College Presidents—New Captains of the Titanic

After the Titanic struck the iceberg, the ship’s captain and senior executives were said to be unworried.  How could their mighty ship sink?  The hubris and arrogance of the ship’s captain and senior officers was astonishing.  They seemed to believe that because they were handsomely recompensed, resplendent in their uniforms and saluted by their toadies, their little world would never end.  While the passengers and lowly crew members were beginning to panic, the officers urged them to remain calm.  They were confident that the ship was unsinkable and on course.  The dining rooms remained open and the ship’s orchestra played on to soothe the foolish passengers and crew who prattled about an utterly impossible impending disaster.  Unfortunately, more than a century later, the good ship Titanic remains at the bottom of the ocean.  Some of her passengers survived but 1500 did not, victims of the captain’s decision to maintain course and steam full speed ahead despite numerous warnings from experienced crew members that there were icebergs in the vicinity.

The Titanic came to mind as I scanned the results of a 2014 survey of college presidents recently published in the Chronicle of Higher Education under the title, “The Innovative University: What College Presidents Think About Change in American Higher Education.”   According to the survey, the great majority of college presidents believe that American higher education is heading in the right direction, that cost-cutting should not be a major focus and that they are providing excellent value for students.

These college presidents appear to believe that their good ship is on course and can continue steaming full speed ahead.  And, why shouldn’t our captains of erudition have a rosy view?  Many are lavishly compensated, expensively dressed and coifed, and surrounded by legions of deanlets and toadies who always agree with them.  How could anything be wrong with such a world?  Cries of alarm from faculty members, students, parents and legislators must be uninformed.  Tell the band or, perhaps, order the university office of public information and administrative propaganda to turn up the volume and drown out the grumblers.

Related: The MOOA’s First Assignment

Unfortunately, the good ship Higher Education has gone off course and is heading toward icebergs.  Its presidents have disempowered the senior faculty members who actually knew something about education; hired legions of deanlets, deanlings and ding-a-lings who may not know the difference between a classroom and a restroom and certainly do not know the difference between a mission statement and a mission; allowed costs to explode by failing to rein in administrative salaries and unnecessary services; undermined faculty control over the curriculum resulting in a hodgepodge of offerings of unproven value; and generally converted the university from an institution that prided itself on shared governance into one whose management structure seems modeled on General Motors–a pyramid at whose apex sit individuals who know nothing about cars.

The Chronicle survey also reports that college presidents believe that faculty should be drivers of change in higher education.  This is an odd finding since presidents have spent the past quarter century making certain that the faculty had no such power.  I think a reasonable interpretation of this finding is that presidents and their toadies have no ideas–the remainder of the survey confirms this proposition–and wish that faculty members would provide them with some clever thoughts for the strategic plan and college mission statement.  These are, of course, the documents where ideas go to die.

Just in case, however, some of the survey’s respondents were serious about faculty-driven change, here are some thoughts that I would be happy to share with college presidents..

1. Change the management structure of the college.  Successful organizations follow a model the Germans call Auftragstactic, or mission-oriented leadership.  This model allows senior managers to set general goals but depends upon professionals who actually understand the tasks at hand to devise their own strategies for carrying them out.  This organizational model requires senior leaders to give up some power, but is best for the organization. It was once called shared governance.

2. Reduce administrative bloat and administrative salaries.  About a third of the cost increase in higher education over the past 20 years can be attributed to these two factors.  Begin with a 10 percent cut in administrative positions.  They will never be missed.  If you can’t think where to start cutting, consult the faculty.  As to salaries, start with your own.  You are seriously overpaid and someone just as good as you could be hired for far less.

3. Use the savings generated by reducing administrative bloat to cut tuition.  Students or their parents are facing enormous debt burdens from outlandish tuitions that result, in part, from profligate administrative practices.

Related: Can We Halt Administrative Bloat?

There, I’ve tried to be a faculty change agent, just like the survey reported college presidents sought.  The faculty has many other ideas for change but these three would be a good place to start.

It is rather disheartening to read that college presidents believe we are heading in the right direction and that all is well with the academic world.  Perhaps their academic world is doing just fine but in the academic world of impoverished adjuncts, the world of students with worthless degrees and mountains of debt, the world in which the liberal arts are deemed not to be cost effective all is not well.  Our captains of erudition are sailing the ship at full speed toward the icebergs and should not say they were never warned. The Chronicle survey seems to suggest they are as deaf to warnings as the captain of the Titanic.


  • Benjamin Ginsberg

    Benjamin Ginsberg is the David Bernstein Professor of Political Science and Chair of the Hopkins Center for Advanced Governmental Studies in Washington, DC.

6 thoughts on “College Presidents—New Captains of the Titanic

  1. Public Education cries for more and more funding, from State appropriations, increasing taxation, increasing tuition/fees while Student Success wanes.

