Another major issue is that boards of trustees do not function creatively or effectively. Boards are often regarded by universities as a problem to be managed rather than a resource to be cultivated. Meanwhile, board members are busy people who parachute in a few times a year only to have to listen to prepackaged pitches. Board members bring invaluable knowledge and experience that is increasingly important in the complex and competitive world of higher education, and they should have the opportunity to engage in serious dialogue with all sectors of the institution. Since it is highly unlikely that significant change will come from within colleges and universities, the board of trustees must become more active by demanding and empowering administrators to make changes the faculty will resist.
Meanwhile, the time that college and university presidents spend in office is often too short to undertake significant long-term initiatives. Over the past two decades, presidential terms have ranged from six to eight years. At the same time, the average age of presidents has increased. The proportion of presidents age 61 or older went from 14 percent in 1986 to 49 percent in 2006, meaning fewer people at the helm with a decade of service ahead of them.
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.
This issue is compounded by the changing nature of the job. Just as politicians now are in constant campaign mode, college and university presidents are engaged in nonstop financial campaigns. Success is measured by the amount of money raised rather than by the substantive educational reforms enacted, leading to excessive competition fueled by a ratings mania at every level. The resulting arms race discourages cooperation within as well as among institutions that would be educationally beneficial and financially prudent.
Finally, and this is the most important issue of all, the governance structure of colleges and universities makes it difficult, if not impossible, for presidents to lead. The most fundamental problem preventing significant reform in higher education is the structural conflict between the administration and the faculty. Faculty members are inherently suspicious of administrators, even when presidents, chancellors and other top officials are drawn from their own ranks.
In fact, the way faculty members work with university presidents is all too similar to the way today’s Congress works with the White House. While there are exceptions, in far too many cases the faculty’s primary mission is to block anything they don’t think is in their self-interest. The byzantine committee structure at most institutions is designed for faculty members to advance their interests and for administrators to try to placate the faculty. If three-quarters of the committees were abolished, institutions would work more effectively. Moreover, there’s the problem with tenure, which exacerbates the entire governance structure. Faculty members know they will outlast presidents and presidents know they cannot fire incompetent and obstructive faculty members.
While the lack of presidential leadership in higher education is, in part, the function of the personal shortcomings and failures of individuals, there are also important structural factors that discourage bold leadership. Just as our financial and political crises are systemic, so are the ones in higher education. The first step in addressing our problems is an honest acknowledgement of the magnitude of the challenge. We need educational leaders who will tell their multiple constituencies the truth they do not want to hear.
Mark C. Taylor is chair of the Department of Religion at Columbia University and author of
Crisis on Campus: A Bold Plan for Reforming Our Colleges and Universities
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