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2023’s Top Higher Education Keynote Speakers

by Holly Ransom: Global leadership speaker, interviewer, event host and CEO of Emergent Leadership Development

As a Fulbright scholar and a proud graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School, my journey has been enriched by the ability to learn from some of the world’s leading educator and educational thinkers.

The landscape of higher education is ever-changing, with trailblazers paving the way for the future of learning and student achievement.

In my professional capacity as a leading keynote speaker and master of ceremonies, I’ve also had the privilege of speaking at numerous higher educational conferences and witnessing the profound impact of keynote speakers in higher education- from those sharing frontline experiences to those charting a vision for system reform.

This lineup of top higher education keynote speakers for 2023 boasts a diverse range of expertise, spanning from those who pioneered online learning to staunch advocates for diversity and inclusion. They are not only trailblazers in their fields but also highly sought-after speakers who would contribute significantly to educational and corporate events.

So, without further ado, let’s delve into the intellectual realm of these innovative leaders and bestselling authors who are reshaping education and sparking the ambitions of the next generation of students.

Key Takeaways

  • Innovative leaders in higher education are revolutionising the field with their unique perspectives and solutions. Their work serves as a catalyst for innovation and transformation within the educational landscape, with the goal of empowering students and educators to succeed in a rapidly changing world.

  • New York Times bestselling authors & award-winning educators share inspiring stories to motivate audiences towards excellence. They inspire audiences to strive for excellence, not just in their academic pursuits, but in all aspects of life.

Higher Education Speakers That Have Shaped My Journey

Amy Edmondson on stage. Image courtesy Nordic Business Forum.
Amy Edmondson on stage. Image courtesy Nordic Business Forum.

Some of the leaders and educators who have influenced my journey include:

  • Professor Amy C. Edmonson, the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School, and bestselling author who first coined the term ‘Psychological Safety’ her contributions have had a profound impact on my perspective and the broader educational community.

  • Professor Robert Kegan, a developmental psychologist and professor at Harvard University, and Lisa Lahey a lecturer at Harvard University and consultant, are the co-authors of the groundbreaking book ‘Immunity to Change’. Their work has been hailed as a game-changer, providing a new lens through which we can understand our resistance to change and how we can overcome it.

  • Jane McGonical, PhD, a world-renowned game designer, author, and future forecaster. Known for her innovative thinking, she has dedicated her career to creating immersive gaming experiences that challenge traditional norms and push the boundaries of technology. Her work has not only revolutionised the gaming industry but also has significant implications for the future of education, as she believes in the power of games to foster critical thinking, problem-solving, and creativity among students. I had the privilege of meeting Jane when she spoke at a conference I co-created, Energy Disruptors, in 2022. A long-standing source of inspiration, Jane sparked the idea of turning my book “The Leading Edge” into a gamified learning experience – the Epic Leadership Challenge.

Innovative Leaders in Higher Education

Anant Agarwal, higher education speaker on stage
Anant Agarwal, higher education speaker on stage

Innovative leaders in higher education come from a wide array of backgrounds and have made significant contributions to the field through their creative approaches and forward-thinking ideas. Some notable individuals include:

  • Anant Agarwal, a professor of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and CEO of edX, an online learning platform created in collaboration with Harvard University. Recognised as one of the top education keynote speakers, Agarwal’s teaching efforts have been acknowledged and rewarded by MIT, making him an inspirational speaker in the field of higher education.

  • Bart Banfield, an associate professor and Superintendent of EPIC Charter Schools, is another influential figure in online education. His innovative contributions to the virtual learning-work environment have profoundly influenced the education system. EPIC Charter Schools is the largest public school in Oklahoma, under Bart’s leadership. It is also one of the largest virtual schools in the United States.

  • Professor Christine Ortiz, the founder of Station1, a nonprofit focused on higher education innovation, and a former professor at MIT. Ortiz is known for her work on reimagining the traditional higher education model. Her vision of a more inclusive and equitable higher education system has been a beacon of inspiration for many, and her work has paved the way for significant developments in the field.

Advocates for Diversity and Inclusion

Holly Ransom interviewing Geena Davis, actress and champion for gender equality in media.
Holly Ransom interviewing actress & advocate for gender equality, Geena Davis

As we navigate the complexities of an increasingly interconnected world, the importance of diversity and inclusion is paramount. This is a cause close to my heart, and I’ve had the honour of collaborating with champions of diversity and inclusion across the spheres of higher education and sport. Our collective mission is to advocate for social justice and ensure that everyone, regardless of their background, has equal opportunities.

