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The Talent You Need for Crisis Leadership in Higher Ed

Higher education has faced numerous challenges, from financial shifts to declining enrollment. When these little challenges become a crisis, having exemplary leadership is critical for turning things around. What does crisis leadership really mean in higher education today?


Financial Challenges in Higher Education

Today’s higher education landscape is fraught with issues from both the student side and staffing side.

Let’s start with the most obvious: dropping enrollment. Postsecondary education has been seeing a decline for years, and the stresses of the past few years have only exacerbated the problems. Consider these statistics from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center:

  • Total postsecondary enrollment, which includes both undergraduate and graduate students, fell a further 4.1% in spring 2022 as compared to spring 2021. The drop came on top of a 3.5% drop in spring 2021, for a total two-year decline of 7.4%, or nearly 1.3 million students since spring 2020.
  • Undergraduate enrollment accounts for most of this decline, falling 4.7% from spring 2021.
  • Overall, the undergraduate student body is now 9.4% smaller than before the pandemic (nearly 1.4 million students).
  • Public sector institutions (two- and four-year colleges combined), which represented 71% of all students in spring 2022, saw the most significant drop, at 5%. Community colleges dropped 7.8%.

Financial issues have been a major factor in these declines. In a 2021 CNBC report, 74% of college and university representatives said that their school’s most significant challenge was financial constraints. Smaller institutions are being hit even harder: 79% of schools with under 5,000 students reported financial issues as their top challenge, compared to 52% of schools with over 30,000 students enrolled. Sixty percent of all respondents also reported feeling “very concerned” about their overall financial situation and stability.

Students also struggle with financial woes, although new federal guidelines may make a dent there. In August, the White House announced a plan for student loan reform, including:

  • Up to $10,000 in student debt cancellation for non-Pell Grant recipients for borrowers with income under $125,000.
  • Up to $20,000 in student debt cancellation for Pell Grant recipients for borrowers with income under $125,000.
  • Reducing and capping monthly loan payments for undergraduate loans.
  • Revising income-based repayment plans to improve affordability, cover interest, and more.
  • Monitoring tuition rate hikes.

For colleges and universities, these changes may help bring more students through their doors – but they also present new financial realities to navigate, and strong leadership will make all the difference.


Staffing Shortages Hit Higher Education

Faculty and staff in higher ed are not immune to the “Great Resignation,” either. In 2021, approximately 47 million Americans left their jobs for multiple reasons. Now, colleges and universities face staffing shortages and a challenging cycle. Add long-term concerns about things like health, wellness, diversity, and inclusion, some may say this constitutes a “crisis” for higher education.

In higher education, as in many other fields, there has been a renewed focus on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI). Research from Gartner revealed the true benefit (or cost) of such a focus. Organizations with sustainable DEI initiatives have a 20% increase in inclusion, leading to higher performance and retention rates.


Crisis Leadership in 2022

In moments of difficulty, the best leaders are the ones who are flexible enough to work with issues as they arise, while keeping an eye on the bigger picture and the organization’s overall priorities.

Harvard Business Review suggests there are two components to truly effective crisis leadership: “containing” and “holding.”

“Holding” is a psychological term describing the ability of authority figures to reassure people and ensure they’re in the loop. “Containing” is a vital part of that skill set: keeping everyone calm and informed while clarifying the path forward. Leaders with these skills are particularly effective at keeping teams united and focused during a crisis.

This leadership style can help a college or university excel even during relatively calm times. After all, we should never underestimate the power of being prepared! Ruben Moreno, Founding Partner and Higher Education Practice Leader at Blue Rock Search, suggests that leaders build their planning around three principal areas: the employee value proposition, reboarding current employees, and investing in a culture where belonging plays a starring role.


Hiring Crisis Leaders

 It’s easy to think of “crisis leadership” as a crisis led by leaders who make big statements and sweeping gestures about the future of their institution. However, qualities such as stability, flexibility, and creativity are the ones that define a crisis leader.

Higher education is constantly evolving. Enrollment fluctuates based on several intersecting factors, financial concerns affecting every side of the process, and students and faculty that are shifting their priorities when looking for a “home.” Active crisis or not, having adaptable, thoughtful leadership in place is crucial to ensuring that your college or university can keep up with the changes happening in higher education. A focus on stability, active listening, and balancing competing needs can help bring any institution through a crisis and back to the business of providing excellent education.


By Ruben Moreno


About the Author

After a 25-year career in Corporate Human Resources and HR Executive Search, Ruben and his two partners co-founded Blue Rock Search based on a simple but ambitious vision of creating a firm that would “Change Lives and Organizations One Relationship at a Time.” Ruben leads the Blue Rock HR Executive Search and Higher Education Executive Search practice specializing in identifying, assessing, recruiting, and onboarding key executives in HR, Diversity, Enrollment, Student Affairs, and Advancement. Ruben is a thought leader who has helped place hundreds of executives. His clients consider him a trusted partner who takes the time to understand their organization and add value beyond executive search.


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