The High Demand for Higher Education Leaders Continues

These are challenging days for colleges and universities, and for the search firms that help recruit their leaders. Changing times, technology, and competition are demanding new abilities for those in key roles. International collaboration and industry partnerships, meanwhile, are making it essential that higher education leaders be adept from both a commercial and political standpoint.

August 1, 2022 – 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.

In recent interviews with Hunt Scanlon Media, a range of executive recruiters who focus on higher education agreed that the challenges facing the sector are significant. The higher education landscape is shifting across the world, and the next generation of university leaders require a unique set of skills to negotiate this change. The traditional university model is being challenged by growing student migration, disruptive technologies, and an increasingly competitive market-driven economy.

“The higher education sector has become truly global, with academics moving internationally to enhance their careers,” says Odgers Berndtson. “Today’s university leaders must be able to create and demonstrate fiscal as well as academic value for stakeholders. An increasing focus on international collaboration and industry partnerships requires higher education leaders to be commercially savvy and politically agile.”

The role of the university president seems to change in response to cyclical economic crises. This was evident in 2008 with the housing market, and in 2000 in response to the dot-com bubble bursting, according to Barry Vines, managing director and senior member of ZRG Partners’ higher education practice. “As the underlying economics of higher education shift, we will sometimes see that the fit of a particular president to her or his institution has changed in response,” he said. “Sometimes that leads to a disconnect where there was previously a fit. Top academic institutions require the president to be very visible at fundraisers and events. Some institutions need the president to be engaged as a community leader off-campus as well as on.”

The president’s ultimate responsibility, however, continues to be the safety of the students, faculty, and staff. So how does a university president continue to manage the demand for her or his time? “The answer is in the fit,” said Mr. Vines. “The reason for vetting the fit is to find out if this potential president can cover the institution’s need for leadership. University presidents are people as well. They carry the burden of unhappy alumni, lack of funds, and failing programs. The current demand depends on the institution’s need for leadership. That need isn’t only limited to open searches and positions. You also need to consider the type of leadership needed, again, as fits with the underlying economic needs of the institution, its city or town, or even its state. When those conditions shift, you’ll see more institutions seeking out leaders that can respond to the present moment, not in a capricious way, but with the longevity of the institution at the heart of the matter.”

Community Colleges

Community colleges across the nation are losing a record number of presidents. Inside Higher Education recently reported that California Community College leaders say that the pandemic has exacerbated an already rampant leadership turnover in the system. Larry Galizio, president and CEO of the Community College League of California, says that at least 17 of the 137 California community college leaders have retired between January 2020 and March of this year. He noted that the demands of the president`s job and the emotional toll of the pandemic have led to burnout and prompted early retirements.

“We are also seeing similar losses of community college leadership across America,” said Preston Pulliams, president and CEO of Gold Hill Associates, which specializes in executive searches for community colleges. “The overall result being an unprecedented loss of senior leadership skills and talent across the nation`s community colleges. This often occurs with decreasing predictability and planning therefore it can be very disruptive for each of these institutions. These turnovers can trigger other staff retirements and resignations, slow the pace of the college`s strategic planning process, and negatively impact the college`s ongoing operations and commitments.”

This loss of leadership has also revealed another issue for higher education and that is a lack of true succession planning. “A planning process for a succession plan should begin the moment a new president is hired,” Mr. Pulliams said. “An effective succession plan should also be in place for the executive cabinet officers who are also retiring and resigning at record rates. These plans should identify and describe the replacement processes for these critical positions and include an onboarding process for the hired individuals. These components will allow colleges as they are faced with these record level retirements and resignations to have some planned approaches to assist them in responding to these record losses of critical leadership.”

Mr. Pulliams says key characteristic for future community college leadership can differ depending on their ability to manage institutional transformation. The past expectations of our community college leaders are changing. “There is now tremendous public pressure for effective crisis management, student cost containment, and student graduation and completion rates increases especially for the students of color,” he said.

Under the current challenges faced by most of our nation`s community colleges one of the most critical is the need to increase the community college student’s completion rates. Joe May, chancellor emeritus of Dallas College, identified four key leadership strategies to address the need for more successful student completion rates. They are: Consider the community before the college, cultivate employer partnerships, eliminate significant barriers that require minor fixes, and give learners agency over their skills.

“It is my perception that good leadership is impossible without effective communication skills,” said Mr. Pulliams. “Creating and promoting a vision, team building, and collaboration are all based on effective communication skills. In addition, the most critical component of effective communication skills is the ability to be an active listener. This involves responding in a sensitive and appropriate manner. This ability will be a foundational method of building trust with a leader`s staff, faculty, and communities. It is with this trust that will eventually allow leaders to deal with the challenges that were listed in this article and allow them to create real institutional transformations.”

Retiring Baby Boomers

The Great Resignation isn’t playing out in Canada as it is in the U.S., at least not yet, said Alex Verdecchia, principal at McDermott + Bull. “Succession planning has always been something institutions have attempted to improve, with some incorporating formal training into their succession plans,” he said. “The pandemic, however, forced many institutions to focus on the more emergent issues such as student safety, balancing the rights of individuals against the need for public safety, the increased demand in hybrid education across all disciplines, ensuring quality teaching, and learning via an online medium that is new to many, etc.”

Related: Why Universities Have Stepped Up Efforts to Involve Search Firms

Smaller, liberal arts colleges seem to have been hit hard by the pandemic. “Smaller institutions tend to pull their leadership talent from other similarly positioned universities as research-intensive universities tend to pull from other research-intensive universities,” said Mr. Verdecchia. “What we’ve seen is that while the pandemic may have impacted smaller institutions harder, recruiting executive talent to those institutions has not been affected significantly.”

