Eyewitness to University Leadership

Monday, April 19, 2021 - In the wake of COVID-19, many university presidents have struggled to communicate amidst a fluid and fast-changing set of circumstances outside their control. What does it take to lead in these times? David Gergen, advisor to four U.S. presidents and several university presidents, joins Jeff and Michael for a wide ranging conversation on leadership on campus in these challenging times.

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Transcript

Michael Horn:

Over the past year, higher education has endured a set of crises, the pandemic, economic, that have really tested institutions and their leaders at every turn. It's really been a true test of leadership.

Jeffrey Selingo:

And when it comes to talking about leadership and communication in times of crisis, there's perhaps no one better than David Gergen, an advisor to four US presidents and a cofounder and former director of the Center for Public Leadership at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, where he remains a professor. He joins us today on Future U.

Sponsor:

This episode of Future U is brought to you by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and by Nelnet campus commerce. To read their latest study on improving retention, visit campuscommerce.com/retain. And by BVK. Visit BVK.com to learn about changing your university's focus from surviving to thriving. Thank you to our sponsors for making Future U possible. Subscribe to Future U wherever you get your podcasts. And follow us on Twitter at the handle Future U Podcast. And if you enjoy the podcast, please leave us a five-star rating so others can discover the conversations we're having about higher education.

Michael Horn:

I'm Michael Horn.

Jeffrey Selingo:

And I'm Jeff Selingo. Michael, as you know, I've been really interested in the twin topic of how higher ed leaders ought to communicate in a time of crisis, but also on whether the leaders at most institutions have the right background or schools of experience, if you will, to handle the demands of the pressures, really staring down higher education right now, but have also been interested in higher education's role in renewing the frayed civic fabric that our nation is facing right now.

Michael Horn:

Both incredibly important topics, Jeff, and it's with them in mind that I'm tremendously excited about our guest for today's show.

Jeffrey Selingo:

Yeah, as am I. Because I think he's uniquely positioned to address all of these questions, which you know better than most, Michael, most people probably know you and your connection to Clay Christensen. But you had a mentor before Clay, who was quite impactful on your development and he's our guest today, David Gergen.

Michael Horn:

Yeah, that's right, Jeff. And David was an incredibly formative figure in my life. And working for him was my first job out of college, and so, I got to learn the art of the trade, if you will, through David.

Jeffrey Selingo:

And he's obviously well known by many as a political analyst on venues like CNN Today and as a past advisor to four US presidents of both political parties. I have a connection to him as well as he was editor-in-chief and an editor-at-large of US News and World Report, where I had an early experience with higher education rankings that I wrote about in my most recent book.

Michael Horn:

Absolutely, Jeff, and what far fewer people though I think know about David is his university connections. He literally grew up in the academy. Not only is he a part of a family where three generations have taught at Duke and two generations at Harvard, but he grew up in the shadow of Duke where his dad was chair of the math department for 25 years. And, as David would often say, suggested he find another line of work as he grew up.

Michael Horn:

But he's been also an advisor to many university presidents. And I got to see his involvement as a trustee on a couple university boards. He currently serves as chair of Elon University's advisory board for its new innovative law school. But even more than that, Jeff, I saw firsthand how many university presidents, whenever they were in a jam, David was actually one of their first calls.

Michael Horn:

And as the director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government for roughly two decades, he's also been a student and teacher of and a writer about leadership and the civic fabric of our nation, of course, is a topic that deeply concerns David. And it's something he commentates on often.

Jeffrey Selingo:

So, with that as Prelude, David, welcome to Future U. It's good to see you.

David Gergen:

Thank you. I'm honored to be here.

Michael Horn:

Well, we appreciate it. And David, as university presidents stared down several challenges over the past year, COVID-19, the resulting recession or racial reckoning across much of the nation, it's been striking how university presidents have reacted and communicated in vastly different ways. And I suspect you got pulled into some of those conversations to advise some of them.

Michael Horn:

But without betraying any confidences, I'm just curious, if you step back a little bit and look at the bigger picture, how would you counsel leaders to communicate in these fast moving stories where they don't have control of the story itself, if that makes sense?

David Gergen:

Good, hard questions. And one of the reasons, Michael, why so many university presidents have encountered the toughest year of their presidencies. There are reports that some presidents after a few years are now starting to call headhunters and say, "Are there any openings out there? Are there other people?" So, you can understand this has been very, very hard. I don't think there's any clear one answer.

David Gergen:

What I do believe is that communications with the various stakeholders is crucial to the success of any president but especially in a crisis. And the stakeholders here, obviously, include the faculty, but very importantly, the students, the staff, the employees who work in the university, the donors, and very, very importantly, for college kids, the parents. And all of them need to be ... You need to keep all of them informed.

