24 Higher-Ed Leaders Look to the Future

Building an In-House Leadership Development Program: Image of Leaders Brainstorming Together

with contributions from Amit Mrig (President, Academic Impressions)
and Pat Sanaghan (President, The Sanaghan Group)

No one can foresee the future of higher education with certainty, but we can cultivate the habit of looking forward, scanning the horizon, and preparing to respond adaptively as the landscape changes. Pat Sanaghan’s future timeline activity (NACUBO, 2003) is a useful way to quickly generate and prioritize a list of predictions about the next ten years, and we hope this case study of one such activity will give your campus a tool for facilitating and capturing horizon thinking.

This article provides:

  1. Top findings from a future timeline activity conducted in early November 2016 by 24 higher-ed leaders from the US, Canada, and the Caribbean gathered in Denver, Colorado.
  2. A summary of the actual post-it note entries used in the activity, transcribed after the workshop and collated into short-term, near-term, and long-term time frames.
  3. A reproduction of the post-it notes as actually transcribed.

For further discussion of how to make such horizon thinking habitual for your team (and for additional tools for doing so), read my companion piece “How Good is Your Crystal Ball?

The participants in the November 2016 future timeline activity were 24 attendees at Academic Impressions’ “Creating a High-Impact Leadership Development Program for Your Campus” workshop. For the activity, participants posted a timeline on the wall of the room using flip chart pages titled for each of the next ten years (i.e., 2016, 2017, … 2026). Then, using post-it notes, participants listed trends, issues, and events they predicted for each year during a ten-year period.

After all the post-its were up, the participants formed analysis teams of four individuals, and in those teams they scanned the items. Each team of four came to agreement on the three most important items colleges and universities would have to manage in the future. They also noted “surprises and discoveries.” Each team then shared these with the other participants, and collectively, the participants developed and discussed a list of the most critical trends, events, and issues anticipated in the next ten years.

The activity was facilitated by Pat Sanaghan of the Sanaghan Group (as lead facilitator) and David Kiel (co-facilitator). The design of this activity was first described in Larry Goldstein and Pat Sanaghan’s “Looking Beyond the Moment” (in NACUBO’s Business Officer, 2003) and first published in full in Collaborative Strategic Planning in Higher Education by Pat Sanaghan (NACUBO, 2009).

1. Top Findings from the Future Timeline Activity

After the teams had finished their assessment, the facilitators asked each group to give one priority item until all were listed. Areas of most agreement were noted by a check.

  1. Budget and funding concerns
  2. Student debt issues
  3. Diversity trends
  4. Trends in composition of the professorate (i.e. lack of diversity relative to students)
  5. Declining traditional student population
  6. Partnerships between corporations and universities/post-secondary  (will/should become more prominent)
  7. Technology – Teaching and learning – online will be a continuing issue
  8. Government mandates for higher education will continue to be important


The group was then asked to draw some implications for leaders from these predictions. Based on these predictions, the group said that in the future, higher-ed leaders would need to:

  1. Innovate
  2. Adapt
  3. Negotiate skillfully
  4. Manage crises
  5. Manage change
  6. Be financially astute
  7. Collaborate across boundaries
  8. Practice lifelong learning
  9. Become excellent communicators
  10. Use technology combined with face-to-face communication approaches
  11. Manage distributed teams
  12. Hire the right people
  13. Acquire a change mindset
  14. Be flexible with media

In essence, what the group generated were the skills and abilities needed for the next set of university and college leaders – and therefore a good seed list of the curriculum for leadership programs for university and college leaders of the future.

2. Analysis of the Results

To conduct another level of analysis and to make sure all the data was captured, after the session, we took the post-its, transcribed them, and collapsed the data into three categories:

  • Near-term predictions (2016-17)
  • Mid term predictions (2018-20)
  • Longer-term predictions (2020 and beyond)

We also made a category of events labeled “surprises and discoveries,” which were selected from among the scores of post-it notes that the participants put on the timeline wall.

Here is what appeared in each category:

Participants predicted that current financial pressures would be the driving force in higher education for the next two years and beyond. They said that declining public funding and increased competition from for-profit institutions will squeeze the revenues and that increased pressure to educate more students and to provide them with more services will expand cost pressures. Students will become more diverse and may be less prepared and able to respond to the stresses of the college years. Faculty will retire in increasing numbers. New elected leadership, new trustees, and new senior leaders will seek changes on campus, but may find the institutions slow to respond.

