University Presidents Discuss Challenges, Opportunities in 21st Century Higher Education

Five current and former university presidents met to discuss the most significant challenges currently facing higher education during a forum at the University of Virginia’s (UVA) Curry School of Education last week.

The roundtable discussion, titled “Disruption in Higher Education,” focused on several fundamental changes affecting U.S. higher education today, including online education, student diversity, state funding, and student debt. Panelists included John T. Casteen III, PhD, former president of UVA; Gene C. Crume Jr., PhD, president of Judson University and alumnus of UVA’s Curry School of Education; Jo Ann Marie Gora, PhD, former president of Ball State University; L. Jay Lemons, PhD, president of Susquehanna University and alumnus of UVA’s Curry School of Education; and Charles W. Steger, PhD, former president of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

Panelists discussed personal experiences and pointed to opportunities presented by these 21st century challenges. During Casteen’s tenure as president of UVA in the 1990s, for instance, the university was forced to conduct private fundraising to make up for a dramatic decrease in state funding. Because of these efforts, Casteen said that by 2005, UVA was “viewed as a model of fiscal responsibility” and gained more control over its own finances.

“We learned how to manage our own affairs,” he said, “and our arrangement with the state turned out to be sound.”

Student debt was also a hot topic at the event, with many panelists debating the efficacy of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s proposal for debt-free college. Several participants expressed concern that her plan is not economically viable and would result in expanded control of higher education by the federal government.

However, Casteen argued that in order for the U.S. to catch up to other developed countries in regard to higher education funding, a debt-free plan is necessary.

Furthermore, panelists discussed the rapidly changing demographics of students. In addition to enrolling more students from diverse and underrepresented groups, colleges are bringing in more students of various levels of preparedness and different socioeconomic backgrounds. According to Crume, intense pressure on the working class is leading to a broader range of individuals seeking out postsecondary education.

“Globalism and competition have created the circumstances to put higher education in a position to take the lead,” he said.

Also discussed at the event were ways of integrating online education into traditional curricula to enhance teaching and best serve students.