Chapter 7: Talent Management as a Tool for Institutional Sustainability

by Sandra S. Harper, Ph.D.

Posted on February 06, 2024

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“The species that survives is the one that is able best to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself.” – Charles Darwin

Sustainability is the ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level. Countries across the globe count on the research, knowledge acquisition, and knowledge dissemination of colleges and universities. Will this mission of improving society and the globe be able to be sustained if the institutions themselves are unsustainable?

The Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) helps countries reap the benefits and confront the challenges of a global economy by promoting economic growth, free markets, and efficient use of resources. The OECD Working Papers No. 7 note, “As higher education has grown and other pressures have constrained state funding, the financial sustainability of universities and other institutions of higher education has become an issue for policy makers, and for those who govern and manage these institutions. The challenge for governments is to ensure that increasingly autonomous institutions respond to public interest agendas while taking a greater responsibility for their own financial sustainability. The challenge for institutions is to manage an increasingly complex portfolio of aims and funding.”1 How can the vast array of higher education institutions sustain themselves at their current rate or level beyond the 2020s? The following article posits one element of a sustainable institution that emerged during the strategic planning process of a small comprehensive private university.

In 2019, as a signature element of his board leadership, the McMurry University Board Chair encouraged the McMurry University President to begin a visioning process for the next thirty years, from 2020-2050. Planning was considered to be especially important to accomplish the enduring purpose of McMurry University. Even a cursory reading of the institution’s history, Pride of Our Western Prairies, leaves readers with the sense that the institution has had difficulty putting together consecutive successful decades.2 This process was expected to guide the university beyond the current strategic plan, which concludes in 2023. Once the pandemic was declared in mid-March 2020, virtually all university activity was predicated on activities related to the health and safety of the McMurry academic community, the transition from traditional classroom delivery to remote learning, and the financial stability of the institution.

Little did we know that the global pandemic would accelerate many of the trends that we expected to occur decades from now—particularly the ones related to the higher education workforce. Reflections on the workforce in general during this post-pandemic period have labeled the activity in the workforce as either “The Great Resignation” or “The Great Realignment.” Based on our campus experience, perhaps “The Great Sigh of Exhaustion” would be an appropriate label. Whatever moniker might seem to be the most accurate during this critical period for higher education, it is clear that just as much attention needs to be paid to attracting, retaining, and developing the higher education workforce as we have paid to attracting, retaining, and graduating students. 

Little did we know that the global pandemic would accelerate many of the trends that we expected to occur decades from now—particularly the ones related to the higher education workforce.  

According to the January 27, 2022 NACUBO report “Rethinking the Higher Education Workplace in an Era of Transformation,” CUPA-HR noted staff declines between 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 in service/maintenance (-4.1%), office-clerical (-3.3%), and the skilled crafts (-2%).3 The report suggests that institutions should pay attention to the changing dynamics in the academic workplace, even if the demand for flexibility in in-person workplace standards may fly in the face of most institutions of higher education that pride themselves on an “up close and personal” approach between students and faculty and staff. The NACUBO report also cited a recent CUPA-HR study that higher education is currently suffering from negative perceptions by employees. Data showed that most employees ages 25 and younger have poor perceptions of the higher education culture and compensation.

Indeed, CUPA-HR leaders Brantley and Shoemaker note, “Work from home opportunities during the last year have forced higher education to catch up to the corporate world in many aspects, including increased flexibility, better and more creative use of technology and enhanced agility regarding decision-making and responsiveness to the changing world around us.”4 

Prioritizing people, training, and cultural innovation are three major avenues identified in the NACUBO report. For example, at McMurry University, the first question people are asking as they apply for a staff job is whether or not this is a flexible or hybrid position. For the first time in Fall 2021, McMurry appointed a full-time academic program director/faculty member who is not expected to be on campus full time. He also is residing in a separate state. This willingness to accept this arrangement was made possible because of the COVID-19 restrictions the prior year. However, it is clear that while this was a practice that was executed as a reaction to the pandemic, it could prove beneficial to an institution in the long term. Our benefits committee is looking at whether or not the university should codify flexible work arrangements across the university and what guardrails we might need to impose to ensure that we retain the personal ethos of our campus. 

As McMurry began our strategic planning process to guide the institution to 2030, we realized that a pillar of our strategic planning needs to focus on the development of the academic workforce, including faculty, staff, and administrators.  

