A symposium on the university presidency hosted by the Ohio State Board of Trustees included a discussion about financing higher education, various means of governing universities and some desired qualities of a strong university leader.
Richard Chait, professor emeritus of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, moderated the 80-minute discussion Friday, which also took questions from faculty, graduate students and the audience.
The Board held the event with the intent of informing OSU’s Presidential Search Committee about more traits to look for in the next university president, said Presidential Search Committee Chairman Jeffrey Wadsworth.
The conversation dealt little with OSU specifically, but instead touched upon the broader problems in higher education and the experiences of the four panelists, Tufts University President Emeritus Lawrence Bacow, Washington State University President Elson Floyd, University of North Carolina President Thomas Ross and University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan.
Tulane University President Scott Cowen was also scheduled to participate in the panel but was “stuck in the airport,” Chait said.
Problems with financing the modern university
Much of the early discussion at the symposium revolved around the difficulty of financing research universities in a time when state and federal funding are decreasing and mounting public pressure to keep tuition low.
Bacow said this is as difficult a time to lead an institution as he can remember, calling it a “crisis environment.”
“We’re under immense pressure to bend the cost curve in higher education,” he said. “All of us feel it, I think. Virtually every single revenue source that we rely upon is under pressure: state support for higher education, federal support for higher education, federal research funding, tuition, expectations of endowment and growth and gifts for current use. Technology is putting pressure on all of us by creating expectations of new ways to deliver an education to students. At the same time, everybody still wants all that they’ve got.”
Sullivan said an aging population is making it more difficult to get public funding because it’s a demographic that historically is less willing to support education.
Floyd said the most significant factor in the research university changes is “declining resources.”
“All of us want to do everything that we possibly can to maximize the return on the investments that have been made in our institutions, but the reality is that the state appropriations continue to decline and it’s also the reality that they aren’t going to go back to their previous levels,” he said.
Ross was more hopeful than Floyd, though — he thinks the political winds might be changing on funding.
“Slowly but surely, policy makers are starting to figure that they are part of the problem in driving up student debt,” he said.
Structural issues of the modern university
There was a common, if tepid, sentiment among the panelists that a university’s shared governance with its faculty is often a hindrance to effective administration. The panelists didn’t say shared governance should be abolished, but Ross said he thinks faculty governments usually do not work well and do a poor job of furthering faculty interests.
Shared governance allows faculty and staff to have a say in decision-making at universities, such as OSU’s University Senate, but Bacow said faculty members need to question whether their own processes are bettering their universities.
“Part of what we have not done is think, as a faculty, whether our governance processes are well-suited to the times that we live in,” he said. “Because it is not in the interest of the faculty to have a governance process that is either not well-representative of their collective interests, or worse yet, indecisive. Because then if you’re a president, there is nobody that you can go to. It is in everybody’s interest for the institution to act nimbly.”
Bacow also said it is difficult to maintain a good balance sheet while meeting the public’s demands, because oftentimes the best way to lower costs involves getting rid of services the public values.
“One of the things that makes this such a challenge (is) there’s a lot of pressure that comes from our constituencies for us to actually become less efficient. What do I mean by that? We know how to make higher education cheaper. It’s not that difficult. It’s called bigger classes. It’s called less student-faculty contact. It’s called less hands-on learning,” he said.
Ross said public universities also often have a problem with assessing the skills they want students to have. The move toward competency-based education, he said, creates problems in measuring what the skill sets are that the university wants its students to have when they graduate.
“There’s no answer for that right now, and yet people want us to be able to deliver a clear set of data that are going to tell them whether we’ve been successful or not successful in producing students that have these sets of competencies, and so that’s an area that we’ve got to do a lot of work on,” he said.
Important traits of a university president
When the conversation turned to OSU’s presidential search, the panel members named a variety traits they feel are imperative for OSU’s next president to have.
“University presidents today must be visionary,” Floyd said. “They need to begin to help predict the future and they can’t do it in isolation. It has to be a collaborative process.”
Both Floyd and Sullivan suggested presidents need to be bold but also restrained, which Floyd called taking “calculated risk(s).” Sullivan said good presidents tend to be data-driven and don’t make decisions off gut instincts.
She added that presidents should be “intellectually curious” and able to bring together diverse groups of people.
“They have to be leaders of strong teams because they have to pick a lot of personnel and they have to be good judges of who will fit into those team positions,” she said.
Ross said he believes integrity is a president’s most important quality.
“If they’re willing to do the right thing, even in tough circumstances, their chances of being successful are certainly higher,” he said.
Ross also said restraint was especially important for presidents of public universities, who should not risk public money in the way that one might be willing to do in a private institution.
Bacow said the greatest presidents focus on their universities.
“The best presidents make the presidency about the institution and not about themselves. I think insecure people make really lousy leaders. You’ve got to be able to do the right thing,” Bacow said. “It’s not that hard to figure but it’s often excruciatingly difficult to do. Insecure people can’t do that. If you want to be loved, get a dog.”
The panel advised OSU’s next president not be too hasty to make decisions when they take the job. The panel was in agreement that the biggest mistake a president can make is assuming that they already know how to run things.
After the event, Wadsworth said he was pleased with what was discussed.
“I thought it was captivating,” Wadsworth said. “The breadth of the questions and responses were incredibly valuable. And to hear from sitting presidents about the issues they face: the stresses of the modern presidency and the qualities of the modern president. I think it was very enlightening and helpful to us.”
Wadsworth said the search committee will move away from the process of examining qualities of a good president and will begin a more concrete examination of potential candidates in mid-September.