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Visioning the Future of Higher Education

Anyone involved with higher education can enumerate problems that will need solutions well before we get to “tomorrow’s world”. While it is probably safe to say that many of the future challenges will be similar to those we face today, the scope of current challenges may be far different from future emerging trends and needs. For example, it is a safe bet that financing higher education will probably continue to be a major challenge in the future. Similarly, emerging leaders will have to deal with continuing concerns such as developing meaningful accountability measures, creating quality programming to meet emerging needs, integrating technology and data, establishing entrepreneurial partnerships, and integrating two- and four-year higher education tracks. Future leaders who are able to embrace those areas will more than likely be in control of their destiny and ours. However, if they are to be true change agents capable of discovering and implementing solutions for the next generation, they will need to understand the changing demographics and leadership needs of that cohort.

Let’s talk about future change!

In the decades to come, higher education will be in need of inspiration from leaders who have the vision to lead our organizations in new global directions, help develop new products and technologies, and stimulate future graduates to move our world toward yet undiscovered horizons. In order to accomplish these tasks educational leaders of tomorrow will not only need to deal with a morass of new trends and directions, but also, and most importantly, a new and different clientele or learner. Recognizing the increasing diversity and skills of future learners, leaders will need to understand and utilize very different leadership skills than those that are acknowledged to be effective today.

Since we know that leadership takes vision, let’s examine the skills that will be necessary to be a visionary leader in the future. Many conferences highlight keynoters billed as a futurists or visionaries. Many times leaders are characterized as having vision and, in fact, many leadership postings call for a person with vision. Whether it is a Fortune 500 company or a college or university, leaders are expected to see the future and be capable of leading others toward it. In the future, visionary leadership for higher education may be even more daunting than any of us realize because our organizations must play a pivotal role in eradicating complacency and leading the curve to train the new trainers.

We have heard about the need for visionary change from our politicians and motivational speakers, but I am convinced that future change will need to be real change, change that takes intestinal fortitude and not just words. Higher education will need leaders who are creative, willing to take risks, and stay to see the results. We will need change in our world, especially in higher education, as dramatic as the change during the 1950s and 1960s. After World War II we saw returning veterans who were willing to take risks to implement their vision by starting new ventures and putting their names and savings on the line to start the businesses that are considered mainstream today. Now the United States has become complacent - and that includes higher education. Thus, we have a lot of leaders who know how to talk the talk but are not willing or, perhaps, capable of walking the walk. In higher education, or any other sector for that matter, our country can no longer afford to walk slow and talk fast. Rome is burning, as the saying goes, and we need to be concerned for our future and concerned about the future of a global economy.

It is almost inconceivable that in 2014 higher education is still following some of the same operational styles that were designed for a much earlier era. You might question that assertion, but think about it. Higher education, for the most part, still operates on an agrarian calendar, a calendar that was developed so that farm kids could help on the farm! Why should our colleges not operate year round, or, more importantly, how can we afford not to operate them year round? You can go from there to financing structures, to speed to market of new curriculum, to the Carnegie Unit and seat-time learning, to necessary operational changes, to the integration of technology, and on to our business practices. All of these issues need work today and certainly they will be more pressing for the leaders of tomorrow.

I co-host a blog talk radio show ( where visionary leaders from around the country are interviewed each month, discussing what they see in their crystal ball. To their credit, they are aware of what needs to be done today, and most are implementing some of their visions. All, however, are quick to underscore the point that we have a long way to go.

Lee Iacocca’s book titled Where Have All the Leaders Gone? recently caught my attention. It intrigued me because I still have his first book, his autobiography. Years later he was still concerned enough about the future of this country to write another book and his latest emphasizes the need for visionary leaders to once again bring needed innovation and creativity to our shores. It can be argued that he utilized his creative, visionary leadership style both at Ford Motor Company and later as he reorganized Chrysler Corporation. Iacocca’s words were poignant in 1984 when he stated: “I learned about the strength you can get from a close family life. I learned to keep going, even in bad times. I learned not to despair, even when my world was falling apart. I learned that there are no free lunches. And I learned about the value of hard work. In the end, you’ve got to be productive. That’s what made this country great—and that’s what’s going to make us great again.” That was in 1984, not 2014! Those words resonate with what we today define as visionary leadership.

Stanley J. Spanbauer, a past community college president, said in his book Quality First In Education…Why Not?: “Because the problem is cultural, there needs to be a different approach. The attitude to constantly improve quality and productivity must be ingrained in the very culture in which educators work. Those in command must realize that additional resources can come only when more is accomplished per educator this year than last. This can be done by applying business and industry models of quality and productivity at the very core of education.” This was written in 1987. Here we are in 2014, and those same words ring true today! How much has higher education truly changed in the last twenty-five years, or even in the last forty-five years?

These examples point out the need for future visionary leaders to understand productivity, quality business procedures, and, most importantly, their customers. Too many times leaders want to be visionary by saying words that were spoken decades before, words that may inspire us. But words alone will not create the new world we need. As a result, visionary leaders for education in the future will need to be different from even the best we know today. The institutions that will educate and lead our grandchildren will need to cultivate new strategies, visions, ideas, and even operational procedures in order to challenge them and cause them to become the change agents we desire and need.

