US universities anticipating major leadership turnover post-Covid

Easing of pandemic a moment for many campus presidents to take a break and others to be pushed out

July 21, 2021
Medical staff wearing protective suits ride down an escalator for Leadership turnover rate could double
Source: Getty

US universities are showing signs of heavy leadership turnover that is expected to explode in the coming year as institutions recover from the pandemic and reassess, recruitment experts said.

“This is the time to do it,” said Shelli Herman, president and founder of Shelli Herman and Associates, an executive search firm in Los Angeles. “If people were thinking: ‘There is a glimmer in my mind that I might retire in two or three years,’ they’re now saying: ‘Yeah, I’m out.’”

As many as half of US institutions could see leadership changes in the coming year or so, said Alan Medders, owner of Higher Education Leadership Search, based in Alabama.

It largely reflected the stress of heading a college during the Covid pandemic, said Dr Medders, a former chief advancement officer at Columbus State University and the University of North Alabama.

“I called the Covid years kind of like dog life – two Covid years is kind of like seven years of dog life in higher ed,” he said.

At the moment, said Dr Medders and others involved in executive searches in US higher education, turnover is stagnant, reflecting campuses being largely reluctant to make major changes during the pandemic.

But such experts are already having conversations with institutional administrators that suggest that the hesitation is about to end in a dramatic way. Some high-profile early signs include Amy Gutmann, who is ending a 17-year tenure as president of the University of Pennsylvania.

In an average pre-pandemic year, Dr Medders said, US higher education sees about 10 per cent of campus leaders retire, 10 per cent move to another institution, and 10 per cent leave academia altogether.

“From what we’re sensing and hearing right now, it could be as high as 50 to 60 per cent next year” in terms of total departures, he said.

Many of those will be leaders deciding that they have had enough of the pressure, Dr Medders said. Others will involve institutional boards not happy with how their leadership handled the moment of crisis.

The pandemic revealed leaders who have the ability to adjust quickly to major changes, he said.

“People who cannot adjust to that fluidity at a quicker pace – that kind of got tested last year,” Dr Medders said. “And there’s been a number of people who didn’t pass that test or are not passing that test, and there’s going to be a lot of people who, unfortunately, don’t make it through next year.”

The high rate of turnover also presents a major opportunity for US higher education to improve racial and gender diversity in its leadership ranks. Institutions seemed very attentive to that need, in terms of demanding that search firms produce diverse candidate fields, experts said.

“If we’re really serious about this work,” Ms Herman said, “now is the time to get all of this right.”

Still, that outcome was not necessarily a sure thing in many cases, Dr Medders said.

“Female candidates are getting selected at a greater pace now, and I’m hoping minority candidates begin to find that footing soon in those selections,” he said.

“A lot of it sometimes just comes down to fit. Like, can we see this person working here and being here and staying here? That’s becoming more of the word.”

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Leadership turnover rate could double

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