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  • Dr. Mary Landon Darden

Five Essential Foundational Traits for Future Higher Education Success

Updated: Nov 13, 2020

I’ve spent decades observing, experimenting, researching, discussing, and responding to the ongoing crisis in higher education. The future of higher education and the needed leadership has been a passion of mine for more than two decades. I watched and practiced as the academy seemed to morph nearly out of control. It was these wildfire changes that at last caused me to write what would become Entrepreneuring the Future of Higher Education: Radical Transformation in Times of Profound Change. Things dipped so quickly in the spring of 2020, that I often had to significantly alter pages that I had written only weeks before. Colleges and universities are facing a tsunami of challenges never experienced at near the current level. In order to have a prayer of out-pacing this radical change, most institutions must immediately and radically transform. Some of my observations, fears and prophesies are addressed in much more detail in the book, but here is a snapshot of some of the most compelling.

Five Essential Foundational Traits for Future Higher Education Success:

1) Excellent, prepared, transformational leadership

Both George Washington University President Emeritus Stephen Joel Trachtenberg and the Kentucky Community and Technical College System President Emeritus Jay Box emphasized that college and university leaders must now prepare for the present and the future in radically new ways! The traditional preparation of the past, earning the credentials and moving up within the traditional system, is no longer enough. Today, Presidents and administrators need to be trained now in new, emerging and creative ways to have a chance to catch up.

2) A mission that is clear, meaningful, relevant, and well-articulated

Many mission statements are outdated or have long lost their relevancy. Institutions must now revisit and recraft their college and university missions.

3) Financial depth, diversity and stability

The number one cause of colleges and universities closing at an accelerating rate is, not surprisingly, finances. What is surprising is how too many institutions cling so fiercely to the old revenue model based almost solely on tuition and donors. It is no longer near enough. Institutions must build many legs on the financial stool that supports the institution in order to survive, let alone thrive. Additionally, all should prepare for the increase of free tuition offerings from all around the nation and the world.

4) Ongoing innovation and entrepreneurship

The successful models are rapidly moving away from business-as-usual management and toward new innovative models that include creative partnerships, as well as co-producing and marketing intellectual property, and working externally in collaboration with other institutions, businesses and government to meet new and emerging demands.

5) Occupational relevance of academic programs

Higher education in America was originally built to mainly prepare pastors, political leaders and physicians. Today, with the advancements in technology and the automation of much of the industrial labor force, most jobs are more specialized, advanced, and highly technical. To survive, higher education needs to improve in connecting the dots from classroom to the job force to specifically and fully prepare students for ongoing, new and emerging jobs.

Ultimately, it is the leadership that holds the future of institutions and its students in their hands.

“Higher Education can be the greatest global game-changer! It can lead the way to solving the world’s most challenging issues including hunger, poverty, climate change, violence, technology needs for the future, and so much more! But it is the fully prepared, entrepreneurial and visionary institutional leaders who will plan and pave the way.” (Darden, 2020)

Dr. Darden is the president of Higher Education Innovation, LLC and author of the book Beyond 2020: Envisioning the Future of Universities in America, co-published with the American Council on Education and Rowman and Littlefield. Her second book titled “Entrepreneuring” the Future of Higher Education: Radical Transformation in Times of Profound Change, will be available by February on 15, 2021. Preorders your copy at:

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Dr. Jay Box
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