Forbes: Higher Education Faces Hurdles In 2024

Managing Principal and President, Brian Mitchell, recently published an article in Forbes which describes the challenges higher education will face this year including impacts of the upcoming election, the looming financial crisis, the role of athletics and more. You can read the full article on Forbes

“Higher education does not operate in isolation. Many of the ongoing challenges faced by American society are also sweeping over the higher education community.

Some will have a dramatic effect on how higher education does business. Many are long-term issues and include but are not limited to immigration, geopolitical instability and climate change. But there are also a good number of short-term challenges, many of them unique to higher education, that will likely emerge more starkly in 2024.

Now is the time to make the first critical decisions on how to handle them. After discussion with colleagues at all levels across higher education and the media, here are some areas that are likely to become front-burner concerns for leaders in higher education.”

A recent article in Inside Higher Ed quoted Academic Innovators President and Managing Principal, Brian Mitchell. The article covers Claudine Gay’s Harvard presidency which lasted only six months and discusses the aftermath of her exit and the questions that remain about how the Harvard Corporation handled matters.

Former Bucknell University president Brian Mitchell, who co-wrote a book about higher education leadership and currently serves as president of the consulting group Academic Innovators, considers Gay guilty of “academic sloppiness”—not plagiarism. But he suggested that any breakdown in her vetting likely first happened at Stanford University, where she earned tenure in 2005 with limited scholarship; at that time, she had published only five articles, according to her résumé. And last month she corrected one of them: “The Effect of Black Congressional Representation on Political Participation,” published in 2001.

You can find the full article here on Inside Higher Ed.

Academic Innovators President and Managing Principal Brian Mitchell was recently featured as a guest on Acadeum’s “Partnerships for Progress: Fueling Innovation in Higher Ed” podcast.

In this episode titled, “Adapting to Today’s Challenges Facing Higher Education Leaders,” Mitchell discusses the existential crisis facing American higher education, the need for changes and alignment across institutional leadership, and how key partnerships can help in facing these challenges.

You can listen to the full episode here.

Managing Principal and President, Brian Mitchell, recently published an article in Forbes about steps institutions of higher education can take to better prepare themselves for challenging and uncertain times. You can read the full article on Forbes

“To me, the conclusion is painful but obvious: American higher education faces an existential crisis. Boards, administrators and faculty must wake up to the new realities that they face. For trustees, it may be too late to use an incremental band-aid. If the wounds are too deep, boards have a fiduciary obligation to plot a new strategy in an era of rising deficits to modify what the college offers, locate new revenue, seek new partnerships and affiliations, and merge or close. The goal must not be to postpone planning until the institution’s value is reduced to a real estate sale.”

Managing Principal and President, Brian Mitchell published an article in Forbes on better governance in higher education. You can also view the article on Forbes here.

Higher education is the repository of America’s intellectual capital, an engine for its workforce development and a big business. In 2023, it employed over 2.9 million people., according to IBISWorld. 19.4 million students attended colleges and universities in 2020, down about 10% from its peak of 21.6 million in fall 2010. How its leadership handles the scale and size of higher education could have an enormous impact on the American economy and the ability of the American economy to adapt strategically to the demands of the second quarter of the 21st century.

Higher Education’s Governance Model
Governance is critical in higher education because few understand how it works. Colleges and universities are not corporations when measured by how they govern. Among numerous stakeholders, there are three time-honored participants—the board of trustees, the faculty and the senior administration. There is a natural tension among these groups that is meant to ensure a kind of checks-and-balances system to produce thoughtful outcomes. If an imbalance occurs, the institution suffers, especially during times when critical inflection points determine their direction—both locally and across higher education. I believe America has arrived at one of these inflection points, fueled by the Great Recession, Covid-19, persistent inflation and an upcoming demographic cliff as enrollments decline.

In our book, How to Run a College, Dr. Joseph King and I argue that in a system of shared governance, the board has three basic obligations. The first is to steward the policy of the college. The second is to pass a budget. And the third is to hire, support, nurture, retain and when necessary, fire and replace the president. Fairness and due process must always override naked political will. The board is often the most inclined among the three groups to overreach, mistakenly confusing its overarching stewardship responsibility for day-to-day management across the campus. The weakest boards often nominate committees that either try to fill new board seats by duplicating themselves or by overbalancing membership based on a set of shifting priorities. They are often also too large and cumbersome to be effective. The result can be debilitating, with the most deleterious effect on the role that they have to approve long-term strategy and direction.

