Higher Ed and “The End of Power”

Applying Naim’s framework to postsecondary education.

April 21, 2015
The End of Power by Moises Naim
Published in March of 2014.
You may have heard about the The End of Power as the first book in Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook book club.  Don’t let this development dissuade you from reading this book.  Whatever you think about Facebook, Zuckerberg, or book clubs - The End of Power is worth your time and attention.
The people that would benefit most from reading this book are presidents, provosts, deans, VPs, and anyone else toiling away in the gardens of elite postsecondary education.  If you are running a high status institution of higher learning, and you are not worried about the future of your institution, then you are not paying attention.  The End of Power will disrupt your equanimity.
Naim’s main argument is that power is not what it used to be.   A set of forces, ranging from globalization to rapid technological change to the spread of social media and the erosion of traditional communications channels, have all conspired to erode authority and control.  Corporate, governmental, and organizational leaders no longer enjoy the power and authority that they once took for granted. Firms and institutions face constant competition and threats, and are always in danger of falling backwards in relation to newly emergent challengers.
The End of Power argument applies particularly well to 2 areas of higher education:
1.  Relative Institutional Status:
It may seem strange to argue that incumbent institutions occupying the top spots in institutional rankings are under threat of losing their exalted positions.  Isn’t the story that wealthy institutions are getting wealthier, as schools with larger endowments are able take advantage of investment vehicles that are unavailable to those without billion dollar plus endowments?  Wealth, however, is only part of the status (and rankings) story.  It does matter how much you have, but it also matters how you spend it. 
There are a great many institutions that are hungry to break into the top tiers of higher ed rankings.  These schools are perhaps more willing to take risks than the currently highly ranked incumbents.  Success can be a barrier to change.  If you buy Naim’s arguments in The End of Power, it is precisely those institutions that are most willing to evolve, change, and innovate that will stand the best chance of moving up the status (and economic) hierarchy.  The rankings for the top schools have not moved very much in the past 100 years.  History, however, may not be a predictor of future trends.  We may see more movement in the rankings in the next 2 decades than in all the decades that came before.
2.  Academic Leadership Authority:
In Naim’s framework, traditional higher education leaders (presidents, provosts, deans, etc.), enjoy less power on their campuses than at any time in the past.  Long held and closely cherished traditions and structures of faculty governance, tenure, and autonomy have always served to limit the power of academic leadership.  A college president is not like a corporate CEO. 
The question is, is the power and authority traditionally reserved for postsecondary leaders in a state of decline?  Do university presidents have less ability to impose their will upon the institutions that they lead than that was available to their predecessors?  What do you think?
Are you witnessing the end of power on your campus?
What are you reading?


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