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Even before COVID-19 entered the national conversation, higher education was facing unprecedented threats, including budget reductions, increased student debt burden and changes in workforce and job market dynamics, among others. Much like other deans, in my role as chief executive of a college, I work on the front lines of these issues, directly responsible for anticipating and planning for both discipline-specific matters and broader changes and trends in higher education.

I understand how deans often feel isolated in their college, with limited engagement in broader campus-level conversations in which they might offer input that could lead to successful initiatives, beneficial to the institution as a whole. I sometimes find myself wondering, “Are the same issues that keep me up at night also affecting the arts and humanities? Engineering? Social sciences?” And I decided that the best strategy to answer my question was to ask my fellow deans.

In summer 2021, I conducted a brief survey of deans across various academic disciplines -- arts and sciences, business, education, fine arts, engineering -- in public universities in several states to gain a better understanding of their perspectives on trends in higher education. The survey included open-ended questions about the top challenges facing the individual dean’s college and academic discipline, as well as any changes and opportunities they anticipate in their college in the next 10 years.

Key Issues

Inevitably, the deans were concerned about COVID-19 and the question of how to get students, faculty and staff safely back on campus. Deans have had to wrestle with decisions concerning mask and vaccine mandates, as well as whether to continue online learning and remote work accommodations, require everyone to be back on campus full-time or offer a hybrid model. The deans’ responses also revealed several other common challenges, notably budget and resources, enrollment, diversity and social justice, and politics and the relevance of higher education.

Budget and resources. The deans consistently commented on budget issues and the lack of adequate funding, resources and infrastructure -- noting dwindling state support, being asked to do more with less, limited options to generate revenue and difficulties in keeping pace with technological changes. As a result, they reported struggling to recruit and retain faculty members and redress salary compression affecting longer-serving faculty compared to newer hires. They also noted diminished funds to support professional development and research.

Student enrollment. This major challenge is closely tied to budget concerns, as reduced enrollment results in reduced tuition revenue, decreasing the availability of resources to support college and campus operations. Deans worried that universities are setting expectations for increased enrollment at a time when it is inexorably decreasing due to factors such as:

  • The price of higher education, which limits access and affordability, particularly among students from low socioeconomic backgrounds;
  • Students increasingly questioning the value of higher education;
  • People not considering the return on investment high enough, given student debt and entry-level salaries;
  • The demographic cliff -- an expected steep decline in the number of potential first-time undergraduates projected for 2025-26;
  • Competition for students;
  • Declining high school graduation rates; and
  • COVID-19, which resulted in more students delaying college and decreased international student enrollment.

Enrollment of underrepresented minority students may be particularly vulnerable to such trends, impeding colleges’ efforts to diversify the student body.

Diversity and social justice. Reflecting national headlines, the deans reported considerable challenges related to diversity and social justice. Although diversifying faculty and students is often identified as a college priority, they described progress in that area as “fitful,” occurring sporadically and with limited success. Recruiting diverse faculty members has been especially difficult -- which, in turn, may negatively impact student recruitment. The deans viewed a more diversified faculty as key to creating a more inclusive environment that attracts more diverse students -- one in which “students see themselves in faculty” and have access to mentors and role models in their chosen fields of study. The deans cited specific barriers to increased diversity and inclusion:

  • Structural racism that has hindered the academic success of underrepresented minority faculty and students;
  • A lack of faculty acknowledgment of their role in promoting diversity;
  • A communication chasm between more conservative faculty at odds with those who are passionate about social justice advocacy;
  • A lack of inclusive pedagogy; and
  • Inadequate resources to offer competitive faculty salaries and create infrastructure to support diversity, equity and inclusion efforts -- including hiring staff, developing programming and providing scholarships.

Politics and relevance. Further complicating matters is the well-publicized and problematic political rhetoric regarding discussion of racial and other social injustices in academic settings. This politicization of academic curricula extends to a broader discussion about the perceived relevance of higher education, a concern expressed by several deans.

According to one dean, there is in response to increasing student debt burdens a “push from politicians to get rid of the general education curriculum and to go to a three-year college degree. Besides producing students who have less breadth of knowledge and skills and are more one-dimensional, it will have a negative effect on enrollment.” Deans also cited the devaluation of arts and humanities education due to a perception that such disciplines are “nonessential to today’s economy” and “do not lead to good, well-paying jobs.”

Potential Opportunities

Although the aforementioned challenges facing higher education are considerable, the deans identified numerous potential opportunities. To address questions concerning the relevance of higher education, the deans highlighted what they believe to be a changing environment for traditional versus new degree and nondegree programs. Among the opportunities they suggested to better meet the needs of today’s and tomorrow’s learners over the next 10 years were:

  • Designing new majors that meet the needs of today’s economy;
  • Implementing increased interdisciplinary programming;
  • Focusing on specialized and distinctive degree programs to distinguish each college and attract learners; and
  • Designing programs including nondegree executive education to attract midcareer and adult learners.

The suggested changes and innovations in programming could not only increase enrollment but also boost revenue for colleges and universities.

To attract a broader pool of students, deans recommended creating new degree and nondegree programs, targeting recruitment efforts and expanding outreach -- especially to nontraditional and international students. They said technology should be used more effectively and extensively to “expand the geographical reach” of programming, as well. In addition, the deans suggested appealing to students by building more bridge programs to address educational gaps. For example, they cited helping more students develop the skills necessary for success in graduate school, providing more online tutoring and offering more continuing education to support ongoing professional development (which may include both reskilling and general lifelong education).

Across survey responses regarding challenges and opportunities, the deans consistently also grappled with a number of issues related to faculty, staff and campus leadership. For example, they cited how faculty may not have time to implement or expand programs due to other teaching, research and service commitments. Meanwhile, campus leadership, which is frequently trying to juggle the often-conflicting needs of multiple priority areas across colleges and units, may not have the resources to hire the new faculty and staff needed to support changes to college programming.

Still, all in all, the deans I surveyed seemed optimistic. For example, they suggested technology may provide greater flexibility in allowing faculty and staff to work remotely, which may enhance work-life balance and satisfaction and help with recruiting talented new faculty and staff who previously weren’t interested due to geographical distance from the campus.

In conclusion, to answer the question I posed earlier in this commentary, based on their responses to this survey, my fellow deans and I are in fact struggling with similar issues across our differing disciplines and recognize that a number of fissures have developed in the higher education landscape in recent years. Although not often involved in higher-level campus discussions, we deans have a keen awareness of the adversities facing higher education and ideas for grappling successfully with those adversities.

Yet deans are often an underutilized campus resource. Campus-level administrators should include deans in discussions about the challenges and opportunities facing their institution. Such inclusion might involve exercises wherein deans work together to help solve more widespread campus issues, come to consensus and support campus and college-level needs. This would not only give deans insight into broad institutional issues but also allow opportunities for exchanging ideas among deans and other constituents.

Deans have much more to offer their institutions than is frequently recognized. We can identify and help pursue opportunities for growth and innovation, including sharing challenges and possible solutions among all stakeholders that may lead to greater renewal and resilience across higher education.

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