Profiles in Higher Education Leadership | What Might the Future Hold?

16 Dec 2020

Profiles in Higher Education Leadership | What Might the Future Hold?


The COVID pandemic has disrupted every aspect of American higher education—in-person teaching and learning, residential life, intercollegiate athletics, research collaboration, and financial stability (at least in the short run)—and created a pressing need for universities and colleges to re-think and reshape their business model.
Complicating the disruptions from COVID are the unrest in and uncertainty about the ecosystem for social justice, waning public support, operational overload from rapid changes, and the introduction of more technology into all aspects of teaching, learning, research, and service.

The Future

At this juncture, one can only speculate about the higher education landscape going forward. That said, there are several possibilities, if not probabilities. It seems safe to assume that technology will continue to significantly reshape teaching and learning, as well as internal communications with faculty, students, staff, and external stakeholders. An increasing proportion of instruction is likely to be remote, offering some institutions the opportunity to increase enrollment, perhaps substantially, by widening and deepening access. Climate change will become more pressing in a wide variety of ways. Certainly social justice will remain a central focus, interest in lifelong learning will grow, and redesign of business operations to address those issues and many others will accelerate.

Public perceptions of and trust in higher education may improve as the sector successfully navigates the choppy waters ahead. Other players, including significant private sector entities, will move into and disrupt the sector and are likely to be a paramount challenge to current institutional models and long-standing educational cultural assumptions.
Pricing pressures will surely continue and may worsen, depending on whether remote instruction proves to be successful. Research collaboration will most likely deepen and expand. Philanthropic support may be hindered by both the recession and its aftermath as well as longer term perpsective about the value of higher education. Any rebooting of substantial philanthropy may be limited to a minority of institutions, possibly with greater, more directive donor restrictions. Public financial support may decline as state governments deal with the recession and changing priorities.

The future for aspiring and current higher education leadership will not be for the faint of heart. These jobs were tough before COVID and have been close to impossible during the pandemic; they will certainly continue to be staggeringly complex and demanding post coronavirus.

A Hypothesis

The higher education landscape post-COVID is likely to cluster in three institutional groupings that touch and overlap with one another. We offer both predictions and questions about the leadership of these three widely recognized clusters. We hope our perspective will be a useful construct for selecting, developing, coaching, advising, and supporting the executive and academic leaders who will be entrusted with leading institutions in continuingly complex, unpredictable, and uncharted waters.

At the Top

In the current environment, institutions with the strongest position are those with high academic quality, excellent student engagement/support, financial strength, and strong and distinctive brands. By brand strength, we mean the market perception of value for and by faculty, students, parents, alumni, and donors that is associated with the quality of education, student experience, student preparation for work, alumni interest and support, and creation of new knowledge. Athletic prowess, the number of Nobel Laureates, and the quality of community are also relevant.

Of the over 4,000 colleges and universities in the U.S., this cluster has the fewest members, most of which are the top research universities and the highest-ranked colleges. These institutions will need to adapt and enhance hyrid teaching/learning, grow online instruction, and develop courses and certificate/degree programs to attract new and to retain current student populations. Post-COVID, they are likely to establish/reestablish financial stability more quickly and have the institutional capability to experiment, innovate, and adjust business models. They have—or will build—the research chops to continue to increase knowledge, lead technological innovation, and expand understanding of history, mankind, and the arts. These institutions will also continue to be significant drivers of economic and social progress. And they will increasingly be global in scale, culture, and influence. We expect it is likely that with the combination of prestige, academic excellence, superior services for students, faculty and administrators they will be able to continue to attract the best students, faculty, and staff and serious philanthropic support .

In the Middle

Tracking behind this group is what we term the dangerous middle ground. These are the institutions with high price tags (sticker and net) relative to perceived market value. Their endowments are middling to weak on a per student basis. They may offer good quality, some institutional prestige, often strong alumni networks, and good employment options for graduates. To preserve or enhance net operating income, they may need to reduce time on campus to attract new student populations and increasingly rely on online teaching, shrink the armamentarium of student services and activities, eliminate some curricular offerings -- all leading to the high possibility and danger of losing their distinctiveness.

Institutions that are mostly tuition-dependent are most certainly in this subgroup as are institutions that are not particularly distinctive, well-branded, or well-known. Does this group run the risk of slowly facing decline in quality, attractiveness, and vitality? Will they become sufficiently nimble, innovative, and experimental? Will they find alternative sources of revenue rather than simply cutting expenses, explore meaningful relationships with other institutions or for-profits moving into the higher education space? Will they pivot to providing life-long education?

The Third Group

Competing with colleges and universities in the dangerous middle will be institutions and new entrants with easy access and low price-points. Many of these institutions have a high proportion of low income, first-generation, and under-represented student populations, many of whom are working while in school. These institutions will continue to attract students who do not see value in costly tuition for either in-person or online instruction. A driving motivator among these students will certainly be successful job placement and attractive income upon graduation/program completion.

These institutions will be nipping at the heels of some of those in the dangerous middle, particularly if they find ways of innovating, diversifying their revenue streams, and making smart strategic alliances. Many will also be recognized for training graduates for immediate jobs without high student debt loads. Changing public and social policy may favor institutions that produce, at low public investment, diverse, well-qualified graduates able to fill well-paying jobs upon commencement. Will this group be able to attract strong, flexible leaders who are excited by the challenges of educating highly diverse student bodies? Will these institutions develop strong relationships with business sectors that need the kinds of students they graduate? Will these institutions effectively make the case that they are primary vehicles for upward social and economic mobility during a time of unparalleled social and economic tensions?

