From Here to 2010

Higher education institutions across the country are being plagued with problems that have been developing for the last few decades. Here is our view of the problems, followed by minimum changes that must be made in the next 10 years for our institutions to survive.


Although the number of 18- to 24-year-old students, expected to increase to 4.8 million by 2010 (from 2.65 million graduates in 1988), finally increased slightly in 1996 (from 2.6 to 2.64 million), conditions of alarm continue to be expressed in the rush for students. Many institutions continued an already steady pattern of enrollment decline last fall.

The consequences for some institutions have already been dramatic. As in the ’50s, colleges are again accused of deceptive admissions practices. Some top schools have so miscalculated on student acceptances that they had revenue shortfalls of millions of dollars. Front-rank schools (i.e., Stanford) have been forced to dip down in their applicant pool and supply more financial aid, which also results in revenue shortfalls.


Endowments increased by more than 200 percent in the ’80s, but they have not continued at this rate in the ’90s, although tuition has increased at twice the rate of inflation in the past 10 years. Yet in the face of these remarkable increases in support, even prestigious institutions have made significant financial cutbacks. Both Bryn Mawr and Columbia cut academic programs. Dartmouth cut 55 staff members.

The Curriculum

Both the curriculum and those who teach are under critical scrutiny. College graduates have been described as not having “even the most rudimentary understanding of history, literature and the philosophical foundations of their civilization.” Foreign language requirements were down 65 percent in a 20-year period. Higher education associations themselves speak of a “misguided philosophy” that led to an “undisputed deterioration in the curriculum” and of “public concern about the quality of education.”

Now governors have joined Congress in demanding academic accountability. Delaware Governor Tom Carper, chair of the nationwide Council of Governors, says the assessment movement has gained momentum and is now achieving gale force. Almost one-half of the states already have some form of assessment.

The New Technology

Recent issues of Change, AGB Priorities and Futures Forum all state that few higher education institutions are making concrete plans to link investments in information technology to their desire to attain strategic goals. In fact, an AGB report (1998) indicated that less than 50 percent of our institutions have any plan for the use of the new technology and less than 25 percent of that group have any plan for replacing aging equipment and software.

We are now witnessing the development of a new model of education. And, while the old model is not going to disappear, it is becoming less important. This is occurring for two reasons. First, learner-driven strategies and technologies have transformed higher education by shifting the physical scene of the action away from home campuses. Second, they are gradually changing higher education from a time-based exercise where students in a given class usually advance in lockstep to a competency-based process in which students move at their own pace and seek out the times, places and learning approaches that best suit their needs.

Governance and Leadership

That the pending crisis in higher education today may lead to disaster is confirmed by problems with governance. This is particularly true at the presidential level. Our major universities rarely have strong presidents, and none has dared address the curriculum since the ’60s. The current president at Stanford, Gerhard Casper, was reported to be in trouble because he was taking his job too seriously. It is reported that the former University of Maine’s Chancellor lost his job because he tried to institute an ambitious distance learning program within the system.

The college presidency suffered dramatically from the democratization movement begun in the ’60s and continues to suffer today as governing boards give to faculty members and students as rights what presidents had previously been able to grant as privileges. Presidents continue to be responsible and accountable for everything, as they should be, but their former authority has been given to others who cannot be held accountable. Presidents no longer have the power to pay, promote, punish, delegate or grant -- all of which are necessary conditions for effective decision-making.

Prospering in 2010

In the face of unprecedented problems and challenging prospects, should an institution attempt to move up? Yes, we say, especially in troubled times. It should be understood that an institution on the move will not easily achieve all of the preferred characteristics, but a plan designed to achieve them, and the achievement of some, will surely stimulate support and success.

1. Except for public community colleges, an emerging institution will consistently improve its student body with higher standardized test scores and secondary school class rank. A growing number of these qualified students should be financially self-sufficient; not more than 40 percent, and preferably, not more than 30 percent of the freshman class should receive financial aid. While many colleges will need to “buy” top students, the practice should be gradually reduced. At least 80 percent should graduate from the college in five years or less. The student body should be geographically diverse and at least 12 percent minority. Most institutions, will have to lower the admissions requirements in order to consider cultural differences. This means broadening the range of standardized test scores with more top scoring students in order to increase mean scores.

2. At least 90 percent of the faculty should hold an earned doctorate, with degrees coming from major universities across the nation. Faculty salaries should be based on merit and considerably above the average for the peer group. In most institutions, a few departments should be singled out for excellence and more resources should be put into these areas. Full professors should be especially well paid and there should be more part-time faculty, who are rigorously evaluated. Primary emphasis should be on teaching rather than research, and all members of the faculty should teach at least 12 hours or more and should have more and better-directed student advisory responsibilities. On the other hand, the 12-hour load base can be reduced for special reasons such as designated non-teaching assignments, productive research activities, administrative functions and particular projects. The smart institution will probably give its faculty a generous raise in exchange for increasing teaching load to 15 hours and, over a four-year period, reduce operating expenses by 10 to 15 percent. Faculty performance should be based on observation; peer, student and administrative evaluation; and, to a lesser degree, publication. The college should be absolutely committed to the 1940 AAUP Statement on Academic Freedom, but within those guidelines all members of the faculty should be evaluated, including those on tenure.