The faculty contribute as “keepers of the flame” and, ideally, focus on the academic program and related issues, including occasionally offering their perspective on student life. There is always a pull-and-push going on with the administration and trustees who want them under the academic tent but typically not moving beyond their historic responsibilities and duties. Faculty often do not trust board members whom they consider too business-oriented and male-dominated or deeply rooted in past affiliations like athletics and Greek life. Further, faculty are keenly aware that trustees approve salaries and benefits.

The administration manages the campus, serves as the liaison between other stakeholders and the board, and maintains the public face and outreach beyond the campus gates. As Dr. King and I note in our most recent book, Leadership Matters, there are three types of presidents: presiders, change agents and strategic visionaries. Any of them can fit the “moment” when selected depending upon the needs of the institution. In my opinion, successful administrations work well only if the search produces candidates with good management skills who represent what the college needs rather than aspiring to what the campus community might want. Once selected, the administration must establish a basis of consensus, heightened levels of transparency, and arms-length distance from faculty, trustees and key stakeholders. Presidents share two risks. The first is to assume that they are cardinals among bishops, becoming more authoritarian over time. The second is to survive politically by allowing either trustees or faculty to overwhelm them.

Reviewing And Improving Governance Practices
The end game in good governance is strategy. If the trustees, faculty and administration can find common ground, a good strategic plan can provide a blueprint for growth and sustainability in a market now as competitive as any industry. With the looming crises facing higher education, governance practices are often unprepared and unexamined centers of cultural inertia.

Good governance is the foundation upon which a lasting strategic blueprint should rest. Colleges and universities are both academic centers and economic engines. Each institution should balance both features to find a solution to what they face. Yet American higher education has a long distinguished history to guide it upon which college leadership can draw. To do so, they should begin with a review of whether their governance practices serve them well.

To begin, those involved in shared governance must commit to a reasonably and regularly reviewed assessment plan, transparency and tactics tailored to build momentum for the institution’s strategic plan. l It is fundamental to ask both the right and the hard questions with a commitment to act on outcomes, however surprising or disheartening some aspects of these findings might be. Good institutions adopt best practices they develop from a working knowledge of their peers. Any commitment should start based on direction from the board chair, with the support of faculty leadership and the president. Institutional leadership should recognize at the outset that this is not a rationing exercise or an expense audit but an effort to become more responsive, creative and efficient.

In my experience, the only way to determine if an institution’s governance practices are effective is to challenge their rationale, the size and scope of governing bodies and the premise upon which they were built. In the end, it’s about whether the process that shapes decision-making works, and there is wide variation among institutions. Effective governance in a highly competitive higher education environment is one of the best ways to compete and be true to tradition, mission and strategy. Absent good governance practices that are regularly reviewed and driven down across all levels of the campus, colleges and universities may simmer in a kind of cultural inertia that can dramatically diminish their ability to compete. This could have negative effects on America and its intellectual capital.

Academic Innovators Principal and President, Brian Mitchell participated in a conversation with two other noted University of Rochester alumni – Dean Gloria Culver ’94M (PhD) and University of Rochester life trustee Gail Lione ’71. The group reflected on nine years in the life of the Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences and society more broadly. University of Rochester life trustee Gail Lione ’71; Arts, Sciences & Engineering National Council member Brian Mitchell ’81 (PhD); and School of Arts and Sciences Dean’s Advisory Network member Pedro Vallejo Ramirez ’16 provided questions for Dean Culver as well as commentary.

You can watch the full discussion here.

Academic Innovators is delighted to announce Leadership Matters: Confronting the Hard Choices Facing Higher Education, a book co-authored by two of its principals (Joey King and Brian C. Mitchell), was named as one of the Top Ten Books in Higher Education for 2022 by Forbes. The book describes how leaders in higher education can overcome the various challenges they face including shifts in the societal, economic and political landscape. 

