Outlook on administration: Campus leadership challenges

Colleges and universities must figure out how to boost learning while remaining financially stable
By: | Issue: January, 2015
December 22, 2014

Experts in higher education administration and management predict that 2015 will bring intense and sometimes surprising governance, financial and legal challenges to the sea of potential worries for university leaders. A few critical issues that will bubble to the surface involve financial health, academic performance, student wellness and continuity in leadership.

Creating financial sustainability

Answering the following loaded question, as worded by Molly Corbett Broad, tops the priority list for 2015: “How do we stay financially sustainable when we are being asked to increase learning productivity, raise skill and knowledge levels, and find new pathways to educate rapidly diversifying student populations in a period of reduced government funding, public outcry for tuition relief and increasing costs?”

Broad, president of the American Council on Education and a member of the National Commission on College and University Board Governance, says higher ed leaders will “need to turn to a new set of innovations and opportunities to enhance financial sustainability.”

She identifies two trends in generating revenue and reducing expenses. First is the global movement to make higher education a key policy agenda item. With leaders of countries around the world putting more emphasis on post-secondary education, U.S. institutions will have more options in extending programs overseas.

Second, higher ed institutions may get relief from federal regulation costs, if the panel on which Broad participates with college presidents and U.S. senators is successful in its effort. Rather than having each institution “jump through a long line of hoops,” she says, the Task Force on Federal Regulation of Higher Education is considering how regulations with substantial cost implications might be “risk-informed,” or focused on institutions with the greatest potential risk.

Development of a technology strategy that meets an institution’s unique needs will continue to be a challenge, as well as an important piece of the cost puzzle, says Joseph Zolner, senior director of the Harvard Institutes for Higher Education. Online learning is one promising revenue-generating and/or cost-saving option.

Top priorities for 2015: Student success and smarter use of resources

Administrators plan to devote plenty of attention to student success and to controlling costs in 2015, according to a UB survey of higher ed leaders, mainly presidents, chancellors and provosts.

A full 83 percent of respondents said student success will be a top focus next year, while 75 percent cited smarter spending as a goal.

Weighing heavily on the minds of these top campus officials are concerns of enrollment declines, the national financial outlook and the introduction of a federal college ranking system.

Most respondents, 86 percent, expect their institutions to modestly or significantly increase fundraising initiatives. Also, 70 percent expect risk management efforts to increase at least modestly at their schools.

While campus leaders anticipate increasing their use of adjuncts and hiring more full-time faculty, the majority expect the size of nonacademic staff to stay the same.

As for instructors, 60 percent of respondents report there will be a modest or significant increase in adjuncts on campus in 2015. More than four in 10 anticipate a modest increase in full-time faculty numbers.

The UB higher ed administration and management survey was part of a broader set of trend surveys deployed to readers in late 2014. A total of 470 higher education leaders participated.

But institutional missions that are no longer financially viable pose a complication for administrators. “Higher ed is historically good at adding programs and finds it difficult to stop doing things that are no longer competitively advantageous or strategically appropriate,” Zolner says.

Pension liability is another stumbling block on the road to financial sustainability. George Pernsteiner, president of the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, predicts that many presidents will be hit squarely between the eyes with the magnitude of pension liability and debt on their books this year.

“The historic view that stock market growth will take care of it may be a false sense of security,” he says. Campus leadership teams will need to recognize and get up to speed on these problems in 2015 so that addressing them becomes a priority.

Rating academic competence

The Obama administration’s post-secondary institution rating system—designed to assess accessibility, affordability and outcomes—will have implications for higher ed. “Many of us have been waiting anxiously to figure out what this means for our institution’s requirements, and its impact on our competitive position within our markets,” says Zolner.

These ratings will be provided to prospective students and parents before they make enrollment decisions, adding to the challenge of recruitment. Pernsteiner predicts the college president will have to serve as the “face” of the institution in convincing students to join each new class.

Demonstration of an institution’s value to the workforce and an increased focus on student competence are also looming issues, he says.

Leaders at all institutions—but especially community colleges—must determine how to assess and validate learning proficiencies and weave proficiency-based education into programs. “Some states will no longer fund for student completion; they’ll push hard on the demonstration of competence in finding a way to certify our credentials,” Pernsteiner says.

Strengthening student culture

Scott Lewis, partner in The NCHERM Group and The National Center for Risk Management, sees campus culture issues heating up for higher ed leaders in 2015.

“First, we will have to examine the way we adjudicate and look into issues of discrimination, particularly gender discrimination, and spend more time and resources on preventing litigation,” he says.

Resources will likely be spent on training and awareness for domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking, bullying, bystander intervention and dating violence, he adds.

“Second, we will continue to have a barrage of students with mental health issues,” Lewis says. Decision-making will involve determining what interim care to provide, putting intervention teams in place, and preventing and managing disruption to the educational environment. Veterans are returning to college in increasing numbers, and those who suffer from PTSD can magnify this challenge, he notes.

Another culture issue in the public eye is the relationship between campus athletics and the fundamental objectives of the institution. “Presidents need to examine how clothed or not their emperor might be,” says Zolner, who poses this question as worth addressing: “Is the athletics program coexisting with academic objectives in as complimentary a way as possible?”

As universities address campus culture issues, Lewis proffers a red flag: Putting policies and procedures in place may not be enough. “Administrators are sometimes tempted to circumvent a policy—for example, changing a student expulsion to a probation—and this can be a million-dollar mistake,” he says. Under federal civil rights law, an individual administrator can be held personally liable for failing to act or circumventing policies.

Balancing change with continuity

The traditional model of shared governance and deliberative consensus-building is being stretched to fit a new reality of rapid change. Presidents are getting a lot of pressure from board members to invest in innovation, Broad says. “They’re afraid if they don’t move quickly the board will fire them, but if they do, they risk a vote of no confidence from the faculty.”

The “graying” of presidents poses another continuity issue, with 62 now the median age of senior administrators. As the economy improves, Broad says, more presidents will be retiring. “We face the urgent requirement to develop the pipeline for the next generation of leaders, who will step into a much more complicated higher education environment.”

In Zolner’s eyes, a common thread between these leadership challenges is the need to find the right balance in managing change as well as continuity. “Your solution may be informed by the work and direction of other institutions, but you really have to ask how this fits in your own situation,” he says. “Challenges are universal, but responses need to be local.”

Harriet Meyers is a Columbia, Md.-based writer and editor.