Published on 2016/07/06

Trends Shaping Higher Education and What They Mean for Leadership

The EvoLLLution | Trends Shaping Higher Education and What They Mean for Leadership
The higher education industry is in a state of significant transformation and leaders need to be aware of, and adapting to, those shifts in order to ensure the long-term viability and success of their colleges and universities.

Non-traditional. The word encapsulates many of the leadership trends I’ve been hearing about from administrators across higher education. As we all know, colleges and universities face dramatic change in everything from technology to curricula to student affairs, even as they struggle with tighter budgets and stiffer competition. Those institutions willing to step out of the traditional higher education mold and innovate are among those that have the best shot at staying viable well into the future.

In our executive search engagements, colleagues and I are finding that new types of leaders with non-traditional skills and competencies are in demand. What does “non-traditional” mean in this context? It varies, really, but often it suggests a leader focused more on future possibilities than upon what has worked in the past. It suggests someone willing to do things differently, often from outside academia.

Thus, at a time when colleges and universities must reinvent themselves to avoid becoming antiquated, allow me to offer five innovative trends that are shaping academic leadership, and thoughts about the implications of each:

1. The Ubiquity of Data:

Data doesn’t have to be dry, static bits of information, and higher education leaders are becoming increasingly aware of how data can inform their actions, even in real time, and how to use data to their (or their institutions’) strategic advantage. Education leaders are used to considering data from a macro level, but now it is providing insight into specific departments, trends, or behaviors. Strategic data analysis, for example, helps universities intervene earlier to support students who aren’t attending class, raise financial red flags, or anticipate inequalities in future admission classes.

Leadership Implication: Institutions are looking to recruit “data people”—not just IT and analytical specialists but more generally leaders who show an affinity for using data to inform their decisions and leveraging information to solve problems.

2. The Rise of RCM:

Many universities are turning toward Responsibility Centered Management (RCM) to reduce costs, foster budget efficiencies and transparency, and encourage greater financial authority and accountability within campus units. (The term Revenue Centered Management is also used.) Turning away from a more centralized system of control can feel risky, but the payoffs are clear. Employees across schools and colleges participate more frequently in revenue-enhancing initiatives such as programmatic innovation or student retention when the rewards for doing so are direct and visible.

Leadership Implication: Academic institutions will favor and recruit leaders who have experience in an RCM environment and are comfortable taking financial responsibility for their area of oversight.

 3. A Revolution in Learning Spaces:

Aging warehouses converted into idea incubators, flexible learning spaces shared by departments, reconfigurable libraries — even the physical look of higher learning is straying from tradition. Institutions are renovating or creating new spaces that attract an increasingly diverse and dynamic student population and meet the needs of employers seeking flexible, work-ready graduates. Of course, there are learning environments that require no physical structure. As online learning grows exponentially, most colleges and universities are compelled to rethink their approaches to teaching and learning.

Leadership Implication: Institutions are creating places of learning that emphasize collaboration, ingenuity, even play. Leaders who can demonstrate a comfort with non-traditional learning environments and an ability to inspire others toward “outside the box” approaches will be actively recruited.

4. New Methods of Recruitment:

As noted, institutions seek leaders who can serve as visionaries, encourage risk-taking, and welcome ambiguity. Boards, presidents and search committees, however, can often be conservative in hiring practices. One way of mitigating hiring risk is through personality- and behavior-based leadership assessments and in-depth interviewing techniques, which look at candidates’ strengths, challenges, and leadership tendencies under given conditions. These methods can also gauge a candidate’s cultural fit to an institution.

Leadership Implication: Successful candidates will need a solid track record, but also know their own strengths (to leverage) and limitations (to address) in the future. Leaders need not be perfect but rather self-aware so that they can meet changing job goals while getting support in areas of need.

5. Welcome Mats for Diverse Leaders:

As higher learning institutions pursue non-traditional ways of learning, teaching and managing, opportunities for administrators from diverse backgrounds and with new ideas will continue to open up. Women leaders and people of color continue to be in demand. However, we see many diversity candidates hesitate to apply to campuses where there is not a demonstrable commitment to diverse student bodies, faculty bodies and leadership.

Leadership Implication: Institutions must recognize that successfully recruiting and retaining future leaders will greatly depend upon the campus environment and the surrounding leadership context. Colleges and universities that are truly progressive and inclusive of diverse students, staff, and leaders will attract top leadership candidates.

These are just some prominent trends shaping academia and its leadership. In order for higher learning institutions to remain vital, addressing these issues is mandatory, not optional. Change will come to those colleges and universities whose administrators are ready for it.

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