04/21/2014 09:53 am ET Updated Jun 21, 2014

Creating a Climate for College Leadership

One of the great misconceptions about American higher education is that campus culture is inherently liberal.

The problem with the argument is that the pundits debate liberal versus conservative endlessly in narrowly political terms. Even in a world heavily influenced by politics, the climate on a college campus differs dramatically from the world outside the college gates. As insular "cities upon a hill," no college community reacts in precisely the same way.

In fact, colleges and universities are remarkably conservative places, dominated by a system of shared governance that values process and tradition over innovation and change.

Who knew that those dismissed by the media as political liberals could be such functional conservatives, reacting defensively to broader forces in American society on their campuses?

It's not to say that creativity, imagination and thoughtful conversation don't prevail on campus. They do, and often admirably so. But the campus itself typically looks outward intellectually but retreats within itself as broader forces swirl around it. Many college communities redefine the political saying that "all politics is local."

The biggest debates on campus appropriately involve the life of the mind, often grounded in deeply held principles but oblivious to some of the immediate threats to campus culture.

Any president or trustee who seeks to link challenge and opportunity to key indicators like admissions, debt capacity, fundraising, financial aid discounts, research dollars, brand, and marketing communicates at great risk. These define an administrative model and a bottom line using business terms. At best these are "administrative" justifications.

They are practical rather than philosophical. As one faculty member once said to me sympathetically, "You couldn't pay me enough to take your job, but I guess someone has to do it."

In a sense, the insularity of American colleges and universities protects them from change. Change-and change agents-come and go. In the long view, one of the great purposes of faculty and staff is to provide continuity and a sense of history. In fact, we owe a great deal to them as the "keepers of the flame" who are vigilant about issues like intellectual freedom, academic honesty, and a student focus that might be lost in the weakest and most narrow business models.

In the worst governance models, faculty, staff and trustees weigh in on every issue. In doing so, they diminish their seat at the shared governance table. Trustees have a responsibility to steward the institution, pass a budget, and evaluate the president. The faculty must control the academic program as the intellectual center of the education enterprise. Administrators steer the ship and have the responsibility to be as transparent as possible as soon as possible.

The problem with shared governance is that it cannot be nimble enough and move quickly enough to adjust to a world that is evolving chaotically and more rapidly than campus culture. The result is that American higher education-praised for its decentralization and diversity-is unable to articulate a clear message about itself. The rules keep changing and the lines are blurred.

There is some danger here. State and federal leaders rely increasingly on regulatory solutions absent discretionary money unavailable from a dysfunctional government at war with itself. They also depend increasingly on research and polling that, while admirable in some respects, create a situation akin to government by anecdote.

Yet the forces producing change seem more pronounced each day. While dire pronouncements about the death of "bricks and mortar" colleges abound, it is unlikely that the world will convert exclusively to education through MOOC' s. At the same time, half of the college going population begins by enrolling in a community college. For most upper division institutions, some combination of differentiation, efficiency and pricing strategy will determine their continued viability.

The best starting point is with a review of how college governance works. American higher education will benefit from a continuation of the shared governance model. But it cannot continue in its present form.

It all begins with an ongoing, sustained effort to educate shared governance leadership. Boards must become better informed about broader higher education issues, less alumni based and inward looking, and more diverse. Boards must learn their role, use their committees to develop collaborative subject matter expertise, and focus on not what boards can do but what they must do.

Faculty and staff must "learn" the institution as the best defense and most appropriate way to ground and support the academic program. In their calls for transparency, faculty and staff must determine what the key indicators are that administrators and trustees should be transparent about. It's more than a paycheck; indeed, responsible contributions to governance must become part of the faculty job description.

And finally, administrators must find a better way to communicate beyond "bread-and-butter" issues to move shared governance decisions forward more quickly on issues that matter.

Recessions come and go-even serious ones. They sometimes mask fundamental changes. American higher education leaders must be prepared to deal with the noise that comes with leadership. There are bets to place on the table. Leadership - at all levels -- must know what cards they still have to play.