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College Presidents Are Confident: Is this a Case of Excessive Optimism?

Higher Education leaders have had much to deal with during Covid. Now that we have moved beyond the pandemic to learning to live with Covid as endemic, it is interesting to note that a recent survey of college and university presidents finds that they are feeling surprisingly optimistic and confident about the future. (Inside Higher Ed. 2022 Survey of College and University Presidents)

For the most part, the survey revealed optimism and confidence regarding the financial situation at most institutions with 75% of presidents reporting a sense of stability over the next decade. They felt they were in a stronger position than a year ago and that they would be better off next year. They were less sure about the likelihood and degree of transformation in that future. They reported an improved financial situation at their institution due to the federal recovery aid funds. Overall as they looked to the future they:

1. Rejected idea that “the other shoe will drop”

2. Agreed there was a need to make fundamental changes to business models, programming and other operations.

3. Yet, they saw change as less likely as a follow-up to the challenges of Covid.

4. They perceive that students and parents prefer in-person delivery.

5. Yet they see the main growth sector for higher education in online courses.

Why the optimism?

The survey cites several possible reasons for the presidents’ optimism:

1. Leaders are expected to be optimistic; they need to provide a sense that things are getting back to normal, even in the face of declining enrollments and challenging financial


2. It is safer for them to plan for the near term; it is much more difficult to consider

transformation and shaking up the “old” order.

3. There seems to be a strong sentiment on their campuses that the “new “normal should be

much like the old. One commentator said: “It’s easy to forget learnings from Covid.”

Disruptive forces are looming.

The presidents included in the survey are optimistic, yet the higher education environment is full of disruptive forces looming in the coming decade. If there were threats of stress, risk, and financial uncertainty before Covid, it accelerated them. Many colleges will face closure. Here is one recent example from Inside Higher Education:

Lincoln College has notified students, faculty, and staff that they will close permanently in mid-May after a 157-year history. They cite the dramatic impact of Covid on recruitment, retention, fundraising and financial sustainability.

Several factors have been impacting higher education over the past decade or more. These include declining enrollments, an ongoing need to change business models to align with revenue realities, the public perception that higher education’s value has dropped as costs have risen, the rise of competing providers, and the unprecedented growth in student debt. These factors are not discrete but rather operate in a complex ecosystem significantly impairing higher education’s capacity to sustain and thrive in the future. It is our view that these challenges cannot be ignored. Transformation is imperative.

Needed: A Transformation Mindset.

Our research indicates that transformative leaders have a much different mindset than that reported for the presidents in the 2022 survey. These leaders seized the opportunity to make the leap from today into a much stronger tomorrow; rapidly addressing changes necessary during Covid and pushing even further into the future than they had planned pre-Covid. They demonstrated the capacity to face threats head on and at the same time have the vision and courage to take advantage of the opportunities beckoning from the future—planning in the future tense 10 to 15 years ahead. Our recent book, Transforming for Turbulent Times: An Action Road Map for Higher Education Leaders and associated case studies describe how these transformative leaders have operated and the successes they have achieved. We have concluded that higher education will require leaders with a clear-eyed commitment to innovation, disruption, and an unrelenting focus on students’ needs. These leaders will think, plan, and act in the future tense.

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