The Changing Face of Higher Ed Part 2:

The Challenges of Higher Education Leadership

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The changing face of higher ed leadership

The Changing Face of Higher Ed Part 2: Higher Education Leadership

Today’s Higher Education leadership is living in a divisive and politicized environment. However, there is no more important time for true leaders to step into top administrative roles and help higher education move into the 21st century.

Unlike what many of our current national and state elected officials are projecting as the qualities of leadership, higher education administrators need to embrace the true characteristics of leadership, think deeply about their institution and the challenges currently being faced, invite collaboration that includes individuals who represent various factions within the university community, find artful and clear ways to communicate, and create a vision developed and supported by stakeholders that all can buy into and move forward. This blog – the second in a series – looks at higher education leadership.

Operating in a Divisive Atmosphere

As we mentioned in previous blogs and newsletters, higher education is in a stressful situation, which is driven in large part by decisions made by national and state policymakers. Despite the most recent changes in budgetary levels for higher education programs (which we believe were motivated by political instead of altruistic reasons), higher education continues to be caught in a budgetary squeeze.

Some of the budgetary vises are based on outside forces. In a recent opinion column about the value of higher education written for the Detroit Free Press, Lawrence Technological University President Virinder Moudgil suggests the negative light being placed on higher education is tied to polarized political rhetoric that diminishes the understanding of the advances coming from higher education institutions and graduates. He pointed out that previous college graduates could expect to earn salaries that were double those earned by high school graduates. Now that difference has risen to three times as much; furthermore, fast-growing careers that pay higher salaries require at least a two-year degree.

While those facts are important, it is also important to consider whether higher education is truly preparing students to be able to have a career in our global, high-tech economy. Are we preparing global citizens who understand the differences that individuals bring to the table and find ways to meaningfully engage them? A lack of true leadership in higher education is one key reason why we suggest that some of the budgetary squeeze is a result of our own doing.

An Emphasis on Leadership

As we mentioned in a previous blog, leadership requires attention to the three legs of the leadership stool, – authority, accountability, and responsibility. Failure to pay adequate attention to any one of these legs can lead to catastrophic situations.

Most recently, evidence of a leadership vacuum is playing out in the bridge collapse at Florida International University. While we will leave it to the courts to determine ultimate liability, we will point to reports that the bridge was showing cracks two days before its collapse. While the engineering company said there were no safety concerns, we’d suggest that the university’s administrators should have erred on the side of caution in this matter because of safety.  They should have taken responsibility once the cracks worsened to warn people about that area.

While accountability is critical in this equation, we must get away from the litigious nature that pervades higher ed (and, in fact, all of society).  Yet the common use of lawsuits to resolve disagreements should come as no surprise;  in today’s world, people feel they have no other recourse other than taking legal action because leaders focus primarily on feathering their own nests and ignore the public’s needs (e.g., lawmakers indebted to the partisan constituencies for campaign contributions so that they can stay in office while effectively ignoring the public outcry about issues such as healthcare costs, gun control, etc.).  Apologies have become hollow, as nothing changes without a cost to the aggrieving party. 

Higher Education Leadership Done Wrong

In another recent example, authority, accountability, and responsibility are playing out badly in one Pennsylvania institution. With Edinboro University facing significant financial issues,  the school’s president, Frank Walker, called for a 10-year plan to revitalize the institution. That should not come as a surprise; however, it’s the process that Walker used that can serve as a cautionary case study of how not to build consensus among stakeholders.

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, Walker’s actions in developing and communicating this plan ran contrary to his administration’s pledge of hyper-transparency. Walker convened “Working Groups” led by several from the university’s ROTC (instead of faculty members or other key stakeholders). These groups issued reports on falling enrollment, low graduation rates, high attrition rates, and difficulty recruiting traditional students in the region. The proposed plan calls for cutting enrollment as well as eliminating programs with low enrollments, and ending the practice of tapping budget reserves. In addition, Walkers’ plan would focus on advancing programmatic revenue generators, increasing admissions standards, and targeting adult learners. Walker also hired an independent consultant to validate the Working Groups’ process.

His method of communicating the proposed plan – which he described as an act of provocative theater and a type of boot camp — was designed to deliberately cast the university in the darkest of lights. Walker used an aggressive information campaign to try and squelch any insurgency. His plan was to try to win over unionized professors while also working around those who he believed were obstacles. He told students and faculty in a public forum that the university was doing its work wrong and had to change.  He publicized the results to state and local news outlets, relying on the news media to create public support for program cuts and proposed layoffs of tenured professors.  

