Presidents and Boards as Change Agents

By: Dr. Richard A Skinner and Emilly R. Miller

Our experience, our impressions and results from the rare bit of research available that delves into the actual workings of higher education governing boards make us doubt that these bodies engage much in existential reflection. It is, after all, an unusual group of stewards whose sense of fiduciary responsibility extends to asking if the institution they govern can or should survive. 

And it is a remarkable individual who can acknowledge the intellectual gifts bestowed on her or him by the education provided by this kind of institution and then use those same said gifts as president to question the institution’s viability.

But as unusual as these types of speculations probably are, they are likely to be required if a large number of higher education institutions in America are to survive and remain sustainable organizations.  What’s more, the institutions to which this applies are public, not private, ones, hence, debate is likely to be both heated and politicized.  Further still, we think neither presidents nor governing boards acting alone can undertake the process of effecting necessary change.  Instead, the times require that presidents and their boards come together to provide the leadership that will be needed over the next decade. 

Fortunately, the larger-than-usual number of presidential changes that will take place during that same period will afford boards an opportunity to create the circumstances and the environment in which it may be possible to ask difficult questions, engage most if not all institutional stakeholders, and chart a course that may make their institutions viable in the 21st century.  The starting point may well be the departure of one president and/or the hiring of a new one; both incumbent and successor will be persons of unusual skills and an abundance of courage.

The Genre

They defy easy categorization.  Even nomenclature is problematic.  Here we dub them "comprehensive publics."  But save for their state government support, these institutions appear to vary in countless ways.  They exist in older downtown cores, in remote small towns, and in suburbs and exurbs along interstate highways.

They enroll a few thousand to nearly 40,000 students.  Public four-year institutions as a group enroll almost 40 percent of total student enrollment in the United States.  The 400-plus member institutions of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) account for almost exactly half of all four-year public enrollment.

Their missions are defined, variously, in terms of a designated role within a state's system of higher education, geographically with the expectation that most students reside within 1-3 hours of campus, and in terms of the degree of comprehensiveness or specialization of the institution's degree offerings and curriculum.

When complaints of "mission creep" are lodged, these institutions are more often than not the targets.

Intercollegiate athletics are sometimes a route by which some of these institutions attempt to raise their profiles, with football often serving as the primary vehicle.  In other cases, athletics are expected to boost enrollments or signal a change from a "commuter college" to a more traditional, residential campus.  Many are in the districts of long-serving and therefore typically more senior, more powerful legislators who saw themselves (and were seen by others) as staunch protectors of the institutions.

Of late, that protection has not extended to financial matters.  With slight research portfolios, comprehensive public universities have not been able to look to federal or foundation funds to relieve the almost-annual budget cuts made since 2008.  And few such institutions have endowments that might assuage the fiscal pain that, in truth, are not recent occurrences so much as they are data points in longer term trends toward the relative reduction in public financing of U.S. higher education, especially at the state government level.

The broader fiscal picture suggests a chronic condition, particularly for public institutions.  To date, institutional recourse has been to raise tuition and fees to offset some of the losses in state funding.  But the fiscal relief purchased by these increases has been mostly at the expense of students and their families as gains in household incomes in general have come nowhere near approximating the increase in college prices.  Comprehensive publics' stakeholders insist their institutions are quite different from otherwise similar campuses, especially those within the same state.  The variation cited above would seem to support that view.

However, their configurations and attributes generally are not dissimilar to one another, primarily because in most cases they were never intended to be so when established. Most offer a broad array of discipline-based liberal arts and sciences courses and majors, along with a more or less standard set of professional programs in business, education, and selected health sciences.  Master’s degrees – often designed to serve K-12 teachers – serve as capstones.  In the end, the group of institutions we here treat as comprehensive public universities are not all that different from one another.  And therein lie the challenges that confront these institutions.

Mired in the Middle

In his book, Abelard to Apple, Richard DeMillo chose the arresting subtitle, "The Fate of American Colleges and Universities," and he writes that those universities “in the Middle” live in “a land where the resources of a top-ranked school are just out of reach, a region where they find themselves unable to find better ways of using what money they have to become more competitive.”

Emulating top universities with efforts to secure funding for faculty research or to attract private philanthropy to field Division I or FBS football teams can stave off having to address more fundamental questions about the distinctive value of a given comprehensive public university in a state with several such institutions.  But delay is a tactic, seldom a strategy. 

With more and more students enrolled in online courses that are themselves part of a “common core” curriculum, access of a sort can be assured and the importance diminished for there being a state college or university as a stand-alone institution in a given region of that state.

Or in the case when two public institutions are located in close proximity but ostensibly are differentiated by degree offerings and mission, a merger can be effected that creates a larger entity with less administration and thereby provides for some economies.  The recent action of the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia to “consolidate” eight institutions – one of which traces its origins to 1783 -- into four is representative of what can happen when state officials confront the choice of how to support the existing infrastructure of state universities.

Similarly, in 2011 the SUNY central administration proposed to consolidate administrative services at selected campuses and thereby realize savings and provide better service to students and faculty.  Opposition from legislators whose districts were home to the affected consolidation stopped the initiative.

Waiting for Godot? (with apologies to Samuel Beckett) Who Will Lead?

But if comprehensive publics are among the institutions most at risk, they are also the ones that could be fashioned into something quite different, with distinctive (if not necessarily unique) missions and roles.  They can accomplish this by pioneering new, perhaps radically new, approaches to teaching, learning, scholarship, and service.  Indeed, a case can be made that without bold experiments, many of these institutions will be difficult to sustain in an age when virtually all of the degrees offered by comprehensive public universities can be had from countless similar universities, including for-profit ones, and online.

