While colleges and universities have long had enrollment management strategies for recruiting, enrolling, and retaining students, many lack a similar “talent management strategy” that is just as critical to the institution. Even where there has been such an approach, faculty are seen as the “talent” on campuses while staff are seen as replaceable. But even faculty recruiting, retention, and engagement is suffering. Only 22% of provosts agree that their institution “very effectively” recruits and retains talented faculty. Movement away from the traditional tenure model continues, with half of institutions reporting they have replaced tenure-eligible positions with contingent faculty appointments (compared to just 17% of the sector in 2004).3
Both faculty and staff want colleges to stop making them choose between a commitment to students and their own careers and needs of their families.
Among the faculty ranks, a hierarchy of importance exists—separating senior and tenured faculty from junior faculty and adjuncts at a time when colleges and universities are emphasizing diversity, equity, and inclusion. Many faculty feel that universities have evolved in ways that have pulled them away from their core mission of working with students and conducting research to better society. They’re spending more time dealing with research compliance, managing procurements, navigating mental health challenges, and contending with outdated administrative processes and technology systems. Higher education is no longer distinctive; the private sector now provides a range of opportunities for knowledge workers seeking to make an impact in their field and within research-driven missions, all with promises of state-of-the-art labs and access to funding with fewer strings attached and less bureaucracy.
On top of all of these, the C-suite on campuses has a revolving door, and that’s particularly true of presidents where turnover continues at an unprecedented rate. While burnout from navigating the unprecedented challenges brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic is certainly driving retirements, the extreme pressures of the job are reducing the number of qualified leaders willing to step into this role. Coupled with a limited pipeline of talent due to the lack of succession planning and leadership cultivation at many higher education institutions, and the fact that over 80% of presidents historically hail from within higher education (a figure that has not changed in decades), the gaps in the top role are growing more pressing.4
Given the top position in higher education is unique—more akin to a CEO of a public company but with many of the elements of a politician—finding and preparing future leaders within the academy are vital to the long-term health of the institution and to higher education system. Until trustees dedicate time and attention to creating meaningful succession and contingency plans, the pervasive gaps in leadership will likely continue to impede an institution's ability to develop a meaningful talent strategy or make progress on the difficult path to operating model changes.
In the end, colleges and universities are knowledge organizations predicated on the idea of human development. Now they need to start designing an employee experience that matches the time, effort, and energy that they have put into the student experience. Doing so is critical not only for renewing the faculty and staff, but also for fueling the pipeline to senior leadership positions on campuses.