CHROs: The Missing Link in the Higher Education Management Structure

White Papers | July, 2017

By Jennifer Biehn
And Monica Burton
And Jerry McGrath

The chief human resource officer plays a critical, impactful and highly influential role in the private sector. Yet surprisingly, in higher education, the position often is not optimally leveraged.

Several factors have posed challenges to the role’s assimilation—including colleges and universities’ traditional structure, environment of shared governance and available pool of HR leaders who would opt to work in an academic setting.

A CHRO position, however, can greatly enhance a university’s hiring, talent management, retention and other human capital efforts. This white paper will examine:

  • Key reasons higher education institutions can benefit from having a CHRO;
  • Factors that have prevented schools from adding or fully investing in the position;
  • Challenges that exist when trying to recruit candidates from outside of higher education;
  • And highly effective methods CHROs can employ to play a bigger role in decision making at their college or university.

The Case for a Cabinet-Level CHRO

In the private sector, chief human resource officer positions are standard—and critical to the enterprise’s success.

The role, in recent decades, has emerged as part of the CEO’s team of executives, leading to the development and implementation of HR and talent strategies and tactics that work to build shareholder value. CHRO’s have a broad portfolio of responsibilities that impact the entire ecosystem of the enterprise, and in recent years, have taken on an expanded set of responsibilities at many organizations.

Some CHROs, for example, are being asked to utilize data analytics to improve recruiting and other functions, according to Deloitte’s 2016 Global Human Capital Trends report. Sixty-two percent of businesses feel they aren’t using that type of big data to its fullest potential.

Although many corporate CHROs have influence in their company’s decision making process by providing deep insight into hiring trends and other business elements, higher education institutions have generally been more reticent to acknowledge the value a CHRO can provide. In some institutions, the role doesn't exist; in others, it is significantly underutilized.

Colleges and universities that have hired and empowered a CHRO to lead, however, are able to address a number of evolving challenges that help build their employment brand—including:

Greater churn in the workforce: Workers are changing jobs more frequently than they did decades ago. A 2016 LinkedIn study found the average number of companies each generation has worked for within five years of graduating has increased steadily over the past 20 years. Millennials, in particular, have held more jobs.

As a result, a number of universities are experiencing a growing need to prepare for potential vacancies, according to Mary George Opperman, vice president and chief human resources officer for Cornell University.

“Perhaps this is a long-term effect of the downturn—graduates prioritize experience over ‘things’ … They don't buy houses as quickly; they’re more mobile and like to travel,” Opperman says. “That will cause particular challenges in organizations like higher education, which has relied on workforce stability. But it is also a great opportunity for CHROs to establish themselves as part of leadership—more rapid turnover may put more focus on job design and talent management.”

CHROs’ leadership in succession planning and establishing and maintaining a robust talent pipeline can help satisfy schools’ hiring needs.

“Some universities have taken for granted that staff employees will stay for many years,” Opperman says. “The idea that the non-faculty is in ready supply, and will come and stay in the same job for many years may well be a fading reality. We are going to have to work harder and be more creative to keep and attract talented people.”

CHROs can also spearhead efforts to promote the school to candidates, according to Michael Bazigos, Ph.D., managing director, Accenture Strategy, who is a graduate adjunct faculty member at Columbia University and a former Pace University associate dean.

“Brand building is usually understood to serve the goal of attracting more and higher quality applicants,” Bazigos says. “But there is another brand play possible: CHROs can show the strength of the institution as an employer—they can provide a value proposition on how to build the employer brand at the university to attract more people into the hiring process. The lower selection ratio will result in better hires.”

An increased commitment to talent development and retention: In addition to hiring new employees, given workers’ increased mobility, holding on to valued staff members will be important to maintain future productivity levels.

HR leaders can play a crucial role in employee engagement efforts to help universities retain current employees who were ultimately hired to help provide an optimum experience for students.

“Talent management—the all-around development of talent in new and effective ways—will be a priority in the future as a way to attract and retain a diverse and talented staff workforce,” Opperman says. “HR can be an essential part of the leadership of higher education, if it’s really managing a vibrant talent management and succession planning program.”

A growing focus on diversity, equity and inclusive excellence: HR had a central role in developing Pratt Institute’s diversity program, according to Tom Greene, Pratt’s director of human resources.

