Unlike other sectors, higher education is dominated by a model in which status is attained through the maintenance of scarcity. Such scarcity is sanctioned by tradition and attained through exclusivity. Historically, status hasn’t been measured through impacts on local, state or national socioeconomic success, nor achieved through indicators of innovation or reductions to the cost of learning.
Higher education is languishing because we have not generally created the conditions for the emergence of effective leadership. Governing boards often focus on status to the exclusion of outcomes, overlooking the essential correlation between an institution’s strategic goals and social and economic progress. Moreover, boards often become sidetracked by issues of local political immediacy.
In short, we often lack adequate leadership in higher education because leaders are not sufficiently directed toward the production of outcomes that address regional, state and national goals. This is especially the case for community colleges and regional public universities focused on teaching rather than research. These institutions are seen as subordinate in the status hierarchy and their efforts at innovation little incentivized or recognized.
It is this lack of innovation by academic leaders that has left room for a proliferation of pushback in the form of incomplete ideas and poorly conceptualized policies. Among such ill-conceived schemes are proposals to effectively turn universities into businesses. Some are proposed by frustrated state leaders desperate to educate more students without bankrupting newly fragile state governments. Others suggest that we send our kids to college in the basement with the local online university when, to the contrary, the level of focus required for competitiveness in the knowledge economy is best produced through immersion—students actually working with and learning from one another, side by side.
At a time when higher education is critical to national success, we need colleges and universities to be more accessible and successful at the scale our nation requires. We need leadership that recognizes academic enterprise as intrinsic to the intellectual core of the institution. We need academic leaders focused on innovation.
In order for our nation to retain its economic competitiveness, we need to change higher education’s criteria for, and measurements of, success. We need leaders with the vision and capacity to advance our national higher education enterprise, and subsequently our entire educational system, to new levels of performance and attainment. If we fail, we imperil the American dream in the present and for future generations.
Michael M. Crow is president of Arizona State University.
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