David Gergen:

My advice right now to leaders, especially college presidents, is first as the year opens in September, it's really important to gather in any way you can the various stakeholders and talk to them about your principles, the guiding principles that you will follow in the year head, because there have to be twists and turns and ups and downs in the coming year. We're in a race against time between these various vaccines that are being developed so magically, but the variants and the different strikes it may be made against us.

David Gergen:

And I do think so for that kind of environment, you need to be very, very clear what your true north is for the university, what is it you're trying to do. The students, obviously, health of the students obviously come first, but the health of the faculty, the health of the people who work in the kitchens, the health of the people who do all sorts of other jobs, that we are often thankless jobs in university life, they all need to be brought in and understood that the health of all the people in those communities, let's say, will come first.

David Gergen:

That the leadership of the university will be guided by science, not by a [inaudible 00:06:38]. You're not going to try to open too early. You're not going to try to open too late. You're trying to open it as fast as you can consistent with the health and protecting the health.

David Gergen:

In other words, there are a serious things, I think, messages you need to get out early and promise that you will continue. And I think it's important with the internet as it is, you should be able to do a monthly letter back home in effect. And it possibly could be more often, but certainly once a month. The letters ought to be going to especially the parents and the families who are associated with the university and keeping them informed. So, their message is we're all in this together. And we have a common faith here. And the president university, by the way, is vulnerable. So, everyone's in this together.

David Gergen:

But I think people need to know that. I've often argued to university presidents, the one thing that people tend to have alumni publications of some sort and whether it may be alumni magazine, or it may be a newsletter, whatever it may be, but almost every college and university has that, there ought to be a column or a place, or a page, and every one of those magazines a direct letter from the president of the university to the alumni, as well as the parents.

David Gergen:

But I think there's been a danger in this last year, if I may say so. And I say this hypothetically because university presidents have had so many things thrown at them. But there is a danger that have been ... There have been a lot of sort of herky-jerky announcements and then backing up and then going forward. And people get frustrated with that just the same kind of frustrations the folks had trying to get the vaccines and where do you get in the line? How do you get in line? What about those people jumping the line.

David Gergen:

And so, I think if there's one criticism I would have or one area where I particularly think needs to be cleaned up is the communications. But there is something else that's I think coming on very, very fast, and we ought to be more appreciative. I don't think we have answers for this in just public communications. And that is the threats to the mental health and well-being of the community, especially the students.

David Gergen:

I was interested in this piece in The New York Times just a few days ago at a place called Norwich University. It's a military type school. And the president of the university decided ... He'd been through situations where his troops as an officer, his troops felt isolated. And he realized what his feelings were like and he went and moved and moved into the dormitories because the university was he took the only single [inaudible 00:09:16] left. And it didn't sound like a very pleasant experience, but it sent a message to the troops, I care. We're in this together.

David Gergen:

So, on the mental health side, Michael, I don't think you can just depend on newsletters. I do think you got to have a team of people, whether they're volunteers or whether they're psychiatrists or psychologists or therapists. You need an ear. Every president needs to have someone with an ear and I'll come back to that. But I think the students need someone who can talk to them and talk them out of their anxieties and their fears and help them through this.

David Gergen:

And I think that's something that really does call out for ... Don't just do slapdash, get some serious people, know what they're doing. Because life really are at stake. You have two or three suicides on a campus, it will be demoralizing for everyone. And we're already getting suicides and we're already getting drug problems back.

Jeffrey Selingo:

So, David, against that advice from your vantage point, how did university leaders you've been able to observe do in your judgment? You talked about some of the things they might have done right. What are some of the common mistakes you've seen? Perhaps as you mentioned, they made announcements, I had to keep pulling them back. What lessons can they learn going forward around communications from this experience?

David Gergen:

That's a good question. It does seem to me that it would be a good idea for a president who needs a supportive board. It's really important to have a strong board, a supportive board on this. But in some ways, I think, Michael and I have talked about this, it's, it makes a lot of sense to have at least two tracks going on on that board with regard to communications.

David Gergen:

One is the short-term track and the other is the long term, being more strategic. As Michael and I were talking, my White House experience has been that it's really important for president to have a press secretary who can take the incoming questions when they come the hard and fast. You need somebody who ... It's a 24/7 job. You're going to need a separate person, that communications director should be thinking longer term.

David Gergen:

Where do we want to be in a month, three months, six months? How are we handling this growing problem, say, of race relations on campus? What's our strategy for letting some of the tension out of the room and being able to encourage people to sit down and talk with each other constructively. That's your communications person.

