Episode 9: Higher Ed Institutions Sailing in Harm’s Way
Welcome to Education and Technology Futures, a videocast that highlights interesting trends and connections in the worlds of education, technology, and culture.
Looking for help from the French during the Revolutionary War, John Paul Jones wrote, “I wish to have no connection with any ship that does not sail fast, for I intend to go in harm’s way.” It’s good advice for leaders at many higher education institutions.
In the fall of 1778, during the height of the American Revolution, John Paul Jones was in France trying to get a new warship to use in the fight against the British.
The French government offered him a heavy ship named the Neptune they had captured, but Jones felt it was too slow for his needs.
So, he wrote a letter to a French aristocrat who had already helped arrange other types of French support for the Americans. In his letter, Jones wrote, “I wish to have no connection with any ship that does not sail fast, for I intend to go in harm’s way.”
Now, to my way of thinking, a modified version of this request would serve as good advice for the leaders at many higher education institutions. While we may not be at war, we’re certainly facing significant shifts in wind, dangerous and unfamiliar obstacles and, in many cases, unknown waters.
A dwindling population of traditional students, along with new markets for non-traditional students, is creating increased competition.
Increased competition is forcing institutions to add new products and services, driving up costs and tuition.
An evolving economy based on innovation is creating new job categories and a need for new skills among existing workers. This is accelerating the growth and popularity of cheaper and more timely alternatives to the traditional degree.
These and other currents will make for difficult and even treacherous sailing for many higher education institutions, particularly small liberal arts colleges. Like John Paul Jones, they will need nothing short of a fast and agile ship as they sail into harm’s way.
This means overhauling operational models to produce high-quality products more efficiently and cost-effectively.
It means embracing new instructional and delivery models that are tailored to meet the specific needs of new markets.
It means transforming existing degree and certificate offerings and being willing to discontinue those that aren’t attracting enough students to make the programs self-sustaining.
It means introducing new decision-making pathways for curriculum approval, as well as new business models that reward proof of learning, career success for students, and financial sustainability for departments and colleges.
For many, it will also mean new staffing models and expanding and contracting specific divisions based on market demand.
Most of all, it will mean new approaches to leadership. More specifically, institutions will require leadership that brings with it a willingness to change, to make big decisions intentionally and quickly, and to not be distracted too much by tradition, the way things used to be, or the way we wish things were.