Educators and Institutions Strive to Preserve Uniqueness

Ingram's 2014 Higher Education Industry Outlook Assembly



Although the word “diversity” is overused in higher education to mean the   ethnic and gender variety, its most relevant and long-standing meaning has to do with the diverse nature of the institutions themselves. 

What distinguishes American higher education from that of other countries is the very diversity that was on display July 29 at Ingram’s 15th annual Higher Education Industry Outlook assembly. “Everyone sitting around this table represents a different kind of school,” said Jerry Davis, president of the College of the Ozarks. “You can’t pour all of them into the same mold. It won’t work, and these educators know that.”

The assembly, sponsored and hosted by Avila University on an unnaturally pleasant summer afternoon, included primarily representatives from two-year and four-year institutions, state and private ones, secular and religious ones, large ones and small ones. Ably chairing the assembly was Ron Slepitza, Avila University’s president.

If there was a theme that emerged from the assembly it was that these institutions had to work hard to preserve their distinctiveness in an environment that increasingly demanded uniformity. For all the pressure these academic leaders faced, however, the consensus was that they retained enough freedom to remain economically viable and true to their missions.

Pressures

As an opening question, participants were asked what it was that kept them awake at night. The range of answers spoke to diversity of their missions.

Park University faces a significant challenge that the other institutions did not: the downsizing of the U.S. military. As Chancellor Michael Droge explained, Park has emerged as arguably the leading provider of educational services to the American military nationwide. A reduction in force means a potential reduction in enrollment. 

“We are finding that we have to change in the ways that we serve,” said Droge. This means remaining flexible, finding new resources, and keeping the active military and veterans on track to complete their educations. “That’s just something that has to be done,” Droge added. “We’re just going to be innovative about that.”

Missouri State University in Spring-field, like all state institutions, has to deal with state funding issues. President Clif Smart singled out as a concern the legislature’s inclination to reduce revenue by cutting taxes and the governor’s subsequent withholding of funds. “That’s by far the biggest struggle for us,” said Smart.

As president of “the lowest-funded community college in Missouri and one of the 10 worst-funded community colleges in the country,” Ozarks Technical Community College, said Chancellor Hal Higdon, shares Smart’s concerns
about state funding. With only 13 percent of its budget provided by the state of Missouri, Higdon felt he had “more in common with the private institutions in this room than the public ones.”

“We are very concerned about what’s happening in terms of the diminishing state support for public institutions,” affirmed Cindy Heider, associate provost at Missouri Western State University. This was a special concern for Heider, as Missouri Western has an open-admissions policy and an imposed a tuition cap. “Where other institutions in other situations have flexibility in terms of raising tuition rates,” said Heider, “we do not.”

Kansas universities face the same challenge, confirmed Shawn Naccarato, director of government and community relations at Pittsburg State University. Dealing with the state Legis-lature keeps Naccarato fully engaged. “I think broader than that for the insti-
tution,” added Naccarato, “it is about how do we remain relevant, competitive, and properly aligned with the economy and with society.”

What most concerned Shawn Hull, a division chair at William Woods University, was “the level of unsustainable student debt.” He noted, too, that once debt levels of individual students surpass $20,000, they generally cease to be potential donors to the university.

Brian Messer, dean and president for Baker University School of Professional and Graduate Studies, worries most about affordability. He believes that more informed “self management” on the part of students will help the university retain viability 10 or 15 years down the road. KU professor Rich Simpson agreed that it was imperative for all universities to making sure students were able to pay tuition. 

“What worries me in a broader perspective,” said John Rich, director of student affairs and alumni at the School of Business of Emporia State University, “is how difficult it is for some people to go to school today. The cost is high. You can borrow money, but there are all kinds of consequences with that.”

For Steve Minnis, president of Ben-edictine College, a constant concern is enrollment. As Minnis noted, enrollment dropped by about 2.5 percent nationwide from 2010 to 2012, but at private institutions enrollment decreased 10 percent. He sees this trend continuing for the next decade, which could pose a real threat to the sustainability of private colleges.

Minnis also added some clarity to the issue of debt. He began by reading headlines from the 1950s and 1960s that sounded as if they could have been written yesterday, like this one from 1966: “Relatively few people can accept or cope with the spiraling cost of college education.” As he noted, the average student debt today is $29,000. A college degree, however, is worth $2 million in added income over a lifetime. Student loan payment on a $29,000 dollar debt is roughly $280 a month—a little more than half of the average car payment. 

“We talk about this crisis,” said Minnis, “but in comparison to what you get from your college education, it is actually a better deal today than it was a generation ago.”

