Using a semi-structured qualitative interview design of currently serving higher education leaders and practitioners with prior military service, this paper identifies the reasons why veterans choose to work in higher education, captures the leadership skills and traits learned in the military that practically apply to their roles, identifies current challenges in higher education’s mission to serve students, and provides recommendations for recruiting more veterans into leadership roles. Among this paper’s most significant findings are:
- Veterans choose to work in higher education as an extension of their military service because of overlapping values, traditions, and progressive leadership opportunity. Budget management, empowering teams toward mission attainment, and being adaptable in the midst of constant change and uncertainty are broad skill categories gained through military service and applied in higher education that have fostered an unquestionable desire by veterans to continue what began when they joined the All-Volunteer Force.
- Veterans who work in higher education have leadership tools gained through military service at their disposal, including, among others: mission focus, strategic thinking, adaptability, resiliency, comfort with ambiguity and leading change, experience working with individuals from diverse backgrounds, and personnel and budget management experience.
- The leadership tools identified above will help veterans navigate our system of higher education as a corps of adaptive leaders ready and willing to confront profound challenges that, when asked, they identified as:
- Higher education’s slow pace of change relative to the changing needs and characteristics of today’s students
- Decreasing perception in the value of a post-secondary degree
- Decreasing enrollment
- Aging infrastructure and unsustainable cost to the student
- The lack of focus on the intersection of diversity, equity, and inclusion by campus leaders, and competing spheres of influence on campus.
Solutions to the key challenges confronting higher education can be supported, in part, through a critical mass of adaptive leaders, and military service provides fertile ground for the development of adaptive leadership skills.
Through intentional academic programming, recruitment efforts, and partnerships, the higher education, nonprofit, and government sectors can help veterans view higher education not only as a waypoint for separating service members, but also as a viable career opportunity.