There's nothing wrong with cautious leadership in higher ed (essay)

“We don’t do nimble.” 
--A college administrator on change in higher education

In “Lincoln at the Movies,” Louis P. Masur argues that Spielberg’s film about Lincoln reiterates “a faith in slow, deliberate, incremental transformation, in proceeding on an issue only when time is right, and then pouncing.”  Masur’s excellent analysis of Lincoln’s thoughtful but tactical approach to change has relevance not just for today’s political leaders, as Masur argues, but perhaps more urgently for today’s campus leaders, for whom the imperative to change has never been more urgent, or widely shared. 

Consider the results of a recent national poll where 83 percent said American higher education "needs to change to remain competitive," or Vartan Gregorian’s call for a president’s commission on higher education. There is widespread recognition of the unprecedented and inexorable drivers of change -- demographic, social, technological, and economic. Few people on or off a campus would defend the status quo in American higher education today, as it does not appear to be serving anyone very well.   

Since 2005, I have served as a dean and provost at two regional campuses in the University of Wisconsin System, a time of extraordinary change, disruption, even upheaval, where political leadership has been a significant driver of change, not just in how we fund public colleges and universities but in how we deliver college degrees.  These have been tumultuous years for higher education in the state of Wisconsin, with 2011 our annus horribilis, beginning with UW Madison’s move for independence and ending with the UW system intact but redesigned to allow more independence for, and increased competition among, campuses within the system.

Through these difficult years, I have not heard anyone seriously defend the status quo.  For the most part, there has been consensus that institutions need to adapt to the brutal new realities.  For the most part the debates have been not about whether to change but about how to change and at what pace.

“I have been described as an incrementalist.  It is true,” University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan said last June in response to concerns of the Board of Visitors that she wasn’t moving the campus to change fast enough. “Sweeping action may be gratifying and may create the aura of strong leadership, but its unintended consequences may lead to costs that are too high to bear.”  Many people have said many things about the state of American higher education in 2012, but none resonated more for me than those of President Sullivan. Her firing and reinstatement may be read as a cautionary tale for ready/fire/aim-style leaders who believe that urgency justifies acting first and thinking later. 

What are the unintended consequences of acting first and thinking later that may “lead to costs that are too high to bear”? 

For one, the sacrifice of the core values of our profession -- the academic freedom to pursue knowledge wherever it may lead and the value of shared decision-making.  Too often quick, sweeping action -- what is sometimes, benignly, called “nimbleness” -- leads us to compromise our core value of shared governance.   

I have been told that over ten years ago, as they faced the reality of what the Internet meant to the future of the news industry, the leaders of one of our national newspapers sat down and, after some discussion, identified their core value as providing objective, accurate information and analysis to citizens of a participatory democracy.  As long as the core remained unchanged, everything else was on the table.  We need to have the same conversation in higher education (a presidential commission should begin here) and on each campus:  What are our core values?  How do we adapt to the current realities without compromising those values?  I contend that thoughtful, deliberate, inclusive decision-making remains a core value. 

We hear from politicians and the public the lament, why can’t universities be more nimble, like businesses?  We must be careful in looking to business for inspiration and guidance, as theirs is an industry built on a different set of values, values that are good for business but not for educating citizens of a democracy.  We must be mindful of the alienating effect of bottom-line thinking on our faculty, staff and students. 

A faculty colleague at a university in the UK, someone who has inspired me with the example of her outstanding accomplishments as a teacher and scholar, recently admitted that, after a brilliant, 30-year career, she was feeling “miserable” about the state of higher education.  A fellow administrator on a campus in the U.S. broke down in tears over her frustration at working for “five provosts in three years.”  On too many campuses faculty and staff feel bone-deep fatigue or calloused cynicism brought on by a spaghetti-against-the wall approach to change that sends people scrambling in different directions, expending diminishing energy on counterproductive strategies without effective coordination or communication. 

It is true that we are faced with an existential choice: adapt or die. But if in adapting we lose who we are, we have not survived. I encourage campus leaders to put down their Harvard Business Review and go see Spielberg’s "Lincoln," whose example of leadership in the midst of great social turmoil has more relevance to the context of American higher education which was itself founded on “a faith in slow, deliberate, incremental transformation.”  

Terry Brown is interim senior special assistant for academic and student affairs in the University of Wisconsin System, and a former dean and provost at two campuses in the system.

Editorial Tags: 

Controversial Vice President Resigns at Saint Louis U.

