Preparing for the Leadership Search to Come: What Higher Education Boards Need to Be Thinking About and Preparing For

Richard A. Skinner, Ph.D. Senior Consultant – Harris Search Associates

Demographics alone will hasten the transition in leadership at most US colleges and universities over the next several years.  According to the American Council on Education, in just the past 20 years the percentage of presidents age 61 and over increased from 14 percent to nearly half.  Moreover, the ACE data make it clear that few of those currently in the traditional pool of candidates – provosts and vice presidents – express interest in succeeding to a university presidency.

Furthermore, it now appears that the difficult economic conditions of late may well have changed the fundamental business model underlying higher education and therefore discounted somewhat the relevance of prior experience in applying conventional ways of coping with financial stress.

Large numbers of governing boards of colleges and universities can thus expect to be searching for a new chancellor or president.  And since sitting presidents may well be looked to as prospects for replacing retiring ones, still more boards should anticipate needing to undertake a search because the current leader is recruited away to another institution.

What’s a board to do?

College, university and higher education system governing boards would serve themselves and their organizations well if they made the necessary preparations for conducting successful recruitment of a new president or chancellor in the inevitable turnover of leadership.  Indeed, the case can be and has been made (see elsewhere on this website, “Higher Education challenged by Succession Planning”) that boards ought to engage in succession planning as a matter of policy and routine.

As a start, boards would do well to take stock of just how much the institution has (or has not) changed within the past 10 years or so. The prevailing view of higher education with respect to an appetite for and the capacity to change was summarized by the late George Keller in the observation that only two contemporary institutions survive intact from the Middle Ages:  the Catholic church and universities.  Both are noted for custom, ritual, and tradition; substantial but typically aging infrastructure; and their inhabitants’ general skepticism toward large-scale institutional change.

But colleges and universities have changed and, in some instances, made substantial change to themselves and their operations.  Some of the change is of a piece with broader societal developments such as –

• the pervasive role of information and communications technologies,
• globalization,
• the pre-eminence of the consumer (and the view of students as consumers), and
• the advancement of women in employment, though not yet in executive roles

Still other changes are more relevant to higher education alone and include –

• the emergence of the prototypical American college student as a woman in her 30s, attending on a part-time basis and working full-time, not the full-time student living on campus, enrolled on a full-time basis and free for out-of-class activities since she/he is not working while in college,
• the emergence and growth of for-profit colleges and universities specializing in career education,
• the “privatization” of higher education as evident in the larger share of tuition costs paid by the student and family or financed as loans and annually rising costs of attendance in excess of most other average costs of living,
• increasing expectations that colleges and universities will collaborate more than in the past with one another and with other educational partners – especially, K-12 – and with the evolving needs of employers, and
• the improving but not yet proportional growth in enrollments and graduation rates of Hispanic/Latino/Chicano populations.

Boards would thus do well to review the recent past of the institution with respect to whether, how and how much change has taken place and with what effects.  The “goodness of fit” between what has transpired and the strategic plan that was to guide and inform the institution’s development can serve as a barometer of what sort of leadership is needed going forward – e.g., a change agent, a steady helmsman or a planner.

Second and growing out of a review of institutional change would be the board re-examining the institutional mission.  Along with hiring and evaluating a president and serving as the college’s or the university’s fiduciary steward, boards play a critical role in adopting a mission statement.  Has the one before the board now – regardless of its vintage – remained relevant?  Does it reflect the values and circumstances that prevail within the university or has it lost some of its meaning in the contemporary world? 

Answers to these types of questions should prompt significant reflection on the part of the board and likely lead to yet another round of questions surrounding the search for a new president.  Does the board need to seek out new leadership to undertake a thorough re-examination of the mission statement (no small exercise) or find a president who “fits” the existing one?  Are there internal candidates who embody well the principles of the university or, in contrast, does the board need fresh eyes more likely to be provided by hiring an external candidate?  Does the opportunity exist to plan for leadership succession, a process that is deemed to be strategic in pubic corporations but which has yet to gain a real foothold in higher education?

Third, every president these days – whether the institution she/he serves is public or independent – is expected to devote considerable effort to and achieve results securing resources for the university.  For most public colleges and universities this imperative has traditionally entailed a president able to work with state and federal governments and, most recently, has involved trying to hold on to government funds and avoid further erosion of that support. 

