Closing the Gap: Leadership Development and Succession Planning in Public Higher Education

April 2016
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Given the many challenges higher education faces today, visionary leadership in the sector has never been more imperative. Yet little has been done to define and develop the competencies public university presidents need.


Researchers at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU), supported by a grant from the TIAA Institute, sought to derive a deeper understanding of the competencies required of public university leaders. They also wanted to explore how common practices used in the private sector for leadership development and succession planning—particularly assessment center methodology—might be applied in academia. To examine these issues, the research team conducted a thorough review of the literature, surveyed public university leaders and system heads, and convened a planning symposium.

Key Insights
Topics addressed in most higher education leadership development programs are relatively similar, as is the pedagogy the programs employ.
Assessment center methodology is rarely used in higher education, though some experts think this approach offers a promising way to develop and select future leaders.
Successful heads of public universities share 13 common traits, including understanding the academic environment, listening skills, strong decision making and communications skills, resilience, and the ability to develop effective teams.
Leadership competencies should be linked to improving institutional effectiveness and student success.

The researchers reviewed the literature on best practices in leadership and succession planning in higher education, including studying leadership development programs used by leaders and would-be leaders at a variety of public colleges and universities. They then interviewed 22 successful university presidents (including 17 AASCU board members and 5 chancellors, one of whom also serves on the AASCU board) to develop a profile of the skills, knowledge, experiences and personal characteristics needed for success at public universities. Finally, AASCU, along with the Center for Leadership Assessment at the University of California, San Diego, USA Funds and the TIAA Institute, in August 2015 convened a symposium with higher education leaders, search consultants and experts in assessment center methodology.