Unlike traditional conferences where administrators and faculty attend and roam large exhibit halls in search of the right vendor that can help with current institutional needs, an RTM Congress is planned entirely around the specific projects and goals of its attendees (delegates). This means keynote presentations, roundtable discussions, and breakout sessions focus on topics that relate directly to the projects and interests submitted by the delegates. RTM also invites a limited number of vendors to each RTM Congress. Vendors are chosen based on how well their products and services align to delegate needs. In the month prior to the RTM Congress, delegates and vendors go through an information-sharing and ranking/selection process that results in pre-scheduled business meetings.
The end result is two days of collaborative and productive discussions between university administrators, as well as effective business meetings with tangible next steps for participants. Not surprisingly, the business meetings at an RTM Congress are different than those at traditional conferences. Both parties show up with a clear understanding of their respective needs and products. The conversations are immediately focused and productive and, in my experience, inevitably transition into collaborative brainstorming.
Indeed, as I spoke with provosts and other academic leaders from universities across the U.S. at the most recent RTM Congress on Higher Education in Washington D.C., four noteworthy trends emerged.
- Affordability — The institutions represented at the RTM Congress included large public systems (SUNY, University of Texas), large public universities, community colleges, and private non-profit universities. Affordability — tuition, fees, and learning materials — seemed to be an important point in every presentation and conversation. Leaders are actively evaluating current business models and looking for ways to reduce costs while maintaining strong academic standards. There was a refreshing openness to new ideas and different ways of doing things. Perhaps most impressive was the focus on students and increasing equitable access to higher education.
- College Readiness — University leaders shared fairly unanimous concerns regarding the lack of essential (soft) skills possessed by incoming first-year students. While students have high-level cognitive abilities, they perform more poorly in terms of essential behavioral, communication, and writing skills.
- Workforce Readiness — This was another significant theme at the conference. Delegates expressed broad concerns about how to meet their responsibility for preparing students for successful professional careers in our rapidly evolving world. There were presentations on the need to produce T-shaped students from every discipline with essential (soft) skills and the ability to collaborate across disciplines. There were also honest discussions about how to convince faculty that changes in the core curriculum were necessary if institutions wish to remain relevant.
- General Education — I was somewhat surprised by the frankness with which several provosts spoke about their general education curriculum and the need for change. I was really surprised by the measures some were already taking to address general education. I say “really surprised” because the general education curriculum at most universities has evolved organically over the decades and changing it has traditionally been fraught with political implications. The fact that some provosts are taking measures to engage their faculty in general education reform is significant in light of potential changes in higher education business models.