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The New Frontier in Higher Education


Joan E. Wodiska

city skyline with sailboats


​In the wake of the Great Recession, this current period of transformative change is neatly wrapped up in the much-overused phrase “the new normal.” The new normal has become a polite euphemism for doing more with less. It’s true—more is expected today. The expectations, however, far surpass and will eclipse normal. This is not a new normal; it is a new frontier in higher education.

In the new frontier, the future is unwritten, the rules are changing, resources will continue to be scarce, and resistance to change and the inheritance of others’ problems won’t abate, but the pressure to produce will be unparalleled and continue. More so, the need for change will not dissipate or retreat— rather it is rapidly expanding and accelerating across all sectors, even in higher education.

Inherent in this reality is a great opportunity and responsibility for higher education leaders to grab the reins and boldly drive forward.

The Challenge or Opportunity

In the United States, one out of every four students won’t graduate from high school, and of those who do, fewer than half of students will graduate with a degree or workforce certificate. Fifty years ago, three of every four jobs required only a high school diploma to support a family. Today, the minimum standard to enter the workforce and be paid a living wage is at least a two- or four-year degree.

The rapid development and use of technology, our borderless global world, and the real U.S. skills gaps are collectively sounding an alarm at kitchen tables, on college campuses, and in political circles. President Obama, other federal and state officials, business leaders, parents, and students lament the degree gap.

All around us, the world's economic powers and economically hungry countries are sprinting to upgrade their K–12 and higher education systems to improve student performance, worker preparedness, and research productivity. We are, without question, in a real and mounting high-stakes game where the competition for jobs, innovation, our standard of living, and our American way of life hang in the balance.

At the epicenter of this debate is a fundamental question about the capacity of higher education leaders to lead and execute change: Can higher education reform itself? How will higher education help ensure that more students complete a postsecondary education? What is the fate of the research agenda? Who will decide?

As a result, today, a great opportunity and heavy responsibility firmly rest upon the shoulders of higher education leaders.

The Pathway to the Presidency

Complicating this task is the narrow, limited, and difficult path to the presidency. During this period of change, as America’s demographics have shifted to reflect what some demographers have termed the “browning of America,” the college and university presidency is “whitening.” Most university and college presidents are white males older than 61. From 1986 to 2011, the majority of presidents shifted from 50 or younger to 61 or older. Today, 58 percent of presidents are over the age of 61. Women presidents lead roughly one in four colleges and universities, largely holding steady since 2006.

At the same time, diversity in the top spot slid in the wrong direction: The proportion of racial and ethnic minorities decreased from 14 percent (2006) to 13 percent (2011). Excluding historically underserved and underrepresented institutions, only 9 percent of America’s colleges and universities are led by a nonwhite president.

Given this and other hurdles, alternative routes emerged to the presidency and other top higher education leadership positions. Boards of trustees, students, and the public continue to expect more and faster change in higher education, including the top post. As evidence of this, today, one in five new college and university presidents is from a different sector outside of higher education, up from 13 percent in 2006.

Much work remains to create a pipeline to support and prepare the next generation of higher education leaders. Even more work remains to reflect the diversity of the United States in the highest office on college and university campuses. Recognizing these facts, the American Council on Education (ACE) is giving serious consideration to exploring new strategies and services to attract, support, grow, and develop a pipeline of higher education leaders.

The Evolving Presidency

As evident in the ACE report The American College President 2012, the presidency continues to grow more complex, demanding, and fast-paced. Presidents are spending more time fundraising, juggling budgets, and confronting growing issues related to accountability and assessment. At the same time, presidents also report that they are less prepared for some of these new challenges—notably, fundraising, technology planning, facilities, and athletics.

With the use of social media, changing expectations about accessibility, and a blurring, near erasing of privacy boundaries, presidents and senior staff are also increasingly viewed as public figures. This growing celebrity status and public scrutiny mean that today’s presidents must also possess strong media relations skills and pay a careful eye to perceptions to manage their individual brand, not merely the institutions.

ACE Leadership Programs

Understanding these pressing challenges and opportunities, ACE offers a suite of proven, effective leadership programs (see graphic above) to serve higher education leaders throughout their professional journey as leaders. ACE trains a wide spectrum of higher education leaders, from department chairs to mid-career professionals to chief academic officers to presidents. We also offer a host of programs to support leaders from traditionally underserved communities, including women. ACE’s most respected program, the ACE Fellows Program, offers unique opportunities for mid-level higher education leaders to push themselves and grow as leaders.

The world has changed. ACE’s leadership programs are also evolving to keep pace with our members. This year, ACE will begin the process to review, revise, and refresh all the leadership programs. We’re exploring new opportunities and working to build new offerings for these emerging challenges. We’ll be going online, more deeply embedding diversity into all our work, and showcasing new “hot topics” of the day.

Our goal, simply stated, is to provide world-class leadership training programs that combine leadership skills and ideas to prepare higher education leaders for success.

Consistent with this effort, in March of 2014, ACE will present the first-ever ACE/Fidelity Investments Award for Institutional Transformation to celebrate leadership and innovation at a college or university that resulted in a significant, demonstrable improvement in the institution's mission. In an era of increasing expectations and accountability, this new ACE award will help raise awareness and showcase higher education’s homegrown leadership changing the system from within.

As the “leaders of leaders,” the ACE team is charged with an exciting task to align, modernize, and expand the suite of ACE’s leadership programs to recruit, prepare, train, and empower higher education leaders. We celebrate this new frontier—we have faith in the power of higher education to transform lives. We have faith in you.

That said, I ask: Are you prepared for your journey as a leader? What skills must you possess? And is your entire team prepared to survive and thrive on the journey forward into the new frontier?

At ACE, we’ll be ready for the journey with you, as a partner, guide, and trusted friend.

Joan E. Wodiska is ACE’s vice president and chief leadership officer, Leadership Programs.