The presidents will ponder new academic and financial models for their institutions that are being driven by the global explosion in online learning, including the rise of massive open online courses (MOOCs). Such courses have attracted tens of thousands of students from around the world to a single class, such as Introduction to Databases offered by Stanford University computer-science Professor Jennifer Widom.
A plethora of for-profit and nonprofit education startups, including local firms such as Udacity, Udemy and Coursera, are vying for students in the new global online classroom.
Researchers from the Palo Alto think tank Institute for the Future will guide the university presidents' discussions, which are set for Sunday and Monday.
College and university leaders attending run the gamut from the Ivy League University of Pennsylvania to the upstart Western Governors University, an online institution founded by 19 governors in 1997 that now has an enrollment of more than 35,000 students.
Tiny Bates College in Maine will be represented, as well as huge state institutions like Arizona State University and the University of Wisconsin.
The president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — one of the world's first universities to post its lectures online with its 2002 Open CourseWare initiative — is also scheduled to participate.
Locally, Foothill-De Anza Community College Chancellor Linda Thor will attend, as will San Jose State University President Mohammad H. Qayoumi.
Palo Alto's Institute for the Future, founded 45 years ago by researchers from the RAND Corporation and SRI International, works with corporate, nonprofit and government clients to analyze underlying changes that affect traditional organizations.
"What we're doing is a scenarios process, taking them through scenarios for higher education moving forward," said Devin Fidler, a technology research director at Institute for the Future.
"There are a lot of ways it could go. We want to create a space for a deliberate conversation along those lines. It's easy to be reactive ... but we're looking for innovations to get ahead of the curve."
Fidler said when his group started its work on the future of learning, "it was difficult to make the case that there was something fundamental happening that's likely to make running a university in 10 years different than it is today.
"But as Udacity and Coursera and even Khan Academy went live, people started to come to those conclusions themselves.
"The proposition for a learning institution changes when you can access all the content that any student at any elite university in the world has access to if you have an Internet connection," Fidler said.
"Universities — some more than others — will find themselves in transition. Some of their revenue comes from streams that are likely to dry up.
"The whole thing is about re-balancing the equation and exploring what that would look like."
The Washington, D.C.-based American Council on Education (ACE), whose members include 1,800 accredited, degree-granting colleges and universities, is sponsoring this weekend's "Presidential Innovation Lab," with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
"This is an opportunity for senior higher education leaders to engage in comprehensive and critical thinking about the potential of this new learning modality to boost attainment levels, particularly among older, post-traditional students, low-income young adults and other underserved students," ACE President Molly Corbett Broad said.
The group's work will guide a national dialogue about the types of academic and financial models that might grow out of the current high level of interest in MOOCs and other new technologies and learning methods, said Cathy A. Sandeen, ACE vice president for educational attainment and innovation.
Other institutions that will be represented by their presidents this weekend include Northeastern University; Rio Salado College, a community college based in Tempe, Ariz.; Tulane University, Excelsior College of Albany, N.Y.; University of Houston and Southern New Hampshire University.