Thirty-five years ago when I graduated college and set my career sites on higher education, I wanted to be a college president. Being involved in student politics played a part, in addition to being a student of Robert Sproull’s, President at the University of Rochester, excellent leadership. That aspiration did not come to pass. Now I see myself as more of an innovator, builder and an enthusiast (and therefore also a critic) than a leader per se, so I probably drifted in a direction that plays more to my strengths. Even with those insights, I can still get plenty excited about the idea of representing important issues from the perch of a presidential office. What an honor it must be to stand behind an institution that improves the life of every single student, pushes the boundaries of knowledge, and holds a hand out to communities. What a privilege to be among those who represent the crown jewel of American society, the vehicle of so much personal expansion and social mobility. The great hope of almost all immigrants, if not for themselves, then for their children. And let us not forget that with the exception of native peoples, we are all otherwise immigrants.
Thirty-five years hence, the landscape of college and university presidencies is quite different. I had a front row seat to a microcosm of that change while at Cornell. It was a lazy Saturday afternoon in 2005 when the email noting Jeffrey Lehman's resignation popped up. Immediately I wrote to Polley McClure, the Vice President of Information Technology, asking if it was a hoax. She ruefully replied it was not. Complicated by personal issues to be sure, this event professionally signaled a warning bell in the night to all administrators that had already rung in less press-worthy institutions, and would continue to ring unto today. Boards would step in, absent impropriety, crossing a line than none other than President Emeritus H.T. Rhodes of Cornell had established many years before: boards were to be “noses in and hands out” of administration.
Every institution can tell its own story, whether it be about the removal of board chair portraits from prominent placements to ill-chosen metaphors of drowned bunnies that bring on a crisis, but the overall narrative is larger than any one tale. Turbulence at the top is a symptom for what ails higher education generally. Buffeted by a society that has lost its bearings for the middle class, American colleges and universities struggle against tremendous reduction in state support, searing criticisms for exponential tuition increases, which are the result, for the most part, of complicated compliance portfolios to maintain federal grants and tuition supports together with the on-going challenges of global developments in an information economy.
Perhaps the most glaring gap in the scope of this change has been the absence of sound and reasonable federal policy to underwrite support for higher education, beginning with student aid (that should NOT be taxed at 6% interest rates, e.g.). In the classical style of Ancient Greece, U.S. higher education’s strength is also its weakness – its Carnegie class diversity. Public, private, large, small and medium campuses further complicate an already complex landscape. Competition among colleges for federal grants, administrators/staff, faculty and students pump up everything from salaries to food offerings to climbing walls. The tacks that each institutional president has made within this context make up the stories we now read on an almost weekly basis, amplified, and sometimes distorted, by social media and often without the necessary checks on how difficult it is to obtain top-flight talent in a societal market that pays obscene salaries for leadership.
What must be done? A great deal. The presidential election bubbled higher education up as an issue deserving of national policy. Expenses are just the start of what should be sustained attention and public discussion of the costs. Why should higher education’s fiscal development be any less of a percentage than is medical care in this country? If your answer is that it should not, you would be correct. The factors that make medical care expensive make higher education expensive with some special twists such as the exploitative costs of scholarly publishing. Simple math suggests that those expenses combined with reduction of state support exacerbated the rise in tuition.
Many institutional administrators will balk at this suggestion of nation policy attention, however. Inside the beltway strategy of national associations is to duck and cover when it comes to proactive federal policy in the belief that to do so best maintains institutional autonomy. Those days are over. An antiquated approach constructed in a very different era will sustain neither the quantity or quality of growth this country requires for higher education to supply the labor force with domestic talent or continue to be the single greatest vehicle for social mobility. Chancellors and presidents of systems, universities and colleges should get much more creative about how to form common ground. Going it alone simply will no longer work for the enterprise overall. It will take personal courage to contemplate consolidation, but better to do it together than to let market vultures pick individual institutions apart.
Media can also make a contribution. How about touting successes as much as failures? By no means have I done a study, but there are any number of excellent presidents and chancellors among us who every day take extraordinary measures to maintain and develop higher education for contemporary challenges. President Michael McRobbie of Indiana, Harvey G. Stenger at Binghamton University and Chancellor Kumble R. Subbaswamy of University of Massachusetts Amherst jump quickly to mind from my own experience as leaders with vision and energy in the research public sector. Joel Seligman at my alma mater, private mid-sized research university, has carried Robert Sproull’s work forward brilliantly. Perhaps readers in the comments below can contribute the names of individuals whom you know who distinguish this field.
With devotion and without illusions, higher education leaders should take advantage of the opportunity that this election season offers to make policy. Better, for once, to shape the debate, rather than be at the behest of some politicians who would make higher education a whipping boy. Perhaps it is the remnant of my younger self that speaks. But so, too, is it all reasonable people’s desire to move the general debate of this election cycle from entertainment shock back to serious politics. Higher education can play a leading role in elevating the discourse. It has an obligation to educate and model civic engagement. No better way to model citizenship than to make a good example of itself.
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