Having HR intrinsically involved from the beginning has helped ensure consistency.

“We’ve been an advocate for this to be considered in almost every aspect of the organization’s functions—for example, in hiring decisions, evaluating candidates on their knowledge and experience regarding diversity and inclusion,” Greene says. “With every search now, we try to identify spots where criteria can be included in job specs.”

Staying ahead of the compliance curve: HR’s compliance involvement has increased, in part, due to the increase in regulations, according to Opperman.

“Long ago, universities were exempted out of many employment laws that covered other employers; that’s not the case now,” she says. “Also, the reality is there are a lot more compliance and regulations now, and HR needs to determine how best to manage these risks without becoming defined solely by risk management.”

Avoiding potential labor law and other regulatory fines, and the reputation issues they could cause, has helped fuel the trend, according to M. Scott Morris, who currently serves as the executive vice president of people for Singularity, a Silicon Valley-based think tank and business accelerator. Morris also has been the CHRO for several institutions across the country, including Georgia Tech and the University of Colorado.

“Large, public universities are still very focused on publicity and compliance,” he says. “There have been a lot of new regulations in the last 8 years. It is difficult for a lot of administrations to feel like the focus should be on employee engagement when every year there is a new piece of regulation—which has the potential for public embarrassment if the institution isn’t compliant.”

Employee communication and management issue efforts: In some institutions, tension can exist between the administration and the academics. A CHRO, acting as an ombudsman, can help manage communication with various groups to enhance relationships and cooperation across various constituencies and create efficiencies.

“Similarly, employee issues are going to be a major concern at any organization,” Greene says. “Organizations can benefit from getting HR."

Where is HR today in Higher Ed?

Because human resources touches every aspect and layer of an organization—from the dorm room to the board room—CHROs are particularly primed to offer a big-picture view, which can aid in strategic planning and other efforts that ultimately will advance both the organization and its students.

The relationship and trust a CHRO shares with the most senior leaders, Morris says, makes all the difference.

“I’ve had a wide variety of experiences,” he says. “In the best scenario, the senior vice chancellor and provost said, ‘We hired you because I believe you’re the best in the country. Go design a plan that you think will make us great.’”

Buy-in and consistent support from key leadership members can help CHROs enact change.

“My focus has always been on building data-driven processes for talent acquisition, effective recruitment marketing and employment branding, and teaching managers to build trust relationships,” Morris says. “But those things take time, and paradigm changes and require a lot of senior level support. They are infinitely easier when the president, provost and chief business officer already understand their value.”

Although some organizations seek HR’s strategic input, it is perhaps more common that HR needs to advocate for inclusion in strategic planning and demonstrate that it has a lot to offer beyond the traditional HR operations. 

“HR professionals should not be discouraged by any initial reluctance to increasing their responsibilities,” Greene says, “as they gradually work to expand their role and show how they can complement the organization’s existing leadership—while, at the same time, alleviating any concern that they may be trying to usurp anyone’s authority.

“You can identify opportunities to demonstrate the increased value you can offer without detracting from the traditional HR functions, and also ensure that there is no overstepping of boundaries so there’s not a perception you’re trying to tell anyone how to run their department or teach their class.”

The traditional higher education institution reporting structure has been one of the challenges to making more of an impact, according to Opperman.

Nearly half of chief HR officers report to their school’s chief business officer; only about a quarter deal directly with the president, according to the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources.

“University leaders often put the HR person under the finance person; that’s a long standing organizational framework from back in the day when HR was mostly a bureaucratic function,” Opperman says. “The ‘people person’ sits organizationally below the ‘numbers’ person—that’s something you don’t find in many businesses and corporations.”

“The CHRO voice needs to be heard,” she says, “instead of being filtered through the financial view.

“That’s very, very important; the reporting relationship continues to be a consideration,” Opperman says. “Typically, CHROs in higher education want to participate in a more influential manner. But the reporting relationship is not the only factor in being part of the organizational strategy.”

If a CHRO is not part of the president’s cabinet or council and wants to provide more input, seeking out access to colleagues may help.

“I have a colleague who does report to the business officer, but also sits on the president’s council—so the reporting relationship is operational, but the CHRO’s voice is being heard,” Opperman says. “The CHRO is participating alongside deans and others in the decision making process on a regular basis.”

