Notes from the ARC: What Should Keep Us Up at Night in Higher Education?

Public universities are among the most important and influential institutions in our society.  In the best of cases, public universities positively influence society through education of the next generation of leaders and the creation of new knowledge from research programs.  But how do public universities ensure that they are appropriately reflecting the values and priorities of those they serve?  And what if the public is conflicted about which values and priorities are most important?

Meeting diverse stakeholder needs has been a longstanding challenge for public universities. Students and families want a quality, accessible and affordable education.  Faculty and staff want a supportive work environment and to be compensated at an appropriate level. Alumni want the value of their degree to remain high and, often, they expect their athletic teams to win every game. The community at large wants to be proud, which can be defined as well prepared graduates, strong community engagement, and even zero controversy, among other things. 

All of these interests are at play as other key stakeholders — governing boards, legislative bodies and governors formulate policy and budgetary decisions. Those individuals, with varying levels of influence, seek overall balance on budgetary decisions because of other areas needing support. There is never enough public funding to adequately address the priorities of various stakeholders.

To effectively navigate this complex structure, public universities and their leaders must be highly and authentically engaged with all stakeholders. This engagement must occur with unprecedented agility because of the way that technology has transformed how stakeholders get their information. The rapid change to digital sources of news, sometimes based upon inaccurate sources, further complicates this work. 

And, if that was not challenging enough, consider that the public’s perception of the value of its universities has decreased significantly since January 2017.  Support for universities now varies significantly based on race, ethnicity, income level and political party affiliation. 

How does a public university maintain and strengthen its engagement with those it serves in this environment when priorities and values are more highly contested than they have been in decades?  I believe it is simple:  Listen to and learn from *all* voices.  

At Fresno State, we say “Every voice and every one matters”.  We consider those diverse voices as we review our decision choices.  Final decisions are made transparently with these voices in mind, but ultimately, they must be consistently aligned with the mission and values of the university.  Leadership in this context requires one to lean in to the most difficult decisions by following the institution’s mission and values. 

Because universities are among the oldest institutions in our society, every major decision of the institution has “a long tail”.  Therefore, the decisions that come from authentic engagement with those they serve must simultaneously address the challenge of the moment while keeping an appropriate eye on the years and decades ahead.

Joseph I. Castro, Ph.D. M.P.P., is president and professor of Educational Leadership for California State University, Fresno.

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