When we meet with higher education leaders, we ask what concerns they have about their institution and the search process. There are several common themes on the minds of institutional leaders as we begin the year, from changing student demographics to cybersecurity. In this article, we examine some of the most critical issues leaders are facing as they plan for and conduct searches, and some considerations for how to address those concerns.
Higher education presidents are stepping down at a rapid rate, and the industry anticipates this trend will continue. Presidents are leaving their posts throughout the year; the norm previously had been that departure announcements were made in the summer months for the following year. Couple this with reports showing presidential tenures have become shorter in recent years, and it demonstrates a need for both transition planning at the institution level and leadership cultivation industry-wide.
Presidential transitions have an impact on all positions of an institution. College and university leadership, including trustees, have an opportunity to establish succession plans for the presidency and other top positions, which may include hiring interim leadership, identifying internal successors, ensuring leaders at all levels participate in ongoing professional development, and evaluating compensation packages on a regular basis to remain competitive.
DIVERSITY, EQUITY, AND INCLUSION
Ensuring that institutions are addressing diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) is of paramount importance in higher education. DEI practices can and should be infused throughout institutional decision-making, including, but not limited to, strategic planning, academic programs, accessibility, and hiring practices. The question we as a search firm hear most frequently around this issue is, how do we ensure that we are building diverse candidate pools for client searches?
While diverse candidate pools are an essential component of DEI hiring progress at institutions, there are many other factors that must also be addressed. Does the institution's culture reflect a welcoming environment where DEI is clearly a priority? If it does not, candidates may be reluctant to pursue a position there. Are diverse candidates actually being hired? Diverse pools should not be looked upon as a performative measure; rather, the college or university must be demostrably committed to the possibility of hiring diverse candidates and have strategies in place for their successful integration into the institution's leadership ranks.
THE STUDENT EXPERIENCE
Higher education leaders are increasingly asking our search consultants for their thoughts on ways to enhance student success. COVID-19 severely disrupted on-campus learning, as well as the ability to create and benefit from having an established community. As students do return to campus, many are grappling with rising student debt in the midst of uncertainty about future career prospects. Therefore, more students and their families are questioning the value of higher education. According to a recent study from Third Way and New America, about 65 percent of college students don't believe college is worth the cost. Student mental health issues are also at the forefront at this very challenging time, with 80 percent of college students reporting that "COVID-19 has negatively impacted their mental health."
These survey results point to the need to evaluate rising tuition and housing costs, degree offerings and requirements, how students are integrated into the campus community, and how students are supported in their college journey and beyond.
Two critical aspects of this discussion include: 1) what can the industry and institutions do to meet the needs of college students who experience mental health issues and 2) how can leaders more quickly and meaningfully facilitate improved outcomes for students of color.
Institutions must invest in data collection and analysis to inform strategic decision making within these areas, as well as inviting students into the discussion. Likewise, it is worth investing in leaders who can bring proactive, innovative solutions to these challenges.
Many colleges and universities have experienced severe decreases in funding over the last two years (or more) due to factors such as reduced public funding, enrollment declines, and volatile investment markets. Residential campuses have not fully returned to housing capacity since the closures caused by the pandemic. Institutional leaders are trying to develop strategies to close funding gaps without putting their missions at risk.
It's more important than ever for higher education - and individual institutions - to demonstrate the quantifiable value of higher education. This is another area in which data can be leveraged to address concerns around graduation rates, job opportunities, and future earnings. This is also a good time to evaluate investments to ensure they continue to garner lucrative returns. From a leadership standpoint, it's imperative to have the right teams in place in the areas of Enrollment Management, Financial Management, Advancement, and Endowment/Foundation Management to ensure the long-term sustainability of the organization.
Higher education institutions are quite vulnerable to cybersecurity breaches due to the significant personal and financial data being collected and stored. COVID-19 exacerbated this exposure by necessitating that recruiting, teaching, and hiring practices be conducted remotely. According to The Tech Edvocate, in the last decade more than 500 universities experienced a data breach. Technology professionals believe it's not a matter of if a breach will occur, but when.
It is imperative for colleges and universities to have robust technology teams who are experts in maintaining high-level security across a broad enterprise, as well as establishing and enforcing institution-wide educational efforts, policies, and protocols at all levels.
In addition to mitigation strategies, institutions should also have comprehensive risk management and response plans in place to swiftly deal with a breach, as well as a communications plan to advise those impacted.
Institutions that are planning for or embarking on their next leadership search would be well served to consider how their talent identification and selection will play a significant role in addressing these industry trends. Higher education is changing rapidly; the most prepared and adaptable institutions are going to be those with the most innovative and forward-thinking leadership teams. AGB Search is always available to discuss solutions and best practices for leadership search and development.