Notable proponents in this space include:

  • Reshma Saujani, the founder of Girls Who Code, a non-profit organisation that is making waves in the tech industry. Her dedication to empowering girls and promoting gender equality in the tech sector has been recognised globally, making her a true advocate for diversity and inclusion in higher education.

  • Geena Davis, an award-winning actress and founder of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. A champion for gender equality in media, Davis has made significant contributions to the representation of women in film and television. I’ve had the privilege of interviewing Geena and learning firsthand about her advocacy work.

  • Wendy Kopp, who serves as the CEO and co-founder of Teach for All, is making significant progress in educational reform on a global scale. Also the founder of Teach for America, Kopp has devoted her career to addressing educational disparities. Inspired by Kopp’s vision, I joined Teach for Australia in my twenties to assist in recruiting exceptional teachers and I count a signed copy of her book as one of my most valued possessions.

  • Jennifer Pahlka, founder of Code for America, a non-profit organisation that aims to make government services simple, effective, and easy to use. Pahlka is an inspiring speaker whose charismatic presentations are filled with insightful anecdotes from her journey in the tech industry, offering a unique perspective on how technology can be harnessed to create public good.

  • Zaretta Hammond, an educator, author and consultant known for her work on implementing educational practices that cater to students’ cultural needs. Hammond has been working on culturally responsive teaching for more than a decade, and her book, “Culturally Responsive Teaching,” has influenced institutions like York University.

  • Jan Owen AM, a social entrepreneur, author, and youth education and employment advocate. With an extensive career in public, private and non-profit sectors, Owen has dedicated her life to creating innovative solutions to address the challenges facing young people in Australia. Her passion, expertise, and advocacy continue to inspire and drive positive change, ensuring that young people have access to the opportunities they need to thrive.

Trailblazers in Educational Technology

Educational technology has the power to transform the learning experience and improve student outcomes. Trailblazers in this field, such as the Freedom Writers Foundation, are leading authorities in education technology and its utilisation in higher education. They work as education consultants, exploring novel approaches to leveraging technology to enhance the learning experience.

Immersive Learning Pioneers, for instance, investigate the utilisation of virtual and augmented reality to construct immersive learning encounters. Their work has influenced institutions like New York University, proving the potential of harnessing the power of technology in education.

I can’t go without mentioning Jane McGonigal. Jane is known as the current “public face of gamifcation” and her theories on gamification in learning are what inspired me to create my online leadership challenge, a gamified leadership development course designed to take learning out of the conference room and into the everyday lives of leaders.

Moving forward, the exploration of innovative technological applications that can enhance and mould the future of higher education remains vital.

Inspiring Stories from Bestselling Authors

Steve Gilliland delivering a keynote address. Image courtesy
Steve Gilliland delivering a keynote address. Image courtesy

Beyond their expertise in higher education, some of these keynote speakers are also renowned authors who share their inspiring journeys and research with their audiences. Their stories serve as a testament to the power of resilience, perseverance, and growth mindset. Here are few of these notable individuals:

  • Steve Gilliland, a member of the Speaker Hall of Fame and highly acclaimed motivational speaker

  • Tony Plana, acclaimed actor, director, and arts & education advocate

  • Angela Duckworth, a celebrated psychologist and a MacArthur Fellowship recipient

  • Amanda Ripley, journalist and author known for her work in the fields of education and social science.

New York Times Bestselling Authors

New York Times bestselling authors have a unique ability to captivate audiences with their stories and thought-provoking insights on higher education. Among them is Shawn Achor, widely recognised as a leading expert on happiness and success. His work on positive psychology has earned him acclaim as an inspirational keynote speaker, offering valuable lessons for students and educators alike.

Another best-selling author making waves in higher education is Wes Moore, who penned the critically acclaimed book, “The Other Wes Moore.” This gripping tale discusses the impact of the education system on the lives of two individuals with the same name. Moore’s powerful storytelling skills and keen insights into the world of education have made him a sought-after speaker, inspiring audiences across the globe.