Dale Cushinberry, a retired educator, is concerned “that a nation like ours puts such a low priority on funding education.” Cushinberry worried, too, that academic institutions at all levels have moved away from teaching the basics. One result is that kids leave school
with no skills. Another is that they leave with little knowledge.

At Avila University, Sister Marie Joan Harris, provost and vice-president for academic affairs, concerns herself with making the opportunity for an education available to the students and helping them take advantage of new delivery systems. “Their future is not the future that we faced,” said Sister Marie.

Linda Endecott, with Olin School of Business at Washington University, faces challenge of finding a place for the St. Louis-
based university in a new and competitive market. Her goal is to make the univer-sity an “integral part of the KC community.”

The challenge for David Cook, vice chancellor of the KU Edwards campus, is to align campus offerings with work-force needs in the Kansas City region. “What keeps me up at night,” said Cook, “is making sure we are doing the right thing and providing the right kind of services.”

Assets

In summarizing the various pressures institutions that face, Ron Slepitza observed that “students are really re-quired to do more, and yet sill posses a lot of the core, fundamental values.” This focus has the inevitable result
of causing administrators to focus on deficits. Slepitza asked his colle-agues “to spend some time focusing
on the assets.” 

Leo Morton welcomed the opportunity of being chancellor of the University of Missouri–Kansas City and all of the demands that came with the opportunity. “I wake up every morning really excited about the progress we are making on strategies to address declining state support, increasing enrollment, retention and graduation rates, affordability, compensation for our faculty, and fundraising,” said Morton. “It’s a huge abundance of issues, but I think we are making good progress.”

Prema Arasu, CEO of Kansas State University’s campus in Olathe, expressed her faith in young people and spoke of the opportunity to bring a more business-centric, innovation-driven approach to higher education. 

“We focus on the negatives,” conceded Shawn Naccarato, but for all of Pittsburg State’s issues with the Legislature, the university has still found a way to fund the $70 million worth of capital improvements taking place on campus now. That includes a $30 million center for the arts funded by private sources as well as a new indoor event facility being built thanks to a $5 million investment from the city of Pittsburg. “Our attitude,” said Naccarato, “has been we are going to grow it locally and not count on Topeka or D.C. to save us.”

Adversity, Michael Droge observed, inspires ingenuity. In Park’s case, when the government suddenly pulled support for the active-duty military just a few weeks before the semester started, Park was able to repurpose some existing funds and offer scholarships. “We had to act in short order,” said Droge, “but the university came together, and the [staff] were proud of what they did.”

Ron Slepitza spoke of the “richness” that comes with having assembled a student body at Avila that includes both traditional and non-traditional students. This rich diversity of experiences, said Slepitza, “adds to the conversation and helps students see the connections be-tween what they need to be doing, what they desire to do, and what’s expected of them in the work force.”

“The young people are great young people,” said Michael Austin, the provost of Newman University in Wichita, Kan. Austin’s belief in them was confirmed after spending part of the summer on a school trip to Guatemala. “I saw so much growth, so much embracing of other people, so much embracing of ways of life that the students had no experience with,” said Austin, “and I came away from that trip feeling very good about the future of this country.”

“To build on that,” said Clif Smart, “I really think there is more that is positive about our students.” He commended their work ethic, given that many students are working 20, even 40 hours a week, taking full loads of classes, participating in the life of the university, and are engaged in their community doing volunteer activities. 

“There are no short-cut solutions,” said Cheryl McConnell dean of Rockhurst University’s Helzberg School of Management. She was referring to efforts by some educators to jazz up the learning environment. She sees as a hopeful sign the growing recognition by stakeholders of just how complex higher education can be. “It’s about understanding,” she said. 

Tom Trigg, superintendent of the Blue Valley School District, saw another hopeful sign in the increased collaboration between K–12 schools and higher education institutions. “We are talking about how we can work together for the betterment of our kids,” said Trigg, “and collaborating much more with businesses and industry in work-force development.”

“I love the connection between K–12 and higher education,” affirmed Linda Endecott, “because that’s a part of the development, health, and well-being of the community.”

One of the assets Park University has come to appreciate, said Michael Droge, is the presence of international students on the campus. As he sees it, they help create “a deeper, richer, learning environment.”

Federal Involvement

Jerry Davis did not hesitate to confront the challenge each institution faced in preserving its distinct mission. “I am concerned that there is centralized planning going on out of Washington that is more and more entrenched in the operation of colleges,” said Davis. “I wonder what’s the next dumb idea I have to deal with—such as a rating system of colleges.”

“I do think that there is an effort on the part of state officials and national, getting everyone to the same place,” said Hal Higdon addressing the push to regulatory homogenization. “I think there is a lack of knowledge on the part of policy makers about the differences in colleges.”

