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The Most Innovative College in America?

The Most Innovative College in America?

October 9, 2006

It’s that time again -- the fall season marks the ramp-up for the college admissions game. Across the country, eager high school seniors and their parents are rushing to newsstands and bookstores to buy college guides.  

But wait ... this year there is another contender in the marketplace for information about what’s happening in American colleges and universities, the Commission on the Future of Higher Education's just-released report, "A Test of Leadership: Charting the Future of U.S. Higher Education." The commission’s members included past and present college presidents, corporate executives, and representatives of various higher education associations. The report from the commission, the first federal panel on quality and related higher education issues in more than two decades, is based on a yearlong study of American higher education.

Drafts of the commission report had been circulating all summer. Based on the charter from Education Secretary Margaret Spellings to “be bold” in offering recommendations for the future of American higher education, we should assume that any college or university cited in the commission report is a noteworthy place – among the best postsecondary institutions in the country.

So do you know which U.S. college or university was cited for “innovation in curriculum development and program delivery” in the commission’s report?  The winner is Neumont University, in Salt Lake City. The final version of the Spellings commission report, released September 19,  states that “Salt Lake City-based Neumont University is educating the most sought-after software developers in the world” (p. 25).

Neumont University? Educating the “most sought-after software developers in the world?” Paraphrasing Humphrey Bogart in the movie "Casablanca," of all the technical and engineering colleges across America, how did they pick this one?

Like other folks parsing the drafts of the Spellings commission report this summer, I was surprised by the reference to Neumont. Perhaps like you, dear reader and esteemed colleague, I had never heard of Neumont. Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with the fact that Neumont is little known. For example, my son is a graduate of one of the highly ranked small liberal arts colleges in the East, but many of my non-academic friends and acquaintances Los Angeles where I live have never heard of his alma mater, Hamilton College.

Still, as one of the few colleges or universities cited by name in the Spellings commission report and the only single college to get a box highlighting its academic program, Neumont must be doing something very important, yes?  Maybe Neumont is a small place like Deep Springs College, a decidedly different two-year college in the California desert that some academic insiders consider the most selective and unique college in the country.

Eager for more information about what the Spellings commission had deemed to be one of the most innovative and impressive academic programs in American colleges and universities, I went to the Web.  From the Neumont Web page I learned that “Neumont is an award winning university dedicated to educating the most sought-after software developers in the world.”  (Hmm, that endorsement repeats, verbatim,  the text in the commission report.) Affirming the IT focus of the university’s program, Neumont’s home page proudly posts some impressive technology industry logos and endorsements:

  • An MSNBC logo citing an August 30 2006 news report indicating that Neumont was “the most talked about school in America.”
  • An InformationWeek logo stating that Neumont is “creating the Next-Gen IT workforce.”
  • A Forbes magazine logo, accompanied by text stating that Neumont is “clearly several rungs above."

Additionally, the Neumont home page recently added the logo of the U.S. Department of Education, with a hot link to a university press release proclaiming that the  “Commission on Higher Education appointed by U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings recognized the University [Neumont] as one charting the future of U.S. Higher Education.”

All good stuff, to be sure, particularly if you are a prospective student interested in an IT degree. But as I wandered the Neumont web page, some things seemed curious, even odd. The Neumont web site reports that the university is actually the “Salt Lake City campus of the 102 year old Morrison University” and “offers Bachelor of Science in Computer Science and Master of Business Administration degrees.” For-profit Neumont University is accredited by the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools. Interestingly, the ACICS home page prominently lists the names of institutions that have lost their accreditation, a decidedly different model than the six regional associations that accredit most of the nation’s traditional, nonprofit public and private colleges and universities.

Digging Deeper

Intrigued by these somewhat unusual organizational and accrediting arrangements, I sought still more information about Neumont. Turning to the traditional college guides: Peterson's reports that Neumont enrolls 140 undergraduates (93 percent men), has a 5:1 student faculty ratio (impressive!), charges $15,000 for tuition, and admits 83 percent of its undergraduate applicants. (Okay, you don’t have to be highly selective like Princeton or Williams, cited as the best in the country by the recent U.S. News and World Report rankings, to be effective or innovative.) Concurrently, Peterson's reports that Morrison University, the parent institution in Reno, enrolls 110 undergraduates. (Interesting, the spin-off is larger than the “home” campus.)  

