Is higher education leadership changing? Here are 3 warning signs

"The challenge for us is that currently we operate with many rules and very little clarity about how we move forward with decision-making," wrote University of Kentucky President Eli Capilouto in a public statement.

Presidents and other high-ranking administrative staff have been on the defensive recently as the public has heightened its criticism over whether higher education leaders are guiding the sector properly. Recent actions and published opinions from presidents, administrators and faculty also suggest that skepticism percolates internally.

As technological transformations and new student demands challenge higher education’s legacy operations, these leaders are pushing for transformative—and perhaps controversial—change.

“[F]aculty can no longer live in a world that no longer exists,” said Brian Mitchell, former president of Bucknell University, according to Forbes. “Institutional change will happen at a speed to which they are unaccustomed and potentially unwilling to accept.”

Shared governance faces criticism

Outside experts are sharing their thoughts about what the future of higher education must look like for the sector to survive. Such suggestions include student personalization and adopting a “customer-first model.” Brian Rosenberg, former president of Macalester College, believes that institutions’ shared governance models are holding them back.

“There are internal structures like shared governance and tenure that are expressly designed to prevent dramatic change,” he said, according to The Harvard EdCast. “And so when you combine a culture and a structure that is not amenable to change, you get what we have, which is a system that changes very, very slowly, if at all.”

While shared governance helps ensure all stakeholders involved in an institution’s mission have a say in its future, Rosenberg described consensus as “the enemy of change.”

It isn’t just retired presidents who speak harshly about it. Eli Capilouto, president of the University of Kentucky, recently released a proposal that would transfer the University Senate’s policy-making power to the Board of Trustees. The move would sharply decrease the faculty’s voice in shared governance measures.

“The challenge for us is that currently we operate with many rules and very little clarity about how we move forward with decision-making,” wrote Capilouto in a public statement.

Furthermore, Republican lawmakers in Arizona are looking to limit existing shared governance structures at the state’s state universities, reports.

Strategic plans

A long-established hallmark of many college and university presidents’ early years has also come under fire. The strategic plan, which sets the mission for the next five to 10 years, has been a public-facing guidepost for institutions’ aspirations However, some believe it’s a painstakingly created tool with little to no utility after it’s announced and shared.

“A strategic plan is somewhat useless today,” Florida Institute of Technology President John Nicklow said in a University Business interview. “Our industry partners are changing rapidly, so our plan better as well.”

David Attis, managing director of research at EAB, has also found most strategic plans futile because they set unrealistic objectives that are difficult to measure quantitatively.

“Ambitious goals can be effective if backed up by a clear strategy but lacking that they breed cynicism and burnout among staff being asked to achieve what they know to be impossible,” he wrote.

Rise in no-confidence votes

University presidents are also experiencing some of the shortest tenures in the sector’s history. It’s made no easier by the fact that institutions are also facing some of the highest rates of internal disapproval, Forbes explains.

West Virginia University President Gordon Gee was recently given a vote of no confidence after proposing dramatic cuts to its academic offerings to keep pace with budget shortfalls.

In a “rare move” at UNC-Greensboro, faculty passed a “no confidence” vote against Provost Debbie Storrs after she announced 20 academic program cuts, NC Newsline reports.

Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel is a UB staff writer and first-generation journalism graduate from the University of Florida. His beats have ranged from Gainesville's city development, music scene and regional little league sports divisions. He has triple citizenship from the U.S., Ecuador and Brazil.

Most Popular