21st-century transformations in higher education will likely mean an influx of technology. (Cambridge University library/CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY LIBRARY)

This piece is part of an On Leadership roundtable on higher education and the 21st-century leadership challenge for university presidents.

John Maeda, president of the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design, is one of the most intrepid leaders in U.S. higher education. And what he got for it was a no-confidence vote from faculty this spring, following the release of a bold interdisciplinary strategic plan.

Perhaps this is why visionary leaders are not the rule at our nation’s best-known universities.

These days, with the exception of the likes of Maeda, the presidents most alive to the cry for transformation in higher education aren’t the ones leading our preeminent institutions. They tend to come instead from small, less selective private colleges and regional state colleges. I also see exemplary leadership at some of the largest community college systems, like Gail Mellow at LaGuardia Community College and Eduardo Padrón at Miami Dade College. Whether public or private, these lesser-known institutions all serve needier students and remain closer to their demands. They are also working with far fewer resources than the selective privates or flagship state universities, which I’m sure makes for less complacency.  

So what’s standing in the way of presidents at better funded, more iconic institutions making the bold changes needed? Mostly, they would tell you it’s the faculty. (Certainly Maeda would have grounds to.) But they’d only be partly right.

Tenured faculty are an endangered species at American institutions, but they still wield outsized power as a bloc. Generally, they are not much trained in teaching, are not rewarded for their teaching accomplishments on the basis of student outcomes, and are in no way incentivized to incorporate new technologies or approaches in their teaching. Such changes are often imposed from above and place new demands on professors’ time without offering obvious benefits.

There are many professors out there who are gifted and wildly innovative teachers (look at the Open Education movement for examples), yet there are many others who fight with the administration over even putting their syllabus or their CV on the campus website. Moreover, faculty are highly suspicious of all calls for transformation, and they have a right to be: Labor costs are the most expensive part of higher education, and innovating to lower costs generally means replacing labor with technology.

Personally, I’d like to see more university presidents making faculty their partners, not adversaries, in the transformation process.  To do this they may have to sacrifice some of their own sacred cows.

The real growth in college labor costs hasn’t come from the teaching side. Increasingly, classroom hours are covered by low-paid adjuncts and teaching assistants. The real inflation, according to Jane Wellman at the Delta Cost Project, comes from administrative and student services: marketing, fundraising, enrollment, advisement, student activities, regulatory compliance and the like. A president who takes a salary cut herself and upgrades technology to slash budgets on the admin side would set an example for faculty to follow.

Second, many presidents, like politicians, are addicted to ribbon cuttings. They love to expand and renovate their physical plants even when the strategic choice would be to streamline physical operations in favor of blended and online programs. Of course, it doesn’t help when alumni, trustees and parents all have a fondness for new stadiums and dorms.

Finally, presidents might want to look beyond tenured faculty toward the newer generation, who are eager to experiment with the latest learning technologies.

If universities want to lead, not follow, in the transformation of higher education, they'll need to unbundle the various services they provide, specialize in what they do best, open up opportunities for students to learn from their peers and from real-world experience, and create economies of scale through lower-cost, open-source digital resources and blended learning structures.

Our motley higher-education system needs to be more flexible and interoperable. I hear from many university presidents who are keenly interested in change, but it’s time for more to stand up and do something about it.

Anya Kamenetz is the author of DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education and The Edupunks’ Guide . She is also a senior writer for Fast Company magazine.

Like On Leadership? Follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

Read More:

Mark Taylor: Why university presidents refuse reform

Michael Crow: The miseducation of American dreamers

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