Some collegiate HR leaders may not actively pursue opportunities to contribute to university-wide planning because they think some of the corresponding subject matter doesn't relate to their work or areas of expertise.

Being involved, however, can help the HR leader understand where the university is going and how the workforce is being engaged to meet the mission.

“We know that HR professionals do their best work when they understand the ‘business’ they support,” Opperman says. “This is true in universities, too. Higher education is always changing, and we need to understand those changes so we can support the emerging HR needs. Understanding emerging trends and needs will help us when we need to recruit and develop talent.”

Certain schools view HR in a custodial way. Due to the nature of the work, the CHRO role can essentially be an administrative gatekeeping-type function—which can be a lost opportunity.

During Morris’ time at Georgia Tech, he was responsible for running 13,000 paychecks a month, which proved to be a time-consuming task.

“When you have responsibility for payroll and benefits, you absolutely, positively, have to get them right,” he says. “When I have had those responsibilities, they took a portion of my attention away from other things we wanted to do, like talent management and building an HR business partner model. Payroll in higher education is completely different than it is in the corporate world—outsource when possible to groups who truly understand the differences.”

Because of the way universities traditionally handle hiring faculty and other academics, which may not involve HR, a higher education CHRO’s role in top tier recruiting is often marginalized. Recruiting, across the enterprise, in the private sector, on the other hand, is led by the CHRO.

“In most schools, the faculty are chosen by the faculty—the role HR plays, in terms of talent acquisition, is different than it would be at a corporation, and the CHRO role is then seen as different,” Opperman says. “You deal with talent acquisition for everyone else. If you can provide support services for the faculty to aid their faculty recruitment efforts, that’s great. We try to support dual career employment needs, benefits, work/family and other programs.”

HR leaders in higher ed are typically homegrown within the function. Unlike the corporate realm, where 68 percent of CHROs spent some time outside of HR during their career, according to a report from the Cornell Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies, higher education human resource professionals tend to be from within HR and from within the institution.

The practice may be a contributing factor to the CHRO role’s slow acceptance in higher ed—and can result in HR leaders ending up with an underwhelming and undynamic status in an institution.

“Typically, HR leaders have worked their way up through the ranks and have very little external perspective,” Bazigos says. “That may be changing, but in general, it’s been an administrative function in colleges and universities.”

Many may have a Society for Human Resource Management SHRM-CP or SCP certification, Morris says, but without outside experience, can remain mired in the traditional view of what HR does—which won’t necessarily inspire leadership to change the role.

“The system seems self-reinforcing to me—as they move up, a lot of higher education HR professionals tend to spend their time focused on getting the transactions right,” he says. “There’s nothing wrong with that; in fact, it is critical—but that work then becomes associated in their minds with ‘what HR does,’ as opposed to workforce effectiveness.”

CHROs from the private sector sometimes find it hard to fight for all the necessary battles at once, according to Morris; they may not understand how universities operate, how to prove their case to senior leaders—or how to prove it to other HR professionals.

“Bringing really progressive individuals in from the outside is challenging for higher education because universities operate so differently from the corporate world,” Morris says.

A History of Insularity

Recruiting candidates from outside of academia for higher education CHRO positions can potentially bring professionals with valuable and varied proficiencies into the role.

However, convincing private sector candidates to make the move to higher ed can be a challenging sell.

University and external HR compensation often doesn’t align. At educational institutions, the average CHRO salary is $113,706, according to the Resources. The average corporate CHRO salary is $157,000 a year; the amount could be as high as $249,457 for some positions, according to compensation listing site PayScale.

Although universities offer perks like tuition benefits and the chance to work in a student-centric, mission-driven environment, compensation is a persistent issue.

“University salaries are sadly and famously lower than private sector salaries,” Bazigos says. “Some schools are finding ways to stress the intangible, which goes back to their employer brand.”

Colleges and universities also typically offer a very different atmosphere than the private sector.

“It can be challenging for someone from a corporate environment to come to higher education,” Greene says. “The culture is likely to be different, and the amount of resources and nature of higher education shared governance would probably be a change from the person’s prior experience. HR can assist in facilitating the adjustment to ensure a successful transition and help the new employee adapt and take advantage of the benefits and strengths of the higher education environment.”

Top CHRO candidates also may want considerable visibility at the board level and with other university leaders, which schools can be unaccustomed to providing, as a robust board relationship hasn’t always been a component of the CHRO role.