David Gergen:

And there ought to be a subgroup, frankly, of the board and there ought to be a subgroup of the faculty. The faculty needs to buy in on all of this. The faculty really has to execute a lot of these visions. So, I think it's really important that they be in on the takeoff, and that they participate in the takeoff, especially on these racial questions, which are also boiling, just as the pandemic is causing so much anxiety, the racial tensions that are there and are felt especially on college campuses.

David Gergen:

It's really important for all of us to get this right. And there's a lot at stake here with these crises. Because these strike at the very ... A college or university is entrusted with the life of a young student for anywhere from two to four years, and many of them live on campus. And that's a real responsibility.

David Gergen:

There was a time when colleges felt totally responsible and then they tried to walk it back so they weren't legally responsible. But I think it's now clear that it's got to be built in to the life of the university. And by the way, I think you'll get much better students. I think you get a much higher yield on your acceptance rate if students know this place is really friendly and they're going to be there for me and can be there for my family. And I would be proud to be an alum of the school.

Jeffrey Selingo:

So, David, more broadly, as you've watched the role of president of university change over the years, what do you think higher ed leaders need to succeed now that's different from the past? And just to add some context to that question, the challenges facing higher ed really seem much different from those in recent generations.

Jeffrey Selingo:

Financial challenges face many more institutions, are now spiraling costs that have made tuition a real question in the minds of many prospective families, looming demographic challenges in terms of fewer graduates of high school, significantly bigger focus on institutions preparing students for jobs and greater policy and regulatory concerns on everything from student loan debt to return on investment and freedom of speech to campus climate and diversity. So, how has the job changed? And what's required of the leaders from perhaps past university presidents that you've counseled?

David Gergen:

Yeah, sure. Again, a good question. I think actually, the answer is probably an evolving answer. I go back and think and remember through reading and long before any of us were born, university presidents tended to be the ethics officers of their other institution. At Harvard, I believe, there was a tradition at the university president every year taught a freshman course in ethics.

David Gergen:

And it sent a message to the entire student body, but it also sharpen those kids for freshmen when they came. Nobody has time for that as university president anymore, which is a shame. Because the universe presidents have become the faces of their institutions. And in that role, the most important thing you got to deliver is money. You got to keep the revenue coming in in order to keep the place open.

David Gergen:

And because the universities are top university, you're all competing with each other to have a wide array of services and top like this and top like that. Just in the food, I mean, look at the dramatic changes the way we eat with how college student eat at the top universities. They have five different restaurants. It's like going to Vegas or something, all the different choices you got.

David Gergen:

And so, the university president takes ... Very responsible for how much money comes in. Just now, the president of Brandeis is in a huge fight with his board, and apparently, a lot of saw how whether he has been productive or not on fundraising. That's what they want from him.

David Gergen:

And so, what that means to me is that, I mean, the president of the university has to surround himself with four or five people who are just top flight and he can trust with major responsibilities and are sort of his top people. And in particular, it's very important that a president have one person in the leadership, at least one person in leadership, and hopefully at least one person on the board with whom he can have total confidential conversations, that he really can get it straight up about what's going on.

David Gergen:

It's really important to have somebody who can interpret and can report back to the president what's going on in the dynamics of the school? What's the rumor mill saying? What are the tensions that are growing? Who were people who were really ticked off and want to see this and that?

David Gergen:

I'm a big, big believer in the coming generation, but they're also people, that generation who feel very entitled and they come waltzing in and they want this and they want that. And the university person has to put up with that, too.

David Gergen:

So, you need somebody though to be your eyes and ears. And then we're keep you informed on what the ... It's like being able to read a room if you're a politician. And it's like being able to read your student body.

David Gergen:

And one of the things that I found very interesting about Coach K at Duke, the basketball coach, he's a man now in his mid to late 60s. He hires assistant coaches who used to play for him. They're in their 30s usually. And the reason he hires him is they can interpret for him what the undergraduates are thinking, and they can interpret for the undergraduates what Coach K is thinking.

Jeffrey Selingo:

Two-way street there.

David Gergen:

It's a two-way street, but it provides a communication link, somebody who cares about the institution and cares about the coach or coach of the team or whatever. People will step up. But I want you to interview David Herbert Donald, who was a historian, wrote a wonderful one volume, but I think it's the best one volume on Lincoln.

Jeffrey Selingo:

On Lincoln, yeah.

David Gergen:

On Lincoln, yeah. And I asked David, and we were doing a PBS interview with him. And I said, "What's the most important thing a leader needs?" And he said, "A friend." I found that really interesting. And I think there's a lot of truth to that.

David Gergen:

If you're in one of these jobs, they can be pretty lonely, where you can feel the weight of the world is coming at you or people ... It's sort of never ending bitching sometimes that goes on, that you've got to deal with.

