Universities Facing Growing Demand, and Big Challenges, Recruiting New Leaders

June 29, 2021 –

Executive search for higher education and academia is undergoing a tremendous transformation. Technology is having a big impact. Diversity is also making its effects felt. Even certain roles are not the same as they were just a short time ago. Talk about a sector in transition.

One result: Academic institutions continue to pump big fees into the coffers of executive search firms nationwide. Many academic recruiting specialists say business, in fact, has never been better. Even smaller recruiting outfits have multiple assignments running concurrently, all at the senior levels, and if there is any slowdown coming it is to be found at the talent identification stage. With so much activity, it seems, talent demand is far outstripping the supply.

In recent months, a number of top schools have announced they are looking for 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 good reason why they’re calling in headhunters to help.

More Demanding, Complex Roles

Meanwhile, leadership roles in today’s colleges and universities have become increasingly demanding and complex. Senior academic leaders must balance the needs of numerous constituents—needs that require a cross-section of skills far beyond the traditional set of scholarly and research accomplishments. Interviews with a host of recruiters for the sector reveal the special challenges of their work.

Those who lead today’s universities are CEOs of publicly scrutinized institutions with requirements to fundraise, balance budgets and satisfy numerous demands with scant resources, according to Russell Reynolds Associates. “They compete for students, for faculty and staff members, and for rankings,” the search firm said. “Perhaps unsurprisingly, the average length of tenure in these roles is decreasing, and there is a growing need to attract and retain quality talent that can adjust to the unique challenges and aspirations of each educational institution.”

According to the search firm, while the senior leaders at colleges and universities contend with these expanded challenges, there is also growing demand for professional endowment leadership at many of these institutions, as pressure from today’s capital markets makes meeting target investment returns increasingly difficult. Complicated times demand complex leaders, say recruiters who specialize in the field.

Change, of course, is never easy. “Contemplating leaving one institution you love for another you may not know can be especially hard,” said Brian Casey, president of DePauw University. “I was fortunate that Russell Reynolds Associates guided me through
the search with a gentle hand and provided me with information, wisdom and respect. I remain grateful for the opportunities they showed me and the help they offered me during the search and during my transition.”

Brian Mitchell, president of Bucknell University, found the executive search process “comprehensive, competent, careful,” which,
he said, “enhanced the pool and brought to the university an outstanding choice in Michael Snyder as our new provost. Russell Reynolds Associates understood its role and the importance of this search to us and behaved accordingly.”

From refining job descriptions to launching and managing nationwide leadership hunts, recruiters have become trusted partners in what has become one of the fastest growing sectors seeking expert talent. Reduced state funding, rising tuition costs, soaring student debt and decreased federal research funding have all contributed to a dramatic rise in the role search firms are playing in the recruitment of university presidents and chancellors.

Recruiters, say clients, are adept at managing a process that can be fraught with political and financial intrigue as well as the usual amount of educational issues. Like for-profit leadership recruiting, the search for a university president or chancellor can become a laborious process lasting several months to half a year before a candidate is selected. But unlike searches for companies, academic assignments can and often do include the need to satisfy any number of constituencies – and that more than anything can complicate and lengthen the timeline to find the perfect leader.

Frozen Searches

Anniston, AL-based Higher Education Leadership offers what it describes as a new model of higher education search. With recruiting consultants from a variety of academic and administrative positions, the firm offers universities and candidates a variety of services: profile development, position advertising, candidate support and recruiting, facilitation of the interview process, as well as complete internet and social-media vetting. Some of the search firm’s clients include Southeastern Oklahoma State University, Arkansas Tech University, Auburn University at Montgomery and the University of Texas Permian Basin, among others.

Alan G. Medders, a consultant with the firm, has spent more than 25 years in public and private higher education in which he held a series of development and advancement roles. He says that beginning in mid-March of last year, with the full outbreak of COVID- 19, higher education recruiting came to a standstill. One university HR director, he said, recently indicated to him that universities will become much more discerning, strategic, and cost-conscious when it comes to utilizing search firms to fill a role.

“Like many other sectors of the economy, it is going to take two to three years for higher education search to return to full capacity,” said Dr. Medders, who noted the sector could be a leading indicator of the financial health of institutions in general.

Bountiful Search Market

“The current market for recruiting university and college presidents is bountiful,” said Jay Lemons, president of Academic Search. “We are seeing candidate pools that include over 100 applicants. Although the pandemic may have discouraged some individuals from announcing their departures at first, overall we have not seen a decrease in prospective candidate inquiries. This holds true for other leadership positions as well.”

“The pandemic really shined a spotlight on leadership across all sectors; in particular, we have seen university presidents and senior leaders either flourish or fail, with very little grey area,” said Shelli Herman, president and founder of Shelli Herman and Associates. “The pressure and stress that top decision-makers faced during the pandemic was unprecedented and I think we saw some leaders at their best and others falter mightily. Many boards have made some courageous changes of late and determined that new leadership is part of the immediate need post pandemic. I applaud them. In fairness to those in leadership, being a university or college president now is not for the faint of heart. I have seen the average tenure of college presidents change from 15 to 20-plus years as the norm, to five or 10 being the maximum time leaders can endure.”

