2023-2024 Series Foreword

by Sean Creighton, Ph.D.

Posted on August 23, 2023

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Download as a PDF

As President to President enters its 20th year, I am honored to write the foreword for the 2023-24 series and am especially thrilled because of its focus on sustainable futures in higher education. At this juncture in the history of American higher education, the sustainable future of our colleges and universities is of the utmost importance. As the story goes, higher education officially began in our country with the founding of Harvard College in 1636. Since then, we have matured into an industry of nearly 4,000 colleges and universities and now educate approximately 20 million undergraduate and graduate students annually.

This is remarkable as we close in on four decades of sustained growth. Our higher education ecosystem has taken on countless institutional identities, missions, and purposes in addition to shapes and sizes in pursuit of educating for the public good. We have small-medium-large private and public comprehensive universities, small liberal arts colleges, faith-based and religiously affiliated institutions, historically Black and Hispanic serving colleges and universities, women- and men- only institutions, large research universities, community colleges, art and design schools, military academies, technical institutes, graduate only, adult only, and the list goes on. Pause for a moment to consider the total population of students educated during this period, 1636 to 2023, by the American commonwealth, if you will, of higher education. Now, think about your institutions providing the same assurance to educate the unborn students of the future, the great-grandchildren of great-grandchildren and beyond. This assurance to provide a college education in perpetuity gives purpose and meaning to the sustainable future of higher education.

Simply put but with the highest of relevancy, sustainability is a promise to future generations. It is a promise that the decisions we make today will ensure the educational, economic, and social well-being of tomorrow. Like our forebearers, as current leaders in higher education, the promise must be reflected in the policies and practices of our institutions as well as go even further and be modeled in our personal beliefs and daily behaviors. While all industries are responsible and accountable to the future, sustainability is a promise particularly true for higher education as it serves as the exemplary for developing the educational, economic, and social well-being of people, places, and the planet. Higher education must move off business-as-usual activities and let its own transformation serve as a model that helps the broader society and marketplace understand how to transition to a sustainable future. Hence, your innovative leadership is directly linked to this successful transition, therefore making sustainability your ultimate presidential imperative.

In 1994, Ernest Boyer challenged higher education leaders to leverage the precious resources of their campuses to address the pressing economic, cultural, and social issues of the time and, in his words, educate “to improve the human condition.” Boyer’s challenge resulted in the creation of the network of innovative campuses in the New American Colleges and Universities (NACU), which I have the pleasure of working with daily. NACU campuses successfully educate students from diverse backgrounds, including a high percentage of first-generation, Pell-eligible, and underserved student populations—the face and future of our country. The NACU campuses integrate a liberal, professional, civic education, developing citizen professionals. They develop and graduate students with the knowledge and skills to become the many professionals—for example, health care workers, teachers, artists, engineers, and computer scientists—needed to serve their local communities and workforce. NACU campuses are driven by Boyer’s vision to address contemporary challenges through accessible education and personal care for each student. Beyond NACU, Boyer’s challenge is germane in the missions of countless colleges and universities that educate for the public good.

While Boyer’s challenge did not include the language of sustainable futures, it perpetuated the notion of improving the well-being of people, which we know today is directly connected to the well-being of the planet. Both people and planet are threatened when our sustainable futures are at risk. While your campuses gradually evolve both academically and financially to fulfill their promise to future generations, you face numerous internal and external threats that colleges and universities were not originally designed with in mind. Further, the rhetoric of an anticipated mass closure of institutions remains a constant in higher education since Clayton Christensen’s famous (or infamous) prediction that 50% of colleges would be closed by 2025. Regardless of the inaccuracy of the prediction, the statement solidified higher education’s financial exposure. Coupled with numerous contemporary variables— notably, the demographic cliff, fierce competition, tuition discounting, salary compression, student and employee mental health, lingering effects of a global pandemic, politics of the value of a college degree, and the ROI question—the concern about the sustainable future of higher education is hitting home. As we read in the trade publications regularly, financial pressures are omnipresent for American colleges and universities, aside from the elite few akin to our founding friend, Harvard, that have the luxury of multi-billion-dollar endowments. Seasoned presidents talk about today’s environment being the peak of difficult times in their lengthy tenures.

Seasoned presidents talk about today’s environment being the peak of difficult times in their lengthy tenures.  

