Why your next university president should be a veteran

Why your next university president should be a veteran
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Robert L. Caslen’s tenure as president at the University of South Carolina was nearly over before it began. When he started his presidency in August 2019, he faced dissension from almost every constituency, including board members who opposed him, student organizations that protested, and faculty members who passed a vote of no-confidence.

Caslen’s eventual appointment was part of a whirlwind process spanning two separate searches and involvement by South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster. His candidacy was marred by a host of factors and objections, some justified and others not. Those in opposition pointed to previous comments Caslen had made about the role of alcohol in sexual harassment, argued his military background was a liability, and noted his lack of a terminal degree. What President Caslen did not lack was both experience as a leader and as an executive in higher education; he is a U.S. Army veteran who served as the 59th superintendent at West Point.

Nearly a year into the role, Caslen has not completely silenced his critics, but he has certainly given them reason to reconsider. Once appointed, he engaged in aggressive coalition building by meeting with every constituency that opposed his candidacy. Caslen now enjoys high praise on how he approached his first few months on the job. While opponents note he is not as flamboyant as his predecessor, he has been credited for his ability to engage with those who disagree with him. That should not be a surprise given what newly-released research demonstrates.

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New research published by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) demonstrates that Caslen represents a critical untapped talent pool to fill higher education leadership roles: America’s military veteran community. The CNAS qualitative research paper, “Called To Lead,” examines the connections between military service and higher education leadership roles based on interviews with veterans who work in the industry. Caslen is one high-profile example of criticism leveraged against veterans — and the unique and beneficial skill sets they bring to roles in higher education.

Veterans work in higher education as an extension of their military service because of overlapping values, traditions and leadership opportunities. Military service provides a critical avenue for the development of the skills and competencies required for success in higher education leadership roles. These leadership competencies include, among others: mission focus, strategic thinking, adaptability, resiliency, comfort with ambiguity and leading change. These competencies help veterans navigate higher education as adaptive leaders confronting profound challenges in positions from president to faculty member. Furthermore, there is more overlap between military bureaucracy and higher education structure than may be apparent, which provides veterans a baseline understanding through which to navigate university politics and hierarchies.

America’s military veterans are the adaptive leaders higher education requires to confront systemic change and challenges to its mission.

Developing a critical mass of adaptive leaders will help higher education confront its challenges. Institutions that seek employees with these competencies should look toward the veteran community as a cohort of prospective higher education leaders to discern whether they can carry these competencies into a leadership role on campus. Furthermore, institutions should establish graduate academic degree programs in higher education administration — envisioned as a preparation academy for military-to-higher education professionals — that specializes in translating military leadership skills and experiences to higher education leadership roles.

Higher education is facing a number of challenges that require flexible leaders prepared to navigate the unknown. Challenges include a slow pace of evolution relative to the changing needs of today’s students, decreasing perception in the value of a post-secondary degree, and decreasing enrollment. Each of these variables were pressuring universities even before the coronavirus pandemic introduced an historic system-wide disruption. The pandemic highlights and exacerbates the demand for online classes, new funding streams, and support for students.

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Former and current military leaders have resoundingly stated support for racial equality and diversity, a key interest to universities.

Military veterans have significant experience thinking and acting on-the-fly while caring for others around them. In recognizing changing forces, higher education should look beyond academia to leaders not only committed to supporting the next generation of students, but with the skill set needed to enact meaningful change: veterans.

Barrett Y. Bogue is president and founder of Evocati LLC, a military-oriented business consultancy, and co-author of the CNAS research paper "Called To Lead."

Emma Moore is Research Associate for the Military, Veterans, and Society Program at the Center for a New American Security. She previously worked with ProVetus, a peer-mentoring organization helping service members transition into civilian life, and as an Executive Assistant for Narrative Strategies, a coalition of scholars and military professionals addressing the non-kinetic aspects of war. She earned her Master's in War Studies from King's College London. Follow her on Twitter @moreemmamoore.