filling director, chair, and faculty roles, particularly in contexts where there may be additional circumstances that make recruiting challenging. When budgets are tight, finding resources to support expanded use of search firms can be a difficult decision. However, most colleges and universities recognize that, in the long run, finding quality talent is worth every penny spent.”

“A major issue for state systems–especially where demographic forces are resulting in declining enrollment and associated tuition revenue in rural areas–is how to maintain some access to higher education in those locations with fewer resources,” said Jim Johnsen, VP of executive search at Greenwood Asher. “In response, schools are seeking leaders who have a stomach for making decisions that involve tradeoffs between competing public good where some in the community might experience loss in the pursuit of what others see as a sustainable path forward.”

“Higher education, including searches for senior leaders, is being impacted by political intervention well beyond what has been the norm,” said Robert Caret, VP for executive search at Greenwood Asher. We need leaders who can champion the important role that higher education plays in our society while, at the same time, have the political acumen and internal strength to deal with the challenges and opportunities presented by this complex environment.”

Despite their commitment and effort, our clients are still working to achieve the goals they established related to diversity and inclusion, according to Ms. Griffin. “They are recognizing that diversifying the workforce, specifically the leadership team, is necessary but not sufficient in creating a diverse and inclusive campus,” she said. “The national conversation regarding DEI has underlined the complex nature of these efforts. Moving forward, many of our clients are re-evaluating their efforts and determining whether they continue on their current path, alter their path, or seek a new path altogether to make the changes necessary to yield meaningful results.”

“Like most efforts at changing human behavior, the results are mixed and will take time to sort out,” Dr. Johnsen said. “Yes, pools are increasingly diverse, but hiring committees still tend to select candidates who are like them. So, if the selection committee reflects diversity (in racial, gender, or ideological terms), there is a better chance the candidate pool and the ultimate selection will too.”

With the release of ACE’s 2023 American CollegePresident Study, which reports on the trends of the higher education presidency, AGB Search can see evidence of increasing turnover in higher education leadership. In executive search, there has been a shift in the expectations of presidential searches and timelines. Respondents to the survey indicated that they had been in office for 5.9 years; that number has fallen steadily according to each of the last three surveys, down from 6.5 years in 2016, seven years in 2011 and 8.5 years in 2006. Responses also show that presidents are leaving their positions for a multitude of reasons including crisis fatigue and strife with governing boards. “Regardless of circumstances, the news of the departure of a president sets the search timeline in motion,” said Rod McDavis, managing principal at AGB. He notes the expectations of the timeline have shifted from historical norms. “Searches traditionally used to begin at the start or end of an academic year,” said Dr. McDavis. “Yet given the varying circumstances of departures now, searches are starting at varying times throughout the year. Similarly, the duration of many searches has been compressed, and some institutions ask that appointees start their roles immediately as opposed to coinciding with the start of the academic year.”

“Institutions today are searching for leaders who have expertise in multiple areas,” Dr. McDavis said. “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. Ideally, an institution would select a leader who has experience with a wide array of the institution’s activities, with a focus on both financial sustainability and student success. A leader who can maintain a positive, collaborative relationship with their board of trustees through the principles of shared governance is poised for even greater success.”

AGB has seen the overall age of higher education presidents averaging about 60 years, according to the ACE President survey, with many candidates taking their first steps on the pathway to the presidency between the ages 40 and 50. “Beyond age, however, there are several notable factors that should be emphasized when considering the experience of incoming presidents,” said Dr. McDavis. “One is the difference in time from aspiration to appointment between men and women, including men and women of color: on average, the time between aspiration and appointment is significantly shorter for women and women of color, with these two groups aspiring, applying to, and achieving their appointments presidencies within one and a half years of applying 5.9 years. For men and men of color, that time horizon is about two years 7.4 and 8.9 years, respectively.

On the other hand, women and women of color, in particular, were more likely to feel unprepared or provided with an unrealistic assessment for the expectations of the office to which they were appointed and/or the institution’s current challenges. The disparity between these responses, from ambition to preparedness, should prompt discussion of the information that is shared during the search process with all candidates who advance in the search.”

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