We Need to Stop Giving Campus Leaders the Wrong Advice

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While much of the current conversation in higher education is focused toward what college and university presidents need to do differently to prepare for the future, there is not nearly enough focus on the value system imposed upon them or on how the rest of us in higher education can help them to be successful.

            It’s time to recognize that we’re setting up presidents to fail – not necessarily to fail at running their institutions, but to fail at improving U.S. higher education. Students and potential students suffer the consequences, and we need to do better. The only way to reach our higher education goals as a nation – increasing access, raising graduation rates, reducing costs – is to change the environment in which campus leaders operate.

            Consider the typical president who, on being hired, is asked to compete to win, to pursue excellence for his/her institution, and to do whatever it takes to move the institution up in the rankings. Eager to succeed, and committed to the institution, each president sets out to do just what we asked. But then we seem surprised when presidents don’t work collaboratively, when they compete in state legislatures, and when they duplicate programs already offered in their state.

            Presidents are doing what we ask them to do. It’s time for us to ask them to do something different.

            I sat on my first presidential hiring committee thirteen years ago, and since then I’ve staffed, advised, represented, and worked with many more. I also participated in a very public nonrenewal of a high-profile president. In each of these experiences, the focus was on the president. Little attention was paid to the value system imposed on the president by the hiring committee, the board of directors, and the highly publicized rankings.

            We do not incentivize collaboration at the highest levels in higher education. We expect it, we think we like it, and we lament that it doesn’t happen, but we don’t commit resources to collaboration, it’s not stressed in presidential employment contracts, and there is no US News and World Report ranking for how well college and university presidents work together to advance broad educational goals.

            The extra work required to collaborate—working with completely different cultures, change-management styles, and personalities—can be harder than going it alone. Higher education thus needs a new model for presidents and chancellors to collaborate in a way that improves their daily experience, makes them better at their job, gives them fresh ideas they can apply on their campuses, and offers a way for them to share those ideas and solutions with others. 

            Meanwhile, the rest of us in higher education need to have an honest conversation about how difficult it is to be a college/university president, what kinds of leaders we want to step into these jobs, and how we can better support them as they lead during an era of significant transition, disruption, and change. Despite all the difficulties inherent in the job, many presidents have been extraordinarily successful at growing their institutions and guiding their institutions through a technology and information revolution, despite difficult financial realities. We need the next generation of leaders to build on this success and to put a college credential in the hands of more Americans.

            Collaboration won’t be perfect, and it won’t be easy. But if we succeed, we just might change the future of higher education.