Excellence in Leadership,
Science and Education

Great things are done by a series of small things.


Goldie Blumenstyk’s new book, American Higher Education in Crisis?, should be required reading for anyone interested in the future of higher education — faculty, trustees, executives, and government officials, as well as analysts and pundits. Chock full of facts and analysis in a clear, logical and generally objective narrative context, this tightly crafted book is an in-depth exploration of the question posed in the title. And while Blumenstyk comes down clearly on one side (“Yes,” she writes, “Higher education is most assuredly in crisis”), she follows with an assurance that “It certainly does not ... spell doom for the thousands of colleges that make up American higher education.”


Recently, disturbing revelations about a number of college athletics programs have shocked the nation. Allegations of fake courses at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, abusive coaching at Rutgers, sexual abuse at Penn State, a multi-million dollar pyramid scheme at the University of Miami, and transcript fraud at a New York community college to help athletes get into Florida State, among others, have rocked the college sports world. Add to that lawsuits by athletes over mismanaged or ignored concussions and a growing call to view them as employees deserving of pay rather than as students, and it’s no wonder we are seeing a flood of articles, discussions, and opinion pieces that question whether sports should even be a part of the college experience. Such a response is totally understandable. Clearly, discussions need to be held, actions taken, and abuses ended. Universities must be held accountable for educating all of our students, not the least our student-athletes ... students first, athletes second. We cannot allow the prestige and money that follow top-tier college sports programs to blind us to our overriding purpose: preparing our students to be successful adults and to become the thoughtful, learned, and productive citizens our communities, states, and nation need.


Human innovation has come in waves throughout history, and the U.S. has been riding a monster one for decades. Though “riding” is not quite accurate. In reality, we created that wave, in significant part through ramped up public funding of research and development that began in the mid-20th century. Research universities have been the recipients of much of that funding, and thus the generators of much of that innovation. U.S. research universities drive economic growth in their regions, states — and in the world. American universities account for nearly two-thirds of top 50 universities in global rankings. And public research universities are the backbone of academic research in the U.S., conducting two-thirds of all academic research, as measured by research expenditures.


There are two mega-trends affecting both higher education and health care: the demand for value and the need for size. (Even more so in institutions like mine, Georgia Regents University and Health System, which, as our state’s only public academic health center, straddles both worlds.) And the often transformative responses to meet these trends have placed inordinate strain on institutional leadership. In higher education, the turnover rates of university presidents/chancellors, chief financial officers (CFOs), and chief academic officers (CAOs) are already notably high and predicted to increase even more in the coming years. And last year, the turnover rate of hospital CEOs was 20 percent, the highest since the American College of Healthcare Executives (ACHE) began tracking them in 1981.


What do you think when you hear “millennial generation”? If you’re tuned in to either traditional or new media, the words that come to mind are probably not so good: perhaps self-absorbed, shallow, lazy, in debt, in trouble? Though there is no single agreed-upon definition, the term millennial generation generally refers to today’s mid-teens to early-30s adults. I have three younger millennials at home myself, and occasionally one or more of those descriptors may indeed apply. But more so than past generations at that age? I don’t believe so, and research is increasingly providing a more balanced and nuanced portrait of a generation of young people who are —ready or not — poised to change the world.


“College costs too much” — 127 million hits. “Is a college education really worth it?” — 209 million hits. “Tech school is better than college education” — 1.1 billion hits. These recent Google searches and their associated number of results clearly reflect growing concerns and public discussions around the costs of higher education and, in particular, the cost of university or college education. Shrinking state and federal budgets continue to mean students and their families are paying a larger share of higher education costs, often in the form of significant debt. Very naturally, if investments are larger, people and governments seek measurable returns. While the purpose of education is many fold — critical thinking skills, personal and cultural enrichment, a thoughtful citizenry, and more — certainly an important goal is to prepare students to earn a living as productive citizens. So should we be encouraging more of our students who are now pursuing a college degree to seek a technical/vocational degree?


In the 1980s, we communicated via landlines and snail mail, we enjoyed our music on Walkmans and boomboxes, and we read books using... well, books. Much has changed in the past 30 years. Yet if you put a university president from 1986 next to a university president of today, you could hardly tell them apart. Both would likely be white middle-aged men with doctorates in education. Both probably rose from within the ranks of higher education with about a one-in-three chance of having come directly from the Chief Academic Officer position. Both probably served their entire careers in academia and have likely been full-time faculty. Between 1986 and 2012, the American Council on Education published seven reports on “The American College President,“ and perhaps the most striking finding is how little has changed.


Building the right team is one of the key requirements for any administration to be successful; while great and visionary leaders can point the way, only great leadership teams can achieve success. Trust occurs at a truly biological level. Trust, or the lack of it, has allowed humans to survive. Trust is what fosters the building of families, communities and nations; what allows us to engage in commerce, in friendship and in relationships, big or small. Will they be there when I need them? Will my family, my community, my country care for me when I am old, sick or weak? Will my agreement be honored? These and many other questions are answered through trust.