The Higher Ed Workplace Blog

Let’s Stop Calling It Succession Planning

Another provost leaves after just three years — which by the way is the median tenure for provosts — and we open yet another search. We appoint an interim (probably the same person who served as interim during the last search), bring in another search firm, dust off the job description we used just a few years ago, and appoint another search committee. We conclude the search by selecting an external candidate. Surely that person will bring that extra spark that we just didn’t see in the internal candidates. Or maybe no one internally wanted the job.

This is just one challenge we have created by our lack of focus on not just succession planning, but sustainability and the ultimate impact of our colleges and universities. Frequent turnover is a problem for the entire organization, and it impacts our ability to gain momentum and make progress. On the other hand, our lack of planning for anticipated turnover is also a problem that must be addressed. Let’s take a quick tour of campus and highlight some of the most pressing challenges.

Executive Leadership Positions

The median age of our executive leaders (presidents, provosts and other VP-level positions) is 60. Who on your campus is interested, and has the potential, to be successful in these roles? Are there colleagues who could excel in these roles with the right encouragement and support? Instead of anticipating that vacant roles will always need to be filled by external candidates, can we not find internal candidates who are already invested in the mission, the culture and the community? If the answer to this question is no, we need to assess our hiring practices and our commitment to the learning and development of our faculty and administrative department heads.

Chief Human Resources Officers

The median age of chief HR officers is 55. I know you know the math, but that means that half of CHROs are over the age of 55. The uptick in postings to CUPA-HR’s JobLine underscores the exodus/retirement of many of our colleagues. I have watched with significant interest as several of these jobs have had failed searches. It’s also been interesting to receive the frequent calls from recruiters, desperate to create a viable pool of strong candidates. For the CHROs who are reading this, who on your team would be a strong candidate to be your successor? If the answer is no one, then I encourage you to take a step back and assess your own hiring and development practices for your team. For the aspiring CHROs who are reading this, what are your skill and competency gaps? Does your CHRO know of your interest in closing those gaps?


The most often overlooked, and underappreciated, employee groups also present significant challenges. Turnover in many of our service positions creates gaps in the quality and level of service we would like to provide to our campus community. There is also a significant challenge regarding our skilled crafts employees that should be of concern for every campus. Nearly half of these employees are 55 years old or older, and the median tenure for these incumbents is 10 years or more. In an economy with low unemployment, individuals with these skills and certifications have many career options. How are you and your colleagues preparing for the wave of retirements in these mission-critical positions that support campus operations?

Call to Action

I could highlight other areas, but our call to action is clear. Instead of focusing on more comprehensive “succession planning” (a term that has become so overused that our campus colleagues tune us out when they hear the phrase), let’s create a call to action regarding the long-term sustainability, relevance and ultimate impact of our colleges and universities. The workforce we create, engage and sustain ultimately determines our institution’s future.

Read about the University of Tennessee’s unique model for developing an internal talent pipeline in the new issue of CUPA-HR’s The Higher Education Workplace magazine.

All data referenced in this blog post came from findings from CUPA-HR’s 2018 higher education salary surveys.