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Inside ACE:​ Highlights from the American Council on Education’s 93rd Annual Meeting



For three days in March, more than 1,600 higher education leaders gathered in Washington, DC, at ACE’s 93rd Annual Meeting, under the theme “Reaching Higher.”

Attendees heard provocative comments from prominent figures in academe, as well as visionaries such as Bob Johansen, author of Leaders Make the Future: Ten New Leadership Skills for an Uncertain World. Johansen shared his forecasts for the future of education and learning, including the effect that digital natives— those who are aged 15 or younger—will have on the current education system. He also predicted that the next big economic driver will be biology and global well-being, compared with the last decade, which was driven by engineering. “Think organic,” he advised. And while developments like “cloud computing” and “reciprocity-based innovation” may sound like concepts out of science fiction, Johansen noted that “each of these represents a tremendous opportunity—and a tremendous threat.”

In a plenary session focused on improving college readiness, Diana G. Oblinger, president and CEO of EDUCAUSE, noted that 30 percent of students don’t complete high school. A figure that staggering has a dramatic effect at the postsecondary education level. “College completion is an important domestic issue with global ramifications,” she said.

But what actually helps students prepare for and succeed in college? Carol G. Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, suggested that efforts to align practice with outcomes are getting more sophisticated. “There are lots of innovations out there,” she said. The question is, can the community synthesize them and build upon them? “We need to be much more intentional in helping students make needed connections,” she added. She and panelist Gerardo de los Santos, president and CEO of the League for Innovation in the Community College, exhorted college leaders to set aside differences among institutional missions. “It speaks to the need for all sectors to be more interdependent,” de los Santos said.

Mark Milliron, deputy director of postsecondary improvement at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, observed: “What’s been a traditional strength of American higher education has been its diversity of mission.” But diversity shouldn’t be divisive, he said. On the contrary, diversity is a strength and a sign of flexibility—a flexibility that institutions now need to leverage.

Is that strength threatened by competition from universities in Russia, China, India, or elsewhere? To Jonathan R. Cole, author of The Great American University, it may not matter. Foreign competition, he said, simply means that collective knowledge will be enhanced. Yet Cole was quick to point out the paradox of American higher education today: “We have the greatest university system in the world, yet we have a system that is challenged and deeply troubled and faces a series of threats. If we are so good,” Cole asked, “why do we feel so at risk?”

Graham Spanier, president of The Pennsylvania State University, offered at least a partial answer. Speaking shortly after his state’s governor announced dramatic cuts to higher education funding, Spanier joked, “We hear people confuse Penn State with the state pen, and there are days when I would love to have their funding.” Acknowledging that many states are similarly challenged, he added, “We will survive, but it is folly to pretend we will be able to continue what we have been able to do.”

Taken a step further, University System of Maryland CEO Brit Kirwan said cuts to the public sector threaten to bring about what he called a bigger risk—the under-education of the American population. “We can’t be the leader in things that matter if we can’t be the leader in educating our population,” he stated. “We have to find ways to deliver high-quality education at lower costs. And we have not been as effective as we need to be in communicating with our state leaders. We have to create a shared vision for the state.”

Crafting that shared vision—and arguing effectively for the continued funding of higher education—was also the theme of the 2011 Robert H. Atwell Lecture, delivered by Richard C. Levin. The Yale University president offered several rationales for public support of higher education, beginning with the benefits of university research. “Our elected officials need to know that discoveries of basic research drive commercial innovation,” Levin asserted, citing the Bayh-Dole Act as “intended to guarantee sufficient incentive to ensure that the benefits of research were widely shared.” Levin also described the softer but no less critical benefits of an educated population. “In the United States, there is simply no more effective route to self-improvement than higher education.”

Offering a business-centric perspective on colleges and universities was scholar Clayton M. Christensen, the Robert and Jane Cizik Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. In the consumer product market, he explained, innovation that results in improvements to existing products enables market leaders to maintain their positions while the minor players simply replicate what the innovators are doing. But when those smaller competitors practice so-called disruptive innovation, they are able to change the dynamics of the market and come out winners.

Applying this concept to academia, Christensen noted, “Replication, rather than disruption, has characterized higher education in the past. But the future might be different,” adding that a more student-tailored approach to learning may be the way of the future. “Customized learning can allow people to learn in a way compatible with how their brains work.”

More from the ACE Annual Meeting is available online at

  • Read the full text of the Atwell Lecture delivered by Richard C. Levin.
  • Download The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education From the Inside Out, by Henry J. Eyring and Clayton M. Christensen, and supported by Lumina Foundation for Education. The authors call for institutions and their leaders to be innovative and focused when confronting challenges.
  • See pictures of award winners Nancy Cantor, chancellor and president of Syracuse University, who received the 2011 Reginald Wilson Diversity Leadership Award; Freeman A. Hrabowski, III, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who was awarded the 2011 TIAA-CREF Theodore M. Hesburgh Award for Leadership Excellence; and Robert Caret, president of Towson University and president-elect of the University of Massachusetts, who was presented with the 2011 ACE Council of Fellows/Fidelity Investments Mentor Award.