ASHE Higher Education Report: Volume 38, Number 1

Kelly Ward, Lisa E. Wolf-Wendel, Series Editors

Creating a Tipping Point: Strategic Human Resources in Higher Education

Alvin Evans

Edna Chun

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Advisory Board image

The ASHE Higher Education Report Series is sponsored by the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE), which provides an editorial advisory board of ASHE members.

  1. Ben Baez
  2. Florida International University
  3. Edna Chun
  4. Broward College
  5. Diane Dunlap
  6. University of Oregon
  7. Dot Finnegan
  8. The College of William & Mary
  9. Marybeth Gasman
  10. University of Pennsylvania
  11. Shouping Hu
  12. Florida State University
  13. Adrianna Kezar
  14. University of Southern California
  15. Kevin Kinser
  16. SUNY – Albany
  17. William Locke
  18. The Open University
  19. Barbara Tobolowsky
  20. University of Texas at Arlington
  21. Susan B. Twombly
  22. University of Kansas
  23. Marybeth Walpole
  24. Rowan University

Executive Summary

In an era of severe budgetary constriction, public research universities are struggling to realign resources and programs to fulfill their educational mission and maintain academic quality, while simultaneously responding to complex, external legislative and accreditation mandates. Yet unlike private industry, public higher education has been slow to realize the impact of strategic human resources (HR) on organizational success, despite the fact that human capital investments represent the largest expenditure in higher education today. The constricting economic landscape, coupled with enrollment pressures and the need to serve a changing demographic mix, call for a new generation of human resource strategies that optimize talent resources and build an inclusive high-performance workplace. The veritable tsunami of financial pressures may indeed constitute a tipping point calling for a strategic HR model in higher education. And as we illustrate throughout this monograph, HR practitioners in higher education have emerged as the leaders in implementing strategic HR principles.

In the context of these dramatic economic developments, this monograph presents a research-based approach that supports the evolution of HR practices from siloed, transactional models to strategic operations that serve the entire university. Building on the framework established by leading HR researchers, we examine the role of intangibles—factors not captured in traditional accounting measures—in leading toward future organizational success. These intangibles include engagement, innovation, discretionary commitment, competence, and shared mind-set. Based on the research literature, we explore HR’s role in the development of organizational capabilities that represent the organization’s capacity to maximize intangible assets and deploy its human capital resources to accomplish institutional goals.

Transposing these arguments from the private sector to the context of public higher education, we present the Principles of High Performance of the Academic Quality Improvement Program (AQIP), an alternative accreditation vehicle of the North Central Association for Colleges and Schools. The AQIP principles are a tested example of organizational capabilities implemented by more than two hundred institutions of higher education that can guide the design and development of strategic HR programs that contribute to a quality-driven culture.

In this monograph, we examine extensive empirical evidence that clearly links strategic HR practices and organizational outcomes as well as financial performance. We then explore prominent theoretical HR constructs and the application of strategic HR principles in higher education. We also examine the typical reporting relationship, scope of operations, and the bifurcated structures of academic and staff personnel offices.

We next discuss the creation of strategic HR talent management practices in higher education in the areas of talent acquisition, diversity, total rewards, employee engagement, and recognition. Specific examples drawn from public research universities illustrate the development of integrated HR approaches in both policy development and programmatic offerings. We further examine the relationship of strategic HR to organization development in terms of planned, systemic, and long-range efforts to increase organizational effectiveness and sustainability. HR’s strategic contribution to university-wide organization development is delineated in the areas of strategic training and development, employee relations, performance evaluation, leadership development, and employee assistance programs with reference to specific examples from the public research university environment.

We conclude with strategies, tools, metrics, and action steps that support the development of an effective and efficient strategic HR operation in public research universities. We also share entrepreneurial strategies undertaken by HR departments that involve voluntary budget reduction measures that reduce expenditures while conserving precious talent resources.

The primary goal of this monograph is to assist educational leaders, policymakers, chief HR officers, chief financial officers, executive officers, boards of trustees, and HR practitioners in the transformation from transactional HR operations to strategic HR. The creation of a strategic HR operation will build institutional capacity through programs and practices that fulfill organizational capabilities, optimize human capital resources, and build an empowering culture of engagement. This increased capacity will contribute to institutional viability and agility in the current economy and position the public research university to fulfill its educational mission of teaching, research, and service.


