The Future of Higher Education Leadership

By Melissa Trotta, AGB Search September 14, 2021 September 21st, 2021 Blog Post

The critical need to effectively prepare higher education leaders for the presidency has been surfacing for quite some time. The 2017 American College President Study, conducted by the American Council on Education (ACE), found that 54 percent of presidents or chancellors planned to leave their current positions within the next five years. In addition, the average tenure of college presidents in their current positions was 6.5 years in 2016, down from about seven years in 2011 and an average of 8.5 years in 2006. These findings suggest that a larger pool of qualified leaders is needed at more institutions of higher education every year.

A deeper dive into the issue reveals a lack of diversity in the upper ranks of higher education leadership. Only 8 percent of college presidents are Black, and a mere 4 percent are Latino. In addition, the ACE report shows women comprise less than one-third of college presidents; women of color comprise only 5 percent.

In an op-ed in Diverse Issues in Higher Education, Walter M. Kimbrough, PhD, president of Dillard University, shares an interesting perspective about what it takes to succeed as the president of an HBCU. Based on an examination of HBCU presidencies from 2005 to 2014, Kimbrough asserts that the most successful HBCU presidents are appointed earlier in their careers, and they hail from the academic side of higher education. These findings may not necessarily be surprising, but they do point to the need to clarify what the path might look like for emerging professionals and to begin cultivating leadership capabilities sooner rather than later.

COVID-19 has created even more urgency in preparing the next generation of college presidents. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education study “On the Verge of Burnout,” more than half of faculty at higher education institutions have seriously considered either changing careers or retiring early in the wake of the pandemic. Considering the presidential pipeline is often fed from the academic career path, it is important to think about addressing this and other potential events that might adversely affect higher education tenure and career choices.

What does this mean for the future of higher education leadership, and specifically the presidency? AGB and AGB Search founded the AGB Institute for Leadership & Governance in Higher Education to address these and other challenges facing the industry. The Institute is based on five primary concepts that are crucial for future higher education leaders:

Advance Adaptive Leadership—Recognize the changing trends within higher education and in those that affect the sector, and be prepared to act.

Enable Systems Thinking—Understand the whole as greater than the sum of its parts and identify the interconnected nature of problems, people, and performance.

Strengthen Cultural Intelligence—Develop the skills that enable leaders to successfully work with and across various cultures, as well as to be champions for mutual respect and belonging on campus.

Pursue Continuous Improvement—See organizations as continuing learning experiments, where each effort is undertaken in a way that the leader is willing to celebrate successes and learn from failures.

Execute Effective Shared Governance—Engage multiple stakeholders, both internal and external, in institutional planning and decision-making.

The paradigm for preparing leaders has to shift to successfully usher institutions into the future, with the ultimate focus on student success. This preparation includes ensuring that leaders are well-versed in multiple facets of the sector, including trends in student enrollment and retention, finances and fundraising, data analysis and action planning, and equity, among others. It is also imperative that those from diverse backgrounds have access to training and advancement opportunities that will support and encourage this professional trajectory.

AGB Institute for Leadership & Governance cohort members benefit from having access to an array of top-tier speakers, including current and former presidents, trustees, search consultants, and more. The expertise these experts bring from their varied positions enables the Institute’s participants to learn from others while developing their own theory of leadership. And the relationships that the Institute team builds with cohort members endures long after graduation, ensuring that these future presidents have ongoing support and mentorship on their journey.

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Melissa Trotta, PhD, is the associate managing principal at AGB Search.

With Thanks to AGB Sustaining Champion:  AGB Search

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Melissa Trotta
Associate Managing Principal
AGB Search