3. The undergraduate curriculum should include integrated core requirements. This will be the most telling characteristic of the transformed institution of 2010 about which there should be no compromise. That requirement should be approximately half of the baccalaureate course work and include the new technology; Western Civilization; American Civilization; other civilizations; international, racial and gender studies; grammar; mathematics; natural science; and foreign language.

4. There should be little or no deferred maintenance, and the institution should be relatively well endowed with an alumni giving record of not less than 40 percent. (The current average is 17 percent.) The college should have relatively high tuition. At all times, a capital campaign should either be underway or in the planning stages. In addition to the annual fund, heavy emphasis should be placed on prospect research, major gifts and planned giving. Development, alumni and public relations should be under one officer who reports directly to the president. The institution should receive significant support from major foundations, and its officers should be active in major national organizations.

5. The administration of the institution should be lean, and specific measures of accountability should be practiced at every level. In most institutions, this means staff reductions in student services and academic affairs with increased responsibilities being charged to faculty. Most positions titled “assistant” or “associate” should be reviewed with an eye toward elimination. Every retirement and staff departure should first be viewed as a position eliminated. Management, technology and fund-raising should generally be upgraded. There should be four areas reporting to the president: academic affairs, business affairs, development and student services. There is merit in the idea that student affairs be phased out, positions reduced, staff reassigned and responsibilities absorbed by staff in academic, business affairs or institutional advancement.

6. The board of the institution should be as sophisticated and cosmopolitan as possible, with the majority of its members coming from the for-profit sector. The board should understand clearly the difference between policy and administration, but should insist on full information and satisfactory explanations for all affairs. The board should know the specifics of academic freedom, tenure, teaching load and shared governance as well as it knows the budget and investment policies. There should be a board committee on presidential evaluation and compensation which, each year, systematically evaluates the president according to previously determined, mutually acceptable goals. Every four years a mutually respected outsider should be brought in to evaluate them both.

7. The new technology must be integrated into the entire institutional philosophy. Staff will be reassigned or replaced with Web access, which will serve information directly to the faculty, student or staff member. Costs and comparisons will force institutions and systems to adopt integrated software. Information will flow freely through the institution(s) or from the institution to the consumer. And the shift will be to a time- and place-free education, which will be life-long.

This scenario will demand a dramatic change of emphasis for universities. True teaching and learning are based on mentoring, internalization, identification, role modeling, guidance, socialization, interaction and group activity. In these processes, physical proximity typically plays an important role. Thus, the strength of the future physical university may lie less in pure information and more in college as a community. Technology will augment, not substitute for, and provide new tools for strengthening community on campus.

In research, the physical university’s strength lies in establishing specialized on-campus islands of excellence that benefit from physical proximity. This requires the active management of priorities, and a significant unbundling of the credentialing, teaching, housekeeping and research functions.

Distance learning needs to be addressed with caution, noting its limitations and the need to preserve and foster the individuality of colleges and universities. Every effort must be made to promote variety and to avoid our current “cookie cutter” mentality that all institutions should emulate the elite and selective institutions.

8. Governance will be an imperative for this transformed institution, for until governance is repaired, real problems simply cannot be addressed. These changes must be the responsibility of the governing board, who should be inspired by the college president. A caveat here: A sitting president must handle this subject carefully. Of course, the best times to consider changes in governance are during presidential interims, but most boards are not sufficiently sophisticated to know what to do or how to do it. Outside consultation is always called for, and should be appointed by the chair of the board.

What will be an appropriate governance design? First, it will be in accordance with, but not exceed, the 1966 AAUP Statement on shared governance. Today, so many colleges exceed the conditions called for in this hallmark statement that it is rarely mentioned in college governance documents.

Most simply, the by-laws of colleges and universities should assume that, under the authority of the president, those affected by decisions should have a voice in their making, excepting administrative officers.

This means that there are no formal contacts between the board and the faculty or student body, no faculty or students on the board or the board committees and all college matters are represented to the board by the president or a presidential delegate. However, under the provisions of the 1966 Statement, the president is bound to state in writing to the faculty or to students reasons for decisions contrary to their wishes and to convey the unaltered position of the faculty to the board and vice versa.

Under this design, the president should annually develop goals that are discussed with the chair of the board and presented to the board. The executive committee of the board and/or the full board then evaluates the president based on these goals.

Every three to five years, the president should be evaluated by an outside evaluator who is employed by the board with the approval of the president.

In Sum

Without these or similar modifications, it is inconceivable that any institution will get substantively better in the next decade and some first-rank institutions will fall back by the weight of their own inability to act.

James L. Fisher is professor of Leadership Studies at The Union Institute in Ohio. He is the author of eight books on leadership in higher education and is a consultant to college and university boards and presidents. He is president emeritus of CASE and president emeritus of Towson University.

Scott D. Miller is president and professor of Leadership Studies at Wesley College in Delaware. He is president emeritus of Lincoln Memorial University in Tennessee. He is the author of five books on history and higher education and is a consultant to private colleges and universities on leadership, finance and development.

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