Mary Stuart, who leads the University of Lincoln, said higher education had come to be perceived as a problem by the public, whereas universities could actually help to "reboot" the UK's economic and social infrastructure.
However, she said, institutions themselves would have to take on the "mantle" of speaking to communities and forming a vision for the future as the White Paper had failed to tackle the big questions and was simply a "planning document".
Professor Stuart told Times Higher Education that understanding "about what higher education actually does" had declined, so it was now vital to renegotiate the social and psychological contract between the public and the academy.
"We are going through fairly tough times, we're seeing people losing their jobs, we're seeing (economic) growth basically flatlining. What kind of society do we want and what do we want to get back to? And how does higher education help us do that?"
It was necessary to go back to the landmark 1963 Robbins report, Professor Stuart said, "before we see any kind of picture or vision for higher education".
"The big question is what do we need from higher education in an environment where we want to reboot our society? That's not addressed (by the White Paper)," she said.
"It doesn't engage with what is the purpose of higher education in the 21st century. As a sector we have to take responsibility for that and engage with different audiences."
Professor Stuart said institutions should engage more with parents, local communities and the voluntary sector rather than government and business. She also argued that the Quality Assurance Agency would become increasingly pivotal in protecting the UK system's greatest asset - its worldwide reputation.
"Unless we're able to maintain that reputation, I think we're in for difficult times," she said.