Jeffrey Harris, Founder and Managing Partner, Harris Search Associates

Jeffrey Harris is the founder and Managing Partner of Harris Search Associates where he leads the firm’s Higher Education, Academic Medicine, and Healthcare Administration practices. Founded in 1997 and modeled after the first premier management-consulting firms, Harris Search Associates is a leading global executive search and board advisory consulting firm focused solely on the recruitment of senior leadership talent to support the growth of the foremost universities, academic medical centers, medical schools, research institutions, and healthcare enterprises driving global innovation and discovery. Based in Columbus, Ohio, and with regional offices in San Francisco and Dallas, the firm has successfully completed over 900 assignments. Jeffrey leads a diverse, seasoned team of over 20 seasoned consultants and staff who combine the recruiting and leadership assessment expertise from the largest, most well-recognized retained search organizations with highly respected, former university Presidents, Provosts, Deans, Vice Presidents, and senior administrators from across the country.  


American colleges and universities are widely recognized as among the best in the world admired for their contributions to transformative education, research, and discovery. Serving as president of the nation’s higher education institutions is regarded as one of the most prestigious roles in American society, and yet also is increasingly complex, highly scrutinized, and more challenging than ever. According to a recent study by the American Council on Education (ACE), the nation’s leading colleges and universities will soon face significant turnover at the presidential level due to a combination of aging presidents and waning interest to assume the role of natural successors such as chief academic officers. Furthermore, presidential tenures now average less than 6 years and more than half (55%) of presidents expect to leave the position within the next 5 years. Worse yet, as presidents retire, resign, or move on to other institutions, disruptive turnover of leadership at multiple levels regularly follows, undermining institutional continuity which adds to the challenges of the strategic expansion of the pipelines and pathways of the next generation of presidents. As a result, the pool of potential aspiring presidents and as well as women and individuals from underrepresented groups must be encouraged to enter the pipeline sooner to become part of the plan for continued institutional success across the nation. 

Preparation and Pathways to the Presidency 

Over the years governing boards as well as current presidents themselves have expressed concerns regarding the predictive relationship between the preparation of university president candidates, success while in the position, and resulting tenure. From the existing research however, it appears that many new presidents are unprepared for their new role despite leadership development efforts, suggesting that current academic pathways do not always sufficiently prepare individuals for the demands of the position. The result has become an increased onus on Boards of Trustees with the selection, assessment, and hiring of first-time presidents often despite any formal training on best practices to do so. As such, additional knowledge regarding various ideal pathways to a presidency is necessary to ensure that when Boards of Trustees undertake time-intensive, costly presidential searches, the most robust possible pool of candidates will be considered, and the experience of candidates and institutional needs will be aligned. Of equal importance, is the development of pipelines and preparation of the next generation of presidential talent including women and those from underrepresented groups that mirror the student populations being served. 

Identifying Institutional Fit and Ideal Experiential Preparation 

Although higher education is filled with leadership development programs for administrators to engage in during their careers, few are tailored specifically to preparing, mentoring, and developing individuals for the role of president. Even fewer focus on the creation of pipelines for women and from underrepresented groups which currently represent less than one-third of the presidencies across the country. Most of the executive leadership development programs are broad in the audience and focus on preparing individuals for senior administrative roles at the college or university rather than the presidency. Programs that do focus specifically on the presidency tend to follow two formats: those focused on navigating the application process for the presidency or those aimed at individuals once they have been selected as president. Similarly, research suggests that those who aspire to assume the role for the first time are frequently unclear on the expectations and outcomes they will be charged to deliver by the Boards of Trustees or the support that will require to ensure a successful tenure. 

How Boards Can Prepare

Preparing to respond to inevitable presidential turnover is among a college or university governing board’s primary responsibilities. Indeed, the case can be made that Boards of Trustees should engage in proactive leadership development and succession planning at all levels as a matter of policy and routine well before needs arise. However, when a presidential search becomes a necessity, Boards of Trustees would benefit from the creation of an inventory of ideal attributes and experiential predictors to support the attraction of candidates and assessment of goodness of fit. The creation of such an evidence-based portfolio will assist Boards of Trustees to recruit individuals that meet the institutional mission for each institution at a given time and serve as a basis for the onboarding plan and metrics for evaluation for the incoming president, improving the likelihood of a lengthy tenure and institutional success. Furthermore, the development of a series of artifacts will also provide the basis for short, medium, and long-term professional development programs to ensure a sufficient pipeline and preparation for the next generation of presidents.

Ensuring Future Pipelines, Preparation, and Pathways to the Presidency 

Colleges and universities across the country continue to face disruption as presidents retire, tenures decline, and interest to pursue the role wains. The result will soon be a significant deficit of presidentially prepared individuals to lead the nation’s leading institutions of higher learning. Critical to meeting these profound challenges will be the strategic development of the pipelines, preparation, and pathways of the next generation of college and university presidents, to ensure they continue to serve as the primary vehicle for the training future educators, scientists, inventors, and leaders while remaining as critical institutions for the health, security, and prosperity of the country.

Content Disclaimer

Related Articles