As a PhD candidate and adjunct faculty member, I am spared much of the bureaucracy of higher education (though low level, weekly rigidity is the norm). Over the past year I have become far more engaged with programming and decision making and have seen up close how dysfunctional universities can be.
Paul Portney, professor of leadership and former Dean of the Eller College of Management at the University of Arizona, has an interesting piece on the dirth of leadership in American Higher Education. (h/t Keith Hampson)
This is a fascinating subject as a cursory review of U.S. higher education (see Slosson, Rudolph, Thelin, Kerr etc) highlights the incredible role that individual leaders have played in the creation, evolution, and success of U.S. higher education.
From Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson to William Rainey Harper and Charles Van Hise (to name just a few hugely impactful higher education leaders) driven, entrepreneurial leaders have helped shape and direct U.S. higher education.
Midway through my nearly six-year tenure as a dean, I once griped to a friend about the frustrating difficulty of making even small changes. He said, “Duh. You’re in a profession in which you and your colleagues celebrate graduation by putting on the same silly hats and robes that were worn a thousand years ago. What the hell did you expect?”
He had me there. This almost slavish adherence to faculty governance and tradition (“I teach this way because this is the way I was taught”) and the view that universities should be islands unto themselves, free from such mundane concerns as having to meet a budget, make bold leadership almost impossible.
Presidents like Steven Sample of the University of Southern California and John Sexton of New York University are proof that visionary leadership is possible in higher education. But they are rare exceptions, which is a real shame. Dramatic change is coming to this sector, as it has to government, business and the military. We’ll need bold leaders to shift the mix of faculty from predominantly tenured and tenure-track teachers, who specialize in research, to more of those who specialize exclusively in teaching. We’ll need them to close small departments and even colleges so as to invest in stronger ones. We’ll need them to merge traditional means of teaching with web- and perhaps even social media-based teaching methods.
There are incredible changes afoot in higher education, I witness it each day on campus and in the media (have you been following what the for-profit sector has been going through?)
In my research on student entrepreneurs that create high impact firms (Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Omar Soliman, Nick Friedman, Kevin Plank, Tom Szaky, etc) I am collecting data daily on how these leaders interact with modern American higher education and bring change positive change to society. (check out @startuptribe at Harvard or Terracyle out of Princeton University)
Students, in fact, have been leaders and innovators since the founding of the first colleges in North America. In fact, the role of students in agenda setting (for better or worse) is one of the key distinguishing features of U.S. higher education. It is responsive.
Portney’s piece is important and deserves attention as University leaders are among the ‘silent’ elite that have incredible impact on society and economy.
The piece should also be used to ask if we are being too bounded in our understanding of leadership in higher education. Students, philanthropists, clergy, business leaders, entertainers and even sportsmen have been prominent forces in the history of U.S. higher education and we should expect more from them as incumbents of the organizational age battle to preserve their crumbling structures in the face of creative destruction.
I would suggest that Portney and others look to their students and young faculty for entrepreneurship and innovation for that is what we are really discussing. The