Universities and a New Century: An Interview with Dr. Stanley Ikenberry

Dr. Stanley O. IkenberryStanley O. Ikenberry has spent much of his life around college campuses. The son of a college president, Dr. Ikenberry received both his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the College of Education. He earned his master’s in 1957 and his doctorate in 1960. He then began his career in academe at MSU before going on to serve as dean of the College of Human Resources and Education at West Virginia University and later as senior vice president at Pennsylvania State University. Dr. Ikenberry became president of the University of Illinois in 1979, and served for 16 years. In November 1996, he became the tenth president of the American Council on Education (ACE). As president, he represents the major voice of higher education in the United States, an organization that includes about 1,600 accredited, degree-granting colleges and universities and more than 200 national and regional higher education associations. What follows is an interview with Dr. Ikenberry on the status of higher education and the changing nature of universities and colleges.

You received your master’s and Ph.D. degrees here at Michigan State University, and you taught here as well. How did those experiences help shape your career?

A.  As I reflect on my experiences at Michigan State, it was people at Michigan State who shaped my experiences and my career. Some were within the College of Education and I remember them extremely well. Dean Erickson, for whom the current College of Education building is named, was a person I admired greatly. Walter Johnson was a powerful force, and a professor by the name of Bill Farquhar served as my advisor. So there were several key people within the college and then there were several key people outside of the College of Education, but a part of the Michigan State family that had an equally powerful influence on my life. I worked as a very junior associate with Paul Dressel in those early days of my career, and Paul taught me to look at higher education in an analytical and critical way that I think otherwise I would not have gained. So he was a powerful influence on my life and not just at Michigan State, but a very strong influence in terms of my thinking even to the present time . . . There were others as well. People like Irv Lehmann, who taught me about research, and Bill Warrington, who was then over at Evaluation Services. I could go on, but it was really the people I found at that particular moment at Michigan State up to and including John Hannah. I did not have very much direct contact with John Hannah, but nonetheless I felt his presence as one of the greatest presidents that Michigan State has ever had. It was a lucky time for me. I went to Michigan State more by accident than by design, but I found after I arrived there a group of very interesting people who had a real influence on my life.

Q.  Higher education plays such a pivotal role in society. I am curious how you see it evolving? What kinds of changes do you foresee in the next century?

A.  There are really three that I would focus on, and they are issues of access, issues of cost and issues of technology. On the access side, I think college has moved from being a desirable option to, in many instances, a kind of practical necessity in the Information Age in which we live. In the earlier part of this century, certainly in the mid-50s when I was at Michigan State, going to college was certainly viewed as important and desirable, but not quite in the crucial way in which it is today. Even then, higher education was viewed as important for 18- to 21-year-olds but when you graduated it was assumed you would go off and have your career and that your educational life would be over. We are in a period now where the concept of lifelong learning is no longer just a desirable attribute, but again is a kind of practical necessity. So I think access to lifelong learning and the importance of education in the Information Age in which we live has changed greatly in the latter part of this century and will continue to drive higher education policy and programs on into the next century. The cost issue is one that I think represents a great challenge. Michigan State has given a good deal of national leadership on that issue. You have taken steps to negotiate an agreement with state government that Michigan State will hold its price increases to students, for example, in line with inflation over the next several years presuming that the state government continues to meet inflationary needs at MSU. I think that is a very positive development and I think all of higher education will more and more be pressed to operate more efficiently, more productively, and contain costs because the access has become so important. And the final area is technology. There is a real revolution in communications technology that is going on in our society today and, fundamentally, education is a process of communication. Therefore, I think even more in the next century we will see a wider and wider application of technology to teaching that will begin to break down some of the traditional barriers of time and space and open access to information and to learning and to knowledge.

Q.  In terms of attending college, the gap between low-income students and those at the highest income levels appears to be widening. You have spoken publicly about this issue. How can universities and colleges deal with this issue?

