The Urgent Need To Widen University President Candidate Pools

Higher-ed no longer has the luxury of being averse to change. It should not be controversial to posit that the solutions to the problems of higher education of 50 years ago, or even 15 years ago, are not the same solutions that need to be applied today.

There is a crisis in higher education.  It is not news to anyone in the field, but it is getting worse, and the time to act is now.

 In March of this year, Moody’s downgraded the entire higher education sector from stable to negative. A Moody analysis before the Covid-19 crisis reported that one in five small private liberal arts schools were in serious financial stress.  Fifteen such schools closed just last year--three times the rate of only ten years ago. In May, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported on a study that predicts a third of all four-year private colleges will close or merge in the next six years.  It was sited that this financial stress was being caused by several factors, including demographic changes that result in a decline in enrollment, and an increasing demand for classes that directly lead to employment. 

 Competition with larger, better endowed schools add to the list of pain points. Small private colleges, like their wealthier better-resourced competitors, are also trying to keep tuition costs low, find new pedagogical methods to reach different learning styles, help students with mental health issues, and implement diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives.   Universities and colleges have been grappling with these problems for years. Many institutions have applied band-aids to get by from year to year and have put off finding long term solutions to the problems that inhibit the on-going health of the institution.  Now…Enter a global pandemic.

 The current crisis is shining a bright light on both acknowledged and unacknowledged problems, and the crisis is making it clear that the band-aid approach is not sustainable.  What once were “nice to haves,” have become “must haves.” School shutdowns are forcing alternative ways to deliver curriculum and ensure student learning.  Utilizing technology and learning how to apply technologies to their fullest teaching potential has come off the dream list and has now become a necessity.  Alternative revenue sources and sound fiscal management can no longer be talking points in a time when growing unemployment is making tuition payments difficult, if not impossible, and some students are asking for refunds. The risk of not finding solutions to the myriad of problems facing higher education is now existential.

 So how does higher-ed move beyond mitigation to innovation? Innovation that is needed to sustain the institution and prepare students for the future.  Who will lead the charge and take the inevitable slings and arrows from change-resistant faculty, administrators, and funders?  How will new leaders be found and inspired to take on these formidable tasks?

 Trustees must now insist that candidate pools for president and chancellor roles include a mix of proven leaders who are unafraid of change.  Leaders who come from inside, and outside, of academia.  It is the responsibility of search committees and their search consultants to identify and persuade less obvious prospects to become candidates for these critical roles.

 To ensure the future for institutions of higher education, trustees and search committees must demand that their search consultants use fresh eyes, rigor, data, and imagination in seeking qualified candidates.  Candidate pools must be composed of people with varied backgrounds.  Backgrounds that include the academic, public and private spheres.  And search committees need to be unbiased and nondiscriminatory as to who would be best for the institution’s future.

 The criteria trustees use to choose a search consultant must now include their access to candidates beyond academia who have a connection to, and interest in, higher education.  And the consultants must have quantitative and qualitative evaluation methodologies that are data driven, and scoring systems for soft skills such as innovation, emotional intelligence, cultural fit, and consensus building.  The composition of search committees should be made up of people who are willing to expand their personal point of view beyond their own department and evaluate their own unconscious bias.

 Search firms that specialize in higher-ed boast of the number of academic searches they have been engaged in. That history becomes the criteria used by institutions to choose a firm.  The president of Purdue, Mitch Daniels, once said that being a college president is the hardest job in America.  If he is even half right, how can institutions expect to conquer both present and future trials by using the same process and the same search consultants that have brought schools to where they are today?

 When search committees and consultants take the easy way out by selecting predictable candidates from an existing and narrowly defined database, it puts the institution’s already precarious future in further jeopardy.  Simply put, selecting candidates with only conventional backgrounds who will offend the least amount of people will no longer get the job done.

 Traditionalists insist on limiting candidate pools to the historic, academic career paths because they believe only these people will protect the academic integrity of the institutions.  While we don’t believe that is true on its face, perhaps the more telling point is that those institutions may not survive unless something dramatic changes.

 Higher-ed no longer has the luxury of being averse to change. It should not be controversial to posit that the solutions to the problems of higher education of 50 years ago, or even 15 years ago, are not the same solutions that need to be applied today. 

 The Covid-19 crisis is now forcing us to seriously confront the problems that higher education has been facing, stop wavering and come up with answers. Patience is no longer a virtue. Those who are responsible for the composition of search committees and search consultants must make decisions based on new realities and ensure that an accelerated future does not overtake the very educational institutions we depend upon for the future of civil society.  Our students and faculties deserve nothing less than the best possible leadership.


By Neil Fink