A second college guide, The Princeton Review, offers somewhat conflicting information: according to The Princeton Review, Neumont enrolls 260 students, has an 8:1 student /faculty ratio, charges $21,000 for tuition; 75 percent of Neumont students receive need-based financial aid.

Now I was more than curious: indeed, I was somewhat befuddled by the Spelling’s commission’s ringing endorsement for a small private, for-profit institution that seemed to be a satellite campus of another for-profit college. (Nothing wrong with the for-profits; this just seemed to be an unusual set of organizational arrangements.)

Seeking still more information, I went to the U.S. Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Data System.

From the IPEDS database I learned that the official academic year 2005 enrollment at both Neumont and Morrison is smaller than the numbers reported by Peterson’s and The Princeton Review. According to IPEDS, Neumont enrolled 67 full-time-equivalent undergraduate students in 2005, while undergraduate enrollment at Morrison totaled 106.33 full-time-equivalent students.  

Second, I learned from the IPEDS that Morrison University awarded a total of just 19 degrees in academic 2004: eight associate degrees, five bachelor’s degrees, and six master’s degrees.  Three of the degrees were associate degrees in computer science,; the balance - 16 - were in business/management. Although Neumont provided enrollment data to IPEDS, it did not report any degree data in A/Y 2004.

Now I was thoroughly confused. So I called Neumont for additional – and hopefully clarifying -  information.  In pleasant phone conversations with two Neumont officials in the days following the release of the Spellings commission report,  I learned a lot about the institution. For example, while the Web site says that Neumont is affiliated with Morrison University, Neumont’s president, Graham Doxley, also a founder of the university, reports that Neumont Holdings purchased private, for-profit Morrison University a few years ago as a way to launch Neumont University. As education is a “regulated industry,” said Mr. Doxley in a phone conversation, the university’s founders felt it would be easier to acquire an existing institution rather than start  from scratch. (The Neumont Web site has yet to catch up with the organizational arrangements.) 

The July 24, 2006 Forbes article cited on Neumont’s Web page is more revealing about Neumont’s history and financing. According to Forbes, Doxley and two friends who became his business partners were looking for “early stage tech investments.” As one of the three founders complained “about the difficulty of finding and training new [IT] grads, they came up with the idea of running an engineering school geared to the needs of industry… meet[ing] with prospective employers, students, and teachers to gauge demand and refine their idea.”  The Forbes article reports that the three Neumont founders “knew they were on the right track … when John Swainson, then IBM’s head of software development and now chief executive of CA, Inc [formerly Computer Associates], stopped them in midpitch and said that they had underestimated the need and he’d help in any way he could.” 

Doxley says the university now enrolls some 300 students. And the members of Neumont’s first graduating class – 27 students – received their degrees last spring.  The Neumont Web site reveals that an IBM executive vice president, Nicholas Donofrio, a member of the Spellings commission who praised Neumont’s work during at least one of the panel’s meetings, was a featured speaker at the commencement ceremony in May. The press release for the commencement also notes that “IBM is looking to Neumont to provide highly-skilled Web developers and sofrware engineers.”

The Back Story

So how is it that very new, very small for-profit Neumont University (university?), with only 27 graduates,  was one of the very few postsecondary institutions in America deemed worthy of specific citation by the Spellings commission for doing interesting or innovative work?

Neumont was not even the only “innovative” engineering program brought before the Spellings panel. Richard Miller, founding president of Boston’s acclaimed and innovative Olin College of Engineering, testified at one of the commission’s public hearings. 

Another commission member, James J. Duderstadt, an engineer by training and president emeritus of the University of Michigan, notes in an e-mail that several innovative projects -- MIT’s Open Courseware initiative, the Sakai Open Source Learning Management Project, and the Google Book Project, among others --were cited in earlier drafts of the commission’s report, “but I had these deleted because I felt it was inappropriate since [some individual] commissioners were involved with each [of these projects].” 

(For the record, Duderstadt wordsmithed some “after the final vote” language to mollify another commission member, Gerri Elliott, corporate vice president of Microsoft’s Worldwide Public Sector division, who “vigorously” objected to the language in the third draft supporting open-source software and open-content projects in higher education.)

