Published on 2014/04/14

Institutional Leadership: A Delicate Dance Between Corporate and Academic

Institutional Leadership: A Delicate Dance Between Corporate and Academic
Higher education is demanding leaders with greater business acumen than it has in the past, but these candidates are increasingly difficult to find.
There’s a delicate dance taking place within higher education today. Most everyone understands that the current financial model colleges and universities operate under is not sustainable, yet academics readily bristle at the notion they should become more businesslike and bottom-line oriented. If one looks at higher education as a business, the thinking goes, one sacrifices the fundamental mission of these institutions: to educate students and produce successful professionals, good citizens and enlightened individuals who continue to learn and grow throughout the course of their lives. There is great concern about the commoditization — some say Walmart-izationof higher education.

And yet it’s happening anyway, not necessarily because schools are treating students and parents like consumers, but because they themselves are behaving that way and expecting more for the price tag for education. Whether in anticipation or response, progressive institutions and their trustees are dispensing with delicacy and exercising competitive muscle – beyond athletics, that is – that until recently was considered the sole purview of private industry. In some cases, they have forged ahead and hired honest-to-goodness captains of industry to help lead their schools. This is not new. From the Ivy League to large public research universities, institutions have dipped into the corporate talent pool for leaders who, for better or worse, have brought approaches shaped in very different environments to higher education. The results to date have been mixed, but not without success in some quarters, leading other institutions and boards to wonder whether they might give it a go.

If higher education is to become more businesslike and entrepreneurial without losing its soul, the trick will be hiring leaders who understand both spheres, corporate and academic. My firm conducted a revealing study last year, comparing personality and leadership traits of corporate leaders to academic ones. What was most interesting about the findings was that the two cohorts of leaders were remarkably similar in most areas assessed; ambition, imaginativeness, altruism, prudence and so forth. In other words, leaders tend to be leaders, regardless of context.[1]

One of the most significant discrepancies between the two groups, however, was in regards to “commerce” orientation, which highlights an individual’s interest in money, profits, investment and business opportunities. Academic leaders scored much lower than their private-sector counterparts, suggesting they’re not predisposed to concern themselves with commercial matters.

One takeaway from this is that college and university boards would do well to conduct comprehensive assessments of presidential, provost and other leadership candidates as they consider hiring them. It is possible to find academic leaders with business savvy and entrepreneurial instincts (often hidden) without having to turn to the corporate sector for new executives.

By the same token, boards and search committees can vet candidates from private industry for their affinity to mission and cultural fit within academia. There are many leaders out there who straddle the academic/corporate fence — who can do the delicate dance — and will make great leaders in the coming years.

Another even more interesting development in the leadership recruiting realm is the competitive nature of the search itself. Just as institutions are finding the market for top faculty and students more competitive, the recruitment of key executives is also competitive. Private industry has long known that attracting top candidates requires a strategic, targeted, tailored approach that’s heavy on leadership cultivation. Higher education institutions would be wise to consider doing the same.

The multifaceted, talented, highly competent individuals who will help revamp the higher education business model (without losing sight of what makes higher learning truly special and life-altering) are hard to find and becoming increasingly challenging to recruit. Boards need to consider a range of strategies and tools to identify and attract the right leaders in this dynamic environment.

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[1] Witt/Keiffer, “Leadership Traits and Success in Higher Education,” 2013. Accessible at

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Readers Comments

Frank Gowen 2014/04/14 at 11:58 am

I may be going against the grain here, but I think the key issue is the need for better compensation for higher education executives. Now, people within the institution might complain that in a time of (often severe) budget cuts, increasingly precarious work for faculty/staff and rising tuition, executive compensation should be the last thing on people’s minds.

But I believe in order to woo the best to the higher ed field — to rescue it, even — you need to give the best. I can’t imagine a lot of corporate executives, who are used to operating in the private sector, would be particularly interested in joining this “delicate dance” of bureaucracy, government regulations and ongoing labor (union) issues without very generous compensation.

Xavier Fleming 2014/04/14 at 4:03 pm

To some extent, I agree with Frank. But I believe it goes beyond compensation. The reality is, many institutions can’t afford to offer the type of compensation I believe [above commenter] is talking about. If it’s not money and benefits that will draw the top executives, it will have to be some kind of appeal outlining the value of the institution’s academic mission and why x executive should be part of it.

Otto 2014/04/14 at 5:04 pm

I see the value in having an executive able to balance corporate and academic priorities. However, I think it’s hard to find a candidate today who demonstrates prowess in both. Rather than setting up this unrealistic expectation, boards might considering finding the best candidate with the potential for both, and use training to build up his or her skill set and fill any gaps.

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