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January-February 2012

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Perspectives: Are We Asking the Right Questions?

As I entered the classroom, I found that the crowd had already warmed the air to the point of discomfort. The space was also a bit “tired,” as my father-in-law is fond of saying. The casings and sashes of the tall windows were cracked and caked with old layers of paint that made them difficult to open or close. Black soot filled the creases of the baseboards and molding like the dirty fingernails of one who knew the meaning of hard work.

I loved every bit of it. I could feel the history of that old building around me and the anticipation of a new generation of leaders ready to begin their training.

It was my first graduate course at Teachers College, Columbia University: College and University Organization and Administration. Our professor was Robert Birnbaum; our reading list included manuscript sections of his forthcoming book, How Colleges Work.

By the fall of 1988, the population of high school graduates had begun to plummet. Six more years of demographic famine were ahead, with a slow recovery to follow. The pressure on higher education leaders grew as enrollments declined. Budgets were slashed. Forecasts of mass college failures were common. The need for strategic planning—as described in George Keller's seminal work, Academic Strategy: The Management Revolution in American Higher Education (1983)—began to be recognized.

Mark Putnam is president of Central College in Pella, Iowa, with more than 28 years of experience from various vantage points in higher education. He maintains a blog, Mark: my words, at and can be reached directly at

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