Academic Leadership 2.0

What will it take to demonstrate that colleges and universities are more than employment agencies?
By Jeffrey L. Buller

In a commentary accompanying the Chronicle of Higher Education’s report on how the University of Virginia’s board of visitors abruptly forced the resignation of UVA’s president, Teresa Sullivan—and then just as abruptly reinstated her—William W. Keep, dean of the School of Business at the College of New Jersey, placed blame on the role governing boards play in higher education today: “Although colleges can learn many things from the way businesses operate, treating a college strictly like a business would be a mistake. . . . The student-as-customer model fits poorly. Certainly some educational experiences are better than others, and information about differences in quality needs to be readily available. However, anyone who has listened to students and parents demand results at special prices knows the customer model has flaws.” Imagine a customer in a department store who buys a sweater and isn’t happy with it. The customer has every right to demand satisfaction. After all, he or she had bought that sweater. But compare that with what occurs at a college or university. A student doesn’t buy a degree; he or she earns it and has no right to expect that the school will grant a grade or credential that he or she doesn’t deserve. Students (and their parents) sometimes don’t understand this difference. But it’s rather like suing a gym because you didn’t lose weight—even though you never showed up.

Still, the business model of academic leadership has been spreading. Our governing boards consist almost exclusively of people from the corporate world and other professional environments. Board members are typically people who have significant financial resources—in certain cases, a substantial contribution is even required for membership on the board—that they obtained through entrepreneurial, business-oriented, and highly cost-conscious approaches. These board members make decisions in the academic world in the same way they make them in the business world. They appoint presidents who appear to have decision-making abilities; who can distill complex issues into sound bites; and who, like them, are inclined to “shake things up.”

Governing boards favor administrative candidates who want to change the college or university into something it isn’t. That desire can often be a wonderful thing, particularly when the institution’s survival is threatened. Too often, however, it means that new presidents want to change their institutions in ways that diminish what made them great in the first place. Moreover, if they don’t act on these impulses quickly enough, their boards are perfectly happy to find some other CEO. Business attitudes begin to permeate the “administrative team,” and strategic plans are developed to carry the college or university “to the next level of excellence.” They turn into higher education’s “new normal.”

The Accountability Culture

But other factors are also driving today’s business model in higher education. One is the accountability culture that began in primary and secondary education and now shapes public perceptions of how colleges and universities operate. Education is expensive, so the argument goes, and schools need to demonstrate that they’re providing significant return on investment. Documenting that value becomes a goal in itself, changing the ways colleges and universities are run. Administrators speak of student credit hours as “products” largely because they’re easier to measure than knowledge. Programs and classes that generate high numbers of student credit hours are “good and efficient”; those with a high ratio of cost to student credit hours are not. Academic decisions start being made on the basis of passing trends, even fads, with presidents, provosts, and deans consulting the academic equivalent of Nielsen ratings to gauge student demand.

New types of accountability put institutions under pressure to demonstrate that they’re meeting the student learning outcomes they’ve set, “closing the loop.” The irony is that, because of this new accountability culture, funding that could have been used to improve a student’s educational experience must often be redirected toward institutional research to document that a student has had an improved educational experience. Academic quality ends up being hampered by the measures the business model of education adopted to improve it.

Moving beyond Academic Leadership 1.0

In the premiere episode of the HBO series The Newsroom, the network president, Charlie Skinner (played by Sam Waterston), encourages his anchor, Bill McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), to get over his preoccupation with ratings. He wants McAvoy to start broadcasting “real news,” regardless of whether people want to hear it. “You know what, kiddo?” Skinner says. “In the old days—about ten minutes ago—we did the news well. You know how? We just decided to.” McAvoy agrees. The result is a revision of their approach to reporting, dubbed News Night 2.0, a simple recommitment to older news values.

What might happen if college administrators were to start practicing what we might call “Academic Leadership 2.0,” taking steps to educate students, not just preparing them to look good on a résumé? What might happen if we began making those changes— because “we just decided to”?

Academic Leadership 2.0 would include three important ingredients: a vastly different relationship among trustees, administrators, and faculty members; a renewed national conversation about why we devote resources to higher education in the first place; and a willingness to explore new incentives and compensation models for executives at colleges and universities.

