Much Weighs on Minds of Campus Executives

Ingram's 2017 Higher Education Industry Outlook Assembly


By Dennis Boone


From public universities and private colleges across Missouri and Kansas, two dozen campus executives descended on the K-State campus in Olathe to assess current affairs in higher education. Among them were (front row, left to right) Doug Fiore, Park University; Steve Scott, Pittsburg State University; Mark Wrighton, Washington University; Peter Dorhout, Kansas State University; Fr. Joseph Gile, Newman University; (standing, left to right) Linda Endecott, Washington University; Russ Melchert, UMKC School of Pharmacy; Penny DeJong, Park University; Kent Wray, Missouri Science & Technology; Carol Shanklin, Kansas State University; Brad Kleindl, Park University; Kim Long, Newman University; Blake Flanders, Kansas Board of Regents; Garnett Stokes, University of Missouri; Ed Bashaw, Emporia State University; Clif Smart, Missouri State University; Derek Teeter, Husch Blackwell; Kenny Southwick, Shawnee Mission School District; Ralph Richardson, Kansas State-Olathe; Lynette Olson, Pittsburg State University; (back row, standing left to right) Stuart Bunderson, Washington University; Greg Gunderson, Park University; Doug Davenport, Missouri Western State University.


When two dozen top executives from public and private universities in the bi-state region gathered recently for the 2017 Higher Education Industry Outlook assembly, each was asked to respond to a single opening question: What keeps you awake at night? The answers from these administrators, charged with shaping the next cohorts of workers in Missouri and Kansas, touched on a range of topics that were illuminating, enlightening and, occasionally, uncomfortable. Following the leads of co-chairs Mark Wrighton,
chancellor at Washington University in St. Louis, and Peter Dorhout, vice president for research at Kansas State University, participants spent the better part of two hours exploring the nature of challenges facing institutions of higher learning, delving into experiences and tactics that help address some of those challenges and, from time to time, sharing a knowing chuckle, the kind that says, “What else can we do but laugh?” The meeting took place at K-State’s Olathe Innovation Campus, a site that by itself spoke volumes about the changing nature of higher education, with its emphasis on research, commercialization and instruction in the biological sciences. The meeting was a powerful reminder that the regional economy has much at stake in the ability of these institutions to deliver a work force that is highly qualified and able to move its employer base forward.

Nocturnal Worries

Peter Dorhout’s opening query resonated with virtually everyone at the table.

“What’s keeping me up at night is how is Park is going to handle the huge influx of students when the states of Missouri and Kansas stop funding higher education and give everybody a voucher,” said Brad Kleindl, dean of Park University’s College of Business. But, he acknowledged, “as that turmoil occurs at the state level to create that high level of competition, it actually benefits some other institutions.”

That hit home for Kent Wray, vice chancellor for global and strategic partnerships at Missouri University of Science and Technology. “One of the things that keeps us awake at S&T is the reduction in state appropriations and the limitations we have on increasing student fees,” he said. “Because we have almost doubled our enrollment in the last nine years, we’ve had difficulty increasing the number of faculty that we have.”

Blake Flanders, president and CEO of the Kansas Board of Regents, expressed concerns from a workforce-development perspective, because studies show the state’s employers need 53,000 more credentialed employees by 2020. “We are significantly under that,” he said, and filling the gaps is difficult with a student population that’s high-risk, and with costs increasing.

President Clif Smart saw concerns even within the success metrics at Missouri State University. “Our single major group that lags furthest behind on our campus is our African-American graduation rate, more than 20 percent below the campus as a whole,” he said. “That’s a real problem.”

Washington University’s Stuart Bunder-son, associate dean and director of executive programs, cited potential threats to traditional MBA programming: “The largest provider of executive education is not the universities; it’s companies providing their own training,” he said. Partnerships with thought leaders have indicated “they don’t see the value proposition of executive education, and that’s troubling to me.”

For Kleindl’s Park colleague, Penny DeJong, who chairs the marketing and management program, the concern is over re-engaging students who have started college but broken off for any number of reasons. Noting the average age of a Park University student is in the mid-30s, she said, “they have a lot of responsibilities, especially those in the military. Life gets in the way. How can we re-engage and help them reach their goals?”

Even for students who complete schooling, Carol Shanklin worries about career paths from her seat as dean of graduate studies at K-State. “Are we preparing all of our grads, both masters and Ph.D., for the diversity of career opportunities, not just the first jobs?” she asked. Diversity in research experience across government, industry and other fields could provide that preparation, she said.