But the question of the nature of change required of comprehensive public universities presupposes an agent or agents of change.  After all, the metaphorical frog of the comprehensive public university has sat in the pot being heated for quite some time now without being cooked, so what’s the rush to change things and, more telling indeed, who will lead change?

University presidents, as DeMillo observes “are the smartest kids in class and are the ones most likely to change their institutions in distinctive and unique ways,” but “they seem to be poorly-equipped to make ... strategic choices, believing instead that the path ahead is going to be clear for some time.”

Nor are governing boards quick to champion change.  Because their institutions are public ones, these universities’ boards operate in political environments that emphasize that attention be devoted to near-to-hand issues and problems, particularly fiscal ones since most American state governments and their entities such as colleges and universities must balance annual budgets.  As Jane Wellman and others have noted for some time, governing boards tend to focus on the here-and-now and defer or avoid more strategic, fundamental questions of whether or not the existing financial model is, quite simply, broken.

But the circumstances are now such that some boards and even sitting presidents will be compelled to ask and attempt to answer such questions.  If national and state economies improve, few observers envision a return to the level of subsidy provided public colleges and universities over the past several decades.  And however much students and their families may value a university education, continued increases in tuition and fees and the debt families take on to pay the costs will outstrip available means and force recourse elsewhere.

Presidential Turnover as an Occasion for Change... Real Change

We believe that in the midst of the increasing turnover in the academic presidency of comprehensive public universities, leaders may emerge who recognize (or are resigned to) the need to face up to the challenges to these types of institutions.  We envision two scenarios in which that emergence can occur.

In the first scenario, we envision a long-serving president of a comprehensive university approaching her board chair with word that she will retire 18 months hence.  As president she has sought to serve the institution by embracing its mission as well as prescribing and administering conventional nostrums her experience and peers tell her will keep the university as intact as possible.

With sufficient credibility built up with her board, the departing president can enlist the trustees and the campus in serious discussions of the institution’s health.

We have encountered incumbent presidents who not only recognize the threats to their institutions, they are also capable of acknowledging the danger of the status quo and the need to question whether and how the university can go on in its current configuration. 

In alignment with one another they can begin a process of asking whether and how the institution they serve can continue as a viable element in midst of the constellation of colleges and universities that serve the state.  The sitting president can propose that they together engage the appropriate state officials and initiate a process of consultation that involves immersing themselves in comparative data, enlisting key constituencies on and off the campus, and moving toward a consensus on how the university will need to change.  Just as important, the consensus arrived at becomes the profile for seeking out and recruiting a new president with a well-defined mandate and a direction for change.

In a second scenario, the leaders of the state in which the university is located use the occasion of an imminent presidential change to direct the institution’s governing board to consider how the institution might play a more distinctive, specialized role within the state and accomplish the change in part by the sort of new president the board recruits.

The sort of university that emerges will need to add to the state’s offerings and resources, not duplicate them.  Its mission would best serve the state by anticipating needs and opportunities, not responding to the here and now only.  And it would serve its peers by demonstrating a capacity to change.  After all, Darwin himself observed, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives.  It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”

Because the university is a public one, the process of debating its imminent change is a very political one.  Lying low about plans to change a university in large ways might be a desired approach since, as one of the characters in the television series “Deadwood” argued, “Announcing your plans is a good way to hear God laugh.”  Alas, such an approach is seldom a viable alternative at comprehensive public universities.

But even rancorous deliberations can be a boon to a new president.  The debate on and off campus becomes less a matter of whether to change than how and the mandate to change is unequivocal. 

In either scenario, what is clear is that future presidents of comprehensive publics will need to be eager to engage in a complex process aimed at defining the institution among a competitive landscape.  She/he will require much courage to consider bold mechanisms for achieving a new direction.

An example may suggest the sort of leadership that will be called for in a president.  A dean of nursing has accepted the governing board’s invitation to move a comprehensive public university in new directions following years of incrementally adding undergraduate programs and a master’s or two.  Enrollment has been flat in recent years and the demographics of the state portend a decline in high school graduates for the foreseeable future.

Building on her experience in health care, the new president makes a case that the value of her new institution cannot be assumed, but must be earned, and does not rely on longevity as its cause célèbre.  Instead, she proposes to focus the university’s academic program and community services:

  • by addressing the challenges of an aging society both across the state and within the immediate region through emphases in gerontology and geriatric care,
  • moving health care over time from – almost exclusively - the treatment of illness and debilitation to include the promotion of healthy lifestyles,
  • capitalizing on the knowledge and insight of persons’ individual genetic predispositions toward certain diseases and conditions to prevent or at least mitigate the occurrence of those factors, and
  • mobilizing community resources to foster public health.

Consulting with both internal and external stakeholders, the president has the faculty and staff develop a three-year plan and process for moving toward a multi- and inter-disciplinary approach to this institutional focus, including resources needed for professional development, and the on-going reallocation of existing resources – especially full-time positions – in support of that focus. 

Just as important, the new president makes it clear that this institutional refocusing does not involve seeking new degree programs save for the instances when existing ones are eliminated and will not duplicate existing in-state offerings, except in those infrequent cases when additional access to such programs is in the interest of the state.  And early on, the president reaches out to public and independent colleges and universities and seeks to collaborate rather than compete with these other institutions.

As difficult as the times are for much of higher education and for comprehensive public universities in particular, turnover in the academic presidency may seem to exacerbate matters.  With so much uncertainty, the change in leadership may only serve to confound the situation. Alternatively, outgoing presidents, governing boards and incoming presidents can seize the opportunity of a change in leadership to lead, not just steer.

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