But the near term portends either continuing declines in such funding or one-time, often capital infusions of dollars, so the pressure will continue for public presidents to look beyond conventional funding and to instead identify and garner private philanthropy or create relationships that generate revenue streams that come back to the institution.   The skills involved in securing resources are not yet generic across the public-independent spectrum of colleges and universities, so a board will want to consider carefully the experience and expertise required of new leadership, weighing previous success in working with state legislatures and governors as well as with donors and foundations.  Each institution has its own distinctive environment and boards will want to consider which sources are more likely to be fruitful for attracting resources and weigh carefully which experience is most pertinent to their college or university.

Fourth, the history of higher education is one of fairly collegial engagement among institutions that nevertheless also compete - often fiercely – over everything, including students and faculty, athletics, new buildings and facilities, and resources.  But the America of today presents a picture in which resources are very limited and competition takes on a zero-sum quality, i.e., one sector’s or a university’s gain is at the expense of others and the winner takes all. 

There is reason to think that such an environment is best coped with by collaborating with other colleges and universities, K-12 schools and other entities rather than compete.  University presidents, however, are seldom without ego and some enjoy and revel in competition.  Boards need to think carefully about which approach they expect a new president or chancellor to adopt.  Traditionally, presidents are expected to “keep peace” among internal stakeholders and compete with other institutions and rivals for resources and status.  But the time may have come when collaboration trumps competition, especially as resources are so scarce.

Securing the Services of a Search Firm

Collectively, the board’s consideration of its strategic choices should also inform the decision on whether or not to contract with a professional search firm.  Tight budgets and all of the costs involved in presidential transitions will make it very tempting to forego the expense of a search firm, and for those institutions that have previously embraced succession planning and are confident that that process has produced a candidate that meets the organization’s needs, a national search may not be required.  (Rare, however, is the campus where one or more stakeholder groups is likely to accept readily or easily the designation of an internal candidate as a successor, even one identified and selected by the board precisely for the “goodness of fit.”)

But notwithstanding the merit of serious succession planning (and again we offer some commentary on this topic elsewhere on the website; see “Higher Education Challenged by Succession Planning”), the process is yet to gain substantial traction within academe.  As a result, a board therefore is more likely to feel compelled to undertake an open search and engage the services of an executive recruitment firm.   Board members are typically part-time governors with other, often competing full-time obligations, so mounting a presidential search will tax individual and collective time and energy.  All too often the search exacts so high a cost of board members and especially board chairs that fast upon securing a new president, members resign or the chair steps down or leaves the board completely in order to get back to her/his “real” job.   While a search firm cannot and should not substitute for an engaged board and chair, it can lessen the demands on those key officers.

Just as compelling a reason for hiring an executive recruiting may be the fact that the search can be conducted by the firm working at arm’s length of the institution and, in the case of public colleges and universities, legally maintain the confidentiality of the search for the time required to identify and attract candidates.  The resulting pool is therefore more likely to be a somewhat larger one than would be the case if the search were conducted by the institution acting on its own.

Yet another reason for considering the services of a search firm relates to a board’s determination to consider seriously candidates who may not come from the conventional academic background and “supply chain” of most college and university presidents.  If, as current circumstances appear to forecast, the environment of higher education is changed and the premises of the past thereby rendered moot, then tradition and convention may need to give way to new or at least different approaches of operating that can be applied by a leader familiar and experienced with those approaches because she/he has been a leader in an organization and sector other than higher education.

As a result, boards may want to seek out the services of a search firm capable of looking beyond the usual sources of new leaders.  At the same time, the wise board will want to be assured that the firm selected is aware of and sensitive to the concerns of various stakeholders within academe such as faculty and students who may not be receptive – at least at first blush – to the idea of alternative backgrounds of presidential candidates.

Elsewhere on this website (see “Executive Insights – ‘What's Important from an Executive Search Firm?’”) the results are summarized from a 2006 survey of executives who were clients of search firms and asked to rate 17 attributes of firms in importance.  While not drawn from higher education, the findings are relevant for boards as they get about the job of selecting a firm.

Ultimately, a college or university governing board should seek out a search consultant who will do more than transcribe the initial inclinations of board members regarding the desired and necessary attributes of a new president and, instead, challenge precepts and assumptions, goad (if you will) individuals and the group to reflect carefully on the past while envisioning the immediate and longer-term futures of the institution, and challenge familiar and therefore comfortable notions of what will be required to steer the institution in the following years. 

Higher education governing boards, like the rest of us, “live in interesting times”, and that ancient Chinese blessing/curse ought to suffice as a stimulus to seek out capable professional services as they search for the next leaders of their institutions.

Richard (Rick) Skinner is Senior Consultant to Harris IIC Partners and
former president of three higher education organizations,
including American and Canadian universities.


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