Transforming Education through Leadership Development

A professor leading a leadership development workshop
A professor leading a leadership development workshop

Higher education keynote speakers specialising in leadership inspire leadership development and foster growth mindsets among students and faculty. Their messages emphasise the importance of adaptability, resilience, and critical thinking in today’s rapidly changing world. Andre Norman, a transformational speaker, strategist, and consultant, is one such influential figure leading the charge to reform correctional systems globally. His core message encourages individuals and organisations to confront challenges, unlock their full potential, and accomplish remarkable success.

Another esteemed educationist and former principal turned educational motivational speaker, Steven Bollar, promotes the cultivation of a growth mindset among students and faculty. He emphasises the importance of striving for excellence and shares actionable strategies to help students and educators realise their full potential. These speakers play a vital role in transforming education through leadership development and inspiring others to achieve greatness.

Gordon Tredgold is a leadership expert who offers practical strategies for leadership development. He focuses on leadership principles that can be applied to achieve success in various educational settings. Tredgold’s engaging presentations are known for their clear and actionable insights, making him a highly sought-after speaker for educational and corporate events alike.

Promoting Mental Health and Well-being

Mental health and well-being are crucial aspects of student success in higher education. Speakers who address these issues offer solutions for supporting student well-being, such as providing mental health resources and services, establishing a supportive campus atmosphere, and providing educational programs related to mental health. Daniel J. Reidenberg, the Executive Director of SAVE (Suicide Awareness Voices of Education), is one such influential figure in this field. His speeches are known to be deeply impactful, leaving audiences with a profound understanding of the importance of mental health and the urgent need for comprehensive suicide prevention strategies.

Jordan Burnham, Director of Training at Minding Your Mind, is another influential figure in the field of mental health advocacy. A survivor of a suicide attempt during his high school years, Burnham has turned his personal tragedy into a beacon of hope for others, dedicating his life to raising awareness about mental health issues and advocating for wellness initiatives.

Dr. Sally Spencer-Thomas, a psychologist and co-founder of the Carson J Spencer Foundation, is a prominent figure in the fight against the stigma surrounding mental health issues. Her work goes beyond advocacy; as a leading voice in mental health education and policy reform, Sally’s efforts have been instrumental in fostering a more inclusive and understanding society. With a focus on suicide prevention, she has tirelessly worked to create programs and initiatives that not only educate the public about the realities of mental health, but also provide tangible, actionable strategies for those struggling with mental health issues.

These speakers play a vital role in promoting the importance of mental health and well-being in higher education, inspiring institutions to take action and support their students.

Shaping Education Policy and Advocacy

Education Policy books

Education policy and advocacy play a significant role in guaranteeing that educational institutions are providing quality educational services and that students have access to cost-effective and equitable opportunities. Keynote speakers who influence education policy and advocate for accessible and affordable higher education contribute to shaping the regulations governing the operation of educational institutions and help guarantee the provision of quality education.

These influential figures, such as renowned education public speaker Michelle Rhee, Linda Darling-Hammond, and Arne Duncan specialise in education reform initiatives. Their efforts have led to increased funding for education, more equitable access to educational resources, and the support of educational technology.

Michelle Rhee, a former Chancellor of Washington D.C. Public Schools, is known for her assertive reforms and her drive to improve student achievement. Her tenure was marked by a focus on teacher quality and accountability, which sparked national conversations about education reform.

Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor at Stanford University and the President of the Learning Policy Institute, is a leading voice in educational equity. She has dedicated her career to researching effective teaching methods, and her work has influenced policy decisions at both the state and national levels.

Arne Duncan, who served as the U.S. Secretary of Education under the Obama administration, has been instrumental in shaping education policy. He has championed initiatives such as Race to the Top, which incentivised states to adopt innovative reforms to improve student outcomes. His tenure saw an increased focus on college readiness and affordability, and he continues to advocate for equitable access to quality education in his post-government career.

Embracing the Future of Higher Education

A group of college students discussing the future of higher education

Looking towards the future of higher education, giving due consideration to the visions and predictions of industry thought leaders is imperative. Higher education keynote speakers offer unique perspectives on the future of learning and student success, emphasising the importance of adaptability, resilience, and critical thinking in today’s rapidly changing world.