David Gergen:

And I do think it helps to have a friend in high places with you and sort of help you along. Because by the way, we all have blind spots. And we miss names. And I think history will record one day that we should have seen this pandemic coming better than we did. And there should have been more understanding before so much of this hit. Because I think it really eroded trust in our institutions at a time when they're already under heavy, heavy pressure and heavy criticism.

David Gergen:

But I have a colleague here who's on the business school faculty named Max Bazerman. Michael will know who he is. And he and a guy named Michael Watkins, I think it was, wrote a book called Predictable Surprises, Predictable Surprises.

David Gergen:

But the point they make is you can often see things over the horizon if you keep your eye out for it and you can get ready for it. And one of our biggest mistakes is we see things coming but we don't ... Either we don't act or we're blind to them, or we have blind spots we don't want to be attractive. You need that friend to be able to tell you that, too. You're missing something. But I think so much of what happened in this pandemic has been a predictable surprise.

Michael Horn:

It's interesting, David, because just when you were trustee at Yale and I got to watch the administration up close there, that team was incredibly cohesive, that Rick Levin put around him. And it's clear that was sort of what made the machinery tick so well.

Michael Horn:

I want to transition a little bit in the last remaining time with you to a broader conversation of the nation having been through a trying time and our ability to even have a civic conversation with people who think differently from us is perhaps as strange as it's been for many of us in our lifetimes, not over the history of the nation, perhaps. But I know this is something new dear to your heart.

Michael Horn:

And I've always taken from my time with you that we can disagree with but not be disagreeable, or that we ought to ... Something I've learned a lot from you, David, was that people, even who you disagreed with, they had the best intentions often at heart, but we don't seem to have that anymore.

Michael Horn:

And I'm curious, Jeff and I have been debating a lot that there's causes of this disunion, if you will, from the media landscape, social media, where we live, who we associate with and so forth. But what we're curious about is what's higher education's role in renewing that civic fabric of the country right now? Is it something that they can reasonably be charged with? Or is it a bridge too far for colleges and universities?

David Gergen:

I'm so glad you asked that question. By the way, let me just say one word before going broadening it. Yes, at Yale, as we both experienced, there was a woman named Linda Lorimer.

Michael Horn:

Yup.

David Gergen:

Who was Rick Levin's right hand person and his interpreter, and she was fabulous. And she married up a trustee. But he taught me more about leadership than anybody else I've known in university life. Rick Levin did. He was just extraordinarily good leader. And he had an eye for talent that I think is also necessary. Being a spotter, in that sense, is really, really important.

David Gergen:

Now, coming to the role of the university, I must tell you that I start from the position of saying this country has not been well governed, has not been well run now for a number of years. Over the last 20 years, we've had a series of failures, leadership failures, whether it is in the pandemic or the recession of '08, '09, the fires and the storms and everything like that. There had just been a series of crises that we've not exercised good leadership on.

David Gergen:

So, from my point of view, what the country most needs in the future in terms of our civic life is to invite and work with and prepare the younger generation for leadership. I think it's time for those of us who are older to clean up as much as we can. But then to get the hell off the stage and turn over the reins to ... And by judgment to the millennials, starting with the millennials, but also Generation Z are both important.

David Gergen:

And the millennials are going to be the biggest generation we've ever had, the most diverse veteran generation. But we are not doing enough. We need to get them to take more seriously and to be engaged in the civic life of the country. And that means partly having more civic discourse in colleges and universities to work on that. But it also means encouraging them to have lives of service and leadership.

David Gergen:

And I believe that starts right there at the beginning on your admissions process. Do we give some weight to people who haven't been in service position, if you spend a year in America, or does that help you substantially as opposed to being a first baseman on the baseball team?

David Gergen:

I think it's great to have the first baseman, but it's also true you want to people who come out of Teach for America and come out of some of these city or in some of these other programs. Because what we know is if somebody spends a year to a certain service between the ages of 18 and 25, they are much, much more likely to vote in coming years. And they're much more likely to get in service.

David Gergen:

Yes, they may go out and earn money in a business or corporations and good for them, they support their family and support job. But at some point, you want people to come back in their 50s and 60s. You want the younger generation to get in and some of the older generation to come back and get involved.

David Gergen:

And I think the universities already an extraordinarily important institution for preparing people and helping them get involved like this. I'm in the midst of trying to write a book about some of these issues. So, you can tell I'm a little bit on my soapbox.

David Gergen:

But I honestly believe that the course we're on is unsustainable as a country, that we've got to pull together. And I think it can happen among the young people better than anywhere else. We have to be very aware. There's this new documentary, it's just come out about Boys State. And I gather, it deals with some of these same issues about the breakdown of discourse in the civic life. And I'm anxious to see it because it's told from a perspective of mostly from a young Gen Z participant.

