Tuesday, October 27, 2020

The New Threats to Higher Education

At the end of 2019, I wrote a series of expositions on the top eight threats to higher education:


1.      Market Disturbance

2.     National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) Changes

3.     Price Sensitivity

4.     International Student Decreases

5.     2026 “Demographic Cliff”

6.    Poor Public Understanding of What We Do

7.     Geographic Population Redistribution

8.    Limited Reputation


At the time, COVID-19 was an unknown factor. We have since seen virtually every sector upended by the pandemic. The aforementioned list was not rank ordered, but over the past 8 months some of these threats have become significantly reprioritized, and new challenges have emerged.


The “Market Disturbance” to which I then referred was an unexpected decline in the percentage of new high-school graduates who enrolled in college in Fall 2019. That reduced population was also distributed across institutions less consistent with predictive modeling than in recent years.


The “Market Disturbance” created by the pandemic hasn’t just become the elephant in the room; for many institutions, it has become the room.


In the spring, entire curricula were placed into remote instruction almost overnight. The transition was bumpy, but surprisingly effective. I was so proud of our faculty and staff for making a valiant instructional 180, and for the most part, our students recognized how extraordinary the results were under the circumstances.


As we moved to hybrid instruction this fall, following a summer filled with professional development and planning, some students called it a “100% improvement.” Those who are taking classes remotely have shared that they still deeply miss the innate benefits of face-to-face instruction and learning in community.


As so many of the nation’s K-12 students have moved to remote or intermittently remote instruction, families have become keenly aware of the educational gaps their children are experiencing, which is helping prospective students to appreciate the value of what we do as a residential learning community. It is also a good lesson that when we do have classes face-to-face, we should emphasize the things that we can only do in that environment, or that are greatly enhanced when we are together.


Last fall, NACAC (The National Association for College Admission Counseling) suspended their Code of Ethics and Professional Practices (CEPP) in response to a challenge from the Department of Justice that these practices were the equivalent of collusion. The CEPP had been an agreement of NACAC members not to recruit students who had deposited elsewhere.


The disruption COVID had on last year’s recruitment cycle makes it difficult to make clear comparisons with previous years, but it appears that in spite of new recruiting freedoms, most students remained committed to their first-choice schools.


The current recession and the battered employment market have once again elevated price sensitivity. Typically, during an unemployment spike, we see a parallel increase in enrollments at 2-year colleges, and in previous recessions there have been migrations from 4-year to 2-year institutions. This year, 2-year institutions experienced the largest drops in enrollment. The difference may be because current unemployment is the result of business cessation due to the pandemic rather than an abruptly emerging skills gap.


The social unrest that was elevated this summer following the murder of George Floyd drew national attention to the systemic structural barriers students and employees of color encounter in nearly every sector across the nation. Many higher education institutions are seizing this moment to push this Sisyphean rock over the mountaintop. It is the right human and moral action, and as the “Demographic Cliff” approaches, it is also prudent to position our institutions to be places where the “new majority” will thrive.


The element that was not on last fall’s list is financial fragility. Within the first few months of the pandemic, we began seeing colleges and universities taking dramatic actions including extraordinary endowment draws, reductions or cessations of retirement contributions, institution-wide furloughs, massive budget cuts, program elimination, and large-scale faculty and staff reductions. Many have not been provisional belt-tightening measures, but dire bids for survival.


We have been talking about the failing business model of higher education for a decade as net revenue per student has failed to keep pace with the cost of delivering a high-quality educational experience for our students. The new financial stressors of the pandemic have laid bare how precariously many institutions have been operating.


This has emerged as the greatest threat to higher education.


The pandemic has revealed that many colleges and universities have been operating on the margins. It has also shone a light on other institutions like Susquehanna, whose fiscal discipline have prepared them for moments of stress and will allow them to adapt to new prevailing head winds.


The winners will be those universities that effectively meet the needs of the current generation of students, that enroll more non-traditional students, and become places where the new majority will flourish. Being student-centered, nimble, and investing in future readiness fulfill our mission and will define the future business model for higher education.  


Sunday, October 18, 2020

Can Leadership Be Taught?


I was recently asked to review a draft curriculum for a leadership certificate program. I had been invited to provide feedback on the educational soundness of the proposal and to help the authors make any adjustments an accreditor would be likely to demand. I was happy to help, but the exercise prompted the question, “Can leadership be taught?”


As a college professor, I conducted choirs and orchestras. I completed a graduate program in conducting, and I have taught conducting off and on for decades, so one might expect the answer would be a resounding yes, but it’s not that simple.


We can teach technique (how to do the work), analysis (how does the project or organization function), strategy (how can we achieve our goals), and tradition (what is the context and why). These apply on the podium, in a boardroom, in government, in the military, or in response to a crisis.