“An effective CHRO can’t be buried in the organization—she/he needs to have the skills to work with the university leaders and with the board,” Opperman says. “And external hires won’t want to be hired if they have little involvement with top issues and leadership. They will expect regular board involvement.”

The time commitment involved in a higher education position can also vary from what private sector executives are used to.

“People who solely worked in the business world rarely spent their weekend running events for people’s parents,” Bazigos says. “People can view it as volunteer or low-paid labor.”

Although corporate life can involve long hours, Opperman describes academic work as “a different kind of tired.”

“It doesn't stop,” she says. “I will say to people, ‘Our customers live with us; they don't go home.’”

Although universities sometimes set out to find an external candidate with diverse enough experience to enact change, even if the person accepts the position, providing the leverage to make that happen once he or she is hired isn’t always a guarantee, according to Opperman.

“An appetite at recruitment to bring strategic change, make organizations efficient and manage and develop talent is often there—but the CHRO comes into an organization with a definite culture, and she/he will need some support to understand how to make change within that culture,” he says. “When the HR person comes from the corporate world, they’re heading into a very different environment with consensus-based decision making. The tactics are different to make changes in that environment.”

Future Potential for Higher Ed HR

Although the higher education realm hasn’t yet made the CHRO role a mainstream position, a growing number of universities are starting to recognize the position’s value, according to Morris.

“A number of institutions are starting to make the CHRO position a full vice president-level role,” Morris says. “Higher education is slowly waking up to the fact they need to proactively manage human capital. They’re just late to the game.”

To gain credibility, he suggests CHROs switch the approach they may instinctively take to sell new programs and initiatives.

“In general, academics—including the leadership of many institutions—are really data driven,” Morris says. “I generally don't talk about outcomes first with academics. Instead, I talk about how I came to my point of view— ‘Let me tell you what my hypothesis was and how I have researched it. Here are the data which seem to support the strategy we are going to follow.’”

Greene recommends advocating for more input by providing concrete examples that support the function a CHRO wants to add.

“Continuously provide real value and demonstrate how being more involved at an earlier stage leads to smoother implementation of that new function,” he says. “That always gets peoples’ attention.”

Bringing in a candidate from outside higher education can offer universities a fresh perspective on the role.

Salary can be a deterrent—but schools shouldn't automatically assume candidates won’t be interested in a higher ed position, or that the pay will necessarily be less.

The associate vice president for HR at the University of Texas at Austin, for example, a school that’s ranked eighth on U.S. News & World Report’s list of colleges with the most students, makes $189,960—nearly $33,000 more than PayScale’s average corporate CHRO salary estimate. At Ohio State in Columbus, Ohio, the fourth largest school, the university’s four HR associate vice presidents make six-figure salaries ranging from amounts close to the University of Texas’ salary up to $303,000.

Even if pay for a higher ed HR position is less remunerative than for a corporate role, a university job can provide HR leaders from the private sector with a key differentiator: a higher value and purpose than working for a for-profit corporation.

“It can be an incredible community feeling,” Bazigos says. “You can get people working on transformative initiatives, and it can be a source of inspiration. You tend to see people who want a career change or are later in their career and want to ratchet back a bit—usually more in fantasy than reality—and are usually willing to accept a bit of a haircut, salary-wise.”

Increasing the CHRO’s clout—with either an internally promoted or externally hired candidate—can help universities achieve better recruitment, retention and, in turn, stronger overall productivity results.

The change may not be happening overnight; but industry members, including Greene, have noticed some HR professionals are finding ways to take on a more influential position at their university.

“For example, around recruitment and hiring, HR can provide a lot more than helping to hire the right person,” Greene says. “It can also participate in determining what positions are needed—and where—and defining the roles of the positions, what skills and qualifications are necessary, developing methods to test applicants on those criteria and ultimately developing an ongoing relationship with the new hire—focused on retention and professional development to maximize the benefits for the organization.”

If changing demographics do lead to increased turnover at universities, and HR’s role, as a result, becomes more closely tied to university leadership and decision making, Opperman anticipates the general resistance to new HR-related ideas that exists at some universities may dissipate more quickly.

“That could create great opportunities for a very different type of workplace in the future,” she says. “And it could result in a really prominent role for CHROs that are up for that more talent management-focused kind of job.”