A student walks on the University of Chicago campus in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., on Friday, Dec. 11, 2009. The University of Chicago accepted just 27 percent of applications for the current freshman class and wants to become even more selective. Photographer: Tim Boyle/Bloomberg (Tim Boyle/BLOOMBERG)

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.

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.

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.

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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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