Colleges must seek new kinds of leaders (essay)
We began this series of articles with the assertion that most American colleges and universities will need to change aspects of their operation in substantial ways if they are to remain relevant, if they are to continue as viable institutions. Nothing we have heard in conversations with numerous experts and from extensive reviews of literature, analysis, and speeches gives us cause to alter our original view.
With some notable exceptions, such change will involve and ultimately affect all institutional stakeholders, but this change must be led, hence the importance of presidents and chancellors.
We close the series unsure of the will and the capacity of most institutions’ leaders to undertake and bring about the necessary change. Worse, we worry that governing boards will make what was recently described as “the mistake of letting a good crisis go to waste” and fail to use the opportunities presidential turnover affords boards for bringing in a leader who can be the change agent needed.
Moreover, we doubt that many American colleges and universities and their leadership will act on the need for substantial change in a timely manner, even if the need for change is urgent and generally accepted as necessary. As novelist Robert Penn Warren observed:
Gradualism is all you’ll get. History, like nature, knows no jumps. Except the jump backward, maybe.
Institutions -- and not just higher education ones -- survive at least in part because they do not deviate from the past often or in significant ways. It seems more likely therefore that most colleges and universities will adapt to a changed landscape through a series of accommodations that do not break sharply with practice, policy or tradition. After all, early on in the series we noted that colleges and universities have changed in recent decades, even if the change wrought now appears modest and did not alter the fundamental operating principles circumstances now call into question.
The Perils of Nostalgia
There is much about the past of American higher education to encourage the ferocity with which many argue for holding fast to what colleges and universities are and were. Foremost is the conclusion that what some students experience plain and simply works, even if the evidence that supports that view is more anecdotal than systematic.
Professors can relate stories about individual students whose lives were quite literally and profoundly changed as a result of a collegiate experience. Counselors can speak to the capacity of students for overcoming all sorts of hardships while in college and then moving on to successful lives and careers. Alumni are apt to attribute some of what they see themselves having accomplished as a direct result of their college education.
Data on student learning do not support the assertion that real and powerful change results from college. This only encourages many of us within higher education to critique methods of assessment and analysis of student learning or reinforce the view held by some that the impact of college comes only with time. In any case, those among us who are Baby Boomers may be excused for a bit of nostalgia for what now seems to be a much more predictable world in which higher education operated.
After all, if there were not enough spaces to house all the students who sought entry to college in yesteryears, there was a degree of certainty that we would build the capacity – always belatedly, it’s true – to absorb them.
If so many – too many, some argued – entering freshmen arrived for their college classes with no family experience in postsecondary education and weak writing, reading, reasoning, mathematical capacities, one could nevertheless stick to standards even if that meant remediating student deficiencies, after which most students would move on and, in time, graduate.
If entry to the more prestigious American colleges and universities was a non-starter for most students seeking admission, then there would be space somewhere in what was euphemistically referred to as the “system of higher education” that, with some exceptions, was not, in fact, a “system,” but, rather, a loose constellation of mostly state-based institutions that usually competed with one another much more than they collaborated. Still, there was a seat somewhere for anyone who wanted to attend.
The conviction is therefore steadfast that the system that has been in place, while by no means perfect, nevertheless worked for many and made the United States the uncontested world leader in tertiary education.
They are not wrong per se, but we worry that some proponents may be more nostalgic than accurate. Circumstances today will not permit us to reclaim a storied past that is more remembered than real, more comforting than informative. Conditions of those earlier times no longer prevail, save for a handful of prestigious and remarkably wealthy institutions.
But Why Change?
A case can be made that we have overstated the need for change in one, some or even all of the institutional types of colleges and universities. After all, numerous signs point to an increased need and demand for higher education for both individual and collective ends. National policies around the world call for more students to enroll in tertiary education, for universities to produce and disseminate more new knowledge, for higher education to more closely align with national needs and ambitions.
Students and their families are told that the premium accruing from a college degree more than offsets the costs of enrollment. Older adults hear that their best chance for gainful employment is to return to postsecondary education or training. Under-represented minorities are exhorted to find ways to gain entry to college lest they remain trapped in low-income jobs with short futures.
Surely, some may contend, in such a world much of what higher education has to offer need not be changed, or if change is required, its scope is likely to be limited and can be accommodated by adaptation, not transformation.
