Spotlight on Campus Human Resources

Human resources (HR) is a critical part of any educational institution—recruiting the best professors and staff for the betterment of the campus community. As faculty/staff recruiting grows more competitive each year, having a strong HR office and CHRO (Chief Human Resource Officer) is invaluable. John Thornburgh of Witt/Kieffer knows this well, having been involved with many executive searches for colleges and universities, including those seeking a new campus CHRO. John spoke with College Planning & Management about the changing landscape of HR in the higher-education realm, and the evolving role of the CHRO.

Q. How do the functions of the HR office or CHRO differ at a college or university from a large company/organization?

A. While the scope of the responsibilities and the impact of the role of the CHRO are typically the same in higher education and the corporate world, the biggest difference is the decision-making culture. In the private sector, executives typically make decisions with expertise in the subject area. Higher education, however, has a long-standing tradition of “shared governance,” which invites multiple participants (including faculty) to the table when key actions—especially involving human resources issues—are deliberated and decided.

Q. What are some of the ways a college or university can attract and select strong candidates for HR positions, and what role does the CHRO play in this process?

A. The most compelling selling points in recruiting HR executives to a university are the mission and the setting. The opportunity to contribute to an institution dedicated to learning and the holistic development of students presents a strong calling to HR leaders. Also, the work environment is characterized by collaboration, civility, and a common commitment to the mission. Finally, the physical setting is appealing—the chance to be surrounded by young people and their interests in academics, athletics, and culture. The CHRO is pivotal in communicating these selling points throughout the recruiting and interviewing process.

Q. What are some of the most important areas in which a CHRO must be skilled? Are there any often-overlooked qualities that play a large role?

A. First and foremost is the need to be patient in working within the culture of shared governance. Decisions are not going to be as timely or crisp as one may have been used to. CHROs who embrace that culture will be well received—as long as they still stay focused on making the right decisions for the right reasons. Another important quality is a high degree of tolerance for ambiguity—in the world of higher education, what appears to be straightforward at the surface level often has multiple layers of politics, tradition, and intrigue underneath!

Q. What are some of the big changes in the role of CHRO that may be coming in the next decade in higher education? How is the overall role changing?

A. Higher education as an industry sector has been a latecomer in recognizing the strategic importance that human resources play in building a high-performing work environment—and the value that HR adds to achieving its mission. The CHRO is now viewed as a critical member of the senior leadership team whose advice and counsel are critical to attracting, developing, and retaining the very best talent in both academic and administrative areas. As the need for first-class talent accelerates in the years ahead, the CHRO will be a crucial enabler of providing his/her university with a distinctive advantage in an increasingly competitive marketplace.