The pressures on revenues and costs will continue. After 2018 there will be several results of the financial pressures: students will find education increasingly less affordable, accountability pressures will increase, and mechanisms like performance-based funding will be instituted. Higher education will increasingly turn to technology solutions and to the use of adjunct faculty to control costs. There will be more turnover in higher education administration due to aging and loss of talent to industry, leading to a need for more succession planning and training. Meanwhile student populations will continue to be more diverse and LGBT issues will remain prominent. Higher education will move closer to industry in order to strengthen the “practical value” of its education programs.

Farther in the future, students will bring to the campus values and attitudes that are different from those of previous student generations. Financial and economic pressures will continue, perhaps accentuated by new recessions. Public universities will continue to adapt to the decline in public funding by moving toward privatization and recruiting more international students. The baby boomer generation will age out of the professoriate and the ranks of the administration.

Surprises and Discoveries

Several participants listed events that (if they occurred) would in and of themselves change the landscape of higher education: These included:

  1. Death of the first degree.
  2. China no longer allows students to study in the US.
  3. Department of education abolishes current accreditation system and moves to federally controlled oversight.
  4. The end of tenure for faculty.
  5. NCAA loses anti-trust suit and dissolves.
  6. Terrorism event on a university campus.
  7. Fossil fuel reserves are 50% depleted: alternative energy drives opportunities for education and innovation.


The big challenges and questions facing higher education don’t have clear or easy answers. Leaders are going to have to cross boundaries, negotiate complexity, and take smart risks to move their institutions forward. Our leadership programs, uniquely designed for higher education, emphasize practicality and interactivity. You’ll sit next to and work with colleagues from across the institution, including academic and non-academic leaders. Discover your leadership potential and experience what other leaders in the field are so highly recommending. Explore our calendar of upcoming leadership programs here.

You can read the accounts here and here of leaders from other institutions who have attended our leadership development programs and put what they learned into immediate action, establishing leadership academies at their own institutions.

Here is a complete transcription of the timeline wall. When conducting a similar future timeline activity as a part of your own leadership academy, it is extremely helpful to provide this complete transcript after the activity, so that leaders who participated have access to the “raw data” and not only the summary analysis. This may be time consuming, but it is well worth the effort.

For this list, all post-it notes on the timeline were transcribed and grouped by theme.

Near Term-Trend #1: Increasing pressure on university and college finances (noted by 18 participants)

  • Decreasing revenues and increasing costs (noted by 9 participants)
    • Continuing decrease of government funding for post-secondary education
    • Need to increase revenue via alternative methods
    • Reduced state funding for higher education
    • Budget cuts: Declining public support for higher education
    • Increasing costs of higher education
    • Increasing and increasingly unpredictable health benefit costs
    • [+2 check marks, indicating agreement from two other participants.]
  • Increased competition (5)
    • Competition from “new universities” with non-traditional business models
    • For profit universities, competitions
    • Growth of for profit higher education
    • Number of poor quality “for profit” higher ed programs
    • Completion for best and brightest students
  • Increased demands for more and better services (4)
    • Increased access (massification)
    • Increasing access to under-served communities
    • Students demanding more for their money
    • Increased pressure and expectations from the tax payers and the funding sources

Near Term-Trend #2:  Student body is becoming more diverse, relative to aging faculty (11)

  • Faculty not diverse relative to students (6)
    • Diversity of students, but not faculty is an issue
    • Changing demographics, increased diversity
    • Lack of diversity of faculty when compared to student body entering college;
    • Indigenization
    • More international students
    • Demographic trends
  • Faculty Related Issues (5)
    • Faculty retirements
    • Increasing faculty retirements
    • Retiring faculty replaced by adjuncts will become a trend?!
    • Faculty salary is an issue
    • Pension Reform

Near Term Trend #3: Administration will need to respond to significant changes and challenges (9)

  • New deans and senior decision-makers
  • More pressure for colleges and universities to consolidate, merge and share services
  • Slowness to change anything in higher education—unresponsive
  • FLSA reviews and negotiations
  • Increasing need to manage crises
  • Elected leadership that oversee the university (will seek changes)
  • Developing building endowments (will be a challenge)
  • Election of 2016

Near-term trend #4:  Students have greater stressors and are less prepared or resilient (8)

  • Sexual harassment policies on campus
  • LGBTQ policies for safe campus spaces
  • Student debt
  • Less self-reliance in students
  • Inability to handle stress
  • Accessibility of instructional materials
  • Student preparedness is declining
  • Undocumented student population

Other near-term trends and issues: Campus Safety, Increased use of technology in instruction, Decline in the perceived value in the liberal arts

