Recruiting College Presidents During the Pandemic

June 29, 2020 – Many industries have experienced delays and pauses in current searches, but Jay Lemons, president of Academic Search, claims that he has noticed only a slight delay in higher education searches. Mr. Lemons says, in fact, that demand for college and university presidents is at an all-time high. Here are his expectations for the overall sector beyond the pandemic.

How has executive recruiting for the higher education sector been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic?

Academic Search has had only a small number of campuses delay searches. Like our campus colleagues who have moved to online instruction, we have migrated most search activity to the medium of videoconferencing. Almost every aspect of the search process is now completed via technology. Many semifinalist interviews were moving to video before the current circumstances. Our team transitioned quickly from being proficient with video technology to becoming experts in its use. Like our campuses, we had to adjust our thinking to ensure security and confidentiality with this new medium.

Has the pandemic increased the need for strong leadership at the college/university level?

I would assert that the demands on college and university presi- dents and other leaders are greater today than any time since the Great Depression. Colleges and universities have had exceptional leaders for generations. That has not and will not change. While
the pandemic has increased the pressure on leaders in higher education, the need for courageous and bold leadership has never been greater. There is also an urgent need to find ways to support, nourish, and encourage leaders. Honest and candid relationships with boards coupled with realistic expectations, disciplined thought and action, and support through the engagement of coaches are all critical for presidential success during these tough times.

What do you see going forward beyond the pandemic?

Beyond the pandemic, it is no secret that demographic challenges are coming in higher education. For years, campuses around the country have been preparing for significant drops in undergraduate student enrollment in many parts of the country. Many campuses have developed online platforms, established international campus- es, added new academic programs, created stacked credentials, and worked to be responsive to local labor market needs. Leaders have responded to these changes while search firms have helped campuses understand their needs and to seek out leaders who can help their institutions survive and hopefully thrive in the years ahead. The immediate fiscal challenges confronting campuses will be daunting. Many public institutions have not returned to pre-2008 funding and the pressures on most private colleges and universities have been tremendous for years. Institutions have already reacted with pay reductions, furloughs, and layoffs. Leadership will need to navigate these roiling waters. The pandemic may hasten the re- alignment of institutions through affiliations, mergers, or sadly, even closures. The runway that some institutions had for making changes may now be shortened by the pandemic. Talented leadership is still a must. The search for and recruitment of exceptional leaders will remain the critical function search organizations provide.

How are universities responding?

There is great stress in higher education that is impacting both public and private institutions. The impacts remain unclear for fall 2020 enrollments, but the fiscal pain is real for all institutions. I anticipate the pain from the economic impact of the COVID-19 crisis to persist for several years. Institutions were already preparing for a demographic trough that begins in the second half of the decade, so this combination of events projects to an extended period of challenge for our colleges and universities.

What challenges did you encounter when completing assignments for clients during the global pandemic?

Adaptability and innovation were key for spring 2020 searches and we all learned that searches could be done from stem to stern vir- tually. Similarly, campuses were consumed beginning in mid-March by the transition to on-line instruction and virtual commencements. These have caused a slowdown in search activity that is only now beginning to show some more activity.

What do you see moving forward?

The one certainty about the future, in my judgment, is that the need for gifted leaders is greater today than ever. Great leaders will bring campuses together to adapt, to innovate and to thrive.

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