This piece is part of an On Leadership roundtable on higher education and the 21st-century leadership challenge for university presidents.
Like many other sectors of the U.S. economy, higher education is suffering. State universities have been on the receiving end of significant legislative budget cuts for the past four years. And as they have increased tuition to make up for the lost revenue, they have gotten an earful from students, parents and state legislators. Even private universities are experiencing “tuition fatigue” on the part of often quite wealthy parents. To make matters worse, “traditional” universities are now competing with, and often being outflanked by, for-profit upstarts like the University of Phoenix and Strayer, to name but a few.
Drew Faust, an American historian and the president of Harvard University, on what she's learned from Lincoln and what the Civil War teaches us about the human tendency to resist change.
When governments, businesses or the military endure hard times, we often hear of bold leaders who help their institutions endure. Alan Mulally recently shepherded Ford through a near-death experience. Chris Christie, though early in his “reign,” is taking bold steps in New Jersey to address problems many years in the making. And stories of great leadership in the military are almost too numerous to name.
But we almost never hear about great leadership in higher education, and a case can be made that this is because there is very little of it.
One reason is that virtually every university president started his or her career as an assistant professor focused almost exclusively on getting tenure. The usual way to accomplish this is to develop expertise in a relatively narrow area and publish like mad in it. Bold efforts to open up entirely new fields or draw grand syntheses are extraordinarily risky and therefore rare. What’s more, the qualities most likely to make one a successful young researcher—avoiding conflict with superiors, isolating oneself from distractions and not getting too involved in department or college business—are almost the antithesis of those that make for a successful university president.
There’s worse. While succession planning is a cornerstone of business leadership, it is anathema in academia. It is rare indeed for department heads, deans, provosts or university presidents to groom potential successors. When someone does step down, either expectedly or unexpectedly (I have seen three presidents and four provosts in six years at the University of Arizona), an outside search is usually conducted and it is often at least a year before a permanent successor is in place. No way to run a railroad, much less a university.
Moreover, leadership training, a staple in virtually every company and the very bedrock for the development of military officers (think West Point and Annapolis), is all but absent in universities. This despite the fact that the universities often have tens of thousands of employees, even more students and very large budgets. For example, the University of Virginia has a budget of $2.5 billion and the University of Maryland-College Park spends $1.6 billion each year. This makes them comparable in size to Fortune 1000 companies. At $3.7 billion annually, Harvard University’s budget would almost put it in the Fortune 500, were it publicly traded.