Spotlight: Recruiting Leaders for Higher Education in a Time of Change

June 29, 2022 – 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. L. 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 the current market for recruiting university and college presidents and other leadership.

Dr. Lemons, with the demand from top universities to find new leaders, how has the market been for search within the higher education sector?
Data has shown that more presidents announced their resignations in 2021 compared to 2020. We have done more executive-level searches in the past year than in the last 10 years. As institutions have begun to find their footing in this pandemic era, leaders are feeling more comfortable searching for other opportunities or simply retiring, and more institutions are turning to executive search firms to fill the critical presidential role.

Why do you feel there is so much recent turnover?
For many who delayed their retirements or felt they could not leave their institutions at the height of the pandemic, they are now finding it is a better time to make that move. There is less of a sense now from candidates that they would be leaving their institutions at a time of critical need. Pre-pandemic, as the stakes for colleges around financial constraints and enrollment declines rose, presidential tenures shortened, and these issues have only been compounded by the changes endured in the past two years, making the length of a president’s tenure continue to trend downward.

What are colleges and universities looking for in their senior leaders?
For many boards, members are looking for leaders with business acumen, who will be able to steer transformational change at the institution. Because so many campuses are facing financial concerns and enrollment woes, one’s ability to think innovatively about ways to increase revenue and fundraise, relationship build, and develop partnerships on behalf of an institution are more paramount than ever. Institutions are also feeling the fatigue of the past few years, so a leader who will be able to inspire and to encourage and empower those around him or her is also sought at this time by many campuses.

Are there any new challenges for recruiting new leaders for higher education institutions?
It is imperative that boards come together prior to the launch of a presidential search to determine the real opportunities and challenges the next leader will face and the priorities and goals the board expects the new leader to address. Members of the board must also determine the background, experience, and characteristics sought in the presidency. Without this work at the front end of the search, a search can easily fall apart later in the process.

How have diversity and inclusion progressed at universities?
Many schools are looking at diversity, inclusion, equity, and social justice as becoming imbedded in the institution’s mission and core values. They are creating diversity statements and restructuring their teams to ensure issues in this space are getting proper attention. Presidents are now hiring chief diversity officers to lead in these efforts and to create diversity and inclusion strategic plans as part of the larger university plan, with the expectation that the new CDO will examine institutional policies and procedures as it relates to DEI efforts and initiatives. In addition, these new leaders are being hired with the capacity to advise and educate staff, faculty, and administrators in this space, while also examining the student experience both inside and outside of the classroom as it relates to creating an inclusive environment for all.

Besides presidents, what are some top roles in demand at universities?
We are finding that leadership needs are abundant at all levels, from executive to faculty. More specifically, senior leadership or cabinet-level positions are turning over at similar rates to presidencies. Even prior to the pandemic, presidential and cabinet-level tenure was in a decline, and we are finding that that trend is continuing. In addition, many institutions are re-examining their cabinet-level positions and conducting inaugural searches for positions such as university-wide diversity officers to meet the current needs of their constituents, especially students.

What do you see looking forward for the higher education sector? Do you see new types of senior leaders entering the sector?
The need to find talented campus leaders is and will remain important for the growth and success of our higher education system moving forward. It will be interesting to see if the increasing trend in number of searches being conducted within the higher education sector will continue as it has in the last year. There is much movement now by senior leaders. Those entering the sector generally need the expected background and experience tailored for the position, but there is also now a need for leaders to be adaptable, to bring fresh and innovative ideas, to have the capacity to fundraise, relationship build, and develop external partnerships on behalf of an institution at a higher level than perhaps in previous years.

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