There is no more important asset to a college or university than its human resources. By that, I mean that the quality of a university is a direct reflection of the quality of its faculty and staff. There is also no bigger expense at a university than its human resources—the people it employs. While all of this may be true, to most faculty and staff members, the Office of Human Resources is seen more as a bureaucratic hurdle than as an asset. In fact, like many other faculty members, I don’t pay much attention to the HR office. When I am on a search committee I attend an occasional training organized by the office. I also fill out the required forms when that search committee seeks to make an offer. I might contact the office to get help filling out an insurance form. But most of the time, from a faculty member perspective, I see the HR office as adding a layer of bureaucracy to an already complicated system. At best, I don’t think much about it. At worst, I see it as a necessary evil.

This monograph by Alvin Evans and Edna Chun, however, places HR in a new light. They make the case, and make it well, that HR operations can be used strategically and can further a university’s goals, especially in times of budget reductions. Evans and Chun carefully and convincingly frame the role of the HR office as an important player at the strategic planning table. Their discussion of how HR offices can respond to cost-reduction measures, create voluntary severance programs, and implement flexible scheduling or furloughs was really quite eye opening.

The monograph also examines the role that HR offices can play in generating revenue. Evans and Chun do a masterful job of explaining the broader literature on HR management both inside and outside higher education and why HR professionals need to participate in strategic planning initiatives. Written for those familiar with HR and those like me who might have dismissed its importance, this monograph offers important insights into an office that many people disregard. Rarely do I read a monograph that changes my opinions or perspectives, but this one does just that. It introduces readers to the important role of HR management and the way that it can be used strategically to reinforce institutional goals and missions.

Lisa Wolf-Wendel

Series Editor


Edna Chun dedicates this monograph to the memory of her parents, Dr. Esther Briney Chu and Dr. Hung-Ti Chu, as well as to the memory of their lifetime friends Martha and Neil Svigoon. Alexis C. Svigoon (better known as Neil) met Hung-Ti Chu, a foreign student from Yunnan, China, at Brent House in Chicago, and Martha and Neil Svigoon remained beloved friends and mentors to Edna Chun over more than a half-century.

Alvin Evans dedicates this monograph to his children, Shomari Evans, Jabari Evans, Kalil Evans, and Rashida VanLeer, as well as to the late Barbara Evans, M.D. (1955–2006), wife of Alvin Evans.

Edna Chun thanks Chancellor Linda Brady and Vice Chancellor Reade Taylor of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro for their inspirational leadership in the evolution of a strategic Human Resources Department. She also thanks trustees Georgette Sosa Douglass and Levi Williams for their forward-looking leadership in the development of strategic human resources at Broward College.

Alvin Evans thanks Lester Lefton of Kent State University for his visionary leadership and support for a strategic HR operation. He also expresses his deep appreciation to Willis Walker, chief legal counsel and vice president for human resources at Kent State University, for his keen insights and leadership in developing a strategic HR Department. He thanks Charlene Reed, secretary to the board of trustees and chief of staff at Kent State University, for her generous support. He acknowledges Ronald Fowler, special assistant to the president at Kent State University, for his incredible source of inspiration and continued support.

We express special appreciation to our family and friends for their continuous support. Edna Chun thanks Jay Kyung Chun, Alexander David Chun, David and Laura Tosi Chu, George and Eleanor Chu, Ronnie Rothschild, Susan Svigoon, and Karen Williams. Alvin Evans thanks Ethel and Horace Bush, Patricia and Leon Scott, Karen and Hassan Rogers, Patricia and Donald Marsh, Brian and Lisa Marshall, Victoria Thomas, and Lesley Green.

Both of us thank the anonymous reviewers for their valuable suggestions. We also appreciate the thorough and able research assistance of Kimberly Rosenfeld. Finally, we gratefully acknowledge the guidance of our editor, Lisa Wolf-Wendel, and her ongoing support in developing this monograph.