An admitted lone wolf as the one K-12 voice at the table, interim superintendent Kenny Southwick noted that the Shawnee Mission school district had 28,000 students, 3,300 employees and about 250,000 patrons. “I’m concerned that we are too steeped in tradition,” he said. “We hear about 21st- century skills we need to deliver and how we transform education in the 21st century. But we’re 17 years into it; what have we done?”

Emporia State’s new business school dean, Ed Bashaw, cited the personal aspects of engaging with students, particularly first-generation ones. Whether it’s a student who has run out of money and might drop out, or has to choose between career and school, “those are the things that I stay up at night worrying about—individuals,” he said.

Another set of concerns revolved around innovation and program relevance. Ralph Richardson, CEO of the host facility for K-State, asked his colleagues “how do we respond at the speed of business? It is so frustrating not to be able to respond when a request comes to us because we’re so steeped in tradition and process, and we struggle with that as an academic institution.”

As president of Pittsburg State Univer-sity for eight years, Steve Scott said his job is often wrapped in a single word: “Morale. That’s what keeps me up at night. At the very time we need our faculty and staff to be creative, innovative, energized, and forward-thinking, we can’t allow them to not have hope.”

The larger challenge at UMKC, said Russ Melchert, dean of the school of pharmacy, is “how to continue the momentum we have and transform health professions in education, deconstructing literally thousands of years in how we train healthcare providers?”

The need for innovation is constant, said Park University’s provost, Doug Fiore. “We don’t know what’s coming next in terms of teaching.” Methods of instruction and delivery, he said, will continue to change so rapidly, but in ways unknown. “That excites me,” he said, “but … we have to figure how to get faculty excited by that.” 

Missouri Western’s Doug Davenport, associate provost for research, planning and institutional effectiveness, said it was imperative to become less risk-averse as an institution. “We are prone to thinking in terms of tradition, and that’s not going to cut it any more,” he said.

For all there is to worry about at night—and there was a lot—K-State’s Virginia Moxley brought the house down with a post-retirement perspective: “I’m a dean emeritus,” she said, “so I sleep well.”

Not to be outdone, Chancellor Mark Wrighton cited the wit of a former dean at Washington University who once answered that same introductory question by saying, “I sleep like a baby—I sleep for an hour, then I cry for an hour.”

What’s Working?

With a  robust list of concerns thus compiled, the co-chairmen steered the conversation to a necessary track: Strategies that universities are employing to address those kinds of concerns.

Brad Kleindl cited a process approach at Park that framed their work in terms of manufacturing. “In essence, we have an education factory—we design a curriculum to meet industry standards, we then deliver the curriculum through full-time faculty and a large group of adjuncts to monitor to make sure it meets quality standards.” That mind-set, he said, “allows us to be able to expand,” delivering a program at scale.

Rather than ask institutions to alter their missions, Steve Scott suggested a different approach. “Maybe,” he suggested, “we need different people.” Case in point: When Pittsburg State was looking for a new chief financial officer, it hired someone from outside higher education. “We wanted someone who knew how to drive value in every dollar we had, who knew how to deliver shareholder value—in this case, value to families with tuition and payments, as well as the state of Kansas.”

Similarly, in seeking a new dean for the college of technology, the university sought out someone not steeped in the mentality of tenure and promotions, but in a history of building successful partnerships. That included a corporate background, commercializing products. “That’s a very, very different approach” to staffing, Scott said.

At Missouri S&T, said Kent Wray, a similar program adopted in 2015 reinforced the university’s corporate relations by hiring an executive from the Boeing Co. “We’ve tried to find relationships with industry, whereas in the past, if they had a tech problem, they would call and see if they could find someone who could help with it—now, we contact them,” Wray said. 

In doing so, the university established connections with 2,600 companies in a single year. Now 3,000-strong, that roster of corporate relations has helped boost donations and scholarships, and many of those companies began to make appearances on campus to interview prospective graduates for jobs.

President Greg Gunderson cited a collaboration with a major regional employer that led to Park University’s production of a summer boot camp where the university, in essence, prescreened employees. “What it allowed us to do is marry our social science faculty in their capacity to examine what the employer says they need and help them align,” he said. “We believe we can bring value and help them understand what a successful employee is, as opposed to what they think one is.”

Kenny Southwick cited the example of municipal needs with public-safety employees, a valid concern for a school district covering 14 cities. City officials had long complained that they couldn’t find the candidates for police, fire and emergency medical services. The district hired Overland Park’s former police chief, John Douglas, to lead its security operations and offer insight on course creation.