Ms. Herman has also seen a gap in terms of those who are now serving and those who are ready to do so. Despite all of the training out there to help those who aspire to lead a college or university as its president, there is a dearth of individuals willing to take on these roles.

Ms. Herman also shares the general sense that most campuses will have someone in leadership supporting diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging, and accessibility as part of the norm five years from now. “It is most likely something that should have been in place decades ago,” she said. “I believe strongly that this work is something that should have ownership at every level of the organization, staring at the top and working through every employee at every level of the enterprise. Accepting differences and embracing them fully and completely should not require compliance. Instead, it should be a part of the fabric of the campus, be wholly mainstream thinking, and simply what is done because it is right.”

Senior executives who lead into the future will NOT be afraid to challenge the status quo, to break the mold when it comes to evaluating business, and they will disrupt business as usual at every level, according to Ms. Herman. “I frequently hear the excuse that shared governance requires slow decision making,” she said. “This is exactly why campuses have really struggled to stay relevant with their constituents. Shared governance can occur in the context of timely decision making and could be the difference between a campus that is relevant and solvent, and one that goes the way of the dinosaur.”

“At CarterBaldwin, we expected to see an increase in presidential searches throughout 2021,” said Bill Peterson, partner
at CarterBaldwin Executive Search. “That’s proving to be true – we are on pace to have a record year – and we anticipate that it will continue into 2022.”

Delayed Retirement Plans

Historically, many long-serving presidents retire after a decade or more of service, which has been an ongoing trend for the past several years, according to Mr. Peterson. “However, the pandemic delayed the plans of many sitting presidents who did not want to add a presidential transition to an already burdened institution, or governing boards who chose stability over progress for the moment,” he said. “As a result of a return to normalcy, we are seeing a more dramatic increase in openings, and we will likely continue to see retirements in the coming months. We will also see accelerating departures due to the strain the pandemic had on presidents both personally and professionally. Certainly, there is a new generation of leaders coming along – and the landscape is rife with opportunities for them to move into top leadership roles.”

“Having the right leadership on diversity and inclusion is integral to a college’s future and success,” said Mr. Peterson. “There is tremendous value in having a person or persons focused on identifying cultural, institutional, and individual biases and blind spots that thwart diversity and inclusion. It is also important that diversity, equality and inclusion reflect a culture that is being modeled and promoted across an institution, by everyone – not outsourced or assigned to any single individual.”

When looking for senior leaders for universities Mr. Peterson says that above all, one’s bearing and character are essential in higher education leadership. “Picturing the kind of leader an institution needs standing at a podium and leading through a difficult time is a good place to start,” he said. “An effective leader must also be able to navigate an institution in a time of rapid change, discerning what should remain and never change while seizing opportunities to innovate to benefit the institution. A successful, lasting leader must also be able to effectively cast a vision consistent with an institution’s identity through storytelling that resonates and attracts faculty, staff, students, and resources. Finally, he or she must embody the belief that education is transformational in the lives of students, and that faculty is essential to fulfilling the mission of an institution.”

“We have been quite busy with president recruitments,” said Mike Wheless, co-founder, principal and consultant at Anthem Executive. “Typically, it slows in the summer months. This year the demand has not subsided and we will be busy in the summer. For the reasons I laid out below, the demand will only increase.”

Mr. Wheless notes that he is definitely seeing shorter and shorter tenures. There are many reasons for it. “One major reason is the patience for boards and universities has never been thinner for a new president to hit the ground running and perform,” he said. “Today’s boards and universities are more prepared to cut their losses and move on faster than any time in history. Demographics play a major part – there are tens of thousands of people dropping out of the workforce every day for retirement.

Many presidents are long in the tooth. Some wanted to hit the eject button and retire well before COVID but hung on to see their university through it. Now with COVID seemingly behind us, many are punching out.”

The job of leading a university has also become increasingly complex. “Having recruited CEOs, board directors, and executives industry before getting into higher education search, I can tell you without question that running a university has become amongst the most complicated CEO roles of any industry – period. Many people simply do not want the top role,” said Mr. Wheless. “Social media and technology platforms have made a president role more of a fishbowl than ever. There are so many dynamics that can tank a presidency today. Many great presidents are too tired of trying to stay ahead of it all.”

Historically, higher ed has not done a good job as other industries in preparing the next generation for succession. “And with all the cost-cutting universities have been forced to make, training and development are typically among the first areas to go,” Mr. Wheless said. “For the sheer number of openings, some may be getting their time before they are truly ready. Then they run into things that can eat a new president’s lunch, such as athletics.”

