Facing The Facts In Higher Education

"One of the recurring themes making the higher education circuit these days is that 'Paris is burning . . . and higher education's leadership - including trustees, faculty, and most presidents - is pretending that nothing is happening,'" Brian C. Mitchell, director of the Edvance Foundation, writes in The Huffington Post's The Blog. "There is truth to this argument. The facts support the claims by many thoughtful educators that better economic times will not return higher education to the good old days, even if these lazy, hazy times are different than we remember them. Indeed, it goes beyond the debate about how to create a climate for leaders who have the courage to lead. This crisis runs deeper than turning to the latest management hypothesis in vogue to 'disrupt' the status quo. And it is certainly supported by shifting demographics, weakening admission numbers, soft admission yields, stratospheric tuition sticker prices, negative bond ratings, state and federal regulatory intrusion and a lingering recession to paint a dismal picture for American colleges and universities. What are the options open to American higher education? The first approach is to duck and cover. ... However, the fact is that this is a dangerous and cowardly strategy to pursue. This group of higher education leaders may be able to move the pieces around on the chess board to advance the game. But there is a difference between advancing the game and shaping a sustainable agenda for the future. It is unforgivable behavior among those charged to lead. It may depend in part on where you are in the higher education pecking order. For most colleges and universities, however, a decision to 'wait it out' postpones the inevitable and significantly weakens their ability to invest and create opportunity for faculty and students. ... A second approach is to 'do more with less.' On the surface, this makes sense, particularly if the concept centers on ways to look for administrative efficiencies, greater program specialization, re-allocation of internal investments, and common institutional partnerships across higher education. It's a good start and an intelligent way to support faculty and staff. It may also be a form of duck and cover, especially if this strategy limits the kind of planning and investments that put off the hard choices. Facing the facts in American higher education means more than delaying the construction of the new science building. And, reworking internal numbers turns a deaf ear to the drumbeat of consumer demand, state and federal regulators, technology impacts, and other external forces that shape higher education beyond the college gates. A third approach is to recognize the inevitable. ... The reality is, of course, that the colleges and universities that survive will do so because they thought about their future rather than simply managed their present. Let's hope that the next wave of management solutions for higher education attacks the status quo by recognizing the strength of what underpins it. Let's pray that colleges and universities do more with less but also ask themselves the tough questions that strengthen them. ... Soon, the recession will end and the aftermath will demonstrate that the place of higher education in a global economy will be different. Higher education must stake out its turf, add value, differentiate and admit that external forces washing over it represent unprecedented opportunity. Perhaps the best way to adjust to this crisis is to embrace it."

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