Times have changed, and we see this all around us. While the world may have “flattened” to some extent, it also remains firmly fixed to some of its tradition roots. And higher education is fortunate enough to be one of those roots. Society may pull at it occasionally with the intention of trimming back its dying leaves, and that is a good thing. All entities evolve, and higher education is doing so, too.

But its presence in society is a key aspect to the future. In examining Thomas L. Friedman’s list of “flatteners”, it’s important to note the role of higher education in developing the “World Wide Web” and opening the globe to the “Internet” via the web browser. These two developments, introduced to the world through the efforts of motivated individuals in higher education, enabled the phenomenon Friedman explores in his popular text.

History provides excessive examples of higher education opening up new intellectual doors, new industrial opportunities and new scientific horizons: Why should any of that change in the future? While the flattened world may also enable non-academic folk to develop ideas, too—and not that they were ever “unable” to do so, anyway—higher education still provides unique opportunities for human endeavor.

This must never change, even as higher education itself undergoes necessary evolutions in order to preserve its missions and co-exist in this “flattened” world.

For example, in some ways, higher education institutions must be run more business-like, in terms of accountability to public taxpayers for public institutions, for example. But that does not mean we should abandon centuries of tradition and proven methodology. As experts have warned, higher education should never be run as a business entirely, lest society forget the lessons of Enron, General Motors and Goldman Sachs.

Evolving and adapting while maintaining the organizational mission is key to survival, and survival means continuing to accept the role and responsibility entrusted to higher education in terms of policy influence and societal change.

For higher education to maintain its role as a societal leader in terms of policy and change, it must adhere to the same principles noted by longtime academic leadership and its followers: Society (as potential followers) will demand these same four characteristics of higher education.

First, higher education needs to be honest with itself and with those it serves. Transparency is key to maintaining influence today, as the online world of end users and clients has shown us that dishonesty and attempts to cover errors do not engender trust or respect. As Friedman notes, so many people across the globe have the ability to “upload” and explore every minute detail of action. Without sincere openness and honesty, higher education will not be able to establish itself as a leader for society, capable of making policy decisions for the future of our planet.

Second, higher education cannot be a dinosaur, firmly entrenched in its own past. The world is changing, as Friedman notes, and higher education must change with it. Furthermore, higher education must not only evolve, but it must be on the forefront of that change—demonstrating the vision to identify trends before they happen and be proactive, rather than waiting to be reactive. It’s easier said than done, of course, but it’s a dog-eat-dog world. Forward-thinking visionaries in higher education must be on the front lines establishing organizational focus, directives and missions that will then enable these same organizations to lead society into tomorrow.

Third, higher education must continue to demonstrate the competence to do what it sets out to do. No one likes repetitive failure, and sometimes, even one big mistake is hard to overcome. Thus, higher education must prove itself worthy of leadership by demonstrating the competence to set, accomplish and even exceed goals it establishes for itself—and those goals established for it by society. Higher education cannot merely rest on its laurels (“We invented the Internet, remember?!”); it must constantly re-earn its credentials in the public eye.

And finally, through the first three characteristics noted above, higher education must be able to inspire society with its passions, energies and accomplishments. Future generations must realize that if they want to achieve their goals, higher education is their pathway to that endgame. Sure, there are success stories out there of rare individuals who have succeeded without higher education in their backgrounds, but through the honesty, the vision and the competence, higher education must be that inspiration avenue to the success stories of the 21st century and beyond. This means a lot of public outreach, self-promotion (to some extent) and visibility to the world populace in order to reach every child who dreams big.

These individual leadership characteristics that endear followers to their CEOs are transferrable to higher education as it seeks to establish that same relationship with the flattening world. Influencing policy and change can only come from a position of respect and leadership, a position earned and not taken; a position worked for and not inherited; a position established and not taken for granted.

Higher education should take a role and the responsibility in influencing policy, change and the future of our world. The best and the brightest are always found in higher education, whether it be students, faculty or alumni worldwide. Change has come to the world, and that’s normal; asking higher education to evolve with it isn’t a lot to demand. But within that change process, the principles can remain the same – and the focused results can only improve. By remembering we not only lead but serve, the leaders of higher education can continue to play the strong role they have in the evolution of the human race.

P.S. Betsy DeVos isn’t the answer. Her failure in Michigan exemplifies that.

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