Universities today also must become more diverse and inclusive. Hiring a diversity officer to say the university has one is not enough. “The mission orientation of the university has to be centered in DEI,” said Mr. Wheless. “It has never become more important. A university that is willing to recruit a high-level DEI officer and report directly to the president, and clearly define the role paired with the university’s mission, demonstrates to the community that is not just lip service. Access is the newest standard coming out of the White House. Don’t be surpassed if the DEI includes A on the end of it soon – DEIA. Access for all is becoming increasingly important in leveling the playing field. Meeting access needs will change the role and further define it in the future. My advice to presidents is to look for DEI leaders who are already moving in the access direction, or wait and read about your competitor doing it.”

Martin Baker, managing partner and practice lead in Buffkin / Baker’s higher education practice, has witnessed a significant demand for new leaders at colleges and universities. “The war for talent is at an all-time high. In addition to presidents and chancellors, there is great demand for strong academic and operational leaders as well,” he said. “Colleges and universities are seeking leaders with many of the same characteristics, including those who are visible and engaged in their institution, support the development of the faculty, staff, and students, raise money, and can develop a shared vision to support the academic mission of their institution.”

Mr. Baker agrees that we are certainly at a point in time where there is generational turnover. “We have anticipated this development for several years,” he said. “In addition, college and university leaders have significant fatigue from the past 16 months. Institutional leaders had to provide leadership during such an uncertain time, with no roadmap to follow. Many academic leaders are stepping down to catch their breath and recharge the batteries. In addition, the role of president/chancellor has developed into 24/7 role leading to shorter tenures because of burnout in the job.”

The demands on higher education, and more specifically college presidents, has vastly changed over the last several decades, according to Wendy Wilsker, managing partner at Boyden. “College presidents were once viewed as an extension of their faculty, but now they are required to be educators, financial administrators, fundraisers, politicians, and recruiters,” she said. “In an era of heightened social media, presidents are in the limelight 24/7 and their responses to critical matters not only effects their campus, but their reach extends to future students, alumni, parents, and the larger college community. The stakes are higher and college communities are demanding greater accountability from their college president.”

Colleges are facing enormous financial challenges. Lisa Vuona, managing partner at Boyden, said: “As a society, we may see
the effects of the pandemic in our rearview mirror, but colleges and universities are still grappling with decreased funding for programs, a reduction in staff, diversity/equity/inclusion in the workforce, challenges recruiting and retaining faculty and staff, heightened fundraising goals, over-enrollment for the fall, the plight of international students gaining access to the States, and so many other issues. Because of these issues, some current provosts and deans are steering away from the top job, leaving the pool of presidential candidates quite lean.”

With so many schools hiring chief diversity officer, Ms. Wilsker notes that diversity, equity and inclusion cannot only be the job of the chief diversity and inclusion officer. “It must be system-wide and it must start with the president, the board of directors, and top leadership,” she said. “Many colleges are building DEI offices to create systemic change across the campus. Faculty, students, alumni, and the greater college community wants and needs actual change taking place in recruiting, hiring, retaining, and training multicultural teams. It is no longer okay to say, we are working on a change. Action needs to be done across campus to support and attract students, faculty, and professionals of color.”

When discussing the types of leaders schools are seeking today, Ms. Vuona notes that recently, “my business partner and I made a guest appearance on a zoom with a dozen mid-level fundraisers across the country. The topic of discussion was what do you want to see in a leader? The group focused on inclusivity, culture, and servant leadership. How do these leaders measure success? How are they learning about me as a person? How (specifically) can they develop and help shape my growth in the field? How are they held accountable? What specific examples demonstrate their commitment to hiring and retaining a diverse, equitable, and inclusive workforce?”

Racial and Cultural Awareness

“Diversity, equity, and inclusion work must be embedded and infused in the core mission and operations of all institutions,” said Mr. Baker. “While diversity, equity, and inclusion have been a focus for years, now more than ever, institutions are tasked with providing more effective strategies that produce valuable outcomes for students, faculty, and staff. Whomever the stakeholder, and however they identify, higher education has seen a renewed emphasis on making sincere efforts to ensure that all stakeholders are in a welcoming and safe environment in which to pursue all the opportunities provided. Under the leadership of chief diversity officers, these efforts improve racial and cultural awareness, enhance critical thinking, and provide a stronger sense of community.”

Colleges and universities need leaders who can navigate financial challenges, define and enhance organizational climate and culture, invest in the health and well-being of its students and employees, show general awareness and empathy to their teams, and have strong interpersonal and communication skills to develop meaning- ful relationships with external stakeholders, such as elected officials, alumni, donors, and industry partners, according to Mr. Baker.

“After a year of national reckoning that thrust centuries-old social justice fault lines to the forefront, chief diversity officers have become champions of intentional organizational and transformational change on college campuses across the country,” said Keight Tucker Kennedy, partner at Isaacson, Miller. “The role has evolved over the years and many institutions have launched CDO searches with the benefit of initial institution-wide conversations and buy-in, while others have responded to a flash point that necessitated a search.”

“These key leaders play a critical role in bringing awareness, discovery, impact, and progress to some of the most important academic issues facing a campus community today,” Ms. Tucker Kennedy said. “Chief diversity officers also help senior leaders see and understand the way changing demographics and diversity can benefit an institution.”

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