Arguably, because of the complexity of their job and the multiplicity of constituencies they must serve, university presidents need more leadership training than business managers. Instead, they get none. Even local, state and federal government devote much more time and effort to developing leadership talent than do the most progressive universities.
Now, compare the responses of traditional universities to their newer, for-profit competitors when employers ask for graduates with somewhat different skill sets. The latter simply change their curricula to reflect the new needs. They can do this because their “faculty” members are essentially contract employees who teach what they are told to teach. This has its downside, to be sure, but it does mean the for-profits are light on their feet and able to adjust to changing job-market needs. Traditional universities, on the other hand, are captive of their faculties. At best, curricular changes require great deliberation (“eternal” would be a better adjective). All it takes to derail the discussion is a handful of tenured faculty members deciding that they—not prospective employers—know best what students should be taught.
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.
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.
Most of all, we’ll need them to make a compelling case for higher education to legislatures, donors and a public that is straining to make ends meet. Here’s hoping they can.
Paul Portney is an economics professor at the University of Arizona’s Eller College of Management, where he served nearly six years as dean.
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Mark Taylor: Why university presidents refuse reform
Paul Portney: Higher ed’s leadership vacuum
Howard Gardner: The rise and fall of the university emperor
Anya Kamenetz: Sacrificing the higher-ed sacred cow