Without repentance—mea culpa ringing across the sector—followed by a shift to progressive leadership (an approach that embraces authenticity, transparency, and genuineness as a leadership ethic), there’s no hope for change.
There’s plenty of noise coming from higher education these days. What used to be an unremarkable sector—news-wise, at least—isn’t that way now. And the news is troubling. The range of issues, including scandal, is too wide to ignore.
Years ago, an administrative colleague and I had a lunch conversation–a “What if the public knew?” talk–about how upside-down things had gotten in higher education. “Higher education has lost its way,” I said. My friend put it emphatically: “It’s FUBAR!”
We weren’t referencing individual transgressions. We were talking about an institutional affliction. Academic work and running higher education as an exemplar of social responsibility—the ‘stuff’ of higher education, its treasure, and important issues for just about all of the faculty members, staff, and students I know—take a back seat to what presidents/chancellors and boards give attention to these days. They focus on things like getting significant donations from wealthy alumni, moving their schools up the rankings, winning athletic championships, and rolling out branding campaigns—things that are secondary to higher education’s core business and can, in fact, get in its way.
It’s not that any of those things are insignificant. It’s that they have become objectives in their own right, fodder for bragging rights. Rajani Naidoo wrote a few years ago that “higher education is trapped in a competition fetish.” He’s right!
When means become ends—when leaders begin focusing on less important matters, deflecting attention from core purpose–then it is only a matter of time before the erosion of fundamental purpose exacts a cost. And when that day comes (we predicted that day at lunch), higher education’s underbelly will be revealed.
A few weeks ago, my colleague and I reconnected for a reunion lunch. Much of what we had predicted has come true, But we also admitted to whiffing on a critical feature of the malaise, that is, the epicenter’s location—America’s major schools. At those places, there is money, action, and nooks and crannies to hide things. It’s where ‘gamers’ play and often get into trouble when avarice, the abdication of core values, and situational ethics prevail.
The problem isn’t in the past tense, either. It’s happening. Higher education took a left turn, made headlines, but didn’t make public amends.
Sadly, the answer is a bit of both–leadership not know how (with respect to the former) and those who seek to get better at playing the game. Either way, higher education loses.
Especially troubling is when executive/governance games-playing enables Wall Street and Madison Avenue to take up residence on campus green. When that happens, higher education runs more like a private equity firm than an institution dedicated to serving the public good.
In a nutshell, that is what corrupted higher education. And it corrupts it still.
Are better days ahead? Without repentance—mea culpa ringing across the sector—followed by a shift to progressive leadership (an approach that embraces authenticity, transparency, and genuineness as a leadership ethic), there’s no hope for change.
Serving the public good should never go out of style, but it has across a good share of higher education, replaced by a leadership style unbecoming the word ‘academic.’
Expect more headlines.