The Leadership Gap to Come

by Richard A. Skinner
September 28, 2011

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 advance of the inevitable turnover of leadership. Indeed, the case can be and has been made -- to date, with scant results -- 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 preeminence 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 specific to higher education 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 leader 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 are likely to 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 public corporations but 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 in, 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-to-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 pertinent entities rather than competing. 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.

A Word of Sympathy for Boards

Searching for new leadership is never easy on a governing board, and the current climate may have the confounding effect of encouraging presidents to retire while discouraging otherwise qualified candidates from considering university presidencies.

Moreover, the “part-time” (sic) job of trustees and regents expands dramatically when a presidential search is required. Those institutions with the benefit of a long-serving leader or an uncertain financial situation may be excused if their boards contemplate a search in somewhat apocalyptic terms. Take heart: as the millennium approached in 1999, there was no shortage of forecasts of pending doom. As Stanislaw Lec observed, "Do not expect too much from the end of the world."

Richard A Skinner

This article appeared in INSIDE HIGHER EDUCATION:
“The Leadership Gap to Come” (September 28, 2011) 

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