A New Relationship with the Faculty

In an open letter to the faculty of Georgia Southern University that “went viral,” David Dudley, the chair of that institution’s Department of Literature and Philosophy, identifies a number of challenges his institution is facing. He notes, for instance, that he keeps

hearing that the current administration bears a dismissive and contemptuous attitude toward faculty. From what I observe, there is truth in this observation. To my mind, this is the fundamental mistake any university administration can make. Deans, provosts, and presidents come and go. . . . [A university] belongs to its faculty and staff every bit as much as it belongs to any administrator. In fact, it belongs more to us, because when the current deans and higher administrators are long gone, we will still be here, striving to maintain what this place stands for: individual attention to our students, which is why they come here.

If viewing higher education as a business means that student credit hours are treated as a product, then the faculty members who generate them are mere employees (or, worse, machines) valued more for “productivity” than for their contribution to society. No college administrator will say such a thing, but this idea drives how strategic decisions are made. Faculty members who object “just don’t get it.” They’re all prima donnas who “get in the way”; they’ll go off and do whatever they like the moment you stop riding herd on them. Yet one dean told me,

You know, we go on and on about how it’s ‘all about the students’ and that ‘students come first.’ But, to my mind, higher education has value in the world regardless of whether a school has any students or not. All the best scholars I know continue to make contributions even after they retire. You can have a university without students, but you can’t have one without faculty. After all, some really fine universities are pure research institutes that don’t generate a single student credit hour. The college isn’t a building, a university isn’t a stadium, and the product of education isn’t a transcript. Universities consist of teachers and researchers. They define who you are.

The mantra that “The students come first” continues to be repeated by trustees and presidents. It’s as unquestioned a truth as “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day” or “It’s not the heat; it’s the humidity.” But Academic Leadership 2.0 will start to develop only when administrators and the boards that hire them understand how vapid these repeated declarations are. It’s not as though such sentiments inform faculty members of something they don’t already know: the faculty, better than anyone else, understands just how important students are. But what faculty members begin to hear in these pious declarations of deans, presidents, and regents is, “Students come first. That means that you come second. Or maybe you don’t even rank at all.” That’s not a message that builds a strong academic culture.

Academic Leadership 2.0 means making an administrative partnership with the faculty the cornerstone of an institution’s culture. Administrators have to stop thinking of themselves as operating on a different level from the faculty. The fear many administrators have is that if you demonstrate your willingness to advocate for the faculty, they’ll walk all over you. But giving someone a voice isn’t the same thing as giving them whatever they want. Deans and provosts and presidents appoint faculty members because they value their expertise and respect their accomplishments. That value and respect must continue, with all university constituents working together as partners. It’s hard to claim you respect what someone does if you don’t really trust that person to work for the common good. Faculty members are going to let you down from time to time. But you know what? We administrators are going to let them down, too. Being part of a community means accepting that fact. It also means setting aside your suspicion that everyone’s out to take advantage of you.

This new relationship among the governing board, administration, and faculty would require us to work differently. We’d have to take shared governance seriously, delegating not just responsibility but also authority. We’d have to conduct fewer “horizontal” meetings (where chairs meet with other chairs, deans with other deans, and so on) in favor of more “vertical” ones (where there is representation from all segments of the university affected by an issue). We’d have to start being truly transparent, even if this new openness means discussing ideas that are still in their formative stages. That’s not a huge sacrifice. The proliferation of laws mandating open records and meetings makes confidentiality on most issues practically impossible. Everyone on our campuses already knows our salaries, our budgets, and the impact of our decisions, even ones we think we’re making quietly. If we’re afraid that our thought processes can’t stand up to the scrutiny and objections of others, perhaps our reasoning isn’t as solid as it should be. It could even be that if governing boards and faculty members met face to face over substantive issues, not just on ceremonial occasions or when they’re on opposite sides of the table for contract negotiations, they might begin to see issues from each other’s perspectives. Faculty members might be less cynical about budget cuts if they were actually in the room when budgets were set. Trustees might stop thinking of the professoriate as underworked and overpaid if they actually witnessed what it takes to be a mentor and teacher in the classroom or lab.