A Changing Leadership Paradigm

The massive shifts underway demand a new look at future leadership profiles in higher education. Across the market segments we describe there is and will continue to be a demand for strategic agility, innovative thinking and acting, and thoughtful transparency. Pressures on leadership will continue to increase, and achieving strong results and enhancing transparency will be imperative.

Leaders will need to demonstrate a commitment to mission, have prior successful strategic leadership in complex organizations, be of impeccable integrity, and have the experience and ability to lead their boards in anticipating and meeting external challenges. They must educate their boards about how different higher education has become and, in particular, how different higher education is than when they were undergraduates. An increasing imperative will be a commitment to true, demonstrable progress to achieving meaningful social and environmental justice.

For the schools in “the top” category we expect that most presidents will follow a traditional pathway to the top position. An early career commitment to the academy, a distinguished research and publication record, growing administrative responsibilities and experience, and solid fundraising success are distinguishing characteristics. While some exceptions may prove the rule, this pattern will continue to hold for a significant number of institutions in this group.

There is likely to be a plentiful number of individuals who have followed these traditional pathways and are interested in leading these institutions. There will certainly be heightened interest and urgency in appointing an increasing number of women and members of underrepresented groups (recent outstanding examples include Darryll Pines, Neville Pinto, Suzanne Rivera, and David Wu ). While the boards of these institutions know that the bedrock quality, institutional distinctiveness and quality, and financial resources will continue to be of paramount importance, they also know—or should know—that the future of higher education will be quite different from the recent past.

However, we believe some of these institutions will encourage (or require) their leaders to break the boundaries of tradition and explore ways to leverage their strategic positions and resources to establish a footprint in new ventures that will expand their reach, impact, and reputation. To plan and execute necessary strategic changes, these leaders will need strong financial skills and effective communication capabilities—especially with social media—to build support for the changes with key internal and external stakeholders. To find these skills, boards may lean towards leaders who bring both the traditional academic experience and board or executive experience in the commercial sector.

These new leaders are likely move into the presidential arena through a variety of pathways, including but not limited to the traditional academic route. Commercial sector experience of some sort, as well as international experience and understanding, are likely to become a prerequisite in selecting leaders. There are already examples of successful presidents who first achieved success in the domestic or international commercial or government world before entering higher education, such as Rebecca Blank, Mitch Daniels, Barry Mills, and Janet Napolitano.

We expect this pathway to be well used in the future.

The demand for innovation and new leadership paradigms will be acute for the insitutions in the dangerous middle ground. The individuals tapped to lead these schools will display energy, stamina, and a lust for challenges, both strategic and operational. They will understand that each institution will need to establish its own competitive advantage. They will need to be adept at generating ideas, exploring options, and creating new possibilities—while meaningfully engaging the broader campus community in thinking about and adopting new approaches.

These leaders will demonstrate their capabilities and value by:

  • Establishing new paradigms of place regarding instruction, intimacy, and connectivity,
  • Reimagining the use of physical space,
  • Embedding technology and AI thoughtfully and strategically throughout their institutions,
  • Enhancing the quality of student experience whether on campus, remote, or hybrid,
  • Reshaping traditional financial structures in imaginative, thoughtful, and creative ways,
  • Working closely and effectively with a broad group of other institutions—community organizations, school systems, governments, businesses, and civic groups—to meet the changing needs of students, families, and communities, and
  • Educating the broader public, including government and business, about the importance of higher education for the health and resiliency of democracy.

Failure to do so will require leaders to manage decline as gracefully as possible.

Some of the same skill set demanded for institutions in the dangerous middle will benefit institutions/programs in the easy access/low price sector. We expect the career pathway to top leadership roles will include individuals who have successfully dealt with market forces that increase revenues and who anticipate and respond quickly to market dynamics. This group of organizations will benefit from leaders who are enterprising, adaptive, and forward-thinking, able to stimulate enrollment growth, expand/adapt programs and degrees/certificates, and “see around the corner” before new opportunities proclaim their presence. Connectivity to local markets and to the individual in a bespoke way will be imperative. Balancing enrollment and revenue with useful skills training will be essential. Command of online learning and job preparation will be mandatory. We most likely will see a resurgence or a new version of the community college or trade school.


As Yogi Berra observed...“the future ain’t what it used to be.”

Synthesizing the foregoing suggests a few questions:

  • Stasis is dangerous. How much did it contribute to the weaknesses the COVID pandemic has exposed?
  • Identifying opportunities is critical, and first movers will often establish position and strength hard to overtake, even for those with the strongest and most distinctive reputations and most robust balance sheets. Will prestige be overtaken by commercial sensibilities?
  • An increase in women and members of underrepresented groups in top leadership roles is overdue and essential. Will it happen quickly and correctly, or will it happen in a reactionary and superficial way?
  • An increasing number of leaders from outside traditional higher education career paths could assume top leadership roles, including individuals from outside of higher education altogether. Is the day near when we will see on a much broader scale examples of executive and academic leadership?

Most of all, it is critical that future higher education leaders share with current and past leaders a reverence for higher education, a reverence so strong that they will change their own institutions as radically as required to preserve and enhance the mission of teaching, learning, and service, despite the pressures of finance, demographics, technology, and pandemics. The quality of character is essential.

There is no question that the pressures of COVID and the associated economic distress will determine the contours of future leadership profiles in higher education. These profiles at a majority of institutions will need to be different from those in the past few decades. Is the introspection and conviction, in general, and at the Board level in particular, available to make the shift?