Presidential Pathways and a Bias Toward the Status Quo
Our doubts about the impact of incremental change stem from an appreciation of the difficulty of bringing about organizational change in general. Anyone who has attempted to effect change in organizations of virtually any type cannot mistake the inertia and resistance one confronts.
Pathways leading to the academic presidency more often than not reinforce personal and professional biases favoring the status quo or else encourage strategies to alter colleges and universities so as to resemble more prestigious institutions. Community colleges offer bachelor’s degrees, liberal arts colleges encourage faculty to pursue more research, comprehensive public universities award doctorates, and aspiring institutions expand their research agendas. Very few may become what they aspire to be.
Still, adhering to the status quo or expanding institutional mission will not, for most colleges and universities, be effective ways of dealing with the forces at work on American higher education.
Our doubts about the likelihood of sufficient change also reflect the assessment that the process by which presidents are recruited, evaluated and retained does little to encourage the sort of institutional change we believe will be required. This is particularly troubling since the change imperative comes as a sizable number of incumbent presidents begin to reach retirement age.
We are skeptical that many boards will use searching and hiring to advance an agenda of change in the person and the office of president. Instead boards will default, we fear, to a slightly altered version of the incumbent president’s profile and mandate, primarily to raise more money, keep faculty calm, make sure the campus can attract students, and recruit enough students whose families are somehow able to pay continually rising tuition and fees. Unfortunately, these nostrums will not suffice for many institutions.
Nevertheless, from the outset of our examination of pathways to the academic presidency we recognized that some colleges and universities will not be affected as much by the forces that are at work on the majority of U.S. higher education institutions. Their endowments, their assurance of sufficient enrollments of students whose families are prepared to pay premium cost, and/or their ability to attract external funding of various sorts on something approaching a regular and consistent basis make them much less susceptible in the foreseeable future to the pressures that afflict most institutions. In these few cases traditional pathways to the academic presidency and bias toward the status quo will continue to suffice.
We hasten to add that we do not believe the number of “safe havens” to be large and surely does not encompass anything like the majority of existing institutions. That said, we noted in our conversations with both institutional and higher education association representatives that nearly all saw their own college or university or institutional members as belonging to the category of institutions less affected by the powerful forces at work on the sector.
The Marketplace of Higher Education
If gradualism is indeed, as Warren observed, what history offers up with respect to change, we think there is not much gain to be made from incremental efforts. One reason for thinking that a gradual approach for effecting change may not work for a sizable number of colleges is that tertiary education is now a market attracting bright minds, large investments, and little nostalgia on the part of persons who know how to profit from offering college degrees. Indeed, virtually all of the growth in the number of degree-granting institutions over the past 30 years has come from for-profit institutions’ creation.
When critics challenged the quality and worth of the education provided, for-profit spokespersons could cite increasing demand for workplace-oriented programs, “adult-friendly” policies and practices, and the dispensing of full-time, tenure-track faculty, permanent facilities that were costly to build and maintain, and low-enrollment/low-demand “service” courses as improvements and efficiencies over conventional higher education.
The rapid growth of enrollment in for-profit institutions may have also served to weaken any impetus for designing and implementing lower-cost alternatives. After all, if profit is one’s aim and current prices generate substantial returns, why cut prices?
But if federal student financial aid is unable to keep pace with the rise in tuition and fees (and it has not done so for either public or private, nonprofit institutions, little less those of for-profit universities), we can expect the search for less costly means of delivering postsecondary education to be much more intense than has been the case until now. .
Couple the profit motive with the chance to “do good” by offering more affordable and at least as effective higher education and the for-profit universities can serve the interests of several stakeholders – students and their families and the federal government, to mention the two most prominent. What’s more, the disposition of some elements of the American citizenry to look favorably on “private sector” solutions could make the for-profits’ economy version of a college education all the more attractive.
Sources of and Agents for Change
There are reasons or, more precisely, possibilities for more sanguine expectations for American higher education, some of which have relevant and powerful historical precedents that make them more plausible.
First, the history of American higher education includes moments when individuals and small groups summoned up the resources needed to establish institutions dedicated to advancing research and learning, practicing service and providing access to special groups. These institutions offered an alternative collegiate experience to that which prevailed at the time. Berea and Oberlin come to mind as historical precedents.