David Gergen:

But the movements that we're seeing come forward, whether it be the Me Too movement or Black Lives Matter movement, or the occupy movement before. These are unlike the movements we've seen before. They're intentionally leaderless. They prefer not to have a leader who speaks for all, that the responsibility for leadership seems to pass around among them.

David Gergen:

I don't know that we can make that work or not. I hope we can. But if you're negotiating with somebody about what you're going to do on campus and there's nobody who's head of a group to talk to you, who do you negotiate with? That becomes more complicated question.

David Gergen:

But I want to go back to the fundamentally is, I am a big believer, and increasingly, I think there's momentum in favor of creating national service. That we have a culture that encourages, not requires, but encourages every young person to spend at least a year giving back. I would like to see you give a year, you get a year taken off your tuition debt. So, that it's in effect, like the GI Bill. People came back from the war, they give them three or four years of their lives, they put themselves on the line, their lives were in jeopardy. We then pay their way through college and it created the middle class in this country.

Jeffrey Selingo:

Yeah. No, I mean, it's interesting that the idea, the original idea of AmeriCorps in the '92 election was around this idea of giving back for student loans for student tuition. And so, perhaps, I guess all good ideas keep coming back.

David Gergen:

Well, there's now in the Senate, there are 16 senators, eight on each side who have signed on to national service. The COVID Relief Bill had a had an extra billion dollars for AmeriCorps, on top of what has been spent, going to be spent over the next three year. Jeff Coons, the senator from Delaware, very, very close to Biden, is leading this drive. He's a real believer. I spent an hour with him the other day on the phone.

David Gergen:

And he's a terrific leadership because he's so close to the president. And it's something it's such an obvious play, that I'm hopeful we may make a lot of progress in the next two or three years on that.

Jeffrey Selingo:

[inaudible 00:27:40] skipping over Gen X of which I'm part of.

David Gergen:

Well, Gen X [crosstalk 00:27:46]. Well, it's an interesting question about. I have children who are Gen X

Jeffrey Selingo:

We're lost. Are we ever going to have a president? I want to know.

David Gergen:

Well, that's a good question. When it came to the World War II veterans, the Korean veteran never got a president. And they were just kept. I'm not sure the Gen X will get a president. I think the millennials are coming up fast on the outside track.

Michael Horn:

So, we're getting skipped, Jeff.

David Gergen:

We'll see, we'll see.

Jeffrey Selingo:

Anyway David, college presidents are often described as CEOs. But I think given all the stakeholders we talked about earlier, they're a lot more like politicians. So, it's been great to have somebody on Future U today, who has really been a great advisor to so many presidents over the years. So, thank you so much for being here.

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Michael Horn:

Welcome back to Future U. And Jeff, I always enjoy catching up with, David. Obviously, he has a special place in my life. But a few things that jumped out to me about our conversation with him that I just wanted to highlight a couple up front, because they hearkened back to topics that you and I have addressed over the past year and change on this podcast during the pandemic.

Michael Horn:

And the first thing is I hope listeners were able to feel David's basic humanity come out, as he talked about the importance of reaching out to all stakeholders and not just students and faculty. But in particular, I was gratified that he called out the staff, who work for colleges and universities and really make those institutions run. And that's something you've written specifically about and we've discussed on this show, this split in treatment sometimes between faculty and staff on campuses.

Michael Horn:

And then the second item that jumped out at me that I'd love to highlight and get your take on was I was taken by his comments on the importance of having a group of faculty and staff and trustees focused on the short term as well as a group focused on the long term. And his comparison to the White House with the press secretary and the director of communications, which was his position during the Reagan administration.

Michael Horn:

But the comparison that actually leapt out to me as he said this was what Northeastern did at the beginning of the pandemic. And Mike Armeni came on our show. And he spotlighted that about a year ago. And I was curious if that comparison resonated with you, Jeff. And I'm also curious, frankly, your take on it as a trustee during these times of an institution, and how possible it is to have that short-term group and the long-term group maybe at institutions that don't have the resources of a northeastern?

Jeffrey Selingo:

Well, and I think, Michael, that's the problem. First of all, it was great to have David on. I'm a huge fan of his on CNN. And it seems like we were able to give him more time than he gets on, on CNN. So, it was great that he was able to expand his comments in a way on a number of issues today.

Jeffrey Selingo:

But I think the issue right now, and this is what worries me coming out of the pandemic is that the rich are only getting richer in this pandemic in terms of institutions. And so, those institutions that do have resources of a northeastern, of a Boston University because we heard the same thing from Bob Brown, when he was on about this idea of looking ahead even as you're in the moment.

