This piece is part of an On Leadership roundtable on higher education and the 21st-century leadership challenge for university presidents.
American higher education—long the envy of the world—is facing unprecedented challenges. While the situation varies from colleges to universities and from private to public institutions, the most pressing problems are shared. The current situation is simply financially, academically and institutionally unsustainable.
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Student debt just passed $1 trillion and costs are continuing to escalate at an alarming rate. Colleges and universities are also carrying a significant debt burden at a time when income is flat or declining. Academically, the over-specialization and professionalization of professors has led to a fragmented curriculum that is not preparing students for life and work in the 21st century. The imbalance between research and teaching has created a distorted incentive structure for faculty that is detrimental to students.
Meanwhile, colleges and universities are engaged in a competitive arms race that needlessly drains resources that would be better used to further their educational mission. To make matters worse, this institutional problem is occurring at the precise moment that globalization is making education both more important and more competitive worldwide.
As the crisis continues to escalate, there is a conspicuous lack of leadership from the presidents and chancellors of educational institutions. Many responsible administrators privately admit that there are enormous problems with our system, but almost all of them are unwilling to speak out publicly or put major reforms first on their agenda. Why?
There are several basic reasons that presidents and chancellors refuse to approach these issues honestly. First, presidents must answer to multiple constituencies that often have different concerns. There are not only faculty, staff, students and parents, but alumni, governments, trustees and, above all, donors who must be addressed. As the exponential increase in the cost of education translates into ever more limited resources, it is impossible to avoid conflicts of interest among these constituencies. The primary goal becomes the minimization of conflict and the suppression of disagreement—far too many presidents are reluctant to take positions or sponsor initiatives that might prove controversial for one of these factions.
Second, many college and university presidents are ill-equipped for the job. Though most faculty members are infuriated by the claim, the fact is that higher education is a multi-trillion-dollar business. In the past several decades, the size and complexity of this business has increased as fast as the cost. Indeed, the growth in the number of administrators is one of the most important and least discussed factors fueling the exploding costs.
What is unique about the higher-education business is that the degree requirement for the university’s chief executive is one that is useless for the job. In most instances, presidents are drawn from the faculty and are required to have a Ph.D. While an MBA or a law degree might be much more useful, it would disqualify candidates at most institutions. The reason the Ph.D. is required has less to do with the demands of the job and more to do with securing approval from the faculty.