Result? “We now own a fire truck—bought it from California,” Southwick said. “And we have an ambulance.” Those tools are preparing students for careers that may not require a four-year degree as their next step, but can be a pathway for someone to pursue a degree in criminal justice, public administration or healthcare services.

Such efforts are part of the campus shift to respond faster to employer needs. Another example of that, said Steve Scott, was Pitt State’s hiring of a dean of technology who challenged the schools plastics program to grow from fewer than 70 majors to well more than 200. “That’s not a traditional approach,” Scott said. “He didn’t say, ‘I’m going to design it.’ He said, this is where you need to be. There are jobs, careers, that we’re missing out on and students are missing out on.” A dean with a more traditional background, he said, might not have been as aggressive in laying out such expectations.

The Value of Partnerships

Peter Dorhout shifted the discussion to partnerships, and ways that universities can leverage other community assets to serve students. Scouting and Explorers, he said, can develop interests in career options, as can 4-H. And corporate advisory boards can be powerful allies for higher education, helping identify unmet needs that lead to new lines of instruction.

That’s exactly what happened at Pitt State, said provost Lynette Olson, where an advisory board had been pushing several years ago for a development of a course—in Spanish—around the business of construction. “That’s a very different way to study language,” she said, but after discussion between the modern language faculty and the school of construction, “we now have a course that resides in our school of construction that is in Spanish, for construction management.”

The push from industry representatives, she said, was the key. “It may not be exactly where modern languages wanted it, and it may not be where the school of construction faculty wanted it to be. But we now have that product.”

At Missouri Western, said Doug Daven-port, conversations with a hospital CEO led to creation of a new program in population health. “I think that’s the nature of the new business of higher education, in many ways,” he said. “There will be suggestions, and in many cases, funding potentially that could be tied to those initiatives if we indicate an interest in innovation. That’s key to these kinds of partnerships.”

Mark Wrighton pointed to a collaboration between various university executives and corporate chief executives from across the St. Louis region, meeting twice a year to assess emerging business needs. “One of the issues that’s come up in terms of need that companies have identified is the whole area of data science, data analytics. There are a lot of jobs,” Wrighton said, and the demand to fill them has come far more rapidly than most institutions can react to with the development of strong programs.

Through a business advisory council, said Brad Kleindl, officials at Park Univer-sity learned that many HR managers today specifically turn to LinkedIn for hiring. “They actually receive applications that go into a file cabinet, then they go on-line to find employees,” he said. That led to a course Park designed to help students learn to maximize their exposure on LinkedIn.

“All of our programs are going to have artifacts that can be included in their LinkedIn profile,” said Penny DeJong, “so they have the opportunity to show employers—without even trying to—what they can do.” It was just one aspect of how an advisory board can influence program creation, she said, and at Park, that has led to new lines in entrepreneurship, data analytics, project management, and social marketing.

Degree Completion

The issue of degree completion—keeping students on track to graduation—is always a consideration for campus executives, but it will become an even greater challenge, Mark Wrighton suggested, with a more diverse student body emerging over the next decade. “What are we doing to make sure we are supporting these students?” he asked.

Provost Garnett Stokes said the Univer-sity of Missouri was taking a hands-on approach to address retention rates. “We individually contact students who we see have not re-registered, and that has made a really big difference,” she said. The university has created a program to address financial needs of students who may be at risk of dropping out for lack of just a few hundred dollars. Plus, she said, “we have more than 90 freshman interest groups, and there are many different choices” that help acclimate students to campus life.

At K-State, said, Carol Shanklin, students can opt into a program designed completely around the first-year experience. It’s important to engage students early, she said, “so they can see success. Faculty are great mentors who care about students, then help them branch out to connect with other students and faculty.”

Development of more online offerings, said Ed Bashaw, was a key to retaining students who can’t fit their lives into a campus dynamic. “At least they are able to move forward rather than drop out completely,” he said. “You have to give them that access to higher education.”

The point is well-taken at Park, one of the nation’s leaders in extending its reach through on-line courses and satellite campuses, many at military bases. Non-traditional students, said Brad Kleindl, “have become the tradition, and we have some we track that have been with us for 12 consecutive years.

Perhaps social awareness of how public universities are faring with retention could be bolstered, said Blake Flanders, by focusing less on the annual figures released on the 20th day of classes, a metric that doesn’t mean as much today as it did 40 years ago.

