Spotlight: How Executive Search Firms Are Currently Filling Top Higher Education Positions

July 14, 2023 – For over four decades, Academic Search has been a leader in designing and implementing search processes for leaders of colleges and universities across the country. The firm has completed hundreds of executive searches for higher education institutions and related organizations, for roles ranging from presidents to provosts to deans. Dr. Jay Lemons became president of Academic Search in 2017, after serving for 25 years as a college president in both public and private higher education. He recently sat down with Hunt Scanlon Media to discuss how his firm fills roles for top schools and what types of leaders are currently in demand.

What is Academic Search’s approach to finding senior talent for universities? Can you take us through the search process?
At Academic Search, we pride ourselves on the work we do at the start of every search. We take the time to get to know the true mission and culture of each institution, which aids us in recruiting leaders who most closely align with that particular college or university. Not only do we grow to have a deep understanding of the college or university we are partnering with, but our senior consultants also have myriad experiences as leaders in the sector. They have the knowledge of what it takes to lead higher education institutions, which includes the challenges these leaders will face. We have a vast network that we connect with to build a pool of qualified, diverse candidates. We share all applicant materials with the search committee and work closely with them to narrow down the candidate pool for the first-round interviews. Our role is to not only recruit qualified candidates but aid the search committee in selecting a diverse set of finalists who are the best match for the institution. We also conduct deeper background checks and perform reference calls. Once the search has been completed, we also aim to help institutions work through their transition and onboarding plans to ensure the leader and the campus can come together for a successful tenure of the candidate.

What roles are toughest to fill?
Identifying and recruiting highly qualified candidates for certain roles within educational institutions can be challenging. While every search presents its unique set of difficulties, there are specific positions that tend to be tougher to fill than others. One area where institutions often encounter recruitment challenges is in the health professions, particularly in roles such as directors/deans of nursing or occupational therapy. These positions often require individuals who possess a blend of academic and professional expertise, leadership skills, and a commitment to advancing their respective fields of study. Additionally, to be qualified for these types of positions, the individuals need to have the ability to manage and collaborate with faculty, students, external stakeholders, and regulatory bodies. It is our goal at Academic Search to build diverse, strong pools for all searches, even those that may be in a challenging field to fill.

Is there a new generation of senior leaders emerging in the sector?
During the past 15 years, higher education has done a better job of intentionally nurturing the next generation of leaders. Academic Search is very proud to be wholly owned by a mission-based non-profit organization, the American Academic Leadership Institute (AALI) whose mission is to help develop the next generation of leaders through a series of programmatic offerings. AALI also has a clear focus on opening the doors much wider for leaders who come from backgrounds that have been underrepresented in higher education in the past. Our partnership and synergy with AALI gives us a significant competitive advantage as we grow our network of strong, prepared candidates through these leadership programs.

What is different about leading a university opposed to a non-profit or for-profit?
Not only are there many differences in leading in the social sector vs. the corporate sector, but there are also great differences within the social sector itself. In higher education, the true measure of an organization is about impacting the public good through education and research. In the for-profit sector in particular, the focus can be very much driven by the financial bottom line. Colleges and universities typically have large and complex boards and one of the fundamental tenets is the practice of shared governance whereby authority is delegated from boards to presidents, but with significant responsibility also being vested in faculty to determine who will teach, what can be taught, how it is taught, and who will be admitted for study. Leadership is challenging in all sectors, but there is a complexity to leading in the higher education space that is not found in other sectors.

At Academic Search, you seem to have a lot of former university leaders. What is the benefit of that?
We were founded in 1976 at a time when only about one percent of colleges and universities used search organizations to look for leaders. Today, 99 percent of institutions turn to search organizations when they are seeking presidents. I often refer to Academic Search as the original disrupters, as the founding by our predecessors at Academic Search opened the world of higher education to the benefits of focused expertise in the recruitment of new leaders. Our predecessors established many of the best practices for search in higher education, many of which remain today. Their founding insight was that former leaders in higher education would bring knowledge, understanding, wisdom, and insight to the practice of search along with very strong personal networks. During my first year at Academic Search after 25 years in two presidencies, I came to fully appreciate how right they were. One of my colleagues, Dr. Shirley Robinson Pippins, put it this way to me a few years ago: “I love this work. It draws on every experience I had as college president and I am able to share my experience with our institutional partners.”

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