Manoj Patankar has resigned as vice president for academic affairs at Saint Louis University, but his departure from the administration hasn't resolve tensions with faculty members and students who have been demanding his ouster and that of the Rev. Lawrence H. Biondi, the president, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported. Patankar's plans for a post-tenure review system that many faculty members viewed as the de facto elimination of tenure set off much of the current controversy, but many professors and students have other grievances about Father Biondi, whom they say has cut them off from meaningful roles in campus governance. Indeed the response of the Facebook group "SLU Students for No Confidence" was "This is only a small step, but a positive one. Our real grievances are with Father Biondi."


Ad keywords: 

Timely Gift for Columbia on 12/12/12

People marked December 12, 2012 (or 12/12/12) in variety of ways. At 12:12 p.m., Sharik Currimbhoy, an entrepreneur in India, gave $12.12 million to Columbia University, his alma mater.

Purdue Trims Presidential Compensation

Purdue University announced Saturday that the compensation for its incoming president -- Mitchell E. Daniels, who is wrapping up his tenure as Indiana's governor -- will represent a reduction in spending. The previous president's total compensation was $555,000, including deferred compensation. Daniels is eligible to earn up to $546,000, but only with achievement of specific goals and without deferred compensation. His base pay will be $420,000 -- and he will be eligible to earn the rest by meeting specific goals related to student affordability, graduation and student achievement, strategic program development with demonstrated student outcomes in knowledge and understanding, philanthropic support, and faculty excellence and recognition. Keith Krach, board chair at Purdue, said it would be difficult for Daniels to meet the goals in all areas.

Ad keywords: 

How could University of California have avoided logo mess?

Smart Title: 

U. of California suspends use of much-mocked new symbol. Are there lessons for other institutions?

Student Workers at U. of Toledo Object to Dress Code

Student workers at the University of Toledo are objecting to a new rule that will require them to wear khaki pants and a blue shirt with the university logo while on the job, The Toledo Blade reported. University officials said that the uniform will promote professionalism, and that some of the opposition is based on incorrect information that the new rule applies to tutors. Students who are protesting the rule note that they would need to carry their uniforms with them and find a place to change if they don't want to wear the uniform all day. One student opposed to the new dress code told the Blade: “What they’ve told us is that the dress code will help prepare us for the future — yes, if we’re going to become a cashier at McDonald’s, or help people buy sneakers."

Ad keywords: 

Protests at Morgan State Over Ouster of President

Students, faculty members and alumni are protesting the decision by Morgan State University's board not to renew the contract of David Wilson as president, The Baltimore Sun reported. Wilson's supporters point to progress at the university in the three years he has led it, and the lack of any information from the board about why it decided to seek a new president. The board chair on Thursday continued to defend the vote to oust Wilson and not to give any explanation for the decision. Only weeks prior to the vote, Wilson received a positive evaluation from the board.


Ad keywords: 

Yeshiva U. Apologizes for Handling of Sex Abuse Charges in 1970s

Richard M. Joel, president of Yeshiva University, issued an apology Thursday for the way the institution may have handled allegations during the 1970s of sex abuse of boys at a high school the university runs. An investigation by The Forward found that the university dealt with allegations of sex abuse by high school officials by letting them resign and seek employment elsewhere, without the allegations ever being reported to authorities. Norman Lamm, who was president of the university from 1976 to 2003 and is now chancellor, told the newspaper that it was standard practice to let such employees move on. “If it was an open-and-shut case, I just let [the staff member] go quietly. It was not our intention or position to destroy a person without further inquiry," Lamm said.

The statement issued by Joel, the current president, said that there are many procedures and policies in place now to prevent such incidents. His statement also included a university apology for what happened in the past. "The safety and well-being of our students is Yeshiva University’s highest priority. The inappropriate behavior and abuse alleged by The Forward to have taken place in the past, and described in statements attributed by The Forward to Dr. Lamm, are reprehensible," he said. "The actions described represent heinous and inexcusable acts that are antithetical both to Torah values and to everything that Yeshiva University stands for. They have no place here, in our community, or anywhere at all. The thought that such behavior could have occurred at our boys’ high school, or anywhere at this institution, at any time in its past, is more than sufficient reason to express on behalf of the university, my deepest, most profound apology."


Ad keywords: 

Survey: Board members think college is too expensive, but not at their institutions

Smart Title: 

Trustees' group's survey finds that board members think the price of college is too high – just not at their own institutions.

Faculty Frustrations at NYU

Some arts and sciences faculty members at New York University are pushing for a vote of no confidence in President John Sexton, The New York Times reported. Frustrations concern local issues (an expansion plan) and Sexton's drive to have the university open campuses in locations all over the world, including in countries that lack academic freedom. Sexton's supporters cite the university's increasing ability to attract top students and faculty members. Complicating the discussions at NYU is a debate over whether various bodies have the authority to hold a vote of no confidence.


Ad keywords: 


Subscribe to RSS - administrators
Back to Top