University Environment More Dynamic Than Ever
Opportunities and Threats
As a first question, participants were asked to scan the horizon and describe the threat and/or opportunity that looms the largest.
“There are no threats out there,” said Ron Trewyn, vice president for research at Kansas State University to a generalized wave of laughter. The immediate opportunity he saw at hand was the chance that Ingram’s Industry Outlook provided to inform legislators of the importance of higher education.
For Cliff Davis, vice chancellor for advancement and student affairs for Ozarks Technical Community College in Springfield, funding was the most pressing issue he would like the legislators to consider, “particularly the inequities between the community college and four-year institutions.”
Mannie Liscum, associate dean of the Graduate School at University of Missouri, saw not just funding as a looming challenge, but also “the finances of how we do business.” He asked, “How are we going to survive the storm of what we’ve cut at the state levels?”
“Our state does not value higher education,” lamented Hal Higdon, chancellor at Ozarks Tech. He was referring to the State of Missouri. “It just doesn’t.”
John Patterson, vice president of administration and campus life at Pittsburg State University, traced the funding resistance to a loss of trust by the public in the value of higher education, whether it’s private or public. “Somehow,” said Patterson, “we have to restore the confidence that there’s real value in what it is that we’re selling as higher education.”
One way to restore confidence, suggested Sue Potestio, vice president for advancement at Emporia State University, was “to reframe our culture.” She contended that the university was tasked with recruiting students, teaching them, helping them to graduate and start their careers. “Changing our culture to align those four things with our faculty is a great opportunity,” said Potestio.
“We’re slow,” elaborated Nancy Russell, executive director and dean at Metropolitan Community College in Kansas City. “We tend to take a lot of time to make a lot of decisions, and I think sometimes we need to be more entrepreneurial.”
Jake Mooney, associate director of Washington University’s executive MBA program in Kansas City, argued that changes in the academic landscape as well as in the work force since 2008 had provided new opportunities in research-based learning, the goal being to “create the next generation of leaders who are adaptable to the future to help lead the way.”
Speaking of research, Mike Boehm, the mayor of Lenexa and a board member of the Johnson County Education Research Triangle (JCERT), spoke of a concern unique to Johnson County. JCERT has pumped money into the three universities in the county—KU-Edwards, KSU-Olathe, and the KU Med Center with its Cancer Center in Fairway.
“The biggest challenge,” said Boehm, “believe it or not, is that some folks in Topeka are questioning why we have tasked ourselves” with university-level research initiatives. They apparently are questioning the county’s ability to tax itself and assume authority.
Mark Allen, UMKC Business Develop-ment Specialist, identified another distinct threat/opportunity. As he noted, “mega-regions” are developing around the country. These are collaborations of industry, government and education. He cited Dallas, Chicago and Denver as regions that have already made headway in that regard. If the various entities in the Kansas City region do not respond appropriately, the other regions could poach our talent and our businesses. “We have got to work together,” said Allen.
David Cook sees JCERT as something of a launching pad for the kind of collaborations Allen was discussing. “We have an opportunity to do something very, very special,” Cook said, “and the way of doing that is if we can actually find ways to work together.”
Having just retired from the Marine Corps after 27 years, Stephen Waldron, vice president of student advising at Grantham University, had a slightly different pers-pective on the word “threat.” He prefers to see opportunities, none more promising than with the adult learner. The goal at Grantham is to help those adults “achieve those things that perhaps they didn’t think they would be able to achieve.”
“The greatest opportunity of the future,” agreed Jerry Jorgensen, provost and senior vice president at Park Uni-versity, “is growth in adult education.” Jorgensen believes that universities that can address this growth will be successful.
For Joe Sopcich, president of Johnson County Community College, success can best be assessed if “our students succeed out in the community.” That, of course, led to another question, namely: How does an institution measure success?
Breaking Down Silos
Ruth Dyer, the senior vice provost for academic affairs at Kansas State, saw the growth of KSU’s interdisciplinary programs as both a “wonderful opportunity” and as a challenge. “Breaking down those silos between the disciplines” is the task at hand.
“I love the idea of interdisciplinary degrees,” said Cynthia Heider, associate provost at Missouri Western University in St. Joseph. To accomplish this, said Heider, faculty must understand “the importance of blending and breaking down those silos.”
Marsha Haufler, associate dean of liberal arts and sciences for international and interdisciplinary studies at the University of Kansas, believes in the importance of “bringing the faculties of departments and divisions together to realize what’s possible with cooperation.” Haufler also saw “the internationalization of the campus” as a great opportunity.
Long-term success, said Michael Shonrock, president of Emporia State University, “is going to take partnerships not only with business, but with community colleges, four-year research institutions, thinking very differently about what we’re doing.”
