A New Model for Higher Education Leadership—And Why Boards Have to Get Serious about Pursuing the Leaders They Need

As institutions of higher education (IHEs) downsize, merge, and close at an increasing rate, it is becoming clear that many executive level leaders are ill prepared to meet the challenges faced by colleges and universities today. This also partially explains both the sharply decreasing tenure of college presidents and the increasing failure rate of executive searches, i.e., institutions having to re-initiate searches not long after selecting a candidate.

So, what skills, abilities, knowledge and characteristics would better serve leaders in higher education today?

Earlier this year, the Chronicle of Higher Education hosted a conference about the criticality of an entrepreneurial mindset for effective leadership in contemporary higher education. On one of the panels, Dr. James Koch, professor emeritus at Old Dominion U., noted that,

“As I look at colleges and universities today, the leadership tends to not be composed of risk-takers. I think that is a function of the way deans, provosts, and presidents are selected. Any individual out there in the age of Google, who has offended any major constituency, or thought about things in a different way, or has written about things in a different way, is likely not to get selected. They’re out. Well, that eliminates a healthy portion of individuals who think entrepreneurial thoughts. I’ve evaluated perhaps 50 presidents, and that runs as a common string through the institutions that are failing.”

Can I get an, “amen?” As I’ve noted in previous posts, higher education as an industry and a culture, is usually structurally incapable of incubating the kinds of leaders that colleges and universities need. Moreover, traditional academic search firms are more likely to be rewarded by their clients for presenting candidates that preserve institutional biases than those who challenge the status quo. Outlier, game-changing candidates produce dissonance and search firms want to avoid that challenge!

So, what are some of the highest priority requirements for executive leaders in higher education today? The partial list below is a good place to start.

  • Strategic
  • Passionate and dedicated
  • Entrepreneurial
  • Innovative
  • Emotionally and culturally intelligent (and willing to embrace vulnerability)
  • Effective manager of: conflict, crisis and change
  • Has tolerance for: risk, ambiguity, complexity, and volatility
  • Possesses business/operational and financial acumen
  • Understands organizational dynamics
  • Drives human capital development and teamwork
  • Respects the humanity within organizations
  • Understands and can influence the external environment
  • Can listen and learn

Note that the profile does not include items such as “expertise in shared governance” or “strong publishing record” or “content expert in engineering.” It is not that those items wouldn’t be nice-to-haves in a college president, COO, or provost. It is simply that the ways that higher education executives must bring value in today’s volatile, high-change, and highly competitive environment, are game-changing, strategic outcomes. Technical expertise and contributions to accreditation or curriculum or research are much better left to others in the organization whose efficacy and success are facilitated by executive leadership. Moreover, because so much of a leader’s success today comes from the success engendered in others, positional authority is far less important than influence, which comes from passion and the ability to connect deeply with others in the institution. You can see a checklist of attributes for Game Changing leaders here.

Ironically, it’s not that higher education boards don’t know what they need. Through my consulting work with boards, recruitment firms, and executive candidates, it is clear that IHEs have gotten much better at describing the leadership profile they need. Randomly select a dozen job postings for president or provost from the Chronicle of Higher Education and you will find words such as “innovative,” “visionary,” “dynamic,” “change manager,” “entrepreneurial,” “strategic,” etc. to describe the kinds of leaders that the institutions say they want. These postings will also typically say they want leaders with great people leadership and communication skills, financial acumen, and rarely even emotional and cultural intelligence.

The problem is that most colleges and universities are not very good at actually recruiting and hiring candidates with the leadership profiles they’ve created.

Why is this?

The challenge is partly because most universities and their boards are simply not culturally ready to hire a new kind of leader, and secondly, those same colleges and universities are generally poor environments in which to grow the leadership skills necessary for today’s challenges. As such, the internal pipelines in most IHEs are not producing many “new paradigm” candidates. Traditional search firms are also contributing to the problem, by filtering out the most dynamic candidates, which will be addressed in another article. The short version is that, broadly speaking, search firms don’t do what most people think they do, which is to develop diverse applicant pools. What they actually do is aggressively filter applicants on the front end (using junior staff and formulaic criteria), which by definition, eliminates the most interesting and compelling candidates. Although there are increasing exceptions, the majority of executive level hiring decisions are still “safe,” status-quo affairs that don’t reflect the language of the job description nor the actual leadership needs of the institution.