The Role of Higher Education in Society

Higher education in the United States is expensive and getting more so. In Trends in College Pricing: 2011, the College Board reported that “over the decade from 2001–02 to 2011–12, published tuition and fees for in-state students at public four-year colleges and universities increased at an average rate of 5.6% per year beyond the rate of general inflation.” There is a great deal of skepticism about how much value is derived from this investment. John Immerwahr and Jean Johnson, in Squeeze Play 2010, a study conducted for the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, note that “six out of ten Americans now say that colleges today operate more like a business, focused more on the bottom line than on the educational experience of students. Further, the number of people who feel this way has increased by five percentage points in the last year alone and is up by eight percentage points since 2007.” A summary compiled for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities by Thomas Harnish and Emily Parker revealed that thirty-nine of forty-three governors (91 percent) who gave State of the State addresses in 2012 discussed higher education, most of them noting its high cost, its crucial role in preparing people for jobs, or both.

In fact, rising costs often seem to be driving our national debate about the role of higher education: are the high tuition rates worth it in terms of earning power? So dominant is the question that college and university administrators often raise it when talking about their institutions. We regularly hear presidents tout the placement of their graduates in well-paying jobs. They cite evidence like that presented in the College Board’s report Education Pays: 2010, illustrating that the “typical bachelor’s degree recipient can expect to earn about 66% more during a 40-year working life than the typical high school graduate earns over the same period.”

They ignore several questions. Is the role of higher education simply job training? Is a university just a high-end vocational-technical school, its value assessed on the basis of the return it makes on investment?

To be sure, not even the most committed liberal arts dean (which I am) is going to argue that getting a job is not an important goal for graduates. But we’ve allowed the national debate to assume that jobs are the only aspect of our mission that matters. We’re forgetting that higher education prepares students to engage more meaningfully in a democratic society.

Academic leaders need to take back responsibility for demonstrating that a university is far more than an employment agency. We do ourselves a disservice by repeatedly claiming, “We don’t tell students what to think. We merely teach them how to think.” We need to admit that some benefits of a college education are indeed attitudinal.

If being educated means being less likely to believe that large doses of vitamins cure cancer, all taxes are evil, Ayn Rand was the single greatest writer of the twentieth century, the universe was created six thousand years ago, fossil fuels don’t harm the environment, or Paul Revere warned colonists that the British were about to violate their Second Amendment rights, so much the better. We should be championing that achievement, not hiding it under a bushel.

If we don’t argue that intelligence is better than ignorance and that not all beliefs are created equal, who will? Promulgating genuine understanding of the difference between facts and beliefs is a far worthier accomplishment than simply making our graduates two-thirds wealthier.

Alternate Compensation Models

Making our case becomes much easier when those of us who serve as administrators aren’t seen as hypocrites when it comes to our own salaries. Tuition is rising and educational budgets are being slashed even as administrative salaries increase and administrative staffs expand. Meanwhile, many faculty members have gone for years without a raise. Even where sitting presidents, provosts, and deans have not seen a salary increase either, new administrators are often appointed at significantly larger salaries than their predecessors. “If they can’t afford faculty raises, new equipment, travel funding, and the money I need to complete my research,” we hear repeatedly, “why is it that they can always afford to pay the new president more, expand the provost’s staff, and increase the dean’s personal travel budget?” Our explanations go only so far. None of them matters when you see yourself making sacrifices while others appear to be prospering. The conflict between the 99 percent and the 1 percent isn’t just about Wall Street bankers. We’re hearing about it on the quads as well.

Academic Leadership 2.0 would require a new approach to how we compensate administrators. For far too long, we’ve taken refuge behind the corporate argument that institutions have to pay to attract qualified academic leaders. Indeed, not even the most vocal critic will deny that what academic leaders do is challenging, tedious, anxiety-producing, and dependent on specialized skills. But that’s hardly a reason to pay presidents forty to fifty times what some faculty members are earning. Here’s one way administrators and governing boards can work together to help make the university run less like a business: deans, provosts, and presidents can persuade trustees that the salary model of corporate CEOs doesn’t fit higher education and that they do the institution a disservice by offering contracts to administrators that widen the breach between them and the faculty.

Since we claim that higher education teaches people to be creative, surely we have skills enough on our own for effective administration without trying to match corporate salaries. One idea—and it’s only one of many other possibilities—is to peg administrative salaries to those of the faculty and provide incentives for academic leaders to “buy out” some of their time, saving the institution even more money.