Not surprisingly, faculty members and students reacted with a declaration that Walker may have irrevocably fractured the trust that they had with him. Discussions about a possible vote of no-confidence have surfaced, and students are circulating a petition calling for Walker’s resignation.

The Golden Rule is still as valid today as it was previously. However, many are using different operational rules, which include “Get mine before others take it and there is none left for me” or “Whoever has the money makes the rules.”  While neither of these are appropriate in society, these alternate rules are especially out of place in higher ed where we are held to a higher standard and are asked to set an example for civilized behavior.   

The Future of Higher Education Leadership

While some like Walker try to bulldoze their way through change, others like Paul Quinn College President Michael J. Sorrell listen closely to what their community wants and needs – and then find novel ways to bring those changes to fruition.

This way of leadership is different. In fact, Chronicle of Higher Education senior writer Goldie Blumenstyk believes Sorrell has broken the mold. Upon joining the university as president, Sorrell shut down the school’s football team and turned the football field into a campus farm.  “It’s not just the passion he shows for students, but the way his goals for the college seem to really relate naturally to what its students need,” Blumenstyk said in a video offering highlights of Sorrell’s presentation at SXSW.EDU. “When he talks about the college’s mission, there’s an authenticity there that is just palpable.” She suggests that his ideas of how to change college education are among the most audacious being discussed.

During his SXSW presentation, Sorrell said he has one goal in his role as college president — to end poverty. While that is the college’s audacious goal, the university also is focusing on the more common goals of increasing retention and graduation rates. In fact, the college has raised its graduation rate by 20 percent and retention rate by 35 percent during his tenure.  In addition, 89 percent of the college’s first-time freshman class returned this year.

Sorrell pointed out that many naysayers say that institutions with 90 percent of Pell Grant students can’t do that. “You can’t do that if you’re trying to be a college, but you damn sure can do it if you’re being a movement,” Sorrell told his SXSW audience. He believes a movement requires approaching students differently and understanding their perspective, including walking students’ neighborhoods and the hallways of their K-12 schools. He said the institution has turned its focus outward to address the needs of the communities and students served.

His work has led to students taking an active role in their communities, including fighting against the creation of a dumpsite in their area. Those lessons have led to a focus on incorporating lessons in the classroom into real-life efforts to better the community.

So, What Do We Do Going Forward?

We now have five generations in the workplace, and those who are coming into leadership positions have virtually NO formal leadership training.  One implication of leadership that we’ll address in a future Change Leader blog is the importance of succession planning

Turnover among higher education leaders is increasing. Inside Higher Ed reported that the average tenure of a college president in a job was 6.5 years in 2016, which continues a steadily declining trajectory.  In a recent podcast, we discussed what’s caused the average tenure of presidents to fall from 10 to 3.7 years in 2023.  Changes in leadership are projected to increase as more than 54 percent of presidents reported they plan to leave their current position within the next five years (we note that burnout is common among university presidents; additionally, the majority of university presidents are baby boomers who are ready to retire).  

However, the study also pointed out that only 24 percent of presidents reported that their institution has a presidential succession plan. Therefore, it is imperative that institutions begin to identify potential leaders – whether at the departmental, dean, upper administrative, or presidential level – and then help them develop the skills to be able to be visionary and collaborative leaders who can help move an organization forward. We need to make sure that we have a reserve of leaders who can become the next Michael J. Sorrell in order to steer higher education on an upward trajectory.

Additionally, we believe that higher education institutions need to get back to the basics of leadership – authority, responsibility, and accountability – but these basics must evolve beyond the “19th-century” way of change management (decide, disseminate, and defend). Instead, we need to implement a 21st-century form of leadership that consults with and gets input from key stakeholders BEFORE the decision is made.  This approach cuts to the heart of the new paradigm of leadership, which is (supposed to be) represented by faculty governance models.

Faculty governance in and of itself is not necessarily a great thing, especially with the “obstructionist” tendencies that faculty senates can have. Yet, when this type of governance adheres to the principle of consultative leadership that includes stakeholder involvement, we believe this model is more in line with how leadership practices must evolve.

The bottom line is that leaders in the 21st century must practice the mantra, “people support what they help create.”  Kouzes and Posner’s five practices of exemplary leadership (e.g., model the way, inspire a shared vision, challenge the process, enable others to act, and encourage the heart) are, in our opinion, the principles and tenets of 21st-century leadership.

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