Mr. Verdecchia notes that in Canada, the divide between private enterprise and public-sector institutions is significant. “It is unusual for candidates with purely private sector experience to find their way into leadership roles in higher education,” he said. “Where we see this occasionally is in leadership roles for business schools. Colleges and polytechnic institutes with their focus on applied education are more likely to hire from the private sector, but even then, the preference is to find candidates with a mix of public and private sector experience.”

The Great Realignment

“I feel that we are not seeing the Great Resignation but the Great Realignment,” said Jane Griffith, managing partner and founder of Griffith Group. “Candidates are questioning if their values align with their organization and if not, leaving those roles. That being said, I believe there should be a huge emphasis on succession planning but not all organizations are thinking that far out yet. A lot are still trying to recover from COVID.”

“We are recruiting international talent but in Canada, our visa requirements require us to hire Canadians first,” Ms. Griffith said. “That being said, there is a huge interest in bringing expats with that international experience home. However, we know fundraising isn’t as sophisticated in Australia and we know the U.K. does not have the same emphasis we have on our Indigenous communities and reconciliation efforts. In Canada a big trend continues to be on diversity and our work with indigenous communities. Toronto Metropolitan University, formerly Ryerson University, recently changed its name as a result of this work. ”

“With school shutdowns and virtual learning playing out over the past two years, attendance and tuition decreased dramatically, and sports and other programs were placed on hold,” said David Kant, president of Dynamic Search Consulting (DSC). “The entire education industry was devastated, quickly changing the operating basis for universities and colleges from times of growth and expansion to that of surviving and keeping their head above water in managing costs with a fraction of the revenue seen in prior years. Unfortunately, most implemented hiring freezes and pay cuts. Many offered early retirements and had to discontinue certain majors and degree programs to run leaner and more efficiently.”

Cultivating the Higher Education Leadership Pipeline 

In this brand new episode of ‘Talent Talks,’ Hunt Scanlon Media host Rob Adams is joined by Rod McDavis, managing principal of AGB Search and Nancy Zimpher, Chancellor Emerita of the State University of New York system. In this podcast, Dr. McDavis and Dr. Zimpher share recent trends in higher education leadership including diversity and how AGB’s Institute for Leadership & Governance is changing the game. Listen now! 

“Fortunately for those who were able to weather the storm, the industry is now recovering and on the upswing,” Mr. Kant said. “While some are still teaching virtually or with a hybrid model, most have returned to in-person learning and have resumed sports, music, and other programs. Universities and colleges are eager to ramp back up and make up for lost time and hiring demand is at an all-time high again. I’m happy to say I’ve been seeing many executive searches begin in the last few months for deans, superintendents, professors, sports coaches, and traditional corporate leadership openings.”

When asked what higher education roles are hot right now two years into the pandemic, Carlos Pena, founder and principal of Pena Search, said: “Fundraisers. The pandemic either put a halt on or slowed down capital campaigns — unusual, considering that universities are almost always in campaign mode, or just simply slowed at a minimum regular fundraising programs,” he said. “It was difficult for development officers to effectively connect with and engage new donors through Zoom. As vaccines rolled out and the sense of returning to ‘normal’ was felt, robust efforts to fill empty positions were launched. And because institutions are trying to make up for time lost during the pandemic, they are offering strong compensation packages and flexibility to work remotely. Also, candidates are demanding higher salaries and flexibility to work remotely. Because competition for solid candidates is so strong, it takes skill and a deep understanding of the field to effectively identify and engage good candidates.”

Michael J.R. Wheless, co-founder, principal and consultant at Anthem Executive, said DEI roles are certainly hot. “However, we are seeing more openings than we have seen in quite some time for president and provost,” he said. “Innovation and creativity roles are also in demand. In addition, we will see more data execs as the adoption of AI is pushed to new levels.”

“Fundraisers are another position in demand,” said Mr. Wheless. “Before the pandemic hit, a president with a billion-dollar endowment shared that he cannot raise money fast enough. His reasoning came from both factors he can control and some he cannot that are going to impact university finances in the future. Was he right or what? Among the learnings of the pandemic, one is to is strive to be debt free and forever have resources saved for rainy days.”

Among the oldest, ongoing operating institutions in the world are colleges and universities. “For this reason, they can be slow to change,” said Mr. Wheless. “Sometimes, unless there is an event or forced change, change does not occur at the rate of other industries,” he said. “Take video tech for example that has been with us well before the pandemic. Before the pandemic, some were resistant to teaching/working by video. The pandemic forced this change and now, for example, some of the same professors are enjoying the freedom of being able to teach from anywhere in the world.”

Now, perhaps more than any other time in history, the need for a high-performing university leadership is essential, according to Mr. Wheless. “They must excel in a rapidly-changing and extremely demanding higher education environment to meet the needs of a diverse constituency and, in the wake of a COVID environment, build more customizable and accessible working and learning pathways for faculty and students,” he said. “Today’s leaders need to have the vision to see around corners and the capacity to find creative ways to grow and support the academic mission. They need the ability to foresee, prevent and solve problems and seize opportunities – internally and externally. This means leaders must develop an astute understanding of their stakeholders’ needs and motivations. They must work cross-functionally, make informed shared decisions, and adapt proactively—all while reliably producing results.”

Related: Recruitment for Higher Education Leaders Heats Up and Shifts

Contributed by Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief; Dale M. Zupsansky, Managing Editor; and Stephen Sawicki, Managing Editor – Hunt Scanlon Media

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