    Where is the leadership from the governing boards that have the fortitude necessary to avoid the icebergs of disaster? Abdicating Board Governance to the Upper Administration is the recipe for disaster as the author portrays.

    Are there allegations of gaming the Pell and Student Loans as a revenue opportunity?

    Are Salaries/Administrative Expense an increasing part of your educational budget while enrollment is flat to declining?

    There are solutions but upper Administration Self Service must be eliminated.

    I am a Trustee of a Community College, since 2007.

  2. The business model for education has changed quite a bit. So has the demographics. I am a 50 plus entrepreneur. I needed help in starting my business. All of my business education came from incubator sites, I didn’t have to go to a college.

    For setting up my website and learning about the Web in general I paid cash. I was quoted $11,000. After whining and wheedling I was able to lower that $7,000.00. And the web courses being offered lowered that to $4,500.00. I don’t think a college or an university can match that price at all. Neither do they want to, I suspect.

    There are 10 of us fifty somethings in the class. Most of us could care less about getting this education from an institution of higher learning. And here is the interesting sub-fact (I am seeing younger people in these classes as well).

    Is there a major change coming in education? Absolutely, people are seeking and finding alternate sources of education in all sorts of endeavors. Will colleges be able to address this market sector? Absolutely not. They don’t want to move that fast.

    I suspect that colleges will try but not succeed. It will end with a whimper not a bang. They will just wonder where all the students went.

    1. rocl — maybe so, but in the state in which I live, computer science and sci/tech enrollments are way up the past few years, with no signs of abatement (but perhaps a leveling off).

      My guess: there will be increased demand for education and training of many different kinds. Just because there are web courses for aging entrepreneurs (and maybe aspiring ones as well) doesn’t mean the standard computer-scitech programs are going to go out of business. The evidence just doesn’t support that.

  3. As with Dr. G’s book he’s kinda right and kinda wrong. Well maybe not wrong exactly. But he gets overwrought and his rhetoric gets the better of him IMHO.

    He seems to think that since the business model hit a wall that there was never any logic to it. But the fact that virtually all institutions followed the same path for so long successfully says something about the strength of the model over many decades. The massification of higher education brought with it a consumer focus, period. Dr. G can rail about deanlets and ding-a-lings all he wants but most administration stays busy enough. He made that mistake in his book too–he just *knows* administrators do nothing (in the same way that administrators *know* that faculty are a bunch of do-nothings). I think he is wrong about that, though it supports his narrative.

    Are they doing things Dr. G likes? Surely no. Are they supporting students in counseling, athletics, services and all the rest; doing environmental compliance; auditing spending, etc. Absolutely.

    I maintain that if the world wanted more St. John’s of Annapolis and Santa Fe we would have them. The world does not. The world prefers the institution that Dr. G does not like, one with lots of support and services.

    Now I agree with him about the icebergs and the dangers. The model is likely not sustainable. And presidents are in denial. And things are likely to change. Whether they will bend to the arc that Dr. G prefers is another matter entirely.

  4. I can’t recall ever reading an article that made such a monumental blunder in its very first word: “AFTER the Titanic struck the iceberg, the ship’s captain and senior executives were said to be unworried. How could their mighty ship sink? The hubris and arrogance of the ship’s captain and senior officers was astonishing. ”

    “After” is where he went wrong. Arrogant before the impact, yes. The ship’s officers paid little attention to radioed warnings of an iceberg field ahead. But only someone woefully ignorant of events that night would say that the captain and officers were arrogant afterward. Since it was the ship’s maiden voyage, the engineer who designed it was on board. Within minutes, he told them it’d go down in two hours and before help arrived. Knowing that through radio messages, the rescue ship, Carpathia, raced at maximum speed through the ice field to the scene, but arrived too late.

    The captain and officers reacted badly because they feared a panic. That’s where their great folly lay. With strong leadership rather than evasions and lies, the passengers would have responded well.

    Perhaps twice as many passengers could have been saved if the lifeboats had been heavily loaded. The boat ratings were for adult males in a rough sea. The sea was deadly calm that night and many of the passengers were women and children. Every vessel that pulled away that night should have departed with its gunwales only inches above the water. Many would have still died, but far more would have been saved.

    The real point of this article is a good one. But there should have been some fact-checking about the illustration at the start. It derails the entire flow of the article.

    –Michael W. Perry, editor of Chesterton on War and Peace: Battling the Ideas and Movements that Led to Nazism and World War II (based on G. K. Chesterton’s writings during World War I)

  5. You know, a lot of people might be more impressed if the author also called for cuts in faculty salaries. A lot of people believe the same things about faculty — they are grossly overpaid, they could be replaced for far less. I’m not saying that’s true, but it is a very widespread perception.

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