Higher Ed Faces Daunting Challenges, and Opportunities


Higher education faces daunting challenges. It struggles to meet the demands of an economic crisis in which people need jobs and employers want higher-quality job candidates. Our computer-infused work environment requires greater technological, visual-thinking, and critical-thinking skills for even entry-level jobs. Globalization necessitates not only enhanced critical thinking, but correspondingly, the capacity for sustained engagements with ideological and cultural differences. Also, both citizenry and a growing number of work environments require the skills to navigate an increasingly rhetoric- and statistics-based world. In the face of rising student debt, students and their parents, legislators, and potential employers, however, now question the value of higher education. They most overtly question degrees in the humanities — which foster many of those skills, only without a clear career path. This conflict has resulted in new entrants in the market who then compete with at least the public colleges and universities, which have had to raise tuition to replace diminishing state funds.

This conflict reinforces the ongoing transformation of faculty in the university system. Especially to circumvent administrative bloat and its costs, faculty have had to harbor more and more administrative responsibilities, part of a growing trend of reframing faculty as academic professionals with a growing number of non-teaching responsibilities. These responsibilities demand a new social architecture, and we can achieve it only through innovative professional development.

Social architecture has two goals: distribute responsibilities and “integrate diverse efforts in pursuit of common goals” (Bolman & Deal, 2013, p. 44). The social architecture of higher education effectively distributes responsibilities, but it also creates silos. In fact, the extreme specialization by which higher education distributes responsibilities also creates the silos. Compounding this problem, a myth of solitary genius betrays reality: knowledge and innovation are not individual pursuits, but rather the result of collective practices. Extreme specialization and its resulting isolation permeate the culture of higher education and impede integrative initiatives that can facilitate common goals. To meet the demands of today’s challenges, the social architecture of higher education needs reform.

Higher education needs more diverse partnerships and collaborations. Whether in teaching, problem-solving, or creating new ventures, partnerships and collaborations diversify knowledge and expertise; expand the available human, technological, spatial, or financial resources; and distribute and diminish risks (Eddy, 2010, p. 21). Partnerships and collaborations can conserve resources, mend overextended departments, and improve sustainability and effectiveness.

Far too often, however, university representatives confine collaborations to a single division, like Academic Affairs, rather than explore collaborative opportunities between university divisions or with community partners. Pedagogically, many faculty look only to each other, particularly within their own departments, for collaborators. For new initiatives, some turn solely to their chairs, deans, or the provost for funding. In the end, stretched human and financial resources limit success.

Campus stakeholders reside in all university divisions. Student Affairs houses an array of departments that focus on developing student capacities for time- and stress-management, personal health and wellbeing, diversity awareness and appreciation, civic engagement, global citizenry, teamwork, and leadership. Under the direction of Human Resources, student employment can expand the range of immediate stakeholders for student development and success to the entire university.

The call for collaborations between university divisions is not new. At least since George D. Kuh’s 1994 keynote, “The Student Learning Imperative: Implications for Student Affairs,” student-affairs professionals have called for student- and academic-affairs collaborations that can produce what Kuh (March/April, 1996) calls “seamless learning environments” (p. 135). The term refers to curricular and co-curricular learning objectives working in tandem to overcome an otherwise fragmented learning process in order to foster lifelong learning.

The more faculty and staff interact, the better they can get to know each other, overcome inter-departmental or -divisional communication barriers and misunderstandings, foster a greater sense of campus community, collaborate, share knowledge and resources, innovate …. With shared imagination and support, a university’s faculty and staff can accomplish anything.

But partnerships and collaborations have to extend beyond the campus. The surrounding community also has a stake. The educational attainment of local citizenry can attract national employers, raise the competitiveness of local businesses, increase local tax revenue, improve community problem-solving skills, and in general expand both the pool and circulation of available resources. Imaginative administrators, faculty, and staff can identify and raise the awareness of potential stakeholders, collaborate with them, harness their vision, and empower, motivate, and mobilize community champions for student success.

