01/08/2013 09:19 am ET Updated Mar 10, 2013

Preparing for Hard Choices

Apparently as our first act of political will in 2013, we have "kicked the can down the road" to sail the can past the "fiscal cliff" to land somewhere where we can rediscover it in time for the "big fight" in March.

And these are the folks who in their wisdom are demanding increased oversight for American higher education? I feel so much better now having watched American national politics in action through the holidays.

There are so many lessons to take from the political shenanigans after the general election that it is tough to know which to pick out for comment. What is clear, however, is that over the next four years higher education leadership must show up for the game. The promise is that it will be quite a show, however embarrassing to the American public and our political standing, cultural image, and economic position on the global stage.

As we move toward deficit reduction -- whether balanced in approach or bogged down by the new politics of debt ceiling adjustments -- America's education leadership must be prepared. It will be a confusing and frustrating mix of bare-knuckle politics, process, and posturing. And the outcomes, likely played down to the wire, will have a far-reaching effect on how America educates its citizens and prepares its workforce.

So, let's get ready.

To do so, education leaders must have a plan. It should be simple. The plan should be in roughly equal parts: defensive, philosophical, opportunistic and entrepreneurial. Perhaps most important is that whatever they do not be characterized by in fighting and old turf battles.

On defense Americans can agree that a unified higher education community should draw a line that Congress and the president must not cross. The American middle class needs grants like the Pell program and student loans, paid back at reasonable rates. To prepare a workforce, we must have access and choice. As a public good, we must continue tax exemption and support the integrity of the charitable deduction. We must comply but not be overwhelmed by regulation, especially if regulation does little but mask politicians' reactions to polling -- a kind of government by anecdote -- or keep committee staffs busy. As common cause, higher education leaders need to support the diversity made possible by a decentralized public high education system. Also, we need to keep American universities open as research and development facilities that bring new products out and train new generations of Americans to produce them.

Philosophically, higher education leaders should accept blame as terrible marketers and surprisingly bad communicators and business managers. By playing an almost solely defensive game, higher education has failed to make a compelling case for its own importance. Today's stories are about sticker prices, job placement, presidents' salaries, and the NCAA. If these are critical issues, higher education should move quickly to address them before the political and media spin makes it impossible. Its leadership must also assume their historic role as spokespersons for the common good. It is significant that the media uses pundits rather than presidents to comment on education policy. In effect, the talking heads have politicized and trivialized American education by offering expert opinion, often political and quite uniformly narrow.

Higher education must also be opportunistic in a flexible approach to how the deficit is reduced. A period of retrenchment makes a defense of hard-fought battles won long ago critical. Yet, the negotiations that produce the deficit reduction can also provide an opportunity to bargain. The leadership must look for openings and be prepared to act quickly. It's not always or only about money.

Finally, higher education must make a case for an entrepreneurial solution. Whatever the outcome on deficit reduction, the solution must not wreck the Republic's future. The bulwarks of educational support will likely be largely protected by an aggressive defense by its leadership. The great shame will be if higher education got a little less than what it had after the political leadership locates the can they kicked.

If education is to make the American dream possible, the result of the political discussions by March must be an awareness that the solution to the deficit must not lock in mediocrity to weaken it. A combination of economic, tax, legal, regulatory, and assessment protocols can be recast into a comprehensive package. The package can form a foundation upon which a reasonable future can be built. In one sense, it's good that what distracts American thinking about education is only partly about money.

Since the GI Bill of 1944, the American public has supported education as the great equalizer in American life -- the entrance into the middle class and the best way to support and grow it. Let's see if the national political leadership can move past government by anecdote to remember -- maybe just in time for their own place in history -- how this country got to be that one best place from which to imagine the possible.