Jeffrey Selingo:

And I know that college faculty and administrators at most places that I talked to are exhausted, just from the day to day and also focusing on the reopening of their campuses, whether that was last fall, whether that was the spring, or now whether it's going to be next fall. And I think the question for those resource challenged institutions is can you really free up one or two people, a senior person.

Jeffrey Selingo:

And here's the key, I think, to work perhaps with retired administrators. There are many retired administrators, even recently retired administrators out there who could potentially lend their time, particularly to the institutions that they have worked to in their life, to give back some volunteer work to the institution, and they're familiar with it. They're familiar with higher education.

Jeffrey Selingo:

And then I think the key here is also on the board to create a separate committee. I was talking to somebody who sits on a board of trustees recently, and we were talking about the committee work versus the full board and just how much work gets done in committees.

Jeffrey Selingo:

And I'm just wondering how many boards out there are creating just short-term committees, post pandemic, the post pandemic university, the post pandemic college, so it's not something that is in perpetuity in terms of a committee structure, but just create something short term about what are the lessons learned that we as a board and an institution want to carry forward?

Jeffrey Selingo:

And, Michael, I think this is really important in terms of capturing our learning in the moment. I keep thinking about my own family and I keep talking about to our kids about how we're going to remember this last year. And I know many of us probably want to forget it. But 30, 40 years ago, 30 or 40 years from now, I think future generations will be asking us about 2020. And I know that many people were encouraged last year, we were encouraged to keep diaries and journals around to this past year. I know I haven't done that. And now I'm kind of sorry I didn't given how long this has gone on.

Jeffrey Selingo:

And the question for me is how are colleges and universities going to capture this learning about teaching and learning, about the student experience about the work experience. In many ways, this could be a great oral history project for the archives as well.

Jeffrey Selingo:

So, it's not something that you just need to capture in the moment. I really wish that there would be a big foundation or others that would put some money behind this to start to collect what we've learned about this moment, because it's clear to me that when we're talking about the history of higher ed 30, 50 years from now, this year is going to be a pivot point for so many.

Michael Horn:

Yeah, Jeff, it's actually interesting to hear you say that because a lot of people over the years have talked to me about what does Gergen bring that's unique when he discusses political trade winds or issues or so forth. And what I've always said is I never have taken from David sort of him opining on a specific policy issue or so forth. But his wisdom comes from being able to look back at history and say, "This is how it's likely to play out based on how I understand the currents of American politics."

Michael Horn:

And I think that's true for the future of higher ed to have the history, that historical basis, that understanding of what people did in the moment, so that in the future, we can understand the currents, but also respond to crises better as they roll out. I mean, I think those who read history can pull lessons from their past toward it.

Michael Horn:

It's not something David talked about a ton on our podcast, but I know, it's something he thinks a lot about for leaders that as they're navigating an institution amidst uncertain times, he talked a lot about the importance of gathering people and putting out guiding principles, which I think is important, but it's also to lead people over time toward where you know you're going to go.

Michael Horn:

And so he would have hearkened back to FDR leading the nation into World War II. It was something that FDR, it was apparent to him, well before Pearl Harbor that this is probably where it was going to go. And he sort of pulled us there, the Lend-Lease Act, which was not in fact, leasing military equipment. It was no chance after it's been through a war, it's coming back to you that the lending has worked out. But this notion of pulling people there over time or even Lincoln with the Emancipation Proclamation, didn't just drop it on the country. He led people there over time.

Michael Horn:

And so, I think that sense of history and how you act out of it is incredibly important. The flip side, I think, is I think it's fair to say David's a little bit less ensconced in the innovation parts of higher ed. But when we talked about what is vital for a university president to be successful today, I was taken with his notion of the importance of having, "eyes and ears" and a true friend on the team so that you're not lonely at the top, and so that you can be successful.

Michael Horn:

And, Jeff, you've been around a lot of presidents of institutions, good and bad. And you know many of their teams. And so, I'm curious, from your perspective, how much did this sort of land for you? Does it seem that having this person, this eyes and ears that you can fully trust on the president's team, is that a distinction in your mind between presidents who are successful and those who struggle?

Jeffrey Selingo:

Oh, I think it's definitely landed with me. And it's a word, that word "trust" that you said. Who can the president trust to give them good advice, somebody who can actually say no to presidents on occasion, and maybe even more often than on occasion. I don't think enough presidents have people surrounding themselves on that front.

Jeffrey Selingo:

I was just thinking on this about F King Alexander, who has just resigned as president of Oregon State after some issues came up around his previous leadership at Louisiana State. And there's an explosive story in the Chronicle recently where he met with the board about ... And they basically told him that they already hired an athletic director, and they pushed a napkin over to him with the salary of this new athletic director. And he was obviously really frustrated by this and didn't know what to do.