The fragmentation of an America that bowls alone today seems like fertile soil in which a group can plant and cultivate a distinctive kind of college or university. Liberty University was established in 1971 by the Reverend Jerry Falwell and other Christian evangelicals and now describes itself as “the largest private, nonprofit university in the nation, and the largest Christian university in the world,” with on-campus enrollment of 12,500 and online enrollment of 70,000.
Singularity University was created in 2008 “to assemble, educate and inspire a new generation of leaders who strive to understand and utilize exponentially advancing technologies to address humanity’s great challenges.” In launching a new program entitled “FutureMed,” the University’s website describes the program as “exponentially... faster, smaller, cheaper, better.”
Second, despite the very clear assignment of responsibility for education, including postsecondary education, to the states, American history includes episodes when the federal government asserted a more prominent role. It is not unimaginable to consider the federal government intervening with existing higher education institutions to align/coordinate pre-K-through-20 and address workforce development needs.
Perhaps more likely would be a federal initiative to enhance and ensure student mobility among courses, programs and colleges. Community colleges were America’s answer to “open universities,” but we argued and, just recently, the sector’s primary membership association, the American Association of Community Colleges acknowledged that these institutions can no longer be all things to all people.
Third, the late 19th and early 20th centuries provide examples of how the concentration of private wealth at the time made it possible for philanthropists to create entirely new colleges and universities that were – again, for the times -- different from other institutions. Today’s incarnations of Rockefeller, Mellon and Carnegie surely possess the means to do something in similar fashion, and we anticipate that such founders would seek out leadership less imbued with tradition and less cautious about differentiating their universities from others.
We await, for example, a new institution whose founder seeks to build a university focused on learning more so than teaching, and drawing on the knowledge emerging from studies in the cognitive sciences. How much of the logistics and infrastructure of existing colleges and their practices might be deemed irrelevant and unnecessary? What role does technology play?
All of these and more questions await a working model, which may not be too distant in time, particularly if a president were to be recruited who embraced such an approach. After all, it is worth remembering that no less an institution than the University of Chicago was founded by the American Baptist Education Society, financed by John D. Rockefeller, and constructed on land donated by a department store owner.
What’s more, the new university’s founding president, William Harper Rainey, was determined to create an institution “bran splinter new”: what the university now describes as “an institution of scholars unafraid to cross boundaries, share ideas, and ask difficult questions.”
Finally, our doubts notwithstanding, we believe there are unusual presidents and governing boards who can be the agents of change that many (but not all) colleges and universities need for the future.
Western Governors University was the creation of a group of state leaders who could foresee the need for greater capacity, more flexibility, and lower costs in higher education. A competency-based approach to student progression freed the education offered by removing it from a reliance on “seat time” and, as WGU’s president, Robert Mendenhall noted, resulted increased productivity and shorter time to graduation.
Just as impressive is the increase of only $200 over six years in the $6,000 tuition per year WGU charges students. Moreover, the competency model allows a student to work at her/his own pace, thereby acknowledging the different ways people learn.
Arizona State University’s president, Michael Crow, left Columbia, one of the original colonial colleges, but brought with him the notion of a new kind of American university, “an egalitarian institution committed to academic excellence, access, and maximum social impact.” Much of what Crow and his colleagues have sought to accomplish is very different from the paths of most public research universities.
A critical element in ASU’s own change process is the imperative to remain focused on and engaged with the region the university is charged with serving, thereby reflecting the distinctive characteristics of the Sun Corridor and differentiating itself from other institutions.
But President Crow acknowledges that change comes hard and slowly to the academy, noting that the “objective has been to accelerate a process of institutional evolution that might otherwise have taken more than a quarter-century and compress it into a single decade.” Ten years, it seems, is a rapid pace of change.
In a case where faculty were the agents of change, MIT’s OpenCourseWare initiative began with professors asking how the then still-young Internet could be employed to advance the institution’s mission. By late 2007, the entire curriculum’s course content was available online for free.
Most recently, MIT joined forces with Harvard to launch EdX, an initiative to provide online courses designed by the two institutions free of charge.
Florida’s Valencia College was recognized recently by the Aspen Society. In accepting the award, President Sanford Shugart related how the open-enrollment institution began by re-examining “habits and assumptions” about how to fulfill a “service ethic” for a student population made up of under-represented populations in a region reeling from double-digit unemployment. The changes implemented by the college resulted in dramatic increases in graduation rates and employment that surpass those of even the most successful community colleges.
