05/06/2013 09:42 pm ET Updated Jul 06, 2013

Something to Talk About

Conversation is the coin of the realm in American higher education.

Shared governance rests upon reasonable, open and transparent communication. Internal and external constituencies -- including parents, alumni, donors, political leaders, and the media -- embrace the motivations and actions that shape education, often more so depending upon who delivers the message.

Curiously, conversation can also be a waste of energy and time; indeed, it can become more of an exercise in process than a good faith effort to communicate intent or solicit opinion. It's the problem with talk for the sake of talking.

This problem is exacerbated by the need for all parties seeking transparency to communicate. Good communication that takes time is admirable. Continuous communication that takes too much time is regrettable. Efforts to communicate broadly and continuously are often confused and lost in the incessant, process-driven chatter.

What's more distressing is that efforts to communicate a position seldom differentiate the audience. The result can be varied and sometimes dramatic as internal conversations spill out beyond the university gates with implications, whether good or bad, not entirely understood by the campus community.

In the broader community, college and university officials must learn better how to communicate to audiences that are different from and react differently to the message that they deliver.

Here are a few thoughts:

* Presidents must have the courage to lead on issues that are broader than those with which they deal on campus. They must develop a deeper understanding of the business community, politics, and the media and be prepared to weigh in on matters of national education policy. It is not sufficient for presidents to represent American higher education as though they were defending a world that they wish existed. Colleges and universities must lead by example and the force of their combined intellect in the real world.

* Colleges and universities must speak more directly to one another. One of the most distressing features widely debated in American media has been higher education's reaction to competition and consumerism. While colleges and universities cannot openly collude on price or similar issues, they must seek to create cooperative economies of scale and basic efficiencies. In part the residential learning experience is at risk because of the fixed costs of labor and infrastructure and the rising costs of technology and accountability. The American public will not understand these limitations, especially when related to sticker price, unless higher education demonstrates that it can place brakes on competitive consumerism, unnecessary program duplication, and growing administrative bloat. How many coaches are really necessary to staff a program when justifying simultaneously sticker price tuition increases?

* American higher education must dramatically increase dialogue with the ed tech community. Recently, we have been discussing the remarkable, creative and entrepreneurial innovations occurring in cities like Boston, Austin and San Francisco. This innovation often emerges from the University community and the climate that it creates. Yet higher education and the ed tech community often co-exist in tandem today as separate entities with different synergies. There is a growing need for cross-fertilization between the two groups reflective of where the conversation occurs, who brokers the discussion, and who sits on the oversight boards of both groups.

* American higher education and state and national political leadership must declare détente and live in a more peaceful coexistence. In the contemporary world of government by anecdote and polling, political leadership will have far less discretion and likely therefore rely more on accountability to maintain oversight over higher education. While this is not an entirely bad outcome, it sets both groups in opposition to one another. Bad national education policy emerges, especially if it is tinged with rigid, ideologically driven principles. To start, both sides must think about broader responsibilities to set national higher education policy on areas of substantive agreement. They must also avoid using assessment as a weapon to drive policy change.

* Higher education leadership must recognize that American families first perceive education as a means to financial, professional and personal reward and not as a justification of education as a greater good. Accordingly, higher education leaders must think about language appropriate to an audience worried about a long recession. They must be sensitive to sticker price, persistence, graduation rates, and the need for strong career centers to enhance placement rates.

* In the same vein, higher education must understand the importance of workforce preparation not in conflict with access, choice, and personal fulfillment but as a means to achieve it. Higher education provides the intellectual capital, creativity, and labor that drive and sustain the American and global economy. Its goal must be communicated more than as simple workforce preparation. The argument must never be about training workers in industrial work rhythms but always be about educating thoughtful, creative innovators for a transitioning post industrial economy.

Communication is the vehicle through which the case is made, relevancy is determined, and a future is assured. Words matter. The audiences hearing them also matter. Choosing words that an audience understands to build arguments that they appreciate is the name of the game. Higher education must not let others define who, what, when, where, and why.

It's too important to our future.