College and University Presidents: Bring on the Revolution

Where is academia headed and what are the implications for leadership? Many people are asking these questions and perhaps the most insightful answers will come from college and university presidents themselves. With that in mind, three Witt/Kieffer executive search consultants recently held confidential, one-on-one conversations with 14 sitting college and university presidents about the future of their industry.

Reinventing-Leadership-Higher-EducationThe discussions revealed trepidation that the “business model” of higher education today has dramatically changed and that the path forward is anyone’s guess. To be sure, however, there was optimism as well, with some presidents embracing the brave new world ahead.

The product of these candid, in-depth interviews is Reinventing Leadership in Higher Education, a special report from Karen Goldstein, PhD, Alice Miller and Jane Courson. “Reinventing Leadership” captures seven key themes the authors distilled from the insights of the presidents, and is required reading for those interested in how leaders must adapt to ensure the success of tomorrow’s colleges and universities.

The excerpt below is the first of seven themes and presents a taste of the full report:

1.    The revolution is here.

Whether from financial crises, global competition or disruptive technologies, higher education is irrevocably changing, causing each institution to re-evaluate its mission, practices, and operational model. The business model is broken, acknowledged the head of a prominent liberal arts college in the East. “The sticker price is way too high and the days of increasing tuition are coming to an end,” he says.

The times are fraught with uncertainty, with information technology—and the as-yet-unproven promise of an inexpensive, global, virtual education—the primary culprit. Presidents and administrators are “being ridiculously naïve about the threat that will come from alternative forms of higher education,” one president says. MOOCs (massive online open courses) and other online delivery formats have had their hiccups, he notes, but will persist in striving to displace bricks-and-mortar campuses. Traditional schools are not doomed by any means, he says, but “keeping our heads in the sand is not the right approach.”

“I have an overarching sense that the higher education business model is not sustainable,” concurs another president. “The pressure on families regarding the cost of higher education is growing, and I don’t know if we can act quickly enough to respond . . . without damaging the enterprise. Positive evolution takes time, and we are running out of time with these challenges.”

There is a sense of urgency to act among these presidents. “We need to dramatically assess and revise how we deliver an education,” the head of a Midwest liberal arts college puts it.

Who or what is to blame for the current predicament? Certainly, there are many external forces beyond the control of anyone in higher education. One interviewee, the head of a leading state technical institute, blames, among other things, an eroding family structure in the U.S., the recent economic malaise, and myopic legislators. Regarding this last point, he says, “Their shortsightedness scares me. I worry about how our society allocates resources.” Less than 20 percent of his school’s operating budget now actually comes from state funding, he notes.

Others blame college leaders themselves, particularly for allowing tuition to escalate without fully considering the long-term implications. Others see academe as losing a grip on its core values. “There is a lack of focus on education and too much focus on how we market ourselves,” the president of a small faith-based college says. “We are losing our vision of the long-term value of critical education and thinking skills.” The result is a trend towards many schools becoming glorified “Walmarts of education.”

This same president admits that, if higher education really looks at itself in the mirror, not all institutions should survive. “Some schools will have to go away,” he says. Which ones? “Society will make that decision for us.”

All of the presidents understand the cold, hard realities they face. While each one wished for the academic environment of the past, each leader also acknowledged that there is no going back. 

To explore other important themes and presidents’ suggestions for the future of higher education, please read Reinventing Leadership in Higher Education. (No registration is required.)

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