The book offers guidance on how senior leaders within higher education must adapt to our rapidly changing society in order to remain a sustainable business and institution. Some factors for consideration outlined by King and Mitchell include: “modernizing their practices, monetizing their assets, focusing on core educational strategies, and linking explicitly to the modern world.”

King and Mitchell draw on their decades of experience in higher education to inform the ideas and findings offered in Leadership Matters. King is a past president of Lyon College and previously served as senior advisor to the president of Emory & Henry College. He has also served as executive director of the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education, vice president of innovation at Southwestern University, and as executive director of Connexions at Rice University.

Mitchell previously served as president of Bucknell University, Washington & Jefferson College, and the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Pennsylvania. He has also served in numerous leadership and governance roles in higher education, including chair of the board of Merrimack College, chair of the Pennsylvania Committee for the Rhodes Scholarships, the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Pennsylvania, and the Patriot League Athletic Conference (Division I).

“We are honored to receive this recognition from Forbes,” said Brian C. Mitchell, author and principal of Academic Innovators. “We recognize the overwhelming challenges faced by our successors and their colleagues and we feel it’s our obligation as stewards of higher education to ensure they’re best equipped to face them. It is our sincere hope that the frameworks and ideas put forth in this book help colleges and universities not only create greater stability for their institutions but also provide them with a solid foundation upon which they can build a sustainable future for their respective organizations.”

Published by Johns Hopkins University Press, Leadership Matters is the second book published in the series following their first, How to Run a College: A Practical Guide for Trustees, Faculty, Administrators, and Policymakers. King and Mitchell will author a third book which is expected to be published in 2027.

Academic Innovators Principal Brian Mitchell was recently quoted in an article featured on Inside Higher Ed which discussed VMI’s decision to honor a controversial former leader. Mitchell provided the following commentary:

“If [governing boards] feel that the issues that surrounded the president weren’t put to rest internally, by the alumni or other groups, they’ll often try to close it out. And if they can close it out, they can move on,” said Brian Mitchell, a former president of Bucknell University and co-author of Leadership Matters: Confronting the Hard Choices Facing Higher Education and other works.

You can read the full article here on Insider Higher Ed

 An appeal to Leadership to Take a Closer Look

By Rick Gaumer, Principal – Academic Innovators

The higher education community continues to adjust to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.  With the spring 2022 term concluding, the Omicron variant is receding in many areas across the country, yet statistics are still showing outbreaks around the country.  Institutions continue to wrestle with on campus health issues that challenged them during the last two years of the pandemic.  Larger schools, like Arizona State University, can partner with the Mayo Clinic on its main campus to provide superlative student healthcare support for their students.  Smaller colleges and universities simply cannot afford or offer such accommodations.

A recent Inside Higher Education Survey of Presidents, for example, revealed that 96% of respondents now see mental health as a primary concern on their campuses.  Further, 77% see physical health of students as a deepening crisis. For small, private colleges, in particular, the financial concerns have grown dramatically with reduced revenues from housing and board, made worse by deep tuition discounts offered by colleges to boost  enrollment.  Despite federal subsidies from the Trump and Biden administrations – now beginning to end — colleges are being pushed to the brink, particularly with a teetering tuition revenue model unable to sustain a post-pandemic recovery after the federal money runs out. Yet, these fiscal woes fail to mask a critical question.  Are colleges and universities today doing their best to provide essential physical, mental, and wellness care for their students?  Can we do better?

As someone with a very broad view of the Higher Education landscape having served over my many years as a Trustee, a CFO, a tenured faculty member, and a long-standing community business leader seeking better and better graduates to employ, I am very concerned about the area of student physical and mental healthcare on campus, especially as we come out of this pandemic.  Schools continue to be strapped for financial resources and finding qualified health professionals to serve roles as nurses and counselors is extremely difficult.  Further, the mental health needs on campus are growing exponentially.  My question for leadership in Higher Education is this:  Are there better ways to support Student Physical and Mental Health as we go forward?