Here’s how such a system might work. Rather than negotiate individual administrative salaries, establish a formula based on principles of equity. Most administrators are on contract all year, while most faculty members serve on nine- or ten-month contracts. Institutions could begin by agreeing that administrative twelve-month contracts will include a supplemental contract of 33 percent over nine-month contracts or 20 percent over ten-month contracts.

The base to which this supplement will be added could be established by agreeing on a formula derived from actual faculty salaries. Different institutions will need to build their formulas in different ways, but all should take a transparent and simple approach. One institution might decide that no administrator’s base salary will be higher than 50 percent more than that of the highest-paid professor; another might prefer to pay the sum of the highest-paid professor’s salary and the salary of the lowest-paid instructor or assistant professor; a third might prefer to add a flat-rate stipend to the average salary of full professors. No formula is going to work universally, but each college or university should establish a formula justified by its institutional mission.

Finally, policies could be established that encourage administrators to seek opportunities for institutions to recoup some of their investment in them. Almost all members of the upper administration have opportunities to consult at other schools, mentor new academic leaders, present keynote addresses at academic conferences, offer workshops on leadership practices, or provide other services related to their field of expertise. Usually these services are offered pro bono, but in some cases, they include an honorarium. Occasionally that honorarium can be rather substantial.

Consider the advantages of encouraging administrators to seek out more of these opportunities. The policy at a college or university might state that, if the honorarium is larger than the salary during the period in question, the administrator will be permitted to keep it but required to take an unpaid leave of absence. If the honorarium is small, he or she would not be required to take an unpaid leave but would contribute the honorarium to the institution. Everyone would benefit from this system. The administrator would be provided with an opportunity to earn more money, the institution would have an opportunity to reduce its costs (and would benefit from having its name attached to the distinguished speaker or consultant), and there would never be any question about a conflict of interest. Besides, experiences of this sort are almost always educational for the administrator: they’re a type of professional development.

Imagine a hypothetical university where faculty members are on nine-month contracts and where the highest-paid full professor earns $125,000, the lowestpaid assistant professor earns $50,000, and average professorial pay is $90,000:

  1. The university could take the salary of the highest-paid full professor ($125,000), increase that by 50 percent ($62,500), and then raise that total by 33 percent in order to convert it from nine to twelve months. Presidential salary: $250,000.
  2. Or it could take the salary of the highest-paid full professor ($125,000), add the salary of the lowest-paid assistant professor ($50,000), and increase that total by the same 33 percent. Presidential salary: $233,333.
  3. Alternatively, it could take the average salary of all full professors ($90,000), add a flat administrative stipend of $75,000, and then apply the twelvemonth conversion rate of 33 percent. Presidential salary: $220,000.

No matter which of those compensation packages the university chooses, the result is easy to explain and far more affordable than today’s inflated figures. Even better, the president now has a clear interest in collaborating with the faculty: as their salaries go up, so will the president’s.

In addition, the administrator could buy out part of this contract. With most institutions having roughly 250 paid business days per year, under the highest salary mentioned above the president would earn about $1,000 a day. If he or she were offered $5,000 for a one-day speaking engagement, the president would keep the honorarium and net an additional $4,000 while the school would save $1,000. If the honorarium were only $500, the president’s salary wouldn’t increase (neither would it decrease), and the institution would gain $500. By being entrepreneurial, administrators can still be well compensated while helping their institutions instead of alienating the constituents they’ve sworn to serve.

In the episode of The Newsroom mentioned earlier, the anchor is part of a panel discussion at Northwestern University when a student from the audience asks him why America is the greatest country in the world. He imagines (or so it seems at the time) that his former girlfriend is holding up two signs: “It’s not” and “But it can be.” Thus begins the character’s journey. Academic Leadership 2.0 would start from a similar recognition: American colleges and universities are not being run in a way that best serves the interests of their students, faculty members, other constituents, and the world as a whole. But they can be.

What should we as academic leaders do to start this process of change? We just decide to.


Jeffrey L. Buller is dean of the Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College of Florida Atlantic University and senior partner in ATLAS : Academic Training, Leadership, and Assessment Services. He has more than thirty years of experience as an academic leader in positions ranging from department chair through vice president for academic affairs and has served at Loras College, Georgia Southern University, Mary Baldwin College, and Florida Atlantic University. His e-mail address is [email protected]