Jeffrey Selingo:

And what did he do when he came home? He called his dad. Now, his dad happens to be a former university president, and now at the University of Illinois, around in teaching in higher education. So, clearly somebody who knows the industry as well. But it was clear in that exchange that King and I think a lot of other presidents didn't necessarily have people around them, who are not only that they can trust, but be a good sounding board.

Jeffrey Selingo:

And I think this is really hard particularly for first time presidents. And every president is a first time president at some point. Many get transition coaching and that's helpful. But those transition coaches don't stay on as full timers. And you often, unlike a president, you don't come with a staff necessarily from your previous job. You might get an assistant and/or a chief of staff in the presidency job. But it's not somebody well because you've inherited them.

Jeffrey Selingo:

And US presidents, they usually have come from a major role beforehand. They're a senator or a congress person or some other big position before they came to this job that they're usually coming with someone who has known them for years.

Jeffrey Selingo:

And when you're a provost or a dean, and you're moving into the presidency for the first time, you don't have that. And then suddenly, now you're in this big job and you're hiring a senior team. Again, maybe these people, but you haven't had that confidant that it seems like David was talking about that, that could not only be your eyes and ears, and as somebody you can trust, but somebody who I think most important sets up those guide rails and does say no to you once in a while.

Michael Horn:

Yeah, that's a really good point, Jeff. So, last question on my mind is this is a topic you and I have talked a lot about, your thoughts on the question we asked him about the civic fabric of the nation, but also specifically his answer on both rewarding a commitment to service in admissions as well as the notion of connecting national service with relief of debt. I'd love to hear your reflections on those ideas.

Jeffrey Selingo:

Yeah, I'm going to use this word "trust" again. Because now, it's not only trust within the institution. Now, it's trust outside of the institution. And even before the pandemic, half of Democrats and three quarters of Republicans said higher education was going in the wrong direction, according to the Pew Research Center. They thought calls cost too much. They didn't think it adequately prepared graduates from work. There was a lot of fear that there was this indoctrination of the next generation happening by professors who were pushing their ideas on students.

Jeffrey Selingo:

There's a 2008 survey by Gallup, a 9% drop in confidence in higher education over the previous couple of years. No other institution, including journalism, or even Washington politicians, had experienced a drop as much as that in public opinion. And all this, by the way, doesn't take into account what has happened during the pandemic. And we know that colleges and universities don't have necessarily moved up in that, given that online education wasn't as good as they necessarily promised. They were still charging full tuition for a nonresidential experience.

Jeffrey Selingo:

So, it'll be very interesting what is higher ed strategy as a whole and individual institutions? What are they doing to get trust back? This is actually might be an interesting thing that we should talk about, on perhaps in the next season of a Future U. Because I don't think most colleges universities are really thinking about that. And that goes back to the value equation around higher ed.

Jeffrey Selingo:

And the only way you get that value is to gain that trust. Now, in terms of national service, I wrote a big piece for the Chronicle probably back in the late '90s about AmeriCorps. And in doing that piece, I read the book, The Bill, which was about the national service program that Clinton was trying to put in place in '92, written by Steven Waldman. And it traced back that idea of AmeriCorps, which originally was this idea around relieving students of student debt, in exchange for national service. And so, I'm a little skeptical that we could potentially do this.

Jeffrey Selingo:

Now, perhaps the moment is now. We've had all these students take time off in terms of after high school because of the pandemic. We have a lot of worry about student debt now. Maybe all the various elements are coming together to have a serious conversation about national service. What do you think, Michael?

Michael Horn:

Yeah, I share some of your skepticism on it, Jeff, in the sense that it's something that's easy to perhaps not cut, but not significantly grow over the years. And AmeriCorps has been one of those programs that from party to party, presidents have expressed to each other, hey, don't cut back on this. But it hasn't necessarily scaled or grown over the years.

Michael Horn:

And so, I think I have some skepticism on this. I will say, I think the way David was talking about it, at least in my recollection of working with him, has changed somewhat because he was much more of someone who was sort of a, I think, require national service and sort of like how Israel requires service in the military, what would it mean to require national service for the country.

Michael Horn:

The flip to making it optional but you get something for doing it, at least in my book resonates more. And you know what, coming out of choosing college, one of my big takeaways was that there are a heck of a lot of people who are going to school, but then continuing to do a lot of activities because they feel like they're expected to do it. And when you're expected to do it and you're doing it out of obligation, that compulsory, you don't get the same benefits out of it.

Michael Horn:

A lot of obviously in college, a ton of dropouts and transfer and miserable outcomes, but you also lack that intrinsic motivation and curiosity that I think is critical to really take something out of it. And so, I'm wary of programs that want to require it. But something that gives it as a perk I think is more interesting because by the same token, as you know I've become a big believer that a lot more students ought to be taking a gap year and part of that ought to be involved in service and asking, "How can I contribute to the world and be something more than myself?"

