09/03/2013 03:06 pm ET Updated Nov 03, 2013

Stop Bickering! Public Universities Deserve an Action Team

In the tried-and-true action movie--be it about a war or a heist, about zombies, intergalactic intrigue, or mere earthbound crime--part of the story line usually focuses on mismatched individuals sparring and jostling before they finally come together to solve a common problem. From Kelly's Heroes to Star Wars and the underdog crew headed by Harry Potter, we enjoy watching disparate characters overcome their mutual suspicions, discomforts, and irritations as they evolve into an efficient team.

The underlying premise is that conquering one's personal dislikes and prejudices is fundamental to achieving a common goal: locating treasure, solving a murder, ensuring intergalactic peace, or quashing the zombie rebellion.

In the complex universe of public higher education, however, interested constituents have yet to come together. Our story line has stalled with the squabbles and self-interested positions that, in movies, precede the formation of an effective team. The real-life groups interested in public higher education haven't gelled as a unified force; despite the crises facing universities, the varied constituencies have yet to put aside differences to achieve common goals.

In the environment swirling around public universities are legislators, agencies competing for state and federal dollars, voters, media pundits, donors, alumni and other university supporters as well as prospective students and their families. On campuses, we have faculty, staff, administrators, and current students as well as governing and advisory boards. Together, we would make a formidable team. Separately, we create deafening noise.

Very few people fundamentally doubt the value of public universities. Even the loudest voices of complaint will admit, when pressed, that public universities bring huge benefits to every state, benefits that couldn't be replicated by private colleges or for-profit institutions.

Public universities are vital to this country's educated citizenry. They are still the most affordable option for thousands of students. They have evolved remarkably to address radical shifts in finances, technology, demographics, and the global economy. Public universities are crucial to the country's workforce and the financial stability of their regions.

However, in recent years, those benefits are often forgotten amid the roar of complaints from our external environment: universities are too expensive; they're not educating students effectively; they're bloated with useless programs and employees; they're not inclusive enough; they're not rigorous enough; they're too elitist; they're not responsive to workforce needs; they're not a priority for our tax dollars.

Voices on campuses are equally discordant. Students complain about tuition increases. Faculty and administrators point fingers at each other, maintaining that the other group is overpaid and under-performing. Faculty and staff snipe at their counterparts in other departments. Everyone knows that state allocations have decreased, but no one wants to see prices rise, enrollments cut, or programs eliminated.

When I Googled "crisis in higher education" recently, I got 148 million results. In a movie, the scrappy team would have taken shape by now. They would have a strategy to ward off the alien spaceships or zombie attackers. In this real-life crisis, it's well past time for our mismatched constituencies to stop bickering. We have tremendous brain power, creativity, and problem-solving skills among us. The stakes are high. Our differences are far less significant than our common goals.

If public universities are to survive and thrive through chaotic times, we need to put our petty issues and personal quirks behind us. We need a unified action team.

The zombies are breaking down the gates.