How to Run a College: A Practical Guide for Trustees, Faculty, Administrators and Policymakers with Brian Mitchell

 How to Run a College: A Practical Guide for Trustees, Faculty, Administrators and Policymakers

Colleges are confusing, bewildering and complex places with storied traditions, antiquated governance practices, and competing constituencies.  Even worse, however, is that many of the key leadership groups – especially trustees but including faculty and senior staff – are ill equipped to advise and govern a college.  The end result is an erosion of good will among key stakeholders, often leading to institutional inertia, and in the extreme, debilitating chaos.  These glaring internal inefficiencies, communication breakdowns, and the overriding sense of cultural inertia on many campuses are also set against a backdrop of changing consumer preferences, high sticker prices, declining demand, massive tuition discounting, aging infrastructure, technological and pedagogical alternatives, and state and federal political pressure. 

That having been said, the American residential college is the foundation upon which other higher education sectors are based, including modern research universities, especially at the undergraduate level.  It can be resilient under able leadership.  In this book, we offer an optimistic assessment based upon frank and stark conclusions about what colleges must do – and not do – to remain relevant in the 21st Century.  We look not only at how they can survive but also why they must survive.  We begin with a fundamental premise that colleges and universities must evolve and adapt by modernizing their practices, monetizing their assets, focusing on core educational strategies, and linking explicitly to the modern world.

No longer can colleges operate behind the college gates in a world that they wish actually existed.  We offer an analysis of how these colleges operate, what works, and what must change.

American colleges face a bleak outlook if nothing changes.  Costs have risen more than 75% since 2000 while median family income is stagnant.  There is a growing consumer revolt against high sticker prices, especially at colleges that use the sticker price to provide quality programs, heavy tuition discounts, and comprehensive “student service” programs that improve persistence and graduation rates.  The market is shrinking because of competing alternatives; indeed, 46 % of first-time students chose community colleges as their point of entry this year.

This places college stakeholders in a deepening crisis as families operate as consumers and vote with their feet.  In 2015, for example, almost 60 % of private colleges did not make their internal freshman admission targets.  As the crisis gets worse, college leadership must think more strategically and act more globally.  They are ill equipped to do so and face debilitating and constraining cultural inertia on their campuses. 

How, then can college leadership manage change, increasing the speed of evolution while protecting their core academic assets?

We argue that colleges must build upon their solid academic and residential foundation, But we also assert that they must become more creative, adaptive and nimble.  It begins with recasting and redefining relationships within the governance structure, starting with the education of key stakeholders, especially trustees.  It includes analysis of how to change the financial model to blend technology with pedagogy by redeploying financial assets more efficiently and systematically, effectively blowing up older “Mom and Pop” financing practices and methods.  It mandates transparency and collaboration—both within the college and across categories of colleges generally – restating their purpose as economic engines that use their brainpower to drive their regions. 

And, most significant, it rejects the notion that the American college is a dinosaur.  But it presumes that all stakeholders understand the mechanics of colleges, how they work, what options are open to them, how to use strategy to drive change, how to measure success, and how loudly the clock is ticking.

Brian C. Mitchell is a principal in Academic Innovators. He is the past president of Bucknell University and Washington & Jefferson College. He is also the author of How to Run a College: A Practical Guide for Trustees, Faculty, Administrators, and Policymakers