Will higher ed be ready for the seismic shifts predicted for the next decade?
Each college and university will need a bold strategic vision to continue to thrive—and this puts rising pressure on presidents and their leadership teams to create that vision and communicate it effectively across campus.
To understand what’s top-of-mind for campus leaders heading into 2019, I sat down with David Attis and Matthew Pellish, two Managing Directors at EAB who have spent the past few months meeting with presidents, cabinets, deans, and department chairs.
Q: Let’s start off with the big picture. At a high level, what issues are leadership teams talking about most right now?
Pellish: In some ways, the trends are the same ones campuses have been talking about for years, things like demographics, state funding, affordability, students of the future. But what’s new is the sense of urgency and motivation from across campus on solving these issues.
Attis: At this point, a lot of presidents and provosts feel like they understand what’s happening, they have a real sense of the rapidity of change and the need to respond to it. But they don’t feel like everyone else on campus understands how quickly things are changing, and the things that need to get done haven’t historically been a big part of the jobs of, say, deans and chairs. So there’s enormous pressure on presidents, provosts, and other leaders to explain what the market trends mean for their teams and their colleges.
Q: Where’s their sense of urgency coming from?
Attis: I think some people thought challenges like state funding cuts might go away as the economy recovered from the recession. Or they heard about the trends, but they thought their school wouldn’t be affected by them. But the recession is over now, and state funding isn’t rebounding. Enrollment in some departments is down 20% and it’s clear that it’s not coming back anytime soon.
So now, we’re hearing more questions like: How do I restructure? Where can we get new ideas? How do we get our enrollment back? And at a higher level, higher education leaders are grappling with existential questions about their mission and business model: How much should the university change to meet what society is asking of it versus being a counterweight to the direction society is going in?
Q: And what steps are colleges starting to take to answer those questions?
Pellish: We’ve seen a lot of focus on revamping program offerings, particularly at smaller schools where the continuing and online education units work very closely with faculty. Deans are looking at their portfolios and saying, “How can we make this more competitive?” Or there are also cases where a school already has an innovative program, but they know they aren’t talking about it and marketing it as much as they could be.
Attis: Yes, I was just facilitating a program innovation session with some department chairs, and they were working through ways to create unique programs that will attract more students. And as an example of how this is a new world for a lot of folks on campus, someone said to me at that session, “When you use terms like ‘market’ and ‘customers,’ it causes me physical pain. It’s so hard for me to think about what I do as having a market.” You know, they went into academia so they wouldn’t have to think about profits and markets.
Q: It’s a big change from what their role looked like when they started their career.
Pellish: Absolutely, faculty, chairs, and deans are all now being asked to do a much wider range of things, and they don’t feel like they have the training or resources to do them. Mental health is a good example—academics are seeing mental health issues becoming much more visible in the classroom. Students are often more comfortable talking about their mental health challenges and needs, and why they weren’t able to come to class or complete that assignment—which is a good thing, but faculty don’t always know how to have those conversations or get those students the right support.
Attis: The job of a faculty member is getting so much more complicated so quickly. Faculty need to be preparing students for jobs, using inclusive teaching strategies, fighting racism in the classroom. And when they do put effort into learning these skills, they’re not always getting recognition for it from the people with power over tenure and promotion. Faculty feel under attack—they feel like they’re constantly being asked to do more.
One solution is to recognize that not everyone needs to do everything. We need a model where each faculty member can do the things that they excel at and are passionate about and get recognized for it. Scholarly excellence is fundamental, but it shouldn’t be the sole criterion for tenure.
Q: That sounds like a different narrative than the one we typically hear about faculty—that they’re curmudgeonly, resistant to all change. Does that traditional characterization reflect what you’ve seen on campuses?
Attis: Not really. Faculty often recognize the importance of these issues, but even the most motivated faculty don’t always feel like they have the time, skills, or support to make a change. Instead of framing it as “faculty are resistant to change,” I would frame it as faculty fighting to preserve their academic values in a world that is less sympathetic to those values.
And there are good reasons to think carefully about how closely your programs should be aligned to the market. Some colleges have a strong tradition of responding to the needs of local employers. But on the other hand, we often hear that what many employers actually want most are the so-called “soft skills” emphasized in liberal arts disciplines.
So it’s not just that someone doesn’t like change. It’s often that they want to acknowledge the potential tradeoffs of a certain strategy and discuss how to mitigate them, or whether the strategy is worth those tradeoffs.
Q: What about at the dean or department chair level? Have those roles also seen a lot of change?
Pellish: Yes, deans or chairs now need to be business leaders, managers, counselors, and more. But the people in those positions started out as faculty, and faculty are trained first and foremost to be researchers and teachers.
Attis: The chairs are feeling particularly strained, because they’re in the position temporarily, and they feel like if they make a tough call, they’re not always sure their dean or provost (or faculty colleagues) will back them up.
And at the dean level, I was chatting yesterday with a university that’s moving to a new budget model where the deans will get to keep some of their revenue, and they’re excited but also anxious about how their role and mindset will need to change. They’re working through what it means for a dean to be an entrepreneur.
Q: What advice do you have for deans, chairs, and any other leaders who are thinking about their plan for addressing these issues?
Attis: Create a common understanding of the landscape across your campus. We need to agree on where we are now so we can start to talk about where we want to get to. On many campuses, there’s not that sense of agreement because they don’t understand how demographic shifts or state funding or affordability issues will affect them. You can’t set strategy if no one knows what you’re setting strategy against.
Pellish: And on top of that, it’s about making sure that everyone feels the same level of urgency. It’s one thing to have a common language for discussing trends, it’s another to realize the rapid pace of change and set your priorities appropriately for the year ahead.
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