Ron Slepitza observed that when an institution receives money from the state or the federal government, some degree of oversight is inevitable. The challenge, he said, is to find the common ground: “If you’re going to change the system, make sure you are changing it for the right reasons.”

“I’m much less concerned with federal regulation than I am that our students be safe,” said Michael Austin. He was referring to the White House’s complex initiative to make universities aware of their responsibilities to victims’ rights pertaining to sexual violence. “We are all struggling to get into compliance with Title IX,” said Austin. “But students have funda-mental right to feel safe on our campuses.”

Higdon was not nearly as receptive to the federal initiative. “Title IX is something we ought to be worried about,” he said, but “the federal government paints with a broad brush.” Although vigilant about campus safety, the problem he sees is that the government is creating programs with an MU or a KU in mind and imposing them on a commuter school like Ozarks Technical Community College.

Of equal concern to participants was the pending legislation to reauthorize the Higher Education Act (HEA), especially the Senate version that favors top-down accountability for colleges and the possibility of the federal government’s taking over the accreditation process. Slepitza worried that if the documentation required to comply with a new HEA is anything like that required in health-care management, costs will rise.

Higdon recognized the flaws in the private accreditation organizations, but argued that “having the federal government do it would be terrible.” Like Slepitza, he could see a health care-like obsession with gratuitous compliance.

“It is going to be a disaster,” Higdon said of a potential nationwide rating system, “and we all know it’s going to be, and I think we are a little bit reluctant to say so because it looks like we don’t want to be graded.” He argued that he and his colleagues needed to be more outspoken on issues that threaten the well-being of their institutions.

Representing a school whose mission is “to educate in a community of faith and scholarship,” Steve Minnis worried that the federal government would come up with standards that fail to respect that mission and make accreditation difficult.

“I don’t know why anybody would believe that federal government can do anything more efficiently than a private entity,” said Jerry Davis. “We’re better off with regional accreditors dealing with academic matters than we are having that taken over by the federal government.”

“It needs to be out of federal hands,” agreed Mike Austin. “We have the opportunity to make the case, to design our own program. We have to make that case, because if we don’t, it will be made for us.”

“We need to be better at what we do,” said Cheryl McConnell. “The accrediting bodies, the regional bodies, they need to step up and be better at what they do, and the federal regulators will back off.”

The Learning Environment

Cindy Heider argued that the instructional tech demands on faculty at this point are greater than they have ever been, and will only continue to escalate. And with that technology, students expect a certain level of flexibility. “Professors are finding themselves in a world where they have to be a lot more engaged with their students,” said Heider, “not only in the instruction delivery, but with students outside the formal class setting.”

“The constant push to change, change,
change is overwhelming at times,” said John Rich. He argued, though, that
students who need help the most often hide behind the technology.

“With technology comes tremendous opportunity to have a lot of information at your fingertips,” said Ron Slepitza, “but it also comes with some challenges to help students make wise use of it.”

“Students are just as overwhelmed as we are with how we communicate, how we educate, what are we trying to bring into a frame of reference,” said Prema Arasu.

For Cheryl McConnell, there is a real need to hire the kind of professors who are capable of helping students “navigate the things we can’t even perceive will be out there.” As Sister Marie noted, however, new Ph.D.s are still trained to educate students in the traditional fashion. She sees a role for the university in helping faculty adjust to all of the high-impact learning strategies.

Brian Messer believes that if faculty felt comfortable using the new technology, it actually could create a much deeper relationship with students and a stronger mentorship relationship between student and faculty.

As a historian, Shawn Hull took a contrary position. He is on the verge of banning laptops in class because they are such a distraction. And as to the social media, he argued, they may provide a relationship that is more constant, but not deeper. 

Cindy Heider took exception with Shawn Hull’s comment that online education cannot compete with the richness of classroom interaction. “Done well,” she believes, “it is as rich and as deeply a delivery of instruction as anything that can be done in the classroom in terms of a face to face.”

Rich Simpson believes that, at KU at least, students are viewing higher education like a product. “Students are savvy,” he argued. “They sort of know what’s out there.” The downside is that students use different criteria to shop, and the weaker students tend to use unwise criteria like “what’s the easiest, cheapest way that I can get through this?”

Institutions, said Michael Droge, must make the case to students that is built on more than attainment of specific work skills. “I think higher education needs to really get back to the value of the education,” he said.

Steve Minnis agreed. The liberal arts, he contended, provide a foundation in history, art, science, theology, philosophy, culture and language that gives students the foundation to “analyze all that information and make good decisions.”

“The fact is that human cognition hasn’t changed substantially in 40,000 years,” said Mike Austin. Whether it’s on-line or whether it’s through text or whether it’s through e-mails or whether it’s through letters on wax tablets, Austin argued, the strategies haven’t really changed. Only the tools have.