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What Presidents Think: The Inside Higher Ed/Gallup Survey of College CEOs

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And now to use a decidedly 20th-century term, "hot off the press," to refer to a 21st-century invention, the web-based survey: Here we have the fourth survey of college and university presidents by Gallup and Inside Higher Ed. For those of you who subscribe to Inside Higher Ed, you may have seen the March 7 posting about this survey, released in advance of the American Council on Education (ACE) meeting.

Before commenting on the area I found of interest, namely financial and budgetary, I wanted to first briefly comment on the survey itself. An anonymous article posted on Inside Higher Ed on March 7 states that the survey reflects "representative response rates from various segments of public and private nonprofit institutions as well as for-profit colleges."

More on that later, however, first a word about our respondents: 846 web surveys were completed with a 27 percent return rate representing 438 public institutions (out of 1,836), 347 private institutions (out of 1,807), and 37 institutions from the for-profit sector (out of 1,811). Of course, maybe it's me, I was a double English and Humanities major as an undergraduate, but that doesn't add up to 846. I asked my institutional researcher, the stalwart Jason Rivera about the number and his response was "those numbers don't add up... They mention in the report that the associate privates were excluded because too small a number replied. That may be where some of the discrepancy is coming from but it doesn't explain all of it."

Next, I was curious about what appeared to be a low response rate and found an article in the International Journal of Internet Science that estimated for a survey format of this kind in which web survey respondents were sent email reminders, the average overall response rate was 43 percent. I again asked Jason and he thought "with that many attempts you should be at somewhere closer to 40 percent at the very least." He added, "I would definitely be wary of any responses gained from this survey because there is no real way of telling why other people didn't respond and what sample of the overall group is actually represented in the responses." Well, what I do know is that of those presidents who completed the survey, 50 percent were between 60 to 69, 70 percent were male and more than half had been in the position of president at their institution for five years or less. My teenage son summed up this group of respondents as: "a bunch of new, old men." This group, though, is thoroughly representative of, as The Chronicle of Higher Education states, "today's typical college leader." The Chronicle article is referencing an ACE survey, "The American College President 2012," where more than 1,660 respondents participated. Yet the representative institutional response rates that the Inside Higher Ed article refers to upon closer inspection reveals food for thought. Private non-profit colleges and universities represent by far the largest percentage in the U.S. and for-profits are an increasingly large player. Yet in this survey, public associates account for almost 31 percent of the total. So, I am not entirely convinced just how representative of institutions this survey is.

Multiple questions were asked of the respondents: among them opinions about President Obama's plan to rate colleges and the role of the federal government, data collecting, the financial sustainability of campuses, the current status of race relations on campus and if presidents believe their institutions handle sexual assault allegations appropriately. For the 73 percent of the presidents who did not respond to the survey, one could surmise that they were too busy dealing with one or more of the above situations to bother with a web survey, but that is pure conjecture on my part.

Unsurprisingly in this brave new reality we inhabit post 2008, finances occupied a significant portion of the survey. Slightly more than six in 10 presidents agreed that they are confident about the sustainability of their institution's financial model over the next five years with 26 percent strongly agreeing, although conversely that leaves 74 percent who did not. Separated into institutional categories there is a different story to be found. Private and public nonprofit institutions responded similarly, with 25 percent of leaders from the public sector strongly agreeing and 26 percent of their private-sector peers strongly agreeing. Yet the for-profits were positively merry with 42 percent strongly agreeing. This appears to be quite optimistic considering that the for-profit sector has come under increasing scrutiny by Congress. Based on this survey, we are looking at a major growth industry assumption. However, presidents were less sanguine when asked about the sustainability of their institution's financial model over 10 years, with just 16 percent of the leaders from the public and private nonprofits strongly agreeing and a still robust 35 percent of for-profits agreeing with this statement.

Endowment security was clearly an important factor in the chief officers' confidence in their institutions' fiscal future and again, as you might anticipate, those with the most money were seen as the most secure. Elite private institutions with endowments of more than one billion trumped all other higher education sectors. Eighty-nine percent of the respondents agreed, with 58 percent strongly agreeing, that the elites have a sustainable business model. Elite private liberal arts colleges with endowments of more than $500 million ranked second, with 72 percent of presidents agreeing that these colleges' business models are sustainable.

Respondents were largely in agreement that we are all still living in the shadow of 2008. In fact, the effect of the economic downturn, according to presidents, is still a negative one on institutional budgets and finances. No surprise there. Just 5 percent of all presidents strongly agree that the economic downturn that started in 2008 is effectively over at their institution. And this question leads me to the most interesting one of all, in my view, and possibly the most confusing: "Reports that a significant number of higher education institutions are facing existential financial crisis are overblown." I think the point of the question is to ask whether tales of colleges and universities facing a financial turning point or an unstable position have been magnified -- paraphrasing Mark Twain's statement: "Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated." Now this phrase, "existential financial crisis," in addition to the subtle Twain and Sartre allusions, (let's hear it for the humanities), reminded me of an article I'd recently read by Bloomberg BusinessWeek, a frequent user of Gallup information, titled: "Year in Review: 18 Existential Crises of 2013." Among its 18 examples were "Football's Existential Crisis" and "The MBA and the Existential Dilemma." In the Gallup survey, only 3 percent of presidents strongly agreed that the existential financial crisis is overblown and 17 percent strongly disagreed. Perhaps Gallup and Inside Higher Education might be interested in a website called "List of Colleges and Universities that have Closed, Merged, or Changed their Names." As Twain said, "History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme."

In summary, on this admittedly small survey base, the overall message regarding our economic future is that unless you are private, highly selective and living with a half-billion-dollar endowment or an entrepreneurial for-profit, your future is uncertain. I can relate. Maybe I should purchase Gallup's StrengthsQuest book, which promises to help College students and educators achieve success in academics, career, and life through its Clifton assessment.

A final word about the survey, and a speculative word at that. Perhaps we're always standing at a crossroads, maybe an existential one; maybe this is the nature of leadership. It seems, nonetheless, that higher education is in a particularly precarious situation. All institutions are in need of innovation, creativity, courage -- all those talents and characteristics that make for interesting and effective leaders; however, we're also being threatened with government oversight and assessment -- told that if we don't prove the value of a higher education in quantifiable terms we may face all sorts of sanctions. Much of what we do can be measured and distilled into palpable, tangible data. But a great deal of what we do and what we offer can't be effectively represented in a survey. I'd like to suggest that in all those unopened surveys we might find another statistic: something like the percentage of presidents whose opinions are slightly more nuanced than "strongly agree, strongly disagree." So maybe the 67 percent who didn't respond were registering, very politely and diplomatically, their own quiet rebellion against all devices that turn our ideas into statistics and our complex and unique experiences into a bar graph or they are concerned about the confidentiality of their responses. Or, maybe we're all just really busy.

This post is adapted from a speech given at the American Council on Education meeting in San Diego, Calif. on March 11, 2014.