June 18, 2018

Higher Education and Goal Displacement

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

My educational institution has recently been in the news after a series of scandals led to calls for the university’s president to resign. Concern had been growing among students, faculty, staff, and alumni, that the president’s leadership style focused more on hiding bad news in order to protect the university’s image in the quest of fundraising.

These scandals included a medical school dean who used drugs with young addicts, apparently on university property in some cases, and being present when one young woman overdosed. The person initially appointed to replace this dean had been found guilty of sexual harassment during a previous university investigation. Most recently, a student health center gynecologist has been accused of inappropriate photographing, touching and making sexual comments to hundreds of students during pelvic exams over the span of nearly three decades.

In each case, the university leadership appeared more interested in keeping the stories quiet than in protecting students, faculty, staff, and community members that had been put at risk by the behavior of those eventually removed. The secrecy enabled the doctors to continue practicing medicine because their behavior was not reported to the state’s medical board.

Eventually, the board of trustees announced that the search for a new university president would begin.

This incident is not isolated to one university. In fact, similar incidents of ignoring or minimizing reports of wrongdoing at Michigan State University and Penn State University led to their presidents resigning (and the former Penn State president even being sentenced to two months in jail for child endangerment for not responding in a timely fashion to allegations of a football coach molesting children).

Although these university presidents were not personally accused of the egregious acts that their employees were (child molestation, rape, and sexual assault), as leaders of large institutions they are expected to use their authority to follow the law and their own universities’ policies on such matters.

As we have learned from these cases, goal displacement can prevent university presidents from acting swiftly and decisively to address problem behavior, especially if a high-profile member of the university is at fault. As I wrote in a previous blog, goal displacement is what happens when the purpose of an organization mutates from its original purpose, whether the change is stated or not.

If you go to any college or university’s home page, you will find a mission statement, one that makes lofty statements about the importance of education, leadership, ethics, and creating advances in knowledge. Your own ideas about the purpose of higher education are probably similar. But competition for status and economic shifts has created goal displacement, where the top priorities are different from the stated mission across higher education.

You won’t likely see any institution list their mission statement as:

To raise as much money as possible from alumni and other wealthy community members to attract wealthy students who will pay full tuition and become donors themselves, and to attract prestigious faculty members who will help improve our brand and ultimately help us rise in the college rankings.

Nonetheless, fundraising has become one of the central purposes of executive leadership in higher education. Within nonprofit institutions, the money goes into the institution, so fundraising isn’t necessarily about enriching individuals, but it does add to the prestige of the university.

Fundraising is not just about rankings. Money can, of course, create benefits for students in the form of scholarships. At my institution, fundraising has meant there are more scholarships for students in need of help with tuition, as well as other important opportunities like doing research, studying abroad or taking an unpaid internship.

Still, college rankings often dictate the leadership—and fundraising—practices within higher education. The U.S. News & World Report ranking is often the main way a leader’s success is measured. Moving your school up (or down) in the ranks will have consequences, and one way that rank is determined is by alumni giving. Schools with higher percentages of alumni giving are considered to have more “satisfied customers.”

Because college rankings are in part based on surveys, they measure the intangible issue of perception. How prestigious a high school guidance counselor perceives a school determines its rankings, and of course rankings contribute to how prestigious guidance counselors perceive the school to be, so it is a circular measure. It also adds incentives to protecting a university’s image or “brand” as a primary goal.

Having a “hot brand” also might mean attracting students from wealthier backgrounds. Journalist Malcolm Gladwell discussed this in episode of his podcast, Revisionist History. In the episode titled “Food Fight,” he explores how having high-end cuisine and dorm accommodations helps to attract students from wealthy backgrounds. As schools compete for these students, they often spend a great deal of their resources to improve non-academic aspects of student life, at the cost of more financial aid for needy students. (For more on fundraising, also listen to his episode “My Little Hundred Million.”) This ultimately contributes to economic inequality.

Raising money is not just an issue for private universities. As the Center on Budget Policy and Priorities reported last year, fundraising has become more necessary even at public institutions, as states contribute less to higher education—at a time when more people need and seek college degrees and enrollments in many states have risen.

So what does this mean for college presidents? On the one hand, it’s not surprising to see leaders being caught flat-footed when they are asked to do more than fundraise and cheerlead for their institution, since that likely comprises much of their job. On the other hand, they are compelled to ensure that their institution lives up to its mission, enforces its own policies, and considers ethical and legal violations more than just public relations nightmares.

How else do you think goal displacement might impact colleges and universities? How might leaders better support their institutions’ stated missions while maintaining the institution’s economic health?


Wow this is really interesting. I had no idea about the politics of the ranking system. Great article. Maintaining both the economic health and ethics seems like a tall order, but not impossible!

I agree with your opinion that recently almost presidents of school protect their reputation. I feel so terrible when the leader of universities behaved like that.

Very nice post and really helpful for many students. I would share this post at with QandA hope many other students can get help by it.

This is really enlightening for me as a person who is new to the college experience. I didn't realized the prestige of colleges are actually ranked- I'd assumed that people just perceived them as more prestigious.

Institutes of higher learning like the Universities should strive to achieve their set goals and adhere to the rules of law governing them.

This is useful post for my project. Thanks.

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