While I could backtrack my thinking and attempt to make the case that American colleges and universities have been fraught with their own contemporary difficulties since 1636, there is no momentary reprieve for institutional leadership by taking such a historical view. We cannot rationalize that these challenges are ordinary and will pass if we ignore them. No campus can stick its head in the sand during these difficult times as denial is the enemy of sustainability. If we took that approach, we would be negligent leaders. More than ever, higher education leadership is faced with a challenge to their sustainable future. Amidst it all, presidents must also inspire and engage effectively with key stakeholders: senior teams, faculty, students, boards, alumni, and local, state, national, and global communities. Plus, presidents cannot drop the ball on being tireless champions for their campuses and the purposeful education that positively impacts the lives of students. But you know this already. I wonder often, how do presidents make it all happen and sustain themselves as they simultaneously sustain their campuses? (Maybe another series for President to President.)

Once, a first-time president shared with me that she planned to take the long view from the start and to approach her presidency as running in a marathon, not a sprint. I think this is a healthy perspective. It seems appropriate when thinking about the sustainable future of higher education. There are many areas to focus on during our marathon. As we look to the future, higher education must strive to create a more sustainable model that meets the needs of our ever-evolving global society. We must prioritize access to education for all, without compromising quality. We must strive to reduce the environmental impact of university operations and the resources consumed by students, faculty, and staff. It is essential that higher education institutions create green campuses that are powered by renewable energy sources and foster sustainable practices. We must also create initiatives that educate and incentivize students, faculty, and staff to make environmentally friendly decisions. Further, our institutions must embrace digital technologies to reduce their environmental footprint. This includes virtual learning, digital communication, and remote working. Not only does this reduce the physical infrastructure and resources consumed, but it also increases access to education and allows students to pursue their studies from any location. The sustainable future of higher education depends on our collective commitment to finding innovative solutions that reduce our environmental impact while promoting educational access and success. By implementing these changes over time, not overnight, we can ensure that future generations have access to a quality education and a healthy planet.

The sustainable future of higher education depends on our collective commitment to finding innovative solutions that reduce our environmental impact while promoting educational access and success. 

NACU is very thankful President to President is tackling the subject and challenging us all to think about it. Not only is the series timely, but the articles are also a critical contribution to the rhetoric and scholarship of higher education’s ability to address its future, avoiding disruption, irrelevancy, and ultimately extinction. This series is a must-read for current and emerging campus leaders. Without giving away spoilers, I can assure you this volume is a valuable collection, offering a diversity of perspectives from presidents at private and public institutions. The authors look at sustainable leadership practices for enhancing business resilience and performance as well as how to adapt strategic planning in the framework of a sustainable future. They make the important case for sustainability and how to impact climate change at the campus level. Supporting the commonplace understanding of sustainability as reduce, reuse, and recycle, the authors share findings and strategies to reduce the carbon footprint of our universities. We know how important it is to look at grounds and facilities maintenance through a sustainability lens or how to monitor our systems and controls on campuses to save energy when buildings are not being used. The authors reinforce reducing energy consumption as a first step in building a sustainability movement. Further, they reflect on our sustainable future in terms of human relations and how we create a campus culture that sustains a healthy environment for our students and employees. One author looks at talent management as a tool for institutional sustainability. I cannot praise them enough for sharing their perspectives and practices. Unified in one series, the authors provide thought leadership, helping us think across our academic and operational systems. I cannot wait for you to read the series and let it influence your leadership. I hope, after reading these articles, you challenge your campus to find innovative approaches to smaller incremental changes that will contribute to the overarching goal of a sustainable future.

In my role, I am already thinking about how NACU can leverage the rich content in this series and sustain the thinking in different ways. I plan to lift the thinking off these pages and bring the content into our communities of practice for extended discussion as well as let the ideas influence our professional and leadership development programs. I ask you to do the same. Further, I ask you to join me in finding ways to further coalesce and collaborate on our sustainable futures. Please reach out internally on campus to other functional areas and challenge one another to think strategically about campus sustainability. Also, I challenge you to look externally to neighboring institutions, companies, and community organizations to establish creative partnerships that contribute to mutually beneficial sustainable futures. Our interdependence is crucial to maximize impact.

Lastly, I operate from the axiom that collaboration is the most abundant renewable resource we have on Earth. When we work together, we are limitless in our imaginative capabilities to address wicked problems. In the words of the Japanese writer Ryunosuke Satoro, who captures this sentiment much better than me, “Individually, we are one drop. Together, we are an ocean.” Such a leadership mindset will be the power source for our sustainable futures. I, therefore, challenge you and your campuses again to embrace collaboration as a primary strategy for leading change. When higher education authentically works together, the results will be a more equitable, just, and sustainable future. Together, we will fulfill our promise to future generations in perpetuity!