Looking Beyond Our Predictions

Bob Sevier

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Nearly 20 years ago I was asked by CASE (the Council for Advancement and Support of Education) to write an article on the future of higher education in America. I made the following five predictions:

  1. The web and its big brother, information technology, will set traditional higher education on its ear.
  2. Colleges and universities that serve only one kind of student will find their market shrinking.
  3. The cost of going to college will be an even greater issue in the future than it is now.
  4. There will be more potential donors—and fundraisers—in the marketplace than ever before.
  5. We have moved from a provider-driven model to a consumer-driven model.

All-in-all I think I did pretty well. I had hoped that the web and IT would have greater impact in the classroom. In particular, I believed it would increase the quality of the educational experience and lower the cost. While they did the former, they have yet to do the latter. Of course, I completely missed the impact of social media.

I was right in predicting that colleges that focus on only one kind of student would have a challenging future. That was true then and even more true now.

I was pretty blunt about the impact of college costs, but still underestimated its impact. Who would have thought.

I also did pretty well with fundraising. There are more donors, and donor seekers, in play than ever before. What I missed, however, was the activist donor; the donor who has very specific and often very vocal goals about how his or her money will be used.

Finally, my thoughts about a consumer-driven model of higher ed were on the money. Today’s students have more power and are able and willing to wield that power, and there is every reason to believe that their use of power will only increase.

As I looked over my five predictions I realized that there is one I missed: the increasing importance and impact of leadership.

Let me state it succinctly. More than ever, the quality of the leadership will spell the difference between institutional success and failure.

From my perspective, higher education is awash in managers; people who are focused on managing an ever-dwindling resource base. They count things and horde things and wish they had more things. They are afraid of the future and afraid of the tough decisions that must be made. They are preservationists.

Rather than managers, higher education needs leaders; women and men who recognize the challenges ahead and are courageous enough to chart a different path. They are fully aware of the tough decisions that must be made, but even more aware of the consequences of not making the tough decisions.

There is an old saw that managers manage within paradigms and leaders lead between paradigms. Like many old saws, this one rests on a solid foundation of truth.

In many respects, the importance and impact of leadership is the most important prediction of all. While circumstances matter, how the campus is led through the circumstances matters even more.

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