Opinion: Historic Challenges Demand Trained Leadership

Our society faces immense challenges in coming years: economic and financial uncertainty, energy and environmental issues and historic demographic shifts. As educators, we help people overcome such challenges. After all, we’re in the future business. We encourage students to build the world they want to live in and we give them the skills to do so.

We who work in postsecondary education need to apply that spirit to our students, ourselves and our institutions. We must work to enhance postsecondary education to be a more flexible, responsive system — one that serves today’s students and meets the growing demands of our country and the world.

At the Lumina Foundation for Education, where I serve as board chair, we’ve thought long and hard about these needs and we’ve set a specific goal to achieve them. Our “Big Goal” is this: By 2025, we want 60 percent of Americans to hold high-quality postsecondary degrees or credentials.

Today, about 40 percent of the population holds at least a two-year degree and that’s been the case for nearly 50 years. There also are growing gaps between our nation and others in the number of graduates in the STEM fields — scientific and technical areas in which expertise is increasingly vital to economic success and national security. Clearly, improvement is needed and Lumina’s Big Goal embraces that necessity.

The Big Goal is a major challenge that requires leadership and sustained effort from every sector of society. This combined effort must lead to sustainable progress toward three critical outcomes: better preparation of K-12 students, comprehensive efforts to ensure our students’ success and a significant improvement in the coordination and productivity of postsecondary education so that many more students are educated.

The key to meeting this challenge is leadership. Unless knowledgeable and focused leaders with talented staff set the path and encourage others to follow, folks tend to stand still. These days, immobility isn’t an option for postsecondary education. We must redouble our efforts to foster a new generation of leaders — at our institutions, in state and federal policy areas and on boards that govern institutions — individuals who understand the urgent need for change and are able to lead it.

As an admitted old-timer in higher education administration, I’m familiar with leadership-development efforts. In fact, I’m fortunate to be involved as a trainer in many programs that work to strengthen the diversity and variety of leadership our profession needs.

The ACE Fellows program, AASCU’s Millennium Leadership Initiative and New President’s Academy, Project HERS, the Harvard programs — these and other programs offer tremendous value — as do campus-based efforts such as the Leadership Enhancement Program, now in its 17th year at my institution, Florida International University.

These programs are valuable because they help create powerful mentoring relationships among individuals and expose budding leaders to a wide variety of situations where their leadership capabilities emerge. In fact, the best leadership-development programs offer participants a mentor and the chance to observe many different leadership types. Such programs deserve enhanced support. More than that, effective leadership-development efforts need to be replicated more widely.

Finally, governing boards with fiduciary responsibilities for their institutions must be trained and oriented so they understand the scope of their governing responsibilities. The Association of Governing Boards (AGB) has done this work well for decades. For example, one of AGB’s programs focuses on informing governing and state coordinating boards and institutional leaders about future realities and helping them better coordinate their efforts.

More programs of this kind are needed in all sectors of postsecondary education. The academy must comprehensively prepare administrators and trustees for the historic challenges they will face in making the tough resource and programmatic decisions that will guide our institutions through these momentous times. D

Dr. Marie V. McDemmond, interim dean of the College of Education at Florida International University, former CFO at Florida Atlantic University and President Emeritus of Norfolk State University, chairs the board of directors at Lumina Foundation for Education.