What options do Schools have today for supporting Student Physical and Mental Health on campus?  Let’s be frank:

  1. Schools can maintain the pre-pandemic status quo level of service. For smaller schools this might be a full or part time nurse for physical health.  It might be a full or part time counselor for student mental health needs.  For larger schools, they often maintain larger health offices with better staffing.  Keep in mind, most of these services are staffed in a traditional 40-hour workweek concept by regular employees of the school.  Such support fails in areas of Evening and Weekend service as well as in areas of professional diversity for students of varied backgrounds.
  2. Schools can add full or part time resources.   Both small and larger schools find this option difficult due to budget constraints and the difficulty of paying higher salaries demanded in today’s job market.  Again, does this option create adequate coverage 24/7 going to be available and will be there be adequate professional diversity to support the student body?
  3. Schools can partner with local hospitals and third-party resources for live or tele-med services. Not a bad idea, it does provide the institution greater coverage in the evening or on weekends and does broaden the base of professionals to support the student.  A downside is the increased cost of such services and the inconvenience of not being on campus.
  4. Schools can utilize a third-party, 24/7 provider network. These networks can be both cost effective as well as more effective in dealing with a highly-diverse student population.  We really like those providers who provide this service to all students regardless of insurance status and can effectively support students who seek race and gender preferences for their physical and mental health needs.
  5. Schools can begin to adopt emerging mental health and behavior analysis software tools being used commercially and now being adapted to Higher Education. We are seeing such tools being deployed to positively effect student behaviors before they get out of control.  For example, we are aware of tools now available on student cell phones to instantaneously gather information, deploy artificial intelligence and big data to enable all student-support departments across campus to effectively improve the student experience. The end result is greater support of students with behavioral issues, improved student academic performance, and improved student retention on campus.

In my current role in Higher Education, I am seeking to find ‘best practice’ solutions for a number of compelling problems facing our schools which seek to improve financial sustainability. Spending more money on expanded student support in the area of health care may appear to be counter-intuitive, especially coming from someone who typically manages the budgets and the purse strings.  Yet, leaders must understand the core business of their institution: the effective education and training of students; culminating in their graduation.  Inadequately supporting student physical and mental health needs must be addressed if this mission is to be met.

One last word.  How a college provides expanded health service to students should not be a financial obstacle.  Rather it should be looked at as a strategic decision aimed at providing ‘best care’ health support for all students.  It can and should be a ‘competitive differentiator’, driving up overall enrollments.  Again, the question is simple: Can our institution do a better job in supporting essential student healthcare on our campus?  Leaders with fiduciary responsibilities should take a moment and think hard before answering.

About Rick Gaumer.  Rick is a Trustee of Waldorf University [Iowa].  Further, he is a principal with Academic Innovators, a national thought-leader firm focused exclusively on higher education, with an emphasis on identifying innovative and ‘best practice’ solutions to improve long-term growth and financial sustainability for the institution.   Rick is also an experienced executive having served as CFO for both Emory & Henry College [VA] and Lyon College [AR].

One definition of a college president is that he or she lives in a big house and carries a tin cup to search for money. A more accurate analysis might be that a president has a corporate title working as a 19th century political boss trying to manage a medieval craft guild.


A senior official at a large foundation asked me recently why college and university presidents fail to exert their influence as opinion makers in American society. It is a good question and an important one. Why do higher education leaders govern but seldom lead?

One definition of a president is that they live in a big house and carry a tin cup to search for money. A more accurate analysis might be that presidents have a corporate title working as a 19th century political boss trying to manage a medieval craft guild.

And therein lies the problem — the job has evolved but the national imperative for presidents to lead as well as govern remains constant. And presidents — who preside over universities that are America’s incubators of ideas — are ideally positioned to make a significant contribution.

There are obstacles. Higher education leadership trains for the technical and is spotty, episodic, and inconsistent. There is no farm league from which to pull promising candidates into the majors. New presidents are drawn from an increasingly wide field of applicants, and there is little evidence of trustee initiated succession planning. The system under which American higher education operates — shared governance — values process and consensus over outcomes.

Presidents live in a highly charged political environment in which passion flares even when the issues are small. One humorous story told about a major research university is that that although there was no decision on the issue the faculty were still pleased because they were certain that they had won the debate. Further, presidents report to trustees, faculty, parents, staff, alumni, students and donors — each with a different perspective and agenda.

Twenty-four hour print, electronic and social media make transparency a full-time job, even when dealing with the most sensitive issues that often require discretion and confidentiality. Full transparency is exhausting and seldom sufficient. In short, it is easier — and safer — to govern.