Dr. Peter Stokes is currently the executive director of postsecondary innovation in the College of Professional Studies at Northeastern University. Many of you probably got to know Peter during his tenure (almost 14 years!) in various leadership roles at Eduventures.
Why interview Peter when we can skip the middleman and read exactly what is on his mind at his excellent IHE Peripheral Vision column?
The reason I'm interested in chatting with Peter, and sharing our chat with you, is that I'm interested in non-traditional academic careers. Peter graciously agreed share his thoughts about his.
Question 1: Can you give us the nickel tour of how you ended up at Northeastern. From grad school to now?
Looking back on it now, I think the electronic card catalog in the library at Stony Brook University played a bigger role in shaping my career than one might have expected. I started my graduate studies in 1990, and the new library database had just been introduced. The first few weeks of class, I stuck with the old card catalog system until a classmate of mine dragged me over to one of the new monitors installed in the library and forced me to conduct a search on it. A few months later I purchased