In response to my questions about Neumont, the Spellings commission’s chairman, Charles Miller, reports via e-mail that he made the final choices about the institutions cited in the final document. Miller states that “Neumont University was one of the best and most interesting models I had ever seen.… It had been recognized by MSNBC, Forbes and CNN, after having been brought to our attention by Nick Donofrio.” (For the record, the MSNBC and Forbes recognition came mid-summer, as the commission’s staff was drafting and rewriting the document. The MSNBC segment, on August 30, was broadcast after the Commission released the third, and near final, draft of its report.)

Miller lists a number of attributes he found to be innovative about Neumont. It was “initiated and financed with private capital” and “founded by experienced successful business people,” he writes. It “produces sets of skills for students that are market driven.” “fits the STEM [science, technology, math, engineering] model,” graduates students whose “salaries were significantly higher than average,” and offers a “replicable model.” Miller’s e-mail also says that Neumont also offers “an appealing model, designed for the students, efficiency, productivity, and relevance.”  

Miller notes that Neumont is a young institution “and not without some risk… but how does innovation happen without that [i.e., risk]? That risk taking is what we need in higher education … and it is very hard to find.”

Miller’s assessment about risk is accurate: higher education is incredibly risk-averse. For example, venture capitalists know that at best, maybe one, possibly two of every 10- investments will be successful; the rest will crash, and burn lots of cash as they do so.  Yet what dean dares to approach a provost or president (or what president would dare approach a board) to offer 10 program proposals and, as part of the pitch, acknowledge that only one or two of the 10 programs would be successful?  Alas, the rules of risk and criteria for success are decidedly different in the nonprofit sector.

But Miller’s comments about Neumont’s “efficiency” may be incorrect: a quick, back of the envelope calculation of per-student expenditures for Morrison University during A/Y 2004, which includes Neumont’s financial and enrollment numbers during what Graham Doxley called the start-up phase -- reveal that per-student expenditures were about $68,500 per FTE student -- higher than the FTE expenditures at many of the nation’s small, elite (and very expensive)  private liberal arts colleges. Neumont’s president, Doxley, reports that FTE expenditures for A/Y 2007 are lower, as Neumont’s enrollments are up and the university is now past some of its start-up and curriculum development costs.

The commission’s endorsement now appears on the Neumont Web site alongside logos from MSNBC, Forbes and InformationWeek. And that endorsement will translate into tens of thousands of dollars of free publicity that Neumont could not have purchased, raising its profile among prospective students as well as corporate officials and campus administrators.  As a for-profit institution, the free PR and raised profile could translate into increased enrollments and, by extension, rising revenues and profits for Neumont. 

I understand that it will be all too easy to dismiss these comments as the rantings of a tweed-jacketed traditionalist who rejects change and is inherently hostile to the Spellings commission report and the for-profit sector of American higher education. Not so. Yes, like others, I can pick at the details of the commission’s work, arguing that its key critiques and major recommendations often aggregate a number of reports and critiques published over the past two decades.  However, the aggregation may prove useful, assuming that Miller and Education Secretary Margaret Spellings use the bully pulpit of the report to persuade and inform, while resisting the (political) temptation to cite the report as holy dicta.

For the record, I hope Neumont survives and prospers, that its students get good, well-paying jobs, and that its founders and investors secure a fair return for their time, efforts and money. The Forbes article indicates that Neumont’s students, faculty, graduates, founders and investors take great pride in and feel great affection for the place.

But honestly, is Neumont really one of the best, most innovative colleges in the country?  Perhaps, at least against the criteria outlined by Miller. But with due respect to Neumont’s students, faculty, and founders, and also to Miller’s comments about the need for risk and innovation, is this really the best example of a replicable curricular innovation that might “trickle over” to other sectors, as opposed to being cloned by other, aspiring for-profits eager to tap the demand for technology degrees and training? 

Ample research confirms that individual and organizational change occurs with some, but not too much, dissonance: individuals and organization eager to change need to be able to visualize their capacity to do so. But by highlighting Neumont, the commission has selected a model that is just probably too dissonant and too distant for the vast majority of U.S. colleges and universities.

Bio

Kenneth C. Green is the founding director of the Campus Computing Project and a visiting scholar at the Claremont Graduate University.

 

 

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