A.  This is certainly an issue for higher education. But if you stop and think about it, it is an issue for our entire society. Democracy is built on the assumption of equal access to opportunity, a level playing field. If we drift as a society to the point that you can have greater access to education if you have greater wealth, and if you come from a poor family or more limited financial circumstances then your opportunities for education will be limited, then that is not healthy for the economy, that is not healthy for the democracy, and it is counter to the educational philosophy that most of us would hold as educators. So I think there are probably three answers here, at the least. One is cost containment in higher education, and that we have already spoken to. The second relates to financial aid policy and making sure that the dollars that we do have available to us as institutions and within the federal government and state governments as well are funneled as directly and powerfully as we can to help lower income students. It also, incidentally, is an important contribution that alumni can make in contributing to scholarship funds that will help low income students. So I think it is very important to gear our financial aid policies to attack this problem of creating a level playing field and opening up opportunities. And then finally, I think it is very important for colleges and universities to work with the secondary schools. Not all of the barriers for low income students are financial barriers. There are also academic barriers. Many times, low income students end up going to academically disadvantaged high schools and elementary schools, and to the extent that a College of Education at Michigan State or Michigan State University overall is actively engaged not just in the training of new teachers, but in helping with school reform, helping schools apply technology, and otherwise having an impact on quality education at all levels, that ultimately will help close the gap between have and have nots in terms of access to higher education.

Q.  What advice would you give to those aspiring to leadership in higher education?

A.  For those who aspire to positions of leadership, I would encourage them to see themselves as leaders and act as leaders in their current roles. There is a tendency for all of us when we think about leadership to think about somebody else. Someone who is a rung or two above us on the career ladder. But if you stop and think about it, leadership is a group enterprise. Leadership is not a single individual. Leadership is a team. So the first advice to someone who aspires to be a leader is to see themselves as a leader, and to lead and serve. By that I mean to help move a complex organization or a cause or a commitment forward. The second piece of advice I would have is to look out and not be so narrow in one’s perspective that one concentrates on his or her immediate roles and responsibilities and obligations. Too often we tend to look inward and be preoccupied with our own obligations and concerns. But leadership really calls for an individual to face outward, to look at the bigger picture and that I think it is the first prerequisite of leadership.

Q.  What do you perceive to be the best preparation to become a college president, dean, etc?

A.  I don’t think there is one correct or direct way of preparing to become a college president or a dean or to and oneself in an administrative role in higher education. Many individuals exerting leadership in higher education come up through the academic ranks as a tenured professor, department chair, dean and then provost and ultimately president. But others come up as I did. I began in an administrative role very early. I was a dean of a college at West Virginia University when I was 30 or so. By the time I was 35, I was a senior vice president at Penn State. While I lived and worked in an academic environment, my career was not a traditional faculty career, and you see also the example of Peter McPherson, who had experience in academic life but really has come to the presidency through experience in the private sector and in government. I think that is very healthy. I think there are any number of routes to leadership. There is no one answer.

Q.  As president of the American Council on Education you represent many universities and colleges. How can these institutions be effective in helping form national policy as it relates to higher education?

A.  It is important for places like Michigan State and the University of Illinois and others to have an influence on national policy. That is what our democracy is all about. I think it happens in a single word: engagement. In order to be effective, a higher education institution must find itself engaged at the national level to be able to have an impact on national policy. That very likely means, for example, service--as Peter McPherson does--on the Board of Directors of a group like the American Council on Education. It means having some time in your schedule to travel as president to Washington to meet with your congressional delegation to talk to them about the issues of higher education as seen through the lens of your particular state and your particular institution. But regardless of the avenue that is followed, engagement is the key the issue here: engaging with the issues, engaging face-to-face with policy makers, and engaging with peer institutions for collective action here in Washington and elsewhere to help bring about constructive change.

Q.  You have spent your professional life in higher education as a student, professor, president of the University of Illinois and now president of the American Council on Education. What is it about colleges and universities that have so captivated you over the years?

A.  For me, it was a bit of a peculiar force in the sense that I grew up in an academic family. My father was a president of a small state college in West Virginia, Shepherd College, and actually I went there as an undergraduate. So as I sat around the dinner table from the earliest days I can remember, the conversation was frequently about higher education in general or more likely some particular issue or problem that faced the college where my father worked. So I had a very early introduction and became captivated by those issues and that environment. And then when I went to Michigan State, I also had the good fortune as I mentioned earlier to come in contact with Paul Dressel, and he provided me with a whole new way of looking analytically at the problems and issues and opportunities in higher education. That opened a whole new vista for me. Ultimately, what has driven my own career interests is that kind of refreshing vitality of being in contact with young people and with ideas and with a very idealized notion of what your profession is all about and what the purpose of higher education is about. It is a very inspiring environment in which to live and work. I have served on corporate boards. I have worked with government. So I have had some exposure to corporations and to government and to other parts of the society, and they provide exciting options as well. But I think the satisfaction one gets from working in an academic environment in a college or university is a very special opportunity for those who have chosen that calling. So I suppose that is what has captivated me over the years.