One such visionary is Heather E. McGowan, a renowned future-of-work strategist and keynote speaker. McGowan is celebrated for her forward-thinking approach and deep insights into the future of work and the role of education in preparing students for this rapidly evolving landscape. Her speeches cover a broad spectrum of topics such as leadership, adaptive learning, and the intersection of technology and education. She has been instrumental in sparking conversations around the transformation of traditional learning environments to better equip students for the demands of the future workforce. Known for her dynamic and engaging presentations, she has the unique ability to inspire audiences and catalyse change in higher education.

Dr. Michelle Weise is another expert on the future of learning and higher education. Dr. Weise discusses how competency-based education, online learning, and other innovations are reshaping the traditional higher education model. As a senior vice president at Strada Education Network, she leads the organisation’s research and thought leadership about the future of work. Her insights on the intersection of technology, innovation, and higher education make her an influential figure in the field.

Preparing Students for a Changing World

In today’s rapidly evolving world, the importance of adaptability and lifelong learning cannot be overstated. By preparing students for a changing world, speakers like those below help hone critical thinking, problem-solving, and adaptability skills, enabling students to make meaningful contributions to their communities and the workforce.

Dr Carol Dweck, a professor at Stanford whose research has defined the field of mindset psychology. She is the pioneer of the concept of ‘growth mindset’, which suggests that individuals can grow their brain’s capacity to learn and solve problems with dedication and hard work. Her revolutionary work has had a profound impact on the field of education, encouraging educators to foster a growth mindset in students to enhance their learning capabilities and resilience. Dr Dweck’s insightful research and thought-provoking presentations make her a sought-after speaker in higher education circles.

Tony Wagner, a globally recognised voice in education, is a Senior Research Fellow at the Learning Policy Institute. He has previously held positions at Harvard University as an Expert in Residence at the Innovation Lab and as the founder and co-director of the Change Leadership Group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Wagner is a frequent keynote speaker at national and international conferences and is known for his groundbreaking work in school reform. He is also a highly successful author, with books such as “The Global Achievement Gap” and “Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World” making significant contributions to the field of education.

Harnessing the Power of Technology

Emerging technologies have the potential to transform higher education and enhance student outcomes. Speakers who explore the potential of these technologies, such as virtual and augmented reality, can help educational institutions optimise efficiency, boost productivity, and facilitate communication. Some notable speakers in this area of interest include:

  • Professor Shafi Ahmed is a multi-award winning cancer surgeon, teacher, futurist, innovator and entrepreneur. Ahmed can provide insights into the use of VR and AR in medical education, offering a glimpse of how immersive technologies can enhance learning in various fields.

  • Dr. Michio Kaku is a renowned theoretical physicist and futurist. Dr. Kaku can discuss the cutting-edge technologies that are likely to reshape education, from AI-driven learning platforms to virtual reality classrooms.

  • Karen Cator, former CEO of Digital Promise and currently leading Worldwide Education Strategy at Apple Inc. Cator has extensive experience in using technology to advance education, and can speak on the role of technology in personalised learning, edtech trends, and bridging the digital divide.


In wrapping up, it’s clear that the top higher education keynote speakers of 2023 bring an abundance of insights, expertise, and inspiration across a myriad of topics. These thought leaders aren’t just imparting knowledge; they’re catalysts for change, champions of innovation, and architects shaping the very future of higher education. As we dive into their visions and glean from their rich experiences, we’re not just learning; we’re building a collective roadmap for a future that’s brighter for both students and educators. It’s about empowering success, fostering growth, and championing access and affordability for all.

Frequently Asked Questions

Who are some of the top higher education keynote speakers of 2023?

Our top higher education keynote speakers for 2023 include Anant Agarwal, Zaretta Hammond, Heather E. McGowan, Christine Ortiz, Bart Banfield, Amy C. Edmonson, Dr. Michio Kaku and Steve Gilliland to name a few.

What are some key topics addressed by these keynote speakers?

Key topics discussed by these keynote speakers include online learning, diversity and inclusion, educational technology, leadership development, mental health, and education policy and advocacy.

How do these keynote speakers inspire change in higher education?

The keynote speakers inspire change in higher education through their specialised knowledge, unique ideas, and engaging talks, encouraging listeners to take action and make an impact.

How can we prepare students for a rapidly changing world?

To equip students with the skills needed to navigate a rapidly changing world, we should prioritise teaching critical thinking, problem-solving, and adaptability, as well as promote a growth mindset and a culture of lifelong learning.

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