Higher education is one of many U.S. sectors that is struggling right now. So where are all the great leaders to turn it around? (Jahi Chikwendiu/WASHINGTON POST)

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

Like many other sectors of the U.S. economy, higher education is suffering. State universities have been on the receiving end of significant legislative budget cuts for the past four years. And as they have increased tuition to make up for the lost revenue, they have gotten an earful from students, parents and state legislators. Even private universities are experiencing “tuition fatigue” on the part of often quite wealthy parents. To make matters worse, “traditional” universities are now competing with, and often being outflanked by, for-profit upstarts like the University of Phoenix and Strayer, to name but a few.

When governments, businesses or the military endure hard times, we often hear of bold leaders who help their institutions endure. Alan Mulally recently shepherded Ford through a near-death experience. Chris Christie, though early in his “reign,” is taking bold steps in New Jersey to address problems many years in the making. And stories of great leadership in the military are almost too numerous to name.

But we almost never hear about great leadership in higher education, and a case can be made that this is because there is very little of it.


One reason is that virtually every university president started his or her career as an assistant professor focused almost exclusively on getting tenure. The usual way to accomplish this is to develop expertise in a relatively narrow area and publish like mad in it. Bold efforts to open up entirely new fields or draw grand syntheses are extraordinarily risky and therefore rare. What’s more, the qualities most likely to make one a successful young researcher—avoiding conflict with superiors, isolating oneself from distractions and not getting too involved in department or college business—are almost the antithesis of those that make for a successful university president.

There’s worse. While succession planning is a cornerstone of business leadership, it is anathema in academia. It is rare indeed for department heads, deans, provosts or university presidents to groom potential successors. When someone does step down, either expectedly or unexpectedly (I have seen three presidents and four provosts in six years at the University of Arizona), an outside search is usually conducted and it is often at least a year before a permanent successor is in place. No way to run a railroad, much less a university. 

Moreover, leadership training, a staple in virtually every company and the very bedrock for the development of military officers (think West Point and Annapolis), is all but absent in universities. This despite the fact that the universities often have tens of thousands of employees, even more students and very large budgets. For example, the University of Virginia has a budget of $2.5 billion and the University of Maryland-College Park spends $1.6 billion each year. This makes them comparable in size to Fortune 1000 companies. At $3.7 billion annually, Harvard University’s budget would almost put it in the Fortune 500, were it publicly traded.

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.

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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Read More:

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