For the past two centuries, American colleges and universities have approached higher education from a purely transactional leadership style where the focus has been on maintaining the status quo. As a result, students armed with laptops and cell phones could very well find themselves in the same classroom learning Mandarin where their great grandfathers studied Latin.
While the curriculum has become more varied, and a more progressive view of education has been adopted, the model of education and its delivery method for the most part remained unchanged despite the mind-boggling technological advancements of the same period. Although the degree offerings expanded from a handful of professions to literally hundreds of careers, higher education has been largely reactionary to the marketplace.
Rightfully, drastic changes were viewed as unnecessary because this model had been highly successful for over four generations.
Throughout most of the 20th century, higher education was viewed as more of an option than a necessity, an extension of a high school diploma required for only certain careers. Today's passionate debates about tuition and student loans didn't exist because a degree along with the requisite skills it guaranteed were not yet viewed as a requirement to enter the workforce for a job paying above minimum wage.
High school graduates could still find meaningful employment, often working at the same company for their entire careers while earning enough to support their families and leaving with a gold watch and pension. Graduates with a degree would enter into the careers deemed "professional", where they could expect to receive greater compensation for their investment of time, and move freely to other companies willing to offer higher pay and greater benefits. This career course worked for Dad, Grandfather and Great-Grandfather, so it should work for everyone who could afford it.
Steeped in tradition, colleges and universities were venerated institutions that often made decisions about higher education from a lofty vacuum where the schools alone dictated what students would learn. For hundreds of years, this approach worked because small course corrections could be made that kept up with the changes in the marketplace. Even though new careers emerged, schools could address the demands of the employers on a degree by degree basis while the majority of workers could rely on their education taking them through their entire life's work.
With the adoption of computers in most businesses from the 1980s and beyond, technology rapidly transformed a brand new marketplace which required knowledge of emerging industries and mastery of wholly unique skill sets. Not only did the entire job market shift to requiring workers trained in new technologies, the changes came so quickly that schools found remaining relevant in this unfamiliar landscape challenging as they attempted to predict what knowledge would be required in most degrees by the time an incoming freshman graduated. Entire new areas of studies emerged simultaneously. On top of that, most schools were slow to incorporate technology into learning, still relying on the time honored classroom model.
Higher education must abandon its transactional leadership style and embrace a transformational one if they are to remain the arbiter of knowledge and workforce training. In order to achieve this, colleges and universities must become bridge builders by establishing long-term relationships and removing barriers for workers to return to education no matter what stage they are in their careers. This can be accomplished by bringing together all parties to the table for a voice in the future direction of education. Forward thinking institutions will not only include students and employers, but community leaders as well.
To accomplish these goals, universities and colleges must expand their view of their customers from the traditional student to those of all ages and levels of knowledge. They must be inclusive, opening doors to learning to those who are already established in their careers, and older workers who seek advancement. They must embrace the new technology and offer real options for workers to improve their skills while juggling work and family life. Higher education must reach out to the communities and industries that best match the institution's unique strengths in order to develop a curriculum that meets the needs of all involved.
When building a bridge, the result is that sometime both sides walk on you. The way to have a strong structural makeup is to build a strong foundation. If we identify who we are as educational institutions, then we can do our best to find partners that best match our strengths.
I am beginning my time as president of Cleary University this fall with a sense of optimism on the difference small private colleges and universities can make in connecting students, businesses and the local economy together. To be fully engaged, we must seek to see rather than to be seen. So much need and value can be brought forward if we are agile and bring quality, integrity and value to the relationships we cultivate as leaders in Higher Education. When our focus is living our mission to change lives, help industry, create better citizens, and serve rather than be served, that is transformational leadership at its core.