Strong Leadership Needed to Guide Our Universities into the 21st Century
The world of postsecondary education in this country is getting ready to experience revolutionary change. A number of factors are coming together to force this change:
- Rising Costs of Higher Education: As highlighted by the recent student loan “standoff,” there is serious unrest over the skyrocketing price of a college education, which is outpacing inflation and the cost of living index. Students and families continue to take on more debt to meet these costs, while universities and colleges are in a frenzy to find alternative revenue sources. But the incentives to actually lower costs and pass the savings on to students are limited. As long as the federal government continues to offer student aid at lower interest rates, students will borrow and institutions will have little reason to cut costs.
- Looming Doubts about Effectiveness: Americans are beginning to question the quality and productivity of the postsecondary sector. Graduation rates are mediocre – hovering about 50% in six years for a four year degree program – while remediation and developmental courses have become a staple of higher education. Some studies indicate students are graduating without the skills they need to compete successfully in a very competitive world.
- Rise of Digital Alternatives: Driven by the pressure to cut costs and meet unique student needs, a number of digital, online, hybrid, for-profit, and not-for-profit alternatives are creating competition for traditional institutions of higher education. Companies like StraigtherLine are offering low-cost alternatives that pose a threat to business as usual. This has led to efforts by many schools such as Stanford and MIT to create robust online courses for students.
Against this backdrop, college and university trustees face daunting challenges. The role of the governing board may be more important than ever. But recent events at well-regarded state universities suggest boards may need to think long and hard about what they do and how they do it.
At the University of Virginia (full disclosure: I received my graduate degrees there), a handful on the board of visitors, concerned about what they perceived as the slow pace of change in reaction to diminishing revenues and advances in online educating at other elite institutions, sought to end the tenure of the relatively new president of the University. In a development that startled the university community and had ripple effects throughout the state and beyond, the president announced her board-requested resignation. Within days, President Sullivan was reinstated by that same board after loud and ongoing protests from virtually every interest group associated with Mr. Jefferson’s University. The rector (chair) of the board communicated her regret over what had transpired, tried to explain what had motivated her and the board, and promised more transparency going forward.
At UVA, the issue wasn’t a board being too deferential to an administration; it was the board failing to act as a corporate whole. There were enough on the board who were concerned enough that they were able to convince others action needed to be taken. Indeed, only a small number of the board acted (on behalf of the entire board) to seek the president’s resignation. The entire board never took a vote on the issue. It was only after days of turmoil on the campus that the entire board voted to reinstate the president.
In the coming years, college governing boards will be under immense pressure to make informed and responsible decisions that will shape the future of their institutions and the higher education landscape more broadly. The challenges at UVA offer lessons for anyone engaged in the governance of postsecondary institutions. Trusteeship is an honor. But more than ever, it is a heavy responsibility that requires tremendous courage and a willingness to actively shape the future of higher education. Without the right leadership, our best institutions could find themselves outdated and ineffective.
Gene Hickok is senior advisor to Whiteboard Advisors and a former U.S. Deputy Secretary of Education.