Monday, December 05, 2011

Leadership Crises Ahead

As an industry, we’ll be in serious trouble as long as it’s taboo to speak the truth. The responses to these two pieces suggest that we aren’t yet ready to come to grips with reality.

Jeff Selingo’s piece on the graying of college presidents met with the usual and ritualistic accusations of ageism, which both missed the point and attempted to foreclose further discussion. Which is a shame, because it’s a crucial topic.

Selingo notes, correctly, that the average age of college presidents and senior administrators has been moving dramatically upward for some time; at this point, it’s noteworthy to find a college president under fifty. (Notably, many of today’s senior leaders started younger than that.) The generation currently in leadership roles came to those roles with a tailwind, and has presided over a serious explosion of costs. At this point, senior leaders change institutions with some frequency in a high-stakes version of musical chairs. When the same faces keep trading seats, with interim appointments filling in the gaps, it’s difficult for anyone to come to grips with major structural issues. So they don’t, and the game of annual tuition increases and budget cuts continues unabated.

It’s hard to break the generational lock, though. For one thing, the pipeline is thin. Decades of replacing full-time faculty positions with adjuncts has thinned out the farm system, so there isn’t a ready cohort in the wings. And nobody gets in trouble for hiring experience.

That can matter for a whole host of reasons, but the most obvious ones are demography and unspoken assumptions.

Demography is relatively clear: each generation of academics is more racially diverse than the one before it. The more interesting reason, though, is what a generation has in common. The Gen X’ers started their careers in scarcity, and have lived in scarcity pretty much without interruption. They didn’t catch the demographic tailwind of their elders. That means that, in the aggregate, they’re more likely to be attuned to the climate of possibility now. There’s no temptation to try to recreate a golden age that occurred when you were in preschool. This generation is likely to be more attuned to the new normal.

This other article from IHE suggests, hamhandedly, what some of the next challenges may look like. I have my issues with the piece, especially around its proposed regional typologies, but at least it suggests that the next cohort of college leaders will need a willingness to tackle some key issues that the current cohort has postponed. The catch is that dealing with fundamental issues will necessarily generate conflict, and some Boards won’t touch anybody who has a history of conflict. The “conflict aversion” playbook is dogeared, but it’s dogeared for a reason. From the outside, it can be difficult to distinguish the brave teller of truth from the arrogant jerk from the idiot who just can’t handle conflict. (To be fair, there is some overlap...)

Too often, academe slides from “shared governance,” which is a good thing when properly understood, to a premium on “consensus,” which is far more problematic. In a democratic process -- even if modified -- it’s possible that some people will lose on an important issue. But in a consensus system, there’s not supposed to be such a thing as losing. When difficult choices require that somebody actually loses, the resulting conflict is sometimes read as a failure to generate consensus. It isn’t, really; it’s a cost of coming to grips with reality.

A fair reading of the last few decades would suggest that the trend towards adjunct instruction has been driven by the desire for consensus. By offloading economic shortfalls onto people who aren’t actually at the table, it’s easier to maintain peace among the people at the table. (The same argument could be made about tuition increases and financial aid; it’s easy to raise prices when the students don’t pay the increase directly.) When consensus is taken as a good in itself, “path of least resistance” solutions that dump the costs onto people who aren’t there at the time become particularly attractive. Let that dynamic roll, uninterrupted, for several decades, and you end up where we are.

If the Occupy movement has taught us anything, it’s that we’re reaching the end of the “dump the costs on the next generation” strategy. If higher education is going to remain viable as a mass phenomenon -- I’m not talking about the elites here, since they’ll survive anyway -- it will have to start making choices. That means that we can expect more open conflict, less consensus, and a need for leaders who are willing to make choices. I just hope that the unthinking, ritualistic excoriation that Selingo’s piece generated isn’t indicative of how far we are from being able to start having honest conversations. If we don’t come to grips with the new normal, it will assuredly come to grips with us.