As McMurry began our strategic planning process to guide the institution to 2030, we realized that a pillar of our strategic planning needs to focus on the development of the academic workforce, including faculty, staff, and administrators. The strategic planning sessions that have occurred this spring were open to any employee and were held at different times during different days in different buildings on campus to allow for individuals to have easy access to participate. A great resource for the fleshing out of this imperative was Jacob Lathrop’s 2023 article, “Modernizing Workplace Culture and the Employee Experience — Strategies for HR.”5 Lathrop identified the following tactics to invest in and align workplace culture: analyze career website attractiveness and alignment with the university brand; develop a flexibility-driven workplace (where, when, and how work is done); explore career path and advancement programs, job-shadowing programs, externships, and job-rotation programs to excite employees about learning something new; re-recruit top performers; and dedicate resources to internal talent alignment.

The Lathrop article sparked some interesting discussions on our campus and led to additional suggestions such as: encouraging and supporting professional conference attendance; creating a faculty and staff mentorship program; launching a Leadership McMurry internal leadership development program; reviewing the university compensation guidelines and setting goals to achieve competitive compensation and benefits packages; developing a “grow your own” faculty diversity program; and planning for the succession of key university leaders.

Of course, all of these great ideas have one thing in common. They cost money. Most presidents are struggling with balancing budgets, stagnant enrollments, market volatility, and high inflation. However, I participated in a very interesting strategic planning webinar a few weeks ago entitled What Makes Strategic Plans Strategic? One of the key elements from that session was the need to approach strategic planning in higher education from an abundance mentality rather than a scarcity mentality. In essence, the abundance mentality recognizes that an institution can’t do everything. But if it prioritizes well, it can do a few things with an appropriate number of resources to make those priorities successful.

My thesis is that institutional viability or sustainability is only possible through a deliberate focus on the workplace—with as much intentionality and energy as we have placed on recruiting, retaining, and graduating our students. Thus, the academic workplace must be a priority with appropriate resourcing—a difficult thing to accomplish in a period of strained capital.

In addition to the tangible elements of improving employee compensation, benefits, awards programs, and professional development opportunities, another component that is harder to measure is belonging. In his Spring 2023 article in HR Magazine, “Why Belonging Matters: When employees feel comfortable bringing their authentic selves to work, companies thrive culturally and financially,” Matt Gonzales observes that belonging “examines how individuals feel as they engage with the rest of the organization. It is a mental and emotional state of feeling seen, valued, and supported based on a person’s uniqueness.”6

Adam Weber, senior vice president for community for 15Five, a performance management platform based in San Francisco, asks, “Does the employee feel like they have a voice? Do they feel valued and seen? Can they show up as their true selves and be supported? There are many factors regarding a company’s work environment that need to be considered for employees to have a true sense of belonging."7

McMurry University has attempted to tackle the question regarding the employee voice. In summer 2022, the Board of Trustees identified shared governance as the theme of its retreat. An outcome of the board retreat led to a shared governance discussion at the next board meeting, which included the faculty representatives to the board committees and the board, the student representatives to the board committees and the board, and the staff council officers. As part of McMurry’s shared governance history, faculty members and the students have two elected members apiece serve as non-voting representatives to each board committee (except trusteeship) and the full board itself. During this board session, each group of faculty, staff, students, board members, and administrators were asked what they thought shared governance meant. During the process, it became obvious that the staff was not included in the board meetings on a normal basis. Indeed, in the higher education shared governance literature, staff participation is not usually mentioned. The literature focuses on the board, the administration, and the faculty. At the conclusion of the board meeting when these discussions occurred, the board in executive session decided to include the staff council officers as non-voting representatives to the board – in parallel with their faculty and student counterparts. Whether this decision will lead to long-term staff buy-in is unclear, but the short-term benefits of making this change have been apparent in the last six months. 

The concepts of belonging and employee voice surfaced as extremely important elements to achieving a stable and sustainable workforce.  

As we have worked our way through the strategic planning process, the strategic pillar of recruiting, retaining, and advancing/developing a diverse and engaged faculty, staff, and administration has emerged. The concepts of belonging and employee voice surfaced as extremely important elements to achieving a stable and sustainable workforce. Our current leadership bodies—faculty council, staff council, university leadership council, Board of Visitors, and Board of Trustees—will need to preserve and enhance these elements as we move through this particularly challenging time period in the history of higher education in the United States.

To sustain the higher education mission that uses its research, knowledge acquisition, and knowledge dissemination to inform improvements needed in society, institutions must first sustain themselves. Without a sustainable workforce, the mission itself is in jeopardy.


  1. On the Edge: Securing a Sustainable Future for Higher Education.
  2. Downs and Sledge, editors. Pride of Our Western Prairies, McMurry College 1923-1988. Austin Texas: Eakin Press. 1989.
  3. Rethinking the Higher Education Workplace in an Era of Transformation.
  4. What’s Next for the Higher Education Workforce? A Look at the Challenges and Opportunities that Lie Ahead.
  5. Modernizing Workplace Culture and the Employee Experience – Strategies for HR.
  6. Why Belonging Matters.
  7. Why Belonging Matters.