“Completion is so much more powerful a metric, because our retention lens is the student entering, and how do we do keep them from that first to second year?” With only 86 percent of students finishing high school, and only 63 of those going to college, success rates drop significantly, he noted.

Technology on Campus

Yes, noted Mark Wrighton, you can reserve a hotel room, buy an airline ticket or order a book and have it delivered in a day. Such are the blessings of technology. But while “IT infrastructure has been enormously helpful, it’s also enormously burdensome,” he said. “It turns out to be hugely expensive, then we have the responsibility to manage all this information that we are collecting on all of our students, payroll—everything.” How, he asked, are universities dealing with that challenge?

Fresh off a deans’ council meeting on that very subject, Garnett Stokes said MU is “trying to convince our faculty to use particular vendors and to use particular networks, but it’s a massive issue for us. We’re recognizing the scope of what it is we need to do, and we’re making incremental changes in our processes, but we’ve got an investment to make.”

That’s a particular challenge for universities grappling with how to define data and determine who has access to it, all in compliance with the regulator alphabet soup of HIPAA, FERPA and the like. 

Steve Scott said Pittsburg State was feeling “a lot of tension between standardization, which reduces the cost and tech support, and overall costs. We’ve got to get our costs down. The fewer systems we use, the more standardized we are.”

And yet, as a faculty member, he used to argue the opposite, he conceded. But such individualization can come back to bite an institution: When PSU moved to a standardized e-mail system a few years ago, it was attempting to replace a system targeted by 13 different version of browsers, dating back to Netscape 1.0. “How can you support that?” he asked, quickly providing his own answer: “You can’t support that.”

The Shawnee Mission school district has deployed 30,000 devices to faculty and students in the past three years, said Kenny Southwick, and is fast coming up on a renewal schedule. “It has been a massive undertaking with safety, security, meeting federal guidelines, making sure students are safe but still have access to information,” he said. “It’s moving faster than we are.”

To which Penny DeJong replied, “And we’re trying to keep up with you. When your students come to our schools, that’s what they’re expecting. They’re not expecting somebody to stand in front of them and lecture for 50 minutes. They’re expecting that computer interaction, that program interaction. I love my faculty, but they don’t always want to make that change.”

All across the K-20 spectrum, the notion of computer labs is giving way to mobility and individual access, anywhere. For universities, though, department chairs are reluctant to give up such an enterprise possession, said Steve Scott, but it might be time to concede that the lab structure is outdated. “We just went from a homegrown system for our ERP to Oracle Cloud, a $2 million purchase. We could have done a lot of things with $2 million.”

Peter Dorhout said he was much more comfortable managing K-State’s biosecurity lab and nuclear reactor than dealing with everyday tech issues. “But another challenge that may be more unique to research-intensive institutions is export control, to the point of faculty wanting their devices with them when they travel to other countries,” he said. “That’s a bit of a cultural change, because it actually puts them at risk, it puts their data at risk, and if their device is compromised, it puts our system at risk, as well. It’s tough trying to stay ahead of the bad guys.”

Derek Teeter, a partner of the higher-education practice group at Husch Blackwell, said most of the matters it deals with on behalf of university clients “typically originate with some act of employee negligence. It’s opening a phishing e-mail, or not password-protecting documents.” Thus, training becomes vital, he said. 

Universities, as well, are at risk because of uncivil, and at times, illegal on-line postings on social media networks, Wrighton noted. “They’re proliferating problems for us; social media is a blessing in some ways, but not in all ways.”

Dealing with such poor citizenship, as Peter Dorhout’s described it, “is a real challenge that I think we all face, public or private, respecting First Amendment rights, but at the same time developing a culture of mutual respect among our colleagues, students and faculty and administrators.” It is, he said, a part of the university mission to ensure an environment of safety.

And that, as Greg Gunderson noted, points to a different type of education that universities are promoting. Park has brought in speakers to address this very dynamic with two primary goals, he said. “One is our belief that a lot of students today see themselves as a victim. When you see yourself as victim, it means you’re not responsible for solving a problem.” It also means you can delay actions in response to those who might be victimizing you.

“We are trying to flip that, and say that students have an obligation to bootstrap, lift themselves up and own solutions and be advocates for their condition,” he said. That’s a critical role for universities—defining the public debate, “because there’s no other institution able to do that but us. The youth need us to provide to them an example of how they go out to the community and make a difference. We’ve got to own that.”