The Choice for Educational Leaders: Bold Vision or Mediocrity

Institutions of higher education are reshaping themselves—forced to do so in an era of shrinking budgets and heightened demands from students, lawmakers, and other stakeholders. As new institutions arise, so will new types of educational leaders. One trend is for colleges and universities to look for leaders with backgrounds in science and technology, for example, as Witt/Kieffer Education practice co-leader Lucy Leske mentioned recently in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The trend toward nontraditional candidates is also forcing presidential search committees to step up their games.

Someone quite familiar with the transformation of educational leaders is Robert Smith, PhD, former president of Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania. Smith currently serves as “of Counsel” to the Witt/Kieffer Higher Education Practice. In a recent conversation, Smith discusses the monumental challenges facing presidents at major colleges and universities and how they will need to be exceptional leaders while “constantly coping with budget downsizing even while facing possible enrollment increases.”

Trustees and others are calling for university presidents to be more entrepreneurial and businesslike, Smith notes, yet most presidents and educational leaders bristle at the notion. Is there a middle ground? “Only in the sense the president is caught in the middle,” says Smith. “Academics bristle at the imposition of what they believe it means to be ‘more businesslike’ because it is often code for changes they can’t control or have voice to. This is where a compelling vision is an essential bridge between the aspirations of the trustees and the campus.”

Robert Smith, educational leader

Robert Smith

“If the president can shape a vision that inspires and reassures both sides that there is a bright future, then the work necessary to get there is much easier,” Smith adds.

Vision Quest

Unfortunately, most institutions are lacking that vision, Smith concedes. “In a time when bold strategic visioning is necessary, the internal choices have been to take away a little bit from all programs and slowly sink to mediocrity across the board. As institutions become more and more alike, the ability for the president to articulate a differentiating vision will be important. The question for families seeking to spend their tuition dollars is: Why you and not the institution down the street? And cost will not be the deciding factor unless everyone wants to be the Walmart Institution of Higher Education. This will require savvy marketing and branding, two terms not always familiar to university presidential candidates or presidents.”

It will also require educational leaders who understand finance, enrollment management, law and myriad other specializations that in the past were the sole purview of others. Presidents with these skills rolled together with unmistakable vision will be critical but, not surprisingly agrees Smith, very hard to find.

Read the full conversation with Smith here.

By Paul Thomas, Senior Writer (@PaulWThomas)

Leave a Comment

Comments are closed.