Strengthening the diversity of top academic leaders

 Findings and insights from Egon Zehnder International’s Global Academic Leadership Survey 

Most leading academic institutions are strongly committed to diversity, a commitment visible in their policies on staff recruitment and student admissions, as well as in their academic programs. Yet how diverse are their leaders? A survey by Egon Zehnder International of over 300 top universities and research institutions worldwide shows that the most senior level of academic leadership remains overwhelmingly male and locally-born.

This finding should worry institutions’ governing boards for three reasons. First, the degree of diversity at the top sends a powerful signal about what the institution stands for. Further, there are strong indications that diversity of perspective is a crucial driver of innovation and creativity in organizations. Last but not least, there is evidence that today’s low levels of leadership diversity reflect search and selection procedures that often overlook nontraditional candidates for institutions’ top posts.

This article profiles the research findings, discusses their implications, and shares examples of how a more professional search approach can offer universities and research institutions a significantly more diverse slate of outstanding leadership candidates. Of course, diversity in academic leadership is a complex topic, and the article does not attempt to address all its facets. Rather, our intention is to initiate a conversation amongst governing boards and selection committees on how to strengthen diversity at the top – and to suggest several concrete steps that can help them do so.