John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Take Home to Campus Lesson from Debt Ceiling Debacle

John N. Gardner
President
We have really known it for a few years now that the US political process and legislative process had become dysfunctional, but it was the debt ceiling debate that confirmed it for hundreds of millions of people around the globe. The credit rating agency, S and P, was absolutely correct in its rationale arguing the US government could no longer be counted on as having the ability to take the necessary policy decisions to address its financial problems. As I have been doing my whole adult life, I immediately found myself asking: what is the take away lesson from this debacle for us higher education leaders? The biggest one for me is that campus-based leaders need to make sure they aren’t running their institutions like our Congress. Our minimum aspiration must be to lead better than Congress to avoid campus dysfunctionality. So here’s what I think our campus leaders need to do/not do:
  1. Put the long term institutional interests ahead of our own. Campus over self.
  2. Act as if we had to live with the consequences of our decisions for the rest of our careers even if we move on to new institutions seeking upward social mobility.
  3. Pursue policies that have a basis in reason, empirically verifiable evidence, and on values—but not primarily inflexible ideology.
  4. Pursue consensus and practice a willingness to compromise.
  5. Do not pay more attention to inflexible dogmatists than they deserve. They will wreck your campus if you cede too much ground to them.
  6. Treat your opponents with civility.
  7. Stay with your core objectives and do not flit from one administrative idea de jour to another. Your campus needs predictability. So stay the course. Lack of predictability leads to instability. Instability leads to anxiety and unwillingness to innovate and take risk.
  8. Do not throw complex problems begging for new and big picture thinking to reactionary groups for solution and resolution—e.g. like Congress. If your Faculty Senate can’t get beyond partisan divisions, create new ad-hoc leadership groups to grapple with the big issues.
  9. Make sure your top leaders (CEO/CAO) have tenure; otherwise they will view every tough question demanding a decision or position as one that could lead to a vote of no confidence and that will stop them in their tracks.

Tell yourself every day that you can and must do a better job of leading your organization than the Congress of the United States.

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