Change is possible, but it is not easy and requires leadership that entails risk.
So, Who Are the Next Generation College and University Presidents?
We expect to witness the tipping point of gender within a decade at most, followed by a time when women presidents are the rule, not the exception. The small gains by women in being selected for the academic presidency will be dwarfed in future years as women continue to succeed in higher education in much greater numbers than do men across virtually all aspects of the sector.
We are less optimistic that we will see the status of persons of color in higher education improve substantially. The social contract that undergirded public colleges and universities for so long and consisted at least in part of the stipulation that institutional policies and the cost of attending college would not serve as barriers to underrepresented students seems threadbare today.
We think it likely for more boards of colleges and universities struggling to survive to seek out and recruit a president with experience beyond the academy, as has occurred more frequently of late. Industry veterans have had careers that have afforded them experience with saving floundering enterprises and creating entirely new kinds of business.
We think it plausible for at least a few boards to consider candidates for president who bring experience from for-profit institutions. Leaders of for-profit universities have established an educational model that was doubted by many to become a competitor in the higher education landscape.
In both cases, these individuals have successfully adapted to complex organizations, challenged prevailing cultures and traditions, created environments encouraging experimentation and innovation, and developed a comfort for risk. As presidents of traditional higher education enterprises, they will bring a needed drive to examine bold mechanisms for achieving new directions, coupled with a sense of pragmatism.
Discussions of the institution’s health and how the college and university will need to change will be complex and almost surely contested. College and university presidents will need the ability to honor the voices of stakeholders along with experience in negotiating and living with a measure of compromise.
Despite low acceptance to date, planning presidential succession and developing leadership within institutions can be of enormous benefit to colleges and universities. Developing presidents from within and investing in succession planning have the potential to allow institutions to begin change efforts sooner and address what will appear to be insurmountable political challenges and obstacles. These future presidents will be invested in the intuition and have an astute awareness of the political environment both internal and external to the institution.
Governing boards will be critical to create the conditions that make such change possible. To that end, we hold out some hope that boards will look beyond the financial responsibilities of being fiduciaries and accept the full implications of their office.
Boards will serve their institutions well by examining their colleges’ and universities’ missions across a competitive landscape. For many public colleges and universities this will require recognizing limitations and make what are likely to be stark choices among multiple missions and stakeholder interests.
For private research-intensive universities and liberal arts colleges it is less a recalibration of mission and more a serious discussion about the means to ensure the fulfillment of mission. Marshaling energies and resources in well-articulated direction will do more than keep the institution fiscally viable, it has the ability to address public doubt about the role of the institution in improving broader social ends.
Our message throughout this series is that of change, the need for change, and the risks of either not changing or doing so too slowly. But we close arguing for the preservation of America’s institutional diversity in higher education. Ours is a messy, complicated mélange of colleges, institutes, and universities that usually perplexes visitors from other countries where one or perhaps two types of institutions exist. Explanations of why we Americans host what seems to others to be a potpourri of colleges and universities founder on curiosities of history, law, custom, and economics.
But in ways somewhat analogous to biodiversity, the complexity of American higher education enhances the survival and adaptive capacity of colleges and universities by allowing them to experiment within reasonable ranges associated with their respective institutional types.
Moreover, institutional differences require different kinds of presidents, and presidents, in turn, reinforce and strengthen institutional type. More, not less, diversity and differentiation are needed, and a governing board serves best when trustees recognize the distinctive type of institution for which they are responsible and seek out a president capable of helping to make that institution the best in class.
Finally, we believe that the hardy souls who, in spite or because of the challenges that confront higher education still aspire to the academic presidency and the governing boards who will, after all, decide who becomes college and university presidents might do well to read again from the ancients, in this case, Ovid, who argued in Metamorphoses –
...in all creation
Nothing endures, all is in endless flux....
Nothing retains its form; new shapes from old
Nature, the great inventor, ceaselessly
Contrives. In all creation, be assured,
There is no death – no death, but only change
Richard A. Skinner is senior consultant to the firm of Harris/IIC Partners, executive recruiters for senior administrators and scholars/clinicians at research-intensive universities, academic health/medical centers, and university research parks. He was president of Royal Roads University, in Canada, and of Clayton State University and an online learning unit of the University System of Georgia. Emily R. Miller is a consultant to Harris/IIC Partners.