Catalyzing the Future of Higher Education

While the successful visionary leader of the future may not be totally defined yet, we do get glimpses of the future by observing some of today’s visionaries. Whether it is old challenges with new faces or new trends, I am becoming more and more convinced that current leadership trends will not work with future generations. If we agree that education has to be at the forefront of what is happening in our world to add value, then it will be important to change the programs that are producing the education leaders of the future.

I have been researching this hypothesis for a follow-up book to the one I wrote titled Visionary Leadership, A Proven Pathway to Visionary Change, and it seems the future will require radically new and different leadership to create quality higher education institutions equipped to produce graduates to lead our world. Through this research, I am impressed by avant-garde leaders in various sectors who are aware of needed leadership changes and are already working to make them happen. The goals of leadership in the future may mimic those of today’s world, but certainly the leadership skills needed to teach and implement those goals will be significantly different. There are those visionaries who are already ahead of curve because they understand the changes needed and are using them to attract and lead today’s youth. I see them as standing out because they are the risk takers who seem almost unorthodox in our current environment, and that allows them to be the innovators or visionaries that we see today.

We see religious organizations in a state of decline, but at the same time there are those that are thriving and attracting the ever elusive younger generation in unprecedented numbers, and it is usually the result of a visionary leader who understands these future customers. Similarly, entrepreneurship seems to be thriving in an environment that is many times disgruntled with the corporate world. These new companies are driven by these same types of visionary individuals who lead, many times, in what the mainstream considers to be unusual ways. There are institutions of higher education that are thriving in terms of student population and finance while others are struggling just to keep afloat. The leaders of these institutions are moving the world toward new forefronts and ideas through partnerships and entrepreneurial attitudes. Studying the tactics and styles of these emerging leaders who are successful is key because their type will lead us into the next decades and beyond, and they will define visionary leadership for the future.

So, back to the question of the visionary leaders that will catalyze the higher education institutions of the future. They will have a thorough understanding of the sound leadership principles of today, but they will be individuals who are willing and capable of attracting the attention of the multifaceted population of tomorrow’s global society. Tomorrow’s global society certainly will not be our “fathers’ Oldsmobile”, as the saying goes, and neither will our successful visionary leaders. They will be the individuals like the religious leader who attracts all age groups with unorthodox services but still maintains every element of the traditional service in some way. They will be the educational leader who understands how to leverage public-private partnerships to grow and make their institution thrive in spite of declining public resources. They will be the entrepreneur who is able to identify critical needs in our current world, and by taking risks, implement real world solutions for those needs.

In the future, we will be looking to exploit the seemingly innate capability that these leaders seem to have which allows them to anticipate the future and lead others in that direction before the path can be clearly seen. These are the individuals who will help us to see the world in a different way or light. Down through the years our world has been influenced by these unique visionary leaders. Individuals like Edwards Deming, Franklin Roosevelt, Ronald Regan, John Kennedy, Steven Spielberg, Lee Iacocca, and renowned leaders in many professions seemed to enjoy an insight into what was necessary for us to succeed in the future and, most importantly, were able to convince others that they were right! These individuals were visionary leaders in their time, and even today they are recognized as such.

In the final analysis, the future of higher education will be dependent on leaders who understand the attributes of the successful business person, the entrepreneur, the successful marketer, the financial wizard, the technology guru, and the partnership-networking expert. They will need to be a composite of the religious leader, the entrepreneur, and the successful higher education administrator that I discussed, and through those new found and defined leadership skills they must be capable of understanding and attracting the next generation of students and faculty. They will need to convince them that our world is a great place to live, work, and do business, and that they can help to make it even better through higher education.


Iacocca, L. A. (1984). In W. Novak (Ed.), Iacocca: An Autobiography. New York, NY: Bantam Books.

Iacocca, L. A., & Whitney, C. (2008). Where Have All The Leaders Gone? New York, NY: Scribner.

Spanbauer, S. J. (1987). Quality First In Education: Why Not? Appleton, WI: Fox Valley Technical College Foundation.


Bill Ihlenfeldt is President Emeritus of Chippewa Valley Technical College in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Bill spent forty–two years in higher education leadership, working to change the face of the nation’s community college. During his tenure he challenged higher education to operate utilizing a data-rich model designed to increase productivity and innovation and at the same time reduce costs. Utilizing those concepts in his leadership role, he led many innovative changes at the college. Those changes included incorporating simulation into healthcare education, a working on-campus clinic in partnership with a medical and a dental college, one of the nation’s first nanotechnology programs, and a nanotechnology innovation center.

Ihlenfeldt modeled concepts like speed-to-market, risk, measurement-based outcomes, and algorithm-based modeling as a way of life during his career. These techniques, more common in the business world, were integrated into higher education resulting in a college that has received local, state, and national recognition as a visionary college that has propelled the surrounding region and higher education into the 21st century.

Bill is also the author of Visionary Leadership, A Proven Pathway To Visionary Change and co-hosts an internet talk radio show that interviews visionary educational leaders from around the country

Visit his blog talk radio at

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