Marilu Goodyear, director of the School of Public Affairs and Admin-istration at the University of Kansas, recognized the challenges inherent in interdisciplinary cooperation. Her school has been encouraged to work across disciplines with other entities, but given the acknowledged quality of her program, “Everybody on campus wants to work with us.” Trying to figure out which partnerships are truly strategic is no small order, given their limited resources.
“We have to rethink how we fundamentally do business,” said Mannie Liscum. As he argued, the state of Missouri doesn’t coordinate its educational system so that each institution has a particular strength. “Let’s think about moving faculty around the state to different places,” said Liscum provocatively.
When Mark Allen spoke to the various cooperative arrangements among universities in the system, Liscum replied, “Cooperation is not the same as fundamentally disrupting the system.”
“We have a problem,” said Hal Higdon of OTC, “in that we have no state oversight” in Missouri.
“I was going to say for the record,” said David Cook with a smile, “that Kansas does a really good job.” He did acknowledge, however, that “mission creep” is a common problem among all institutions. “It’s part of the world we live in.”
On the issue of mission creep, Doug Dunham, provost at Northwest Missouri State in Maryville, conceded that many of the participants’ institutions have business incubators, “but that’s what a university does; that’s what community colleges are, drivers of economics in the state.”
Joe Sopcich volunteered that the community colleges and technical scho-ols in Kansas are coordinated by the Kansas Board of Regents. “They do a pretty good job,” said Sopcich, “but it’s taken some time to get to that point.”
David Cook, citing an article on the decline of liberal arts in the Ivy League schools, wondered whether liberal arts had a future and, if so, what kind?
“I hope it’s a rosy future, since we’re a liberal-arts school,” said Steve Minnis, president of Benedictine College in Atchison. Benedictine, Minnis explained, is a mission-driven institution, the mission being to educate in a community of faith and scholarship.
The value Minnis sees in a traditional liberal-arts program is that it gives students a foundation for analyzing information and making decisions. He tells his students that Benedictine is not going to train them to be an expert in a field for a job they will have 20 years from now, but their education will give them the tools “to learn how to be an expert in that field.”
“We don’t want people who just go out and know how to do something,” affirmed Doug Dunham. “We want them to know how to create something, how to think critically through issues, how to communicate.”
Newman University, Mike Austin explained, recently instituted a new core curriculum that its faculty worked on for three years. The Wichita-based college dramatically increased the amount of liberal arts, critical-thinking, interdisciplinary education at every level. “The world doesn’t need a lot more English majors,” said Austin, “but the world does need more people who can read books and analyze things.”
As Jerry Jorgensen of Park University explained, the accrediting bodies are pushing in the other direction, towards more required courses. “There’s a stress or built-in pressure threatening the liberal arts as we try to bake it into a curriculum,” said Jorgensen.
Mark Allen’s research confirmed the same, certainly from a business perspective. The Top 10 attributes businesses seek in their new hires revolve almost exclusively around critical thinking, communication skills, global orien-tation, ethics, and integrity. “That speaks to me about how relevant liberal arts are,” said Allen.
“We’re not doing a very good job speaking to parents who are helping students pick [the liberal arts] career path,” said Marsha Haufler. “We need to do a better job getting this message out to students we’re hoping to attract.”
“Isn’t the whole beauty of higher education that we have an opportunity to explore and find out about possible disciplines you didn’t know anything about?” confirmed Ruth Dyer. “Sometimes, I think we forget to tell that story.”
The Higher Ed Bubble
David Cook raised the question of whether higher education was facing a bubble not unlike the one that brought down the housing industry five years prior.
“I think it’s going to burst,” said Mannie Liscum, “but it’s going to burst in a way that some of us aren’t thinking about. It’s going to be a socio-economic disparity. We’re going to lose whole swaths of society that can’t afford education.”
With shrinking state budgets, Mike Austin saw a diminishing difference between the needs of private and public institutions. There is a critical difference, countered Cynthia Heider, because state universities “don’t have the flexibility of adjusting their tuition.”
Ozarks Technical College has the ironic advantage of being underfunded by the state, relying much more heavily on tuition than state aid. “So during the downturn, we prospered,” said Hal Higdon. The school was already running on an entrepreneurial basis.
As a way to keep education affordable in a public system, Higdon made the bold recommendation that a given state should rethink its numbers of research institutions. He recommended that some institutions “go back to being just good teaching universities.”
Mike Boehm envisioned less a burst of a bubble than a shift away from a campus experience at a traditional four-year college to more reliance on community colleges and four-year colleges close to home.
Joe Sopcich also saw a shift in emphasis to community colleges and the technical programs they offer. “Having community colleges be a destination school for high school grads is a shift that I think we’re going to see,” agreed Cheryl McConnell.