Each university digs deep channels into the community that ferry students, workers, funding, and other resources back and forth for mutual sustainability and growth. Service-learning has enabled universities to formally explore, beyond internships, how to expand educational oversight and credit to community practices, but that and other integrative concepts need greater exploration. The university system’s further integration with the community can only benefit both it and the community.

Even to develop the skills and venues for partnerships, collaborations, and intentional explorations, faculty and staff and even community partners need innovative professional development. Differences in reward systems, norms for communications, reporting and authorization structures, and organizational objectives can convolute the incentives, decision-making process, documentation and assessment process, and expectations. Research indicates, on the one hand, that obligatory partnerships do not last past their mandates; on the other hand, partnerships that spring organically from pre-existing relationships foster mutual understanding, shared expectations, and more sustainable practices (Eddy, 2010, p. 21). After those human relationships yield collaborations, offices or personnel who maintain relationships with partnering organizations can nurture them and develop organizational bridges. But the human element has to happen first.

Here at Austin Peay State University, the Faculty Leadership Program (FLP) fosters campus interactions that can lead to student, faculty, and institutional success, and we’re expanding its framework to integrate faculty and staff through a Women’s Leadership Program (WLP). Unlike other universities’ leadership-development opportunities, the FLP and WLP do not cater to administrators. They do not support “leadership” as an official position. Nor do they promote campus success as a managerial responsibility.

Instead, the FLP and WLP promote leadership from the ranks. Adrianna Kezar (2001) reminds us that anyone, regardless of position, can serve as a change agent (p. 7). Through wide and deep personal networks, any individual can draw from diverse resources and knowledge to solve problems and develop campus innovations (Eddy, 2010, p. 29). At very least, a person can serve as a “node to connect disparate networks” (p. 64) in problem-solving and innovation.

Wide and deep personal networks expand personal awareness and influence. Diverse relationships enhance a person’s “cognitive flexibility” in an academically and operationally complex environment (p. 30). Close relationships improve that person’s influence in leveraging changes. A campus of change agents has the power to transform and strengthen the university, but it demands heightened faculty and staff awareness and interconnectivity.

Leadership from the ranks also responds more effectively than administrative managerialism does to external calls for change. Faculty and staff agency enables the “flexibility and adaptability that are particularly important in meeting external demands” (Kezar et al., 2006, p. 111), like those imposed by disruptive technologies, changes to the state funding formula, rising tuition during an economic downturn, social calls for increased accountability, decreased availability of state and federal grants, and the increased role of private donors, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Educause, Complete College America, educational entrepreneurs …. The current climate demands heightened individual awareness and collective adaptability.

So long as state contributions fail to meet budgetary shortfalls, let alone continue to shrink, the public university system will need dynamic faculty and staff who can lead rapid changes in response to powerful external pressures, particularly those tied to monetary incentives. In an environment where only consistent, large-scale change initiatives can attract the funding for even essential university operations, strong faculty and staff leadership can shield students from harmful trends while developing and implementing bold practices that truly lead to student, institutional, and community success.





Bolman, L. G. & Deal, T. E. (2013). Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, & Leadership; Fifth Ed. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Eddy, P. L. (2010). Partnerships and Collaborations in Higher Education. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons.

Kezar, A. J. (2001). Understanding and Facilitating Organizational Change in the 21st Century: Recent Research and Conceptualizations. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Kezar, A. J.; Carducci, Rozana; & Contreras-McGavin, Melissa. (2006). Rethinking the “L” Word in Higher Education. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

Kuh, G. D. (February, 1996). The Student Learning Imperative: Implications for Student Affairs. Retrieved from

Kuh, G. D. (March/April, 1996). Guiding Principles for Creating Seamless Learning Environments for Undergraduates. Retrieved from www.uwf.edu/studentaffairs/assessment/documents/StudentLearningReadings/GuidingPrinciples_Kuh1996.pdf




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