To Make Better Decisions, Break Some Boundaries

November 26, 2012

The persistent economic problems facing higher education these days make it evident that the financial models of most institutions are not sustainable. That challenge alone would be bad enough, but traditional educational models are also in trouble, as online learning upends the nature of higher education itself.

But more serious than either the economic or the educational challenge is the inability of academe's decision-making model to respond to them. On almost every campus, decisions are made via decentralized patterns of authority in departments and programs that are largely self-governing. Underneath that system of autonomy is a resistance to organizational change and a cumbersome and splintered method of making decisions that do not serve our institutions well, especially in times of crisis. Issues—innovation, evaluation and rigor in teaching and learning, general education, retention and graduation rates—that should cross boundaries are handled on a piecemeal basis.

This tendency is exacerbated by the increasing number of faculty members who define themselves primarily by their academic specialty and their research rather than as members of their university communities. They seek independence from being told when and what to teach, from serving on committees, and from other activities that would signal their role in the larger life of the institution.

The real problem, then, is at the structural level. For academic professionals, knowledge is a good in itself, and thus by nature they resist the instrumental forms of measurement and control that come with institutionalization, money, and markets. Shared governance tries to deal with those inevitable tensions and develops complex protocols and professional norms meant to foster joint action. But when it has to deal efficiently and coherently with the integrated challenges of deep economic and educational change, shared governance alone is often not up to the task.

Fortunately, new methods of leadership are emerging to respond more effectively to the dislocating elements of change. They include:

Collaborative strategic leadership. Since the stakes are so high, effective strategic decision-making deserves the concentrated attention of each college's leaders—its president and trustees—as well as faculty and staff. We need more-effective ways to respond to structural change by creating organizational decision-making systems that are more integrated and coherent, more efficient and responsive.

Institutions need to define missions and visions that authentically, not just rhetorically, reflect their identities, their core educational competencies, and their financial resources. The focus should be on creating methods of collaborative leadership and responsibility that fully engage faculty in the process and include them in the organization's accountability for results. The moment is at hand to move beyond endless debates over procedures and protocols.

 Faculty educational leadership. New mechanisms of coordination and decision making are needed to help faculty take responsibility for student learning. The shared goals of the educational program should be developed and overseen by new or revised faculty bodies such as councils, centers, and communities of practice. The aim should be to move away from the passive and disconnected work that often now is done in separate educational policy, curriculum, and assessment committees. Links from that work and other sources of faculty initiative should be made directly to the tasks of renewing organizational mission and vision, and to the strategy process.

 Individually, faculty need to rethink their professional identities. In spite of the diversity of institutional missions, most full-time faculty members at four-year colleges share a sense of professional identity and achievement that is driven by the research ideal established in graduate study. New knowledge offers immense and essential benefits to the world, but it should not define professional identity universally and exclusively. Just as valuable is a focus on teaching and learning, including the recognition and replication of approaches and programs that demonstrate success.

Integrative leadership. Many governing boards stand in need of reform. Nevertheless, they can still be of immense value to presidents and institutions in overseeing the structural redesign of their hierarchies. The board does not do the primary work of designing better decision-making methods but sees to it that the right groups are doing the right work at the right time and achieving the goals they set for themselves.

 The challenges to higher education's future economic and educational success have never been more daunting, in large measure because higher education has never been so crucial to the future of the society that it serves. Through collaborative decision making and shared leadership, our institutions can better meet those challenges—and better serve society as well.

Richard L. Morrill is president of the Teagle Foundation.