The message that has not gotten out, said Doug Dunham, is that during the recession, college grads were much less likely to be unemployed than non-graduates. What is more, their earning capacity also increased more than the rate of tuition.
Marilu Goodyear rejected the bubble analogy for the reason that education is not a product so much as a process. “We try to meet a student where they can afford to be met at a moment in time.”
“Education is still the path to success in America,” said Steve Minnis. “If you’re an institution that’s recruiting or accepting students that aren’t going to succeed . . . then your bubble should burst.”
Responding to the Bubble
Whether there is a bubble or not, David Cook wanted to know what strategies his colleagues had for dealing with funding shortfalls.
Rockhurst University, Cheryl McConnell observed, has become very careful in focusing on what it does best. “We say no to 20 good ideas a week so that we can focus on the things that we need to say yes to,” said McConnell. “I think more universities need to do that.”
Mark Allen spoke to the cooperative arrangement between Rockhurst and UMKC in regard to UMKC’s engineering program. “Those kinds of efficiencies and collaborations can really boost things and help a lot.”
Hal Higdon cited a very effective cooperative foreign-language arrangement in Springfield among Ozarks Technical College, Drury, Southwest Baptist University, Evangel and Missouri State. Students register with and pay tuition to their particular university, but the five institutions share the cost.
Northwest Missouri State offers something similar, but online. Doug Dunham talked about programs at Northwest that did not have adequate campus enrollment but that were offered through an arrangement with other comparable universities.
“It’s kind of a win-win for the student and for the university,” said Dunham. “The student gets exposed to expertise that they wouldn’t have on our own campus and get to complete a major that they want.”
Comparably, said Sue Maes, dean of continuing education at Kansas State University, the Great Plains Interactive Educational Alliance includes 22 land-grant universities across the nation, including K-State. The alliance has created at least 16 master’s degrees.
Park University, said Jerry Jorgensen, has opened mines underneath the campus, where the costs of construction are only about a third of what’s needed to build above ground. Park has also opened these spaces to commercial enterprises.
“That’s become a revenue stream for us,” said Jorgensen. “That’s happening all over the place, not just at Park.” Administrators are asking themselves what resources they have that are ripe for commercial exploitation.
UMKC has responded to the financial crunch by increasing its recruiting efforts, growing its enrollment, and gaining market share. This is all part of a larger effort to keep the best students in the area, said Mark Allen.
Grantham University worries less about a tuition bubble than others be-cause it is 100 percent online. Revenues go directly to the “education piece,” said Stephen Waldron, not to maintaining sprawling campuses.
Sue Maes has seen tremendous growth in distance learning. The challenge, she sees, is to include these students in the university’s research and education programs to take advantage of what they bring to the classroom. In that many are adults with significant work experience, their potential contribution is all the more valuable.
As Mike Austin suggested, there is less conflict between face-to-face and online education, than there is between either and the “MOOC”—a massive, open online course. The MOOCs, with free content posted on the Internet, are hastening a change, said Austin. The teacher today in whatever format needs to do something more than deliver pass-ive content at a student.
Cynthia Heider offered the caution that the best MOOCs are highly interactive and highly engaging in terms of the graphics used and the interface with students. These features prompt students to think. Respond.
Sue Maes agreed that MOOCs have evolved from the passive “sage on the stage” level into something much more lively. Marsha Haufler sees the MOOC as something of a teaching lab, from which “there are a lot of things we can learn.”
Mike Boehm wondered whether there has been any research with employers or placement people as to how successful these students are once out in the work force. Cheryl McConnell doubted whether
a traditional 18-to-21-year-old would succeed on a strict online diet. She thought it more appropriate for an older student.
“You hit the nail on the head,” said Stephen Waldron. Online education works best “for the adult learner, the underserved, the person who thought they’d never go to school.”
“It’s a different, disruptive transitional time for us,” said Cynthia Dyer. “I don’t know any student now who has taken all of his or her courses at a single institution. They’re taking them from multiple institutions, face-to-face, online, hybrid, a variety of different ways.”
Jerry Jorgensen spoke to the emergence of the hybrid model—that is, a blend of online and face-to-face classes. Park has seen an increase in interest in hybrids especially with adult learners.
When they get together on the weekend, said Jorgensen, they engage, they meet each other, they have a relational context, and then they go on-line. He noted that the experience was richer and more dynamic because the students have met. That model “is catching on and will continue to grow,” said Jorgensen.
“One size does not fit all,” said Doug Dunham in the way of summary. “There’s a role for online. There’s a role for MOOC, for tech, for community colleges, for four-year colleges, for the research institutions.”