A New Approach for Preparing Future Higher Education Presidents

The higher education environment in the United States is experiencing unprecedented challenges: The population is aging. The student pipeline is diversifying. International student numbers are declining. Preparation levels are decreasing. Employers are demanding different skills and knowledge. The higher education market is expecting greater flexibility of instructional delivery. Alternative credentialing platforms threaten the monopoly on the credential. And, of paramount concern, the perceived value of higher education is in decline among certain segments of the population.

Some colleges and universities will be able to weather such challenges with minimal change in the ways they do business. Unfortunately, others are closing or significantly restructuring to stave off closure. Many of these institutions were hanging on, hoping the ways in which they conducted business in the past would once again be viable. But that has not happened.

For those who have been in higher education long-term, calls for change are not unusual. But data show that most seasoned leaders learned to lead during an era of significant growth in student enrollments. When state support declined, colleges could raise tuition or admit more international students. Most important, demand for higher education remained strong. In the past, it was not as urgent to develop strategies to adapt to new environments or rapid change.

Leaders of today were prepared yesterday. They came of age in academic administration during an era with very different constraints. Many leadership development programs reflect these historical conditions. For leaders of tomorrow, this paradigm has to shift.


Preparing the Leaders of the Future

At the AGB Institute for Leadership & Governance in Higher Education, we prepare leaders to expertly adapt institutions to the challenges of the future, to evolve colleges to be successful in this new environment, and to work in effective partnership with their governing boards and stakeholders. The Institute is based on three primary concepts that are crucial for the higher education leaders of tomorrow:

1.     Adaptive Leadership

Leaders need to adapt to change by understanding its implications and identifying ways in which to capitalize on it. Take Southern New Hampshire University, for example. President Paul LeBlanc transformed the institution by anticipating the needs of nontraditional students and meeting them where they are – literally. Targeting the needs of students over the age of 24, SNHU caters to individuals who often have jobs and families and are not interested in campus living. Ninety-seven percent of its enrollees take their classes online. The college that less than 20 years ago had fewer than 3,000 students is expected to boost enrollment to 300,000 by 2025.

Success stories like this are not about luck or happenstance. To adapt, academic leaders need to understand the changing trends within our sector and in those that affect it. This means studying data, tracking innovations, and surrounding themselves with other smart leaders. No one can predict with absolute certainty what will happen in the future, but the challenges mentioned above will likely continue to affect our sector.

Leaders also have to be prepared to act. It is critical to develop strategies for progress and evolution to keep institutions moving forward, even during sudden change. This may mean investing more resources in predictive analytics to increase retention and completion, partnering with other institutions to create enrollment pipelines, collaborating with faculty to evolve academic programs, or rethinking recruitment methods.

2.     Systems Thinking

The success of colleges and universities in the future will require engagement of multiple stakeholders within the institution and externally. Presidents need to understand and be able to engage a collective impact approach to change by bringing people together from different backgrounds and sectors to work toward a common goal.

Historically, higher education has been designed to be competitive, not collaborative, and focused on isolated results as opposed to collective impacts. Not only does that approach hinder progress, it also may negatively impact student success, as well as the perception of the value of higher education. Institutions have a unique opportunity to innovate under the collective impact model, focusing on common goals and objectives.

Case in point: The University at Albany and Hudson Valley Community College, both of the State University of New York, launched the Transfer Admission Guarantee (TAG). HVCC students in TAG receive advising from both institutions, access to UAlbany support services, and then guaranteed acceptance to UAlbany after completing their Associate’s degree. The program is designed to leverage resources from both institutions to increase retention and completion of students.

The use of predictive analytics also provides an opportunity for strategic collaboration within individual institutions. To successfully leverage data to move an institution forward, leaders must assemble a team that includes research, technology, academic affairs, student affairs, and so forth. It’s not enough to simply interpret the information. A team with diverse experience and thinking can develop creative, perhaps pioneering solutions to advance the organization.

3.     Continuous Improvement

To build momentum in higher education, we need leaders who know how to build smarter universities. Change is happening at a rapid pace, and institutions must become more agile to stay ahead of the curve. Organizational evolution is a continuous process that requires tools and frameworks to identify and implement improvements.

Data and analysis are integral to this process, as is relationship cultivation at all levels. Leadership teams must evaluate their environment, market, and institutional competencies on an ongoing basis to recognize trends and actions that need to be taken.

Examples are not as plentiful as you would expect in a sector that supports research as part of its core enterprise. That said, Georgia State University is often cited for its use of data in driving student success reforms that led to increasing its six-year graduation rate by more than 20 percent. Data informed GSU as to the barriers to student success, and its leadership invested in interventions that supported students. To this day, Georgia State continues to track performance and revise investments, in a cycle of continuous improvement.

The following questions can serve as a starting point:

  1. What data are being collected and insights being drawn to assess the current and future environment?
  2. What teams are in place to evaluate the information?
  3. What interventions are warranted to address issues?
  4. What systems and processes are needed to monitor intervention impact and track outcomes?
  5. How is success measured?



There are certainly numerous programs designed to prepare and train leaders at various levels. But much like institutions need to evolve, leadership development programs need to deliver curricula that are well-informed, innovative, and forward-thinking.

The AGB Institute for Leadership & Governance in Higher Education is in a unique position in that we focus on both leadership and governance. And, we have a cadre of diverse faculty who are experts at adaptation, systems thinking, and continuous improvement. It is critical that leadership programs, particularly those training future presidents, introduce participants to methodologies that embrace community participation and teach cultural components such as learning from failure, embracing vulnerability, and cultivating trust across sectors and organizations. As challenges to higher education continue to emerge, there is a clear opportunity to not only prepare for the future, but also to have a hand in shaping it.


By Drs. Jason Lane, Nancy Zimpher, Rod McDavis, Melissa Trotta
Faculty of the AGB Institute for Leadership & Governance in Higher Education









Posted on 03.18.2020