Today’s higher education arena presents many challenges, risks, and opportunities in a rapidly changing environment. While the face of higher education changes, college boards must face the facts that it’s also time for college leadership demographics to change as well. College presidents tend to serve long tenures, which means that their average age is increasing. Large percentages of college administration staff are also getting older and nearing retirement. These issues place urgency on the importance of succession planning for college boards. College presidents play a strategic role in identifying and developing future college leaders. Succession planning for college leadership is vital to help colleges maintain a competitive edge and support long-term sustainability.
Demographics of College Leadership
We learned from the 1986 ACE’s college president study that we could reasonably anticipate that the average college president would be a white male in his fifties. College presidents were also most likely to be married with children and regular Protestant church-goers. Most had achieved a doctorate degree in education and served the college presidency for about six years. Three decades later, the demographics haven’t changed much. As of 2012, the average age of college presidents was 61.
One possible theory around aging college presidents is that boards recognize the increasing complexity that leading college and university leaders face, and they’re actively seeking candidates for college president that have the necessary skills to navigate today’s challenges.
The rapid changes in higher education and the aging of the current cadre of college leaders requires boards to work towards preparing a diverse and qualified set of candidates to choose from as part of their succession planning processes.
Board Portals and Digital Governance Solutions Enhance Succession Planning
Technology has advanced to a degree that board succession planning committees can pursue their duties and responsibilities within the security and confidentiality of a board portal. The portal is the best place to store resumes and use online surveys to identify the future needs of the college leadership. Board administrators can set up user permissions to prevent unauthorized people from accessing the succession planning committee’s work. Secure messaging tools allow committee members to conduct their work remotely without fear of data breaches or hacking incidents.
Preparing the Next Generation of Leaders
According to Dr. George, Mihel, College President of Dixon College in Illinois, leadership coaching is a prerequisite for successful succession planning. Generally, succession planning is part of overall operational planning. Dr. Mihel believes that college presidents play a strategic role in developing the types of leaders that higher education will demand.
The future of higher education will demand leaders that can adapt to a rapidly changing environment with increased responsibilities and unexpected challenges. Future education leaders can expect to face challenges related to competition with for-profit schools, online universities, increased offerings from community colleges, and more. College leaders may anticipate mergers and acquisitions of public and private institutions such as Purdue University’s acquisition of privately held Kaplan University. Such developments will require new business models that will have major impacts on finances, educational offerings, technology, recruitment, marketing, and other operational activities.
The quality of succession planning may well lie in current-day attempts of college presidents to create, encourage, and support their employees to seek positions with increased responsibilities. College boards may begin the process by encouraging college presidents to encourage their top-performing faculty and administrators to attend conferences, take part in external committees, and get involved with the college’s accreditation process. Being personally involved with employees’ career advancement helps to generate trust and a free exchange of ideas. College presidents can help identify the college’s future leaders from internal sources by creating challenges for employees and giving them opportunities to shine.
Dr. Mihel believes that coaching current employees is a win/win proposition that enhances opportunities for employees while having a positive effect on the overall college morale. In his own work, Dr. Mihel finds value in offering direct mentoring of employees that are interested in moving up the ladder. Professional development, as offered by experienced leaders, simultaneously creates a better future for the college.
Recognizing Small College Problems
Smaller colleges have an especially difficult time in securing the best talent, where often they’re limited to promoting from within. Political issues and financial limitations provide additional challenges in attracting the best-qualified candidates for college leadership. College presidents can overcome these challenges by encouraging employees to get additional experience outside of the college where they’ve spent their career.
Along the way, leadership candidates may also experience negative pressure from peers that don’t hold the same goals, ideals, hopes and dreams, especially in smaller schools.
Identifying Future Leaders
Future college leaders will demonstrate their abilities with dedication, talent, and a strong work ethic. They’ll be the people that go the extra mile to seek challenges and opportunities. These are the qualities to look for in candidates that have a good baseline of skills to pursue the personal and professional growth that’s necessary for a position in higher education leadership.
In developing talent for future positions, Dr. Mihel cautions college boards and college presidents to be honest about the real-life challenges and rewards of college leadership service. It’s important not to sugarcoat the complexities of the role or glorify the status of the position. Future leaders should be well aware that the expectations will be relentless and the demands daunting, even when times are good. Rewards will eventually come, but they may be preceded by many bleak, frustrating, and stressful days.
College Succession Planning Requires a Proactive Board of Directors
The needs of colleges will require certain types of leadership at various stages of their development. Future leaders will also need to consider the volatilities that are inherent in today’s world. Boards can tackle the challenges of acquiring quality leadership by staying current with the types of skill sets that the next leaders of the college will need to sustain a successful higher education environment. The time for recruitment is looming, which places an urgency on leadership development of the current talent pool. In summary, boards will need to take a proactive stance now to preserve their college’s future.