Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Optimists v. Pessimists in higher education

I study leadership and I deeply understand the need to provide an optimistic view, drawing support from those both within and outside of one's sphere of influence. I also know that leaders who portray the conditions of the people and organizations they lead as overly optimistic get in trouble as confidence declines when rosy futures remain unfulfilled and when threatening situations erupt with little opportunity to defend.

Inside Higher Education's survey of college and university presidents indicates that, although challenges are apparent, most are confident in the futures of their institutions. However, looking at some of the specific responses, one has to wonder. For example, 27% anticipate merging with another institution within 5 years, 7 in 10 indicate, "my institution needs to make fundamental changes in its business models, programming and other operations." Central issues that challenge higher education leaders are of course finance but they also include growing public perception that campuses are intolerant of conservativism and that the cost of attending college is unjustified.

In addition to college and university presidents' optimism, a recent survey of college and university provosts (academic leadership) found that most believe that academic welfare at their institutions is good. Provosts believe that the COVID pandemic brought changes but that these did not effect the general nature and quality of education. The satisfaction levels fell once the survey items left the purview of the Provost, with significant numbers believing that financial management, controlling costs, and recruitment had problems. Provosts may report optimism about academic welfare and may claim that they center quality teaching in their work, yet they have contributed to shifting the teaching burden to part-time and adjunct instructors, a shift that contributes to declining quality and exploits a powerless and growing number of academics. The influx of temporary instructors has likely contributed to the erosion of a core of tenured faculty, also at the discretion of the Provost.

Contradicting provosts' optimism, U.S.A. higher education research shows signs of decline. In addition, numerous trends threaten the preeminence of U.S.A. institutions. Ray Schroeder's essay about realism in higher education asserts that the problems "cannot be solved alone by provosts, deans, directors and department chairs with the active engagement of faculty, staff, and related others in reinventing our universities into more efficient, effective and affordable institutions."

Schroeder's admonition to communicate actively inside and outside higher education will likely draw applause but the deeper issues of effectiveness and affordability will likely receive a more tepid response. My previous post, "Has higher education lost its way," captures some of the more fundamental challenges that require attention. Simple demographics are at the center of the tension between optimism and pessimism, with the U.S.A. facing an era of declining traditional-aged college students. The decline of numbers then challenges planners to achieve scale and sustainability.

If leadership is to be effective in the complex environment of higher education in the U.S.A. both optimism and realistic pessimism will have to be accepted. There is evidence that faculty will seek to explore new teaching strategies that will improve student learning. Reinforcing evidence-based strategies that can be scaled to larger numbers will be important. And, returning to the survey of provosts, administrators and positional leaders will need to look beyond their tendency to be satisfied with their own responsibilities but dissatisfied with what others are contributing to organizational security and advancement.

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