Considering Leadership in the 21st Century: American Higher Education Should Not Panic

11/12/2013 02:24 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

A multitude of events have hit our sector in recent years:

  • Extraordinary governance stories at Penn State and the University of Virginia.
  • The MOOC movement.
  • Deep cuts in education funding.
  • Highly placed officials questioning the effectiveness of the sector.
  • Federal oversight that reaches further and further into our day-to-day operations.
  • A non-stop barrage of media stories that has successfully framed our value proposition almost entirely around salary earning potential.
  • Considerable fall-out from the for-profit sector.
  • Regional accreditation agencies facing challenges on multiple fronts.
  • Dramatic changes in regional demographics.
  • The increasing financial stratification of our society.

The entire value proposition of the sector is under siege. Many claim that we are not producing enough capable graduates because we are not doing our jobs well. And we spend too much doing it.

It would be hard to compare this to any other period of our sector's history. Not long ago, the strength of our democracy was inextricably linked to the access and freedom that our public and private higher education systems provided to its citizens. For sure, our country's natural resources, geographical location and form of government set it apart from the rest of the world. But you would be hard pressed to tell the American story without recognizing the impact our educational system had upon our nation's development over the last 100 years.

Most of our citizens benefitted from this educational model. California, for example, had a vision of how providing everyone with affordable higher education could transform a culture, a society and an economy. The California model was adapted across the country in the 1960s and citizens were proud to support higher education, knowing it propelled America forward on nearly all fronts. It is unlikely that anyone reading this post could not identify at least one element of their education that was funded by American citizens. So, what has happened?

Many believe the A Nation at Risk report from the Reagan administration might have been the turning point, when American citizens began to see themselves as taxpayers, first and foremost. And these taxpayers vote. Since then we have seen a steady stream of local and national leadership that makes the case that our educational system has fallen behind the rest of the world, putting our global dominance at great risk. What taxpayer should stand for that? To compound matters, a nonstop campaign by elected leaders regarding higher education's inefficiencies helps them make the case to voters (and taxpayers) that educational funding needs to be cut or funneled elsewhere. The very same citizens that benefitted from the world's greatest higher education system are now electing leadership that reduces educational funding and believes intrusive oversight is needed to protect the taxpayer's investment.

Are there inefficiencies in our educational systems? Yes, these are inherent in large systems. But we know from our own experiences that students are inspired by faculty in the classroom and through collaborative research. That inspiration catches fire in small settings, where the faculty member becomes a role model for the student in some manner. Put students in a small classroom with inspirational faculty and good things will happen. We know this is true because we have lived it. It costs money to facilitate this special experience, certainly, but who does not want this experience for their children or grandchildren? Why do other policy matters distract us when the equation is so clear?

Finally, our system is one of the few in the world where young adults are given great latitude on sorting out their life plans by exploring different disciplines. Yes, it produces the "swirling" effect, where students transfer between institutions and stop-out for a time for life's experiences. But it works, just look at Silicon Valley, Wall Street, NASA, Hollywood, etc. Our educational system has put our country at the front of nearly every human advancement. Could it actually be dysfunctional and inefficient when the sum total of what it produces is both unchallenged and unprecedented? And when students come from all over the world to study at our institutions?

So what can higher education leaders do to best prepare for continued turbulent times?

1. Implement and support rigorous outcomes assessment throughout the institution. We need to inspire our faculty so they fully appreciate that this is crucial in making the case for public and private investment. Outcomes assessment is straightforward: what student outcomes had you planned for with your programs, how did you assess progress toward those outcomes, and how did you use the assessment results to improve the programs.
Assessment = research. That's in our wheelhouse, correct?

2. Understand how our institutions perform within the sector. Given the academic and financial profiles of our new students, are our retention and graduation rates average or above average? If we're below average, call it what it is, and develop the needed institutional changes.

3. If we're comfortable with the first two points, then get involved with our regional and national associations to help make the case to elected and appointed officials that our sector has produced extraordinary results, especially given the one-of-a-kind access that we present to our citizens. My institution has excellent representation in DC and Sacramento and I'm sure we're not alone.

Can we reach the graduation rates that have been set out by various groups as 2020 (and beyond) goals? Yes, but it won't come with declining financial support. It didn't the first time around. The biggest challenge our sector faces is the college-readiness of high school graduates and, in some areas of the country, high school graduation rates. The work that can be done to better improve the collaborative performance of the K-16 system should be our nation's highest priority. That's a conversation for another day.

I am grateful to receive readers' comments and insights at