  • Safety-related (5)
    • Litigation related to campus carry laws as it relates to safety on campus
    • Right to carry
    • Campus safety
    • Campus security concerns
    • Student Safety
    • Decline in the perception of the value of the liberal arts (4)
    • Public perception of the value of the liberal arts versus more specific degrees;
    • Changing economic trends driving the demand for majors
    • Value of the degree– employability;
    • Vocational practice versus the liberal arts
  • Technology Related (3)
    • Greater emphasis on on-line education
    • Increase in on-line education and less on campus
    • Need to increase faculty readiness for online education will be a continuing issue
  • Pressures on educators to do more with less continue (13)
    • Outcomes based funding formula
    • Performance based funding
    • Pursuit of new business models
    • Brexit impact on world and EU economies
    • Ability of the country to finance education
    • ROI in higher education, cost vs. benefit continues to be an issue.
    • Increased pressure to do more with less
    • Reduction in public funding
    • Decrease in legislative funding
    • Cost of higher education continues as an issue
    • State funding continues as an issue
    • Cost of health care as a proportion of the University budget
    • Health care costs rising
  • Higher education less affordable for the typical student (12)
    • Changing student demographics
    • Enrollment trends
    • Reductions in enrollment
    • Student access
    • Fewer options for students
    • Veterans and GI bill funding
    • Student involvement with giving and attendance at athletic events will become issue
    • Shrinking student population leads to increased competition
    • Tuition and costs continue to rise [+3 checks from participants offering agreement]
  • Technology becomes increasingly a component of higher education delivery (12)
    • Increased pressure for online and hybrid learning opportunities
    • Quality control issues in distance education and online education
    • Impact of technology
    • Changing technology and delivery methods
    • Rapidly changing technology
    • Increased accessibility
    • Online for profit universities
    • Cyber security
    • Increased use of technology; emerging technologies [+1 check indicating agreement]
    • The importance of MOOCs
    • Technology-centric learning vs. human-centric learning
  • Administrative turnover will increasingly become an issue (7)
    • Staff salary gap compared to industry
    • Massive leadership turnover in higher education, due to retirements;
    • Employee exit, retirement
    • Succession planning
    • Retirements
    • Changes in accreditation and accountability
    • Deficit in required knowledge of staff
  • Diversity issues will continue to be on the radar screen (6)
    • LGBTQ issues continue to be significant
    • Diversity
    • LGBT inclusion
    • Greater emphasis on diversity
    • Increasing numbers of women entering medical schools
    • Increased emphasis on indigenizing the curriculum
  • Faculty will be affected by financial pressures (4)
    • Use of adjuncts
    • Faculty staff compensation and salary issues [+1 check indicating agreement]
    • Nursing programs will experience faculty shortages
  • Higher education and industry will move closer (4)
    • Need for practical and marketable degrees
    • Closer collaboration with industry
    • University and industry corporate relations
    • The trends in industry will affect higher education
  • Other issues (4)
    • Constant of uncertainty of where to take higher education
    • Globalization continues as trend
    • College preparedness continues to be an issue [+1 check indicating agreement]
  • Student-related (6)
    • Shifts in values and behaviors and interests of young students continues to be an issue [+1 check indicating agreement]
    • Traditional student population continues to decline
    • Generational difference
    • Decreasing student attendance in lecture halls
    • Generational difference
  • Financial Pressures (4)
    • Future recessions
    • Recession
    • Legacy costs of retirement in retirement systems
    • Competition from corporate in regard to educational hiring
  • Workforce-related (4)
    • Succession planning
    • Gender gap in tenuring male and female professors
    • Developing future leaders continues to be an issue
    • Finding talent to fill skill trade needs on campus
  • Curriculum-related (4)
    • Flexible curriculums
    • Competency based education and awarding credit for life experience
    • Aligning course curriculums to new industry trends
    • Continued decline in humanities enrollment
  • Increased competition for students (3)
    • Increased competition for students between local institutions (state-regional)
    • Decreasing student population and competition for funding and tuition
    • Trend to international competition of institutions  via online and virtual universities
  • Technology (3)
    • Virtual classrooms
    • Constant involvement of technology in the classroom
    • Changing technology continues to be a trend
  • Adapting to financial challenges (3)
    • Decreased government  base funding and increased emphasis on revenue generation over and above tuition revenues
    • Increased reliance on international student in order to bring in tuition revenue
    • Public flagship universities begin to complete privatization from the state
  • Demographic changes (3)
    • Coming retirements of baby boomer faculty and administration
    • Aging of the Professiorate
    • The last of the boomers
  • Other
    • Open resource and textbooks and impact on researchers and publishers
    • Preparing students for a changing world