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What Do Presidents Talk About?

An evolving discussion.

October 28, 2018
 
 

What do college and university presidents talk about when they meet together in private? That has changed over time. When I first became a president in 2012, presidential meetings were dominated by discussion of MOOCs, massive open online courses.  Some presidents smugly asserted that because they were first adopters of this transformative technology, their colleges possessed a massive competitive advantage over the rest of us slackers, who were dooming our institutions to almost immediate demise.  Presidents who did not support MOOCs sat in their seats with folded arms and glowered, muttering to themselves, correctly as it turned out, that education and content delivery are two very different things. We still await the promised “total disruption” of higher education. How technology can be used productively to provide great education, in any other than an ancillary role, remains an open question. 

More recently, presidential meetings have been dominated by an issue that was not even on the radar screen a few years ago: mental health.  Many presidents are deeply concerned about the apparently unlimited demand for mental health services on their campuses, a trend driven by major and disturbing increases in student anxiety and depression.  At a recent college presidents meeting, I participated in a roundtable discussion with roughly twenty-five other presidents designed to identify the single most worrisome issue on our campuses.  I thought the “winner” was going to be concern over our business model.  To my surprise, mental health prevailed.  Everyone agreed that destigmatization of mental illness is a positive development, but many presidents worried that their campuses simply cannot manage the cost and burden of operating full-service mental health programs.  Some presidents talked openly about scaling back or outsourcing their programs and the need to decrease parental expectations of care in order to keep costs in check. 

Presidents also spend a lot of time these days discussing policies toward controversial outside speakers.  On the one hand, we all want to provide open forums for intellectual exchange.  Unfortunately, when speakers come to town with an express desire to trigger counter-protests, the university can be stuck with a price tag in excess of $100,000, and sometimes much more, for policing and security expenses.  Presidents are spending more time discussing possible options to limit these costs while still protecting free speech.  Short answer: no easy solution. 

What presidents never seem to do, in my experience, is talk about the big picture: the purposes of higher education and the extent to which we are meeting those goals.  We never talk about how all of our schools function together – or don’t – as a system.  We rarely talk about the future of academic research, reforming the U.S. Department of Education’s higher education budget, access and quality in undergraduate education, loan default rates, or poor outcomes at many schools.  This failure to talk about systemic issues may reflect the (understandable) fact that all presidents are worried primarily about what is happening in their own backyards.  It may also reflect a collective action problem. Most presidents are competing against their peers, not collaborating, and no one is responsible for (or apparently that concerned about) collective performance for the system as a whole.   As a result, there is no real sense of leadership today in the higher education community, only leadership on specific campuses or specific systems. That may have been okay during higher education’s golden age, but is it appropriate today, in an era dominated by systemic issues like increasing costs, declining state support, and public anxiety over outcomes?  Probably not.

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