Survey Says . . . College Presidents Look to the Future

Gallup, Inc. and the Chronicle of Higher Education released two surveys this month on what college presidents think. The results are fascinating.  They speak volumes about the strength and weakness of American higher education leadership.

Gallup conducted a web survey focusing on US college and university presidents to track their views on topics and issues facing higher education. One finding dominated the research. Gallup found that 62% of them indicated that they are excited about the future of their institution but that only 20% are enthused about the future of higher education. They discovered that presidents are not strong supporters of MOOC’s when seeking to improve learning, resolve financial crises faced by colleges, or reduce the cost of education for students. These presidents are worried about the affordability of higher education and see student preparation as the biggest barrier to success when pursuing a college degree.

The Chronicle study presents an interesting picture of college presidents. In it, presidents report that finances dominate what they think about on a daily basis, worrying most about balancing budgets, strengthening institutional reputation, vision and enrollment. They are at odds with employers about the responsibility colleges have to train the American workforce. Most telling is the concern presidents showed about how to navigate change.  They face process driven faculties reluctant to embrace it and Boards of Trustees who see higher education pursuing an unsustainable business model best addressed by disruptive change.

Despite these very real concerns, most presidents according to the Chronicle are happy in their jobs although only 41% felt “very well prepared” for their first presidency.

As you read these surveys, your initial impression is likely to be that higher education leadership is self-satisfied, insular, protective of turf, and consumed with the present at the expense of the future. It’s unfair because both surveys identify a number of issues in leadership that must be addressed quickly to close the widening gap between daily management and public perception.

Among these leadership changes are:

  • Boards of trustees must be better at identifying qualities sought in new presidents. In doing so, they must move beyond their comfort zone typically as alumni to seek innovators – whether from within the institution or beyond – who understand the academy and the pressures that public perception is creating for it.
  • The pool of new presidents, and senior higher education leadership, must also look beyond their training to understand how much of their relationship with their Board of Trustees will be dependent upon their knowledge of the world beyond the college gates.
  • Existing providers and new strategies must not only prepare presidents to assume the job but also counsel through continuing education, lifelong learning strategies how to keep the job and get better at it.
  • In public policy discussions at the state and national level, thought leaders must more directly involve higher education leadership when proposing policy that affects it. If common cause is to exist, there must be more of a sense of “no surprises.” Policy emerging from schools of education, business and management cannot be translated into state and federal policy without field-testing it first at  institutions and with their leadership, including faculty leadership.
  • As presidents are trained, so too should faculty elected to represent their peers in shared governance also be exposed to the larger world. It can be a lonely experience to argue disruptive change, no matter how eloquently, only to find an unresponsive and occasionally hostile audience among faculty. Faculty leadership must be seen more directly as a critical component of higher education leadership and treated to the privileges and responsibilities accordingly.
  • Board of Trustees must set a clear agenda for change, investment, evolution and growth. It is unproductive to argue for disruptive change for the sake of proving business theory. Colleges and universities are long-standing, historical institutions that have shaped the nation. They deserve better and boards must be sensitive to protect higher education leaders as change agents.

There are a few institutions left in American higher education whose boards have the luxury of choosing caretaker presidents. One conclusion from reading both surveys is that presidents have become more like chief operating officers today rather than re-emerging from the chaos and disruption in higher education as clear and perceptive thought leaders. It would be a tragedy if American colleges and universities relied on the caretakers during this period of pronounced and unpredictable change.

In the end, only presidents and their leadership teams can bridge the gap between the optimism they feel for their institution and the pessimism they demonstrate about the future of American higher education. It’s not their sole job to think big thoughts, of course, but it may be the best chance higher education leadership has to feel better about where colleges and universities are headed.

To borrow from the words of MSNBC commentator Chris Matthews at a commencement speech he delivered some years ago, it’s time that college and university presidents like their students had a better sense of and training for what it takes to “get in the game.”

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