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Rx for a Period of Explosive Change: Strong Higher Education Leadership

In a May 11 op-ed in the New York Times, David Brooks suggested the Biden administration should pivot from its focus on narrowing the economic chasm to preparing “the nation for a period of accelerating and explosive change.” This disruptive change will include not only AI but other existential challenges, including global warming, threats to our democratic institutions, and the emerging cold war with China. Indeed, we have already entered what Tom Friedman has called the “Age of Accelerations," a period of both stunning advances and horrific dislocations.

In our book Transforming for Turbulent Times, we cite Friedman’s thinking as a key driver for the transformation in higher education. As we read Brooks’ call for the Biden Administration to pivot to address accelerating and explosive change, we couldn’t help but wonder if America’s colleges and universities don’t need to make a similar dramatic pivot in their institutional mindsets and teaching, research, and service missions. How might this happen?

A Radical Change in Institutional Mindset

In recent years, higher education has assumed a defensive posture with the aim of protecting its traditional position in the Knowledge, Work, and Learning Ecosystem. This has largely been a losing proposition. Traditional markets have shrunk, public satisfaction with graduates has declined, and the costs of college degrees have skyrocketed. To be sure, there are rare, excellent examples of institutions that have transformed in the face of these challenges. However, the vast majority have remained on the defensive. Concurrent with these market losses, higher education’s capacity to lead in American society has declined in part due to attacks from the right and in part because of its defensive and inward-facing posture.

We would argue that higher education needs a change in mindset. It must move aggressively on the offensive to transform its instructional, research, and public service programs into offerings that are driven directly by the needs of those it serves. At the same time, these offerings must be much more affordable. In addition, higher education leaders and the institutions they lead must become much more engaged in helping society address the disruptive threats coming out of the Age of Accelerations. Our view is that the unique combination of knowledge and expertise that institutions can bring to all levels of society and government will be essential to their success and ultimately restore them to their rightful position in society.

A Comprehensive Reengineering of the Curriculum

Three factors will drive a comprehensive reengineering of the curriculum:

  1. Stronger and more extensive connections between the worlds of work and learning will be essential. Learners will need to move easily back and forth between them through life.

  2. Continuous learning will require a re-engineered curriculum that supports that need. Some refer to the system supporting this learning as the 60-year curriculum.

  3. Regenerative AI will be fully integrated into the curriculum. This will provide students with the knowledge they need to succeed in a world that will be transformed by it (current concerns about “cheating” using Regenerative AI are going to quickly fade and be a thing of the past). These will also necessarily be serious considerations of the ethics needed to govern the use of these tools.

Research Laser-Focused on Age of Accelerations Challenges

Clearly, American higher education’s research outcomes have been exceptional. In the Age of Accelerations, however, the sector will need to focus these efforts even further and work to move research results into applications even more rapidly.

The call for laser-focused research reflects the fact that change will occur at breakneck speed, and the research enterprise will not be able to keep pace unless it is focused and clear priorities are set. Although limited resources will no doubt be reallocated to quantitative and scientific disciplines, research in all disciplines will need to pivot to address the key challenges facing the world in the Age of Accelerations.

The movement of research to application has improved considerably in recent years, but it must happen much more quickly than is the case today. Better paradigms for making this happen will be needed, higher education/corporate/governmental research partnerships will have to be expanded, and the challenges associated with intellectual property will have to be resolved.

Much Stronger Institutional Emphasis on Service to Their Regions

Curricular reengineering and research focus will go a long way to helping institutions serve their regions better. Particularly for comprehensive universities and small private institutions suffering enrollment loss in traditional programs, however, a greater focus on service to their regions could yield greater support from stakeholders in their service areas. A small number of institutions are setting the pace by founding institutes and academic programs directed at the economic development needs of their regions. Some have developed programs to involve their students directly as consultants in these efforts—both expanding their capacity to serve and enriching the academic/job preparation of these students. And for some of these institutions, regional and state funding for programs and associated facilities has been forthcoming.

Courageous Institutional Leadership

These efforts entail not simply a shift in priorities but transformative change. This change will not happen without courageous leaders who have the capacity to make it happen. These leaders will include institutional executives, middle managers, faculty, and staff.

We have published a white paper, “A New Role for Planners: Transformation Architect”, that describes the capacities and toolkits for planners needed for such transformative times. We shall soon follow with an additional white paper that expands on the characteristics that leaders must have to be successful. A recent publication in the McKinsey Quarterly (May 2023), “New Leadership for a New Era of Thriving Organizations'' hints at these key qualities:

  • A visionary with a mindset of possibility.

  • An architect with a mindset of cocreation of value.

  • A catalyst with a mindset of partnership

  • A coach with a mindset of joint discovery.

  • A human with a mindset of authenticity.

We believe these qualities recognize that the achievement of transformative change will require leaders to engage as many creative thinkers and stakeholders as possible in this change effort. This work will require authenticity and a genuine desire to meaningfully include all who will join.

A final note: these leaders, much like the leadership of Disney, will have to have the courage and confidence to take on demands from the outside that would compromise organizational values and devalue employees and their individual beliefs. Recent events would suggest that greater vision and courage will be needed if American higher education is to achieve its promise and return to its rightful place as the conscience of a larger society.


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