Reading 'The Fix' and Thinking About Higher Ed Leadership

A different set of skills.

October 19, 2016

The Fix: How Nations Survive and Thrive in a World in Decline by Jonathan Tepperman

Published in September of 2016

What would be on your top 5 list of intractable higher ed problems?

My list would include:  access, costs, public disinvestment, quality variation, and adjunctification.


Our problems in higher ed often feel too big to tackle.  This despair at the current challenges we face in higher ed is one good reason why people in postsecondary leadership roles should invest the time to read Jonathan’s Tepperman’s excellent new book The Fix.

Yes, we have real challenges in higher ed.  These challenges, however, are small compared to those faced by the leaders profiled in The Fix.

If Brazil can tackle extreme poverty, and if Mexico can overcome decades of political dysfunction, surely we can find a way to reverse public disinvestment in higher education.

If Rwanda can build a strong civil society after the trauma of genocide, and Botswana can escape the resource curse to build a more resilient economy, can’t we find some way to improve learning while lowering the costs of accessing higher education for our students.

And if both Indonesia and New York City can take steps to secure their populations against future terrorist attacks, shouldn’t we be able to provide decent levels of autonomy, security, and compensation for our postsecondary educators.

What all the stories have in common The Fix is that of courageous, resilient, and flexible leadership.  The case that Tepperman makes is that difficult change requires extraordinary leadership - but that leaders need not be extraordinary people.  Rather, the best leaders are those who fail multiple times, but who are willing to change tactics and retreat from old beliefs while persistently fighting for long-term change.

The lesson from The Fix for higher ed is that, perhaps, we should evolve our conception of the ideal postsecondary leader.  We should move away from the idea that there are some higher leaders who are innately talented - or even ideally prepared for their leadership roles by dint of their academic pedigrees or previous titles.

Instead, we should encourage higher ed leaders who are willing to compromise both their beliefs (if not values) and customary methods in the service of reaching long-term goals.

We tend to look at a conciliatory leadership style as perhaps weak and over-accommodating.  We want strong vision and a willingness to fight through all obstacles to reach that ultimate goal.

If we listen to the stories in The Fix, however, we might start to evolve our thinking of leadership efficacy to one that includes higher levels of modesty, listening skills, and the ability to compromise.

What are you reading?


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