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Tuesday, March 19th, 2013

“No Confidence” in the University’s ability to change.

I have never met the president of New York University. I don’t know much about John Sexton, other than the faculty of NYU voted “no confidence” against him last week. What I do know is this is an acute illustration of how poorly structured universities are to tackle the dramatic challenges they face.

As post-secondary education enters a watershed moment in its modern history, there is no way around it. There are going to be changes – big ones. It’s simply not possible that the traditional approach to campuses and colleges can sustain the current demands of the modern student and the modern salary.

Universities have to find new ways of teaching and new ways of paying for it. The problem is not new ideas, as there are plenty floating about. The problem is it’s still “old school” in how decisions are made for a bold new era.

University presidents and leaders act and work at the pleasure of the faculty. I remember once seeing a VP Academic in Canada look forlorn after a Senate meeting that he said was critical to his university’s future. The upper administration proposed big cuts to traditional Arts and Social Science programs they could no longer afford. Not surprisingly, the faculty which comprises the bulk of the Senate votes, nixed it. They argued for academic ideals, but cutting through their protests, simply put they were protecting their jobs. They were successful, and many of those classes continue with little student interest.

How often is it said that new Deans in office quickly run up against a professoriate resistant to change. Almost always, the new Dean is entrusted with a task of enhancing efficiencies and cutting costs. Sure, not all ideas are good or will even work, but how many proposals which streamline salaries are going to pass ? Very few Deans take on the very people who voted to hire them, and can vote to get rid of them.

University presidents make annual salaries in the hundreds of thousands, and even millions of dollars. But unlike their distant corporate cousins, a university CEO is commonly hired, and often fired, by its own employees. It’s a strange dynamic, and in a world calling for dynamic change on campus (and questioning the existence of a campus) – such serious and painful decisions have little chance in a system steeped in self interest and status quo.



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About Mel

Mel has consulted universities, colleges, governmental and non-governmental organizations in the field of international education since 1997. He is co-founder of Higher-Edge, the parent of Overseas, Overwhelmed, and a director of the Canadian University Application Centre. He is a former award-winning CBC reporter and holds a Masters degree from Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism.

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