Michael Horn:

And if colleges I think embrace that by making the gap year part of the college, say, so the first year is actually a bunch of experiential learning opportunities and service and things of that nature, and that builds an understanding of who you are as an individual to get excitement around courseware, and you can use financial aid budgets toward that to make sure it's equitable as opposed to accruing to those who have the most in our society.

Michael Horn:

I think that's something that colleges independent of the legislative piece of this could really move the needle on. And I would love to see them do so in some meaningful ways. I think it would create better outcomes for them and it would instill some bigger devotion to service.

Michael Horn:

I will say the one last skeptical piece of me is there's always the fight over what counts as service. And it's not a trivial thing. Does volunteering for your church, does that count for service? Or does that cross a line? These issues actually do become pretty intense at the margins of these fights. And as we know in Washington, the margins are often where something is deemed a good or bad idea, for better or worse.

Michael Horn:

So, those are my thoughts on it, Jeff. I think it's an important topic though to continue to beat up and monitor to see if there is some traction on it. Because, gosh, we clearly need to have more conversations like we've had with Alison Griffin and Judy [Peller 00:46:24], and Secretary Spellings and Secretary King, like we've been able to facilitate on the show, where we emphasize our points of agreement even as we can acknowledge the points of disagreement and work through them.

Michael Horn:

So, that's a hope for me as I end this. But as we end this segment, Jeff, and turn to our last one, just a question from a listener that we got and want to call out. And I will apologize in advance if I mispronounce her name, but Susan [Kaleta 00:46:49] asked a question around what and who is higher ed for. And I think it relates to the conversation we just had around civic fabric, because it gets to this conversation of individual versus society and to whom the benefits accrue. How do you think about that question?

Jeffrey Selingo:

Yeah, and I've been thinking a lot about this over the last couple of weeks, primarily because I watched the Varsity Blues documentary on Netflix and just amazed by all the people caught up in that scandal, who just expected higher ed and not only higher ed in general, but selective higher ed was for them. And they just thought, the door should be open for them because of the work that they had done up until that point.

Jeffrey Selingo:

And then on the other hand, I'm also reading Alex MacGillis' book right now, Alec MacGillis' book on called Fulfillment, which is around kind of the geography of jobs and opportunity in the United States right now and through the lens of Amazon, and looking at superstar cities like Boston and Washington and Seattle, and then cities that used to be superstar cities, like Baltimore, in particular, where he's from, and how it's fallen on hard times. And a lot of that I think can be traced to higher ed opportunities.

Jeffrey Selingo:

So, we've always had this growing divide in America around higher ed. But it's clearly more critical than ever before because of the economy that we live in. And I just think that if we don't find a way to get more higher ed opportunity for more people, that we're going to have this incredibly large, permanent underclass in the US that is going to be bigger and deeper than we've ever had before, because higher education now is kind of a minimum ticket to ride for so many jobs.

Jeffrey Selingo:

And so, higher ed is for everybody the way I'm thinking about it. And it doesn't necessarily mean a four-year college or a two-year college experience, but we need to get to a discussion about how we have some sort of basic education post high school for every single person in the US. And otherwise, I just think that the trends that we saw at both in the Varsity Blues docudrama as well as the book that I'm reading called Fulfillment, I think are just going to get worse over the next decade plus.

Michael Horn:

Yeah, just as we wrap up thoughts on this, I think that's exactly right. And I think it points to, and I'll take a different tact on it. Sometimes people say higher ed is for our civic fabric and our society versus the individual, and who does it accrue to. This is why I think it's a false dichotomy and discussion because it is critical to building opportunity for those who have the least access to it in our society. And it is critical for their individual lives for their family lives when one member successfully graduates through a higher ed program. It can lift the entire generation. Their entire family tree can be lifted, literally from that experience.

Michael Horn:

And the more we do of that, the healthier our society will be economically but also in terms of a lot of the tensions and populism or causes of populism that have reared their head across the country right now. And so, in my mind, it's not a super useful conversation because I think it has to be a both and, as we delve into it and look, some of the reasons individuals see significantly more value in it is because the costs have gone up in the way that they have and exacerbated some of these differences and made it seem more valuable.

Michael Horn:

But I think if we can drive to a conversation around affordability and accessibility and return on investment being the centerpiece of it for everyone, then we can reverse that in a lot of ways. So, those are my thoughts on it, but it's a good place to wrap up a really fun conversation and to everyone listening, thank you as always. Keep sending us your questions. We're eager to engage with them and until next time on Future U. Stay safe.

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