Technique, analysis, strategy, and tradition are critical, learnable skills to managerial leadership, but they do not provide vision or the charisma to inspire.


Many years ago, I attended a number of concerts led by a technically brilliant conductor. Each performance was as close to perfect as I could imagine and incredibly boring. It was like the best exhibit in a wax museum. Every detail was perfect, and yet it was cold and soulless—artifice without compassion.


In an interview filmed decades ago, Werner Thärichen, long-serving timpanist of the Berlin Philharmonic, told about a rehearsal led by a young guest conductor. The conductor stopped in the middle of the rehearsal and asked, “What just happened, why did you suddenly sound so much better?”


The principal violinist pointed to the back of the auditorium. The orchestra’s music director, Wilhelm Furtwängler, had entered the hall. Thärichen’s explanation was that the Furtwängler carried the sound within himself. A more plausible explanation is that the orchestra wouldn’t let their maestro hear them at anything but their best. That is no less magical than carrying the sound within. It is the power to inspire.


What is it about great leaders that inspires the people they serve to do their best, to exceed what they believe they can do? It is a gift, a talent, but it can be observed and cultivated. Truly great leaders possess humility, they have a vision, and they are deeply compassionate. Their ability to inspire others is by sharing a vision in which those who follow them can see themselves and can recognize that they are a valued part of the enterprise.


This was the gift of Elizabeth I, Washington, Lincoln, Garibaldi, FDR, Churchill, and Mother Theresa. Each inspired throngs of followers to overcome daunting challenges by articulating a vision in which the group was stronger than its parts and recognizing in that vision that each member mattered. This is inclusive leadership


Throughout human history, exclusionary leadership has always eventually led to failure. Leading to get what you want is selfish. Leading to provide others with what they need is inclusive. That’s a vision that can be learned, and that will inspire. It is what we should expect of our leaders, and it is what we should expect of ourselves when given the opportunity to serve others in a leadership role.



Friday, October 2, 2020

Do Something: Condemn White Supremacism


On Wednesday, Susquehanna University celebrated Green Dot Day. The violence prevention program is core to our bystander intervention efforts. It empowers bystanders to be reactive and, ideally, proactive advocates when they witness bullying, sexual assault, or other forms of abuse. It is on all of us to build a community that is free of violence and built on respect. That approach is a model for how each of us can be better friends, better neighbors, and better citizens.


When we see something, we must say something.


When we see something, we must do something…to make things better. 


This summer, we made a campus-wide commitment to embark on 37 actionable recommendations for our university community to become more inclusive. We have recognized it is not enough to not be racist; we must learn to be anti-racist. Like the Good Samaritan, we have a moral obligation to proactively do the right thing.


We must do something. 


In “saying something” of our commitment, we placed a “Black Lives Matter: Racism Ends Here” banner on the exterior of our campus center and distributed smaller replica decals to our community members. We received many requests, mostly from off campus, to remove the banner and many, many more messages supporting it. Our Black neighbors have experienced a jeremiad of indignities over generations, and sadly they continue. We need to be even more proactive advocates.


We must do something. 


The U.S. Department of Education Office of Postsecondary Education announced that it will investigate Princeton University, because its president, Christopher Eisgruber, courageously acknowledged that  racism has been embedded throughout his university’s history. I joined 80+ presidents of colleges, universities, and learned societies as a signatory on a letter condemning an unconscionable investigation into an institution striving to right the wrongs of its past.


We must do something. 


Our nation’s history and the histories of its institutions — schools, museums, religious organizations, and governments — have been shaped profoundly by systemic inequality, tragic prejudice, and hoarded privilege. The social turbulence in the wake of the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Daniel Prude, and so many other Black lives has prompted a national awakening.


A recent Pew Research Center poll indicates that a majority of Americans (55%) continue to support Black Lives Matter demonstrations. A Gallup poll has shown that the majority of Americans (58%) support policing reforms. The Monmouth University Polling Institute stated that a majority of Americans (76%) say that racial discrimination is a “big problem.”  


We see a wave of national support to bring an end to systemic racism. A greater and greater majority of Americans are expressing a desire for the full promise of the Declaration of Independence to become the lived experience for all of us. To do this, it is not enough not to be racist, it requires us to be anti-racist. The status quo can only be changed proactively.


We must do something. 


When confronted with the pernicious specter of white supremacism, we must immediately condemn it. We cannot be silent bystanders. We must confront it as the evil it is. This is what it means to be anti-racist, to be proactive advocates for what is right. This is what it means to be an active member of a democratic community.


Do something: Embrace anti-racism.

Do something: Condemn white supremacism.

Do something good!


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