Great leadership requires a bold and compelling vision, and the ability to make that vision a reality. Even in the best of times, this is a tall order. But when times are bad — when resources are scarce and partisanship is the norm — great leadership is even more difficult.
As recent events have shown us, these tough times are now upon us. But the federal government isn't the only place where leaders are facing increased scrutiny and criticism. All parts of the public and private sectors are being watched. Higher education and its leadership aren't immune. Survey after survey comes down hard on higher education, with respondents believing academia is moving in the wrong direction, prices are too high, too many are dropping out and students aren't getting the skills they need to succeed.
But there are exceptions. Take chancellors Gordon Gee at Ohio State University and John Sharp at Texas A&M, where two of America's largest public universities have demonstrated a thirst for creativity and change on a massive scale.
Gee's innovative tactics over the past two years have helped bring in $1 billion through creative financing strategies — all for the academic core. One example is leasing the management of campus parking operations to outside vendors. It brought in $483 million, which went to the OSU endowment and enriched that fund by more than 20 percent in a single day. More than 50 colleges and universities are considering a similar plan.
Gee is also a member of a state board that's helping recruit companies and more jobs to the state. This links the university directly to the workforce. IBM is locating a new analytics center in Columbus that it will bring 500 well-paying jobs. IBM selected Columbus, in large part, because of the aggressive nature of Ohio State and its business school.
Gee and Ohio Gov. John Kasich have devised a plan that would tie half of the approximately $600 million the state annually allots four-year institutions to how well those colleges did in graduating students over the three prior years. The other half would be tied to course-completion rates.
In Texas, a nonpartisan organization of business and political leaders named Sharp the 2013 Texan of the Year. Once a student body president at A&M, Sharp was recognized as having “the leadership skills serving those from all walks of life without deference to political parties.”
Sharp reached a landmark agreement with Compass USA to provide dining services to all system entities within Brazos County, including A&M's student population of more than 52,000. The agreement is valued at more than $260 million in revenue, cost savings and infrastructure improvement for a 10-year term, including a $45 million up-front payment to the university. These funds will go toward what Sharp calls the “core assets of the university — teaching and research.”
Sharp has introduced a new competitive sealed bid requirement on all major construction projects throughout the A&M system. The first project resulted in a $12 million savings on the original estimate of $50 million for the Texas A&M University-Central Texas' Multipurpose and Library Building project. The money saved goes to research and teaching, the chancellor says.
The A&M system was just picked as one of three Centers for Innovation in Advanced Development and Manufacturing. The $285 million grant places A&M on the front line of defense of the nation and brings significant economic opportunity (more than 1,000 new jobs) for biopharmaceutical manufacturing. Of the three centers, A&M is the lone university system serving as a prime contractor.
These are tough times but at these universities, superior leadership pays handsome dividends for students, faculty and the economy.
Budig is a former president/chancellor of Illinois State University, West Virginia University and the University of Kansas.