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Donald Kettl
Academic Dean

A meal for the brave

Q: How would you assess the leadership of college presidents in embracing new technology and innovative teaching techniques aimed at reducing costs, improving quality and reengineering higher education? What leadership steps would you recommend for them?

For a leader looking for a challenge, it's hard to beat the job of a college president. Take the roller-coaster stock market, which has crashed endowments. Add the pressure to hold down tuition increases. For the presidents of public universities, stir in the always lively relationship with state legislatures. Toss in alumni anxious about the football and basketball teams, faculty worried about salary increases, and townspeople always nervous about how their neighbors behave.

Learning itself is changing in unpredictable ways. Are laptops in the classroom a good idea? Do they help students capture the instructor's wise words--or trade Facebook quips with friends when the lecture drags? Can online learning help students speed their way through basic material and save high-priced faculty for advanced study? Can universities create new intellectual capital fast enough to stay a step ahead of fast-changing trends--and create a business model to make this work in such unpredictable times? It's impossible from the outside to fully appreciate the vast complexity of a college president's job. It's a meal on which only the brave dare dine.

But it's a truly great job, especially now. We're now fundamentally redefining what higher education means. It's no longer enough to give students the skills to get a job. America's colleges aren't so much transferring facts to students as teaching them to learn, now and in the decades to come, because the future lies with those who can ride the edge of unpredictable waves. That requires a leader with the instincts to know where the world is heading and the skills to get sometimes stubborn university structures to move.

It's no secret that the nation's top universities will inevitably be very different places a decade from now. Tight budgets impose tough constraints. New technologies offer historic opportunities. Legislatures and parents want accountability. Students want jobs, and no one is smart enough to predict what the future economy will look like.

University presidents have to be part crystal-ball-gazers, with a vision of where the world will be, and part cheerleaders, with the knack of getting others to follow where they yearn to go. It's hard to pick any other leader who has to push out so far in to the future and convince so many diverse constituents to follow. The best university presidents lead with the mind and cheer with the heart.

By Donald Kettl

 |  May 25, 2010; 6:58 AM ET
Category:  Education leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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