Advice & News

March 7, 2024

4 Dynamics Undermining American Higher Education

Novikov Aleksey/ Shutterstock

Recent news stories criticize colleges and universities for being more concerned about money and profits than about serving students and the public. High student and campus debt as well as low graduation rates are cited. Survey results suggest that many are questioning the value as well as the cost of higher education.

Higher education's serious fault lines were evident even before COVID-19 interrupted the spring 2020 semester and beyond. Consequently, the disruptions since have been more severe than expected and the recovery has taken longer.

Much has been said about the heavy reliance on student tuition supported by ever more student debt, increasing levels of tuition discounting, rising levels of campus debt for facilities, expanded commitments to marketing and branding that seem to exceed attention given to academic quality, and generally poor student success metrics, among others.

However, much less has been said about four other dynamics in contemporary higher education. These dynamics, which have disrupted relations between and among boards of trustees, presidents, campus faculty, and the broader community, have undermined the foundations of American higher education.

1. Board Composition

The first dynamic concerns the way boards of trustees are composed. Under 15% of American college and university trustees have professional experience in higher education. One cannot imagine a corporation like Google or Amazon declaring that 85% of its directors knew little, if anything, about the characteristics, economics, and competitive landscape of their enterprise. Yet college and university trustees, whether nominated or elected through a political process as at public institutions or approved by a self-perpetuating board at private institutions, are not selected for their knowledge of higher education or their governance acumen.

Universities should advance board education through periodic training sessions, publications, and conferences sponsored by groups such as AGB (Association of Governing Boards) for all members and not just those newly elected. In these sessions, trustees can learn about the duties of care, loyalty, and obedience, the role of the faculty in governance, and how to support the president as the executive responsible for the fulfillment of the institution's mission.

2. The Evolution of the President's Role

The second dynamic is the evolution of the college and university president's role. Campus presidents have variously been described as cheerleaders, budget masters, lobbyists, sales reps, high-stakes panhandlers, promoters, and entrepreneurs. Too seldom are they thought of as educators, the keepers of an institution's mission and legacy for transformational teaching and learning.

Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) focus on size and scale, organization and delegation, short-term goals, the efficiency of means, money and markets, customers, personnel, and labor. By contrast, Chief Purpose Officers (CPOs) focus on mission and meaning, the long-term, the integrity of ends and means, student success, and faculty as partners in a moral and noble enterprise. This change in the president's perspective is due in large part to the composition of boards and the focus on money, whether state appropriations, fundraising, debt service, or state and federal compliance requirements.

Boards should support the professional development of presidents for their roles as chief mission officers as well as chief executive officers. A coach can be useful guide for presidents, especially those new to their role or facing an aggressive board.

3. Poor Preparation of Faculty for Shared Governance

A third dynamic in the current campus environment is the failure of boards and presidents to prepare faculty members for their roles in governance and leadership. After all, faculty are closest to the students whom institutions are chartered to serve, and they are integral to the fulfillment of institutional missions. Higher education leaders cannot fulfill their commitment to shared governance if the parties to it are unprepared for their roles in it.

4. Viewing Students as Consumers

Finally, a fourth dynamic is the consideration of students as consumers engaged in a transaction, a degree for money, instead of being engaged in a transformational experience involving the advancement of knowledge, skills, abilities, and values.

All four dynamics exacerbate the increasingly corporate style of higher education institutions. To change course, board members must be selected and educated for their role; presidents must be encouraged and rewarded for service as chief purpose officer as well as chief executive officer; faculty must be prepared for their involvement in governance and leadership; and students need to be thought of as partners in learning, not consumers in a transaction.

Finally, trustees, presidents, and faculty must monitor the alignment between mission and goals on the one hand and the use of resources and results on the other. By monitoring alignments, the parties to university governance can ensure that the goals for student learning and graduation are supported by both allocations and rewards. As it is, only 50% of those who enter four-year college graduate in four years.

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