One common and dysfunctional dynamic that compromises effective executive recruitment is that search committees and boards are often beholden to unwritten institutional requirements for executive candidates that force them away from the experience and skill sets that the institution actually needs. An example might be that despite what the job description says about experience with business development, the board won’t hire a provost without a high profile publishing record or won’t hire a president who has not raised a given sum of money. Another common and detrimental prejudice is against candidates with extensive private sector and “for profit” experience, who are most likely to have the experience and skills higher education institutions say they need! There is also frequently significant bias in colleges and universities based on core programs or institutional history. For example, a school of psychology might only hire a chief executive who is a psychologist or an engineering school might only hire a president who has a STEM background, came up through the ranks of the institution’s own tribe, etc. The problem with that is not that psychologists and scientists can’t be good executives. The problem is that generally speaking, if an institution of higher education derives value from an executive based on her or his technical skills or allegiance to the tribe, then they are getting very limited value and it’s coming from the wrong place. What happens more often than not is the institution sacrifices the leadership profile they really need in favor of cultural, political, and historical biases that are vestiges of a previous, often anachronistic paradigm. As Peter Drucker famously noted decades ago, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” It also overwhelms executive searches and hiring decisions in higher education, which wouldn’t matter if the stakes weren’t so critically high.

Of course there was a time when higher education was a much more static, financially stable, low competition, and slow-change milieu in which the demands on leadership were also much less far-reaching—and the implications for getting a search right were far less significant as well. Just imagine thinking even 10 or 15 years ago that a college president or other higher ed executive would need skills related to a retail business! A couple of years ago, the Aspen Institute issued a report on the university president of the 21st century that identified 27 competencies of contemporary university chief executives. No one can claim 27 competencies, but the key take away is that the leadership profile of today’s higher education executive is dramatically, fundamentally different than it was even a generation ago. The reality is that there are candidates who are strategic, entrepreneurial, emotionally intelligent leaders, who build aligned culture, empower people and effectively manage change. In fact, there are such leaders in higher education today, some of whom also have academic pedigrees, but they are “unicorns.” To make the recruitment challenge even more difficult, the ideal candidate also has traditional skills as well. As Dr. Koch noted, “there are times when you need to… create operational excellence and perform on traditional metrics, and then there are times where we have to open up new markets, new business models, new ways of delivering value to our customers.”

As such, if boards (and search firms) truly want to hire the executives their institutions need, they have to acknowledge and overcome the bias in the process and they have to be willing to look outside the pool of career academics, content experts, etc., and certainly have to look outside of their own tribe (community college, private/independent, four year public, etc.). Continuing with safe, dogmatic, culturally amenable hiring choices not only fails the search process, it ultimately fails the institution—and in many cases the right choice is an existential imperative.

While it is helpful for leaders to have at least a basic understanding of academic institutions and culture, in the current environment, most institutions would benefit from sacrificing “insider knowledge” in return for the knowledge, skills, and abilities extent in dynamic, strategic leaders who can move entire institutions. In short, institutions of higher education should recruit executives who will be “force multipliers” by leveraging the expertise and passion of the collective human capital of the organization, rather than through their own technical skills, task completion, or tribal knowledge. The reality is that the pool of such leaders within higher education is far smaller than the number of institutions that need such leaders. However, if boards actually search for the leadership profile they say they need and are willing to evaluate candidates whose CVs were built largely outside of traditional higher education or narrow content disciplines, they stand a much better chance of getting the leaders they actually need.

A little courage wouldn’t hurt either…


I have worked with multiple recruiting firms, particularly those representing traditional higher education institutions, that, as a matter of protocol, actually filter out applicants who submit more than the minimum requested application materials. In other words, if the application only requires a CV, cover letter, and references, a candidate who tries to submit a leadership profile or innovation model, etc., is often told that the search firm cannot accept those materials because it “wouldn’t be fair” or wouldn’t be a “level playing field” for other candidates who don’t go beyond the minimum (that is not the way private sector searches happen, by the way.) Relatedly, search firms often assign junior colleagues with no actual higher education experience to filter applications, often misinterpreting CVs and missing transferable experience. As a result, in many cases, university search committees and boards are denied information that would be critical to the due diligence process and that, by definition, are more likely to come from more innovative, motivated, and less traditional candidates. I mention this because in a surprising number of searches, recruitment firms themselves contribute to the problem of perpetuating existing institutional bias in the search process, and to the ultimate outcome of hiring less qualified candidates that don’t actually fit the desired profile. I highly recommend that boards who are using search firms insist that those firms not only accept, but encourage that applicants provide information that supports identification of candidates who are more likely to meet the actual performance needs of the position. After all, once the hiring decision is made, the executive will not be afforded anything approximating a “level playing field.”

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