A Good Time to be a Leader in Higher Ed

By Joseph Shelley posted

We just wrapped up the 2014 CLIR/EDUCAUSE Leading Change Institute. This institute brought together a talented group of higher education library and IT people for a week in Washington, DC. It was truly humbling to be among these folks and I’ve been reflecting on a few of the lessons I learned from them.

Optimism - There has never been a better time to work in higher education, despite the messaging we might get from the press. There’s probably never been a better time to get a higher education degree. According to the Pew Research Center, "College-educated millennials are outperforming their less-educated peers on virtually every economic measure, and the gap between the two groups has only grown over time."[1] We learned that the demand for and value of college is up. Higher education is also transforming to leverage new learning sciences and the still-emerging technologies of the connected world. Perhaps because of rising prices, however, the public view seems to be that the value of the degree is dropping. This negative discourse is countered by the facts. It is also countered by the rooms full of brilliant, committed, and hopeful higher education leaders who attend the Leading Change Institute each year. 

Meeting the challenges - Optimism doesn’t come with blinders. Higher ed might not be the floundering dinosaur the media would have us believe, but there are still problems. Costs of delivery are going up, state support continues to erode, and tuition can’t bear more increases without harming access. The rest of the world is starting to outpace the US in college funding and attainment. The wealth and income gap in the US has never been wider, and higher ed is perhaps the best engine of social change to help close that gap. We need to lower costs, increase quality, increase access, and figure out how to innovate in education to keep up with the rest of the world. As we listened to a parade of luminaries in national higher ed leadership, I started thinking about three key balancing acts that help me envision how we might position ourselves to meet these challenges:

Innovation: We’ve been challenged to stake out clear objectives or priorities, to know who we are and where we are going. We’ve also been challenged to embrace an emergent and unpredictable future of innovation. How do we balance serendipity with intentionality in innovation? 

Collaboration: We need to leverage the power of the entire industry to share services and resources, keep costs down, and open the best thinking to everyone. But we also need to anchor our institutions in the access needs of our regions and preserve our distinctiveness and diversity of thought. How do we balance our distinctiveness with the need for greater coherence? 

Our story: We need to tell the higher education story as a success, as a way to drive positive change in the country. How do we balance the success story with the cry for help? 

What leadership? I’m sitting at a bar with about 10 smart people from the Leading Change cohort after an evening session. I say something about how I’ve done a lot of leadership development work over the years and those other experiences focused more on developing leadership skills—building relationships, designing shared governance, strategic planning, and so on. I had expected that Leading Change would emphasize skill building more. The person across the table from me looks up and says:

“Leadership is presumed." 

This was an “aha” moment for me. Leadership is presumed. Leadership skills are just tools, they aren’t leading itself. For those of us working in any role in higher ed libraries, or IT, we can provide leadership around these issues. We can help plan programs, technologies, or resources to innovate in education, increase access, lower costs, and tell our story. It brought home for me that we weren’t in Washington DC to learn to lead. We were there to actually lead. 

So do something - Again and again, we heard the call to action from our speakers and from our colleagues. “You have more power than you think,” and, “We all need you,” and, “Ask forgiveness, never permission,” and, “make yourself a little uncomfortable,” and (my personal fav), “What’s the worst that could happen, they say no?” 

Now, as I re-enter regular life, I see my department as more than a bunch of folks delivering services. I see our collection of intellect, resources, and passion as an engine of possibility for our institution. Sure, we still must deliver those ever-increasing services with ever-constrained resources. But what energy can we tap from the system to help our institutions? 


[1]  http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/02/11/6-key-findings-about-going-to-college/

Joe Shelley is is interim assistant vice chancellor of IT at the University of Washington Bothell