The Case for Change

Academic leadership roles are complex and consuming. Candidate pools have shrunk. Search processes are challenging. But these shortcomings have created an opportunity to reimagine how post-secondary institutions approach their search for academic leaders. We invite you to be part of the conversation.

Academic leadership used to be a relatively straightforward proposition. Leaders were chosen in a collegial way and their role was essentially one of service to their colleagues. Responsibilities were mainly administrative in nature, leaving plenty of time for leaders to engage in the scholarly pursuits that were their true passion. Although academics may not have sought leadership roles, they were willing to assume them in support of one another. After completing a defined term, the leader would resume their academic work, giving their colleagues a chance to serve.

Today is different. Academic leadership roles have changed, interest in these roles has waned considerably amongst faculty members, and the process for defining and establishing mandates and attracting, assessing, and onboarding academic leaders has evolved.

Academic leadership roles today are far more complex than they used to be. Changes in government funding and direction, a globally competitive education sector, and evolving student and faculty expectations for leaders have resulted in new and broader responsibilities for academic leaders. Today’s presidents, provosts, deans, and chairs have accountability for everything from budgeting to fundraising to managing faculty relations and building community partnerships. This leaves little time, not to mention energy, for pursuits beyond their administrative duties. It is perhaps understandable that faculty, who were drawn to academia by their desire to freely pursue their scholarly interests, are increasingly reluctant to step away from their academic careers to assume leadership roles.

Hiring freezes in the post-secondary sector during the 1990s combined with retirement of faculty hired during the great growth period of the 1960s also means that there are fewer experienced faculty members available to assume leadership roles. The size of the pool of traditional candidates is further diminished due to the reluctance of faculty members to step into these roles, resulting in fewer potential applicants for academic leadership roles.

As post-secondary institutions have grown and changed, the academic executive search process has also evolved. Collective agreements and formalized policies and procedures have clarified and codified the search process and over time, amendments have been introduced to reflect shifting market conditions, enhance fairness and transparency, and achieve greater diversity in leadership. The result is that the current academic executive search processes reflect a combination of thoughtful design and reactionary modifications. While most academic leadership appointments are considered successful, search committees, candidates, and faculty members can all point to examples where the process didn’t serve the purpose well.

Here is what we are hearing from key stakeholders.

Search Committees Are Saying:

  • We understand the process for the search but are unable to successfully navigate that process.
  • We just don’t have the kind of time an academic search requires.
  • We don’t know how to address unconscious bias in the search process.
  • We want meaningful input from faculty but we don’t know how to effectively get it.
  • Our discussion, discernment, and decisions are limited by the pressure of tight timelines.
  • Declaring a failed search seems like the only option when we reach an impasse.

Candidates Are Saying:

  • I want more information about the REAL challenges in the role and the institution.
  • The interview didn’t allow enough time to fully respond to the committee’s questions, ask my questions, or get to know the institution’s priorities and culture.
  • Participating in a public process is too much risk for me, but I do want to meet more than the search committee to understand the position and the institution.
  • The search committee says it is interested in external candidates, but I suspect they will favour an internal candidate, so it’s not worth my time to apply.
  • The institution says it is open to someone with an atypical leadership path, but the application process doesn’t provide an opportunity for me to adequately explain my unique strengths.
  • I’m an international candidate and I’ve often been shortlisted — and then ruled out. It’s too much effort to risk being disappointed again.
  • I want feedback on my cover letter, my CV, my interview, my candidacy.

Faculty Are Saying:

  • We want greater transparency in the process and the decisions.
  • We don’t understand how or why the candidates that are presented or appointed are being selected.
  • We don’t trust that search firms are being objective in recruiting candidates.
  • The same few faculty members are called to serve on search committees as the voice of underrepresented groups — the emotional labour and time commitment for these faculty members is too much.

We believe that there are ways to improve how universities and colleges approach academic executive search that will both improve outcomes and respect that the fundamental nature of academic leadership remains the same: serving colleagues in a way that advances the institution and its scholarly contribution.

Over the past five years, KBRS has had the privilege of leading more than 150 leadership searches for universities and colleges nationwide. Based on that experience, and with ideas from our clients, candidates, Academic Advisory Committee, and our team of leadership development and coaching experts, we have reimagined how we support our academic executive search clients in the post-secondary sector. This is the first in a series of articles that will share our ideas on a reimagined search process. We invite you to be part of the conversation by sharing your insights and ideas.

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By:  


  • Anna Stuart, MBA, FCPA, FCMA, FCMC

    Managing Partner, KBRS
    A Managing Partner and co-owner of KBRS, Anna Stuart leads the firm's national academic executive search practice. With more than 20 years of experience leading executive searches and coaching and advising leaders in the university, college, independent school, health, and public sectors across Canada, Anna has established a strong reputation for helping organizations and individuals realize their goals.

Our team is committed to your academic leadership success.

KBRS (Knightsbridge Robertson Surrette) has been a strategic talent advisor to universities and colleges across Canada for more than 40 years. Our approach is shaped by four important principles: our deep understanding of academic leadership, our ability to facilitate strong committee decisions, our exceptional candidate care, and our commitment to successful long-term partnerships. Over the past five years, our firm has had the privilege of leading more than 150 leadership searches for universities and colleges nationwide.

One of Canada’s largest independently owned executive search and consulting firms, we pair the flexibility and focus of a boutique firm with the research and rigour expected of a multinational organization. Our team of partners and recruitment professionals focused on academic search are informed by an Academic Advisory Council of past-presidents of Canadian universities and colleges. We work in partnership with Lee Hecht Harrison Knightsbridge, which has 27 offices across Canada and is affiliated with Knightsbridge Amrop’s 80 offices in 50 countries, giving us both local presence and global reach.

Join the conversation

We are committed to working with our clients to improve the academic leadership search process ingrained in today’s institutions and know that change takes time and collaboration. We believe our efforts will be strengthened by the contribution of diverse perspectives, including yours.

We want to learn more about your experiences with the search process and to discuss ways to further improve the approach. What challenges are you facing? What successes have you had? What insights have you gained? We invite you to connect with our Academic Search Partners at Reimagining@KBRS.ca.

Read More

Explore other articles in our Reimagining the Academic Leader Search series below.