Rarely these days do university presidents command the respect and reverence they did decades ago. (Michael Wyke/AP)

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

As the story goes, when James Conant of Harvard went to visit Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the White House, the wags in Cambridge said “the president is in Washington, visiting Mr. Roosevelt.”

Yet long gone are the days when university presidents—the likes of Abbott Lawrence Lowell of Harvard or Nicholas Murray Butler of Columbia—reigned supreme. Perhaps it is not as dire as you’d think listening to the current wags’ quip: “The president of the college is someone who lives in a big house and begs.” But college and university presidents are indeed running huge multi-million-dollar or multi-billion-dollar operations and are responsible to numerous constituencies, whose interests are often diametrically opposed to one another.

On top of that, we live in a decidedly non-heroic time (witness the current political mess in Washington and most state capitals). Against this background, the call for university presidents, individually or corporately, to get their act together to solve the financial problems, make students accountable and speak out bravely on the issues of the day seems unrealistic.

And yet it is equally apparent that the current situation, with roughly 4,000 institutions of higher learning in the United States, is untenable. The apparent lure and efficacy of online education will inevitably lead to a thinning of the ranks. And this survival of the fittest will play out based in part on financial resources (Princeton is unlikely to go out of business), in part on distinctive programs (there may always be a place for quirky offerings, à la St. John's great books curriculum), and in part on outstanding athletic or artistic programs.

Having sketched a depressing picture, let me offer a few positive suggestions.

Yes, university presidents who remain at the helm for several years, and who manage to build up a reservoir of good will, can make and consolidate sensible changes in curricula, pricing, scheduling and faculty recruitment. And universities that strive to align the interests of the various constituencies can forge ahead in a promising direction.  

But by far the most powerful ally for the thriving of the 21st-century university is the strategic partnership across campuses, particularly ones that are near to each other. Some partnerships have existed for decades, such as the Claremont Colleges in California and the Five Colleges in Massachusetts. But what was once an option has now become a virtual necessity. Individual tertiary institutions cannot afford to be all things to all people.

Our own research group, the GoodWork Project, has been particularly interested in the relatively new collaboration among three Boston area schools: Babson, Olin and Wellesley Colleges. With their distinctive profiles—business, engineering and liberal arts—these institutions complement one another and, through a program like their Sustainability Certificate, offer interested students the opportunity to get an education that no single one of these institutions could have provided on its own.

For such collaboration, skilled leadership at the presidential level is certainly necessary. But in the end, it is the individuals in the trenches (faculty, staff, liaisons) who will determine whether these collaborations are shallow or deep, and whether they produce in students a quantum leap in knowledge and skills.

So in less than a century we proceed from the university president as all powerful to the president as a cheerleader and catalyst for new forms of collaboration. Herein lies the best chance for the survival of higher education—one of the few American institutions that continue to command admiration around the globe.

Howard Gardner is a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the author of Truth, Beauty and Goodness Reframed: Educating for the Virtues of the Twenty-First Century.

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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