12/19/2012 06:01 pm ET Updated Feb 18, 2013

A Reboot of Higher Ed Might Be Just What We Need

We are presently witnessing what may turn out to be a reboot in higher education, as old norms and ways of doing business no longer hold. The public is increasingly questioning not just the high cost of higher education, but its core value as well. Some are loudly asking, as recent New York Times article put it, should we be "Saying No to College"?

Colleges have been struggling over the demographic decline, which brings with it an intensification of recruitment that is analogous to hand-to-hand combat over the competition for a shrinking smaller pool of students. Endowments have fallen, and may be back up, but the sense of perpetual growth is clearly over. We grew quickly in the pre-2008 days, and built too easily. We might have taken the continued growth for granted. As a result, we are seeing renewed talk about what some have called a higher education bubble looming on the horizon, and some are predicting a meltdown like the recent housing crisis in our near future.

When Hurricane Sandy hit the Northeast in late October, causing damage and disruption to many colleges and universities, I couldn't help but see it as part of a long chain of continuous disruption rather than an unconnected natural disaster. It was yet another in a long line of unforeseen events we had to cope with.

Prior to Sandy, much of the best thinking surrounding the crisis affecting higher education saw a tough period ahead and a clear need to adapt to what was hoped to be a temporary environment. There was a sense that once this all passed, we could regain our footing. I heard one university chancellor say that "we have been around for over 100 years, we are not going anywhere." But, just because some of us are old doesn't mean we all will last. If you recall, few thought that Lehman Brothers, a firm founded in 1850, would disappear in 2008. Longevity is clearly no protection for the precarious world.

What if these disruptions don't stop? I do not mean to suggest the end times are approaching and I am clearly not a conspiracy theorist. But, it does appear we are going through what economists call a regime change, the great shift from one economic system to another -- akin to how we moved from an agricultural to a manufacturing economy, and from manufacturing to service. Where we will land and how soon we will get there is anyone's guess. But, our new normal will require new tools for us to adapt and to survive. The alternative is to whither and die.

And as much as we may hate to admit it, maybe we need to look for direction in what some of our own management and business faculty have been telling corporate America about disruptions, because they might just hold valuable lessons for us.

In a 2005 article in the Atlantic, urban planner Richard Florida challenged the Thomas Friedman "Flat World Theory," telling us that our world is incredibly spiky, not flat, with growing peaks and valleys. Now, Florida was talking about urban growth, but he foretold a bigger story about a new, massive shift that was already underway: that drastic and sudden changes and wild swings in growth are a pattern not an oddity. Harvard business professor Clayton Christensen has been teaching us about the power of disruptive technologies for years. Christensen, writing as early as 2000, has warned businesses that they need to be "meeting the challenge of disruptive change."

NYU economist Paul Rommer has argued that :

Economic growth occurs whenever people take resources and rearrange them in ways that are more valuable. A useful metaphor for production in an economy comes from the kitchen... The cooking one can do is limited by the supply of ingredients, and most cooking in the economy produces undesirable side effects. If economic growth could be achieved only by doing more and more of the same kind of cooking, we would eventually run out of raw materials and suffer from unacceptable levels of pollution and nuisance. History teaches us, however, that economic growth springs from better recipes, not just from more cooking... Every generation has underestimated the potential for finding new recipes and ideas. We consistently fail to grasp how many ideas remain to be discovered. Possibilities do not add up. They multiply.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, also of NYU, in his 2007 best-selling book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, forced us to look at the impact of extremely rare, unpredictable events and our collective tendency to oversimplify explanations that leads us into trouble. What if you could recognize these "black swans" early and react quickly? What kind of advantage would you have?

Taken together, these theorists tell us that in the spiky world, simply cooking more or failing look for and recognize the big disruptive event hanging on the horizon only spells disaster. So, what can we do? What is at stake here goes to the very heart of who we are and how we define ourselves. Sure we need to be institutions that are nimble, entrepreneurial and adaptive. We know that. What we do not know -- is how to do that.

Maybe it is finally time to move away from the crippling debate about the nature of leadership in higher education. You know -- the one that says higher ed is a business and needs to be run like one vs. the one that says it is a special, precious thing that needs to be protected from the viciousness of the market to ensure our democracy. Both sides have merit because they are both right. Higher ed is a contradiction. It is a business that denies it is one because accepting it flies in the face of all we believe. But, the reality is that if we want to survive these disruptions, we need to see that higher ed is a highly specialized business, and we need to start thinking and acting that way quickly.

So what can we do:

  • Listen and learn from the community. As critical institutions in our communities we are at a perfect cultural crossroad to bring local, regional and even national groups into dialogue. We provide a safe, neutral space. It is in this space that we can listen and learn from those in other sectors, be it corporate, non-profit or government. We can think of this as crowd sourcing knowledge. Once we have this knowledge we need to act on it quickly.
  • Recognize staff as vital players in our decision-making processes. In the last decade all institutions of higher ed have hired more staff, so that the relationship between the rate of staff and faculty is now very different than it once was. There are real reasons we did this, but if we decide we can afford this new cost model, we then need to think differently about the role staff play on campus. Right now they are voiceless in our governance system, more like second-class citizens. Maybe it is time to bring them to the table as partners?
  • Democratize Governance -- schools typically have very bureaucratic governance structures that isolate and silo. We need to either create or resurrect working, shared governance systems that allow for open and frank conversations across areas about the future of our institutions. Unless we get buy-in for new directions our efforts to reboot will fail.
  • Speed up our clock. Frankly, it takes way too long for us to do anything. You know how it goes, "Well it is November so we couldn't possibility do that until next fall." We can't simply accept our traditional slow rate of adaption. I suspect we will need to move quickly on certain issues more regularly, and if our governance structures are not nimble or representative, academic leaders will be forced to make unilateral decisions in what is a vacuum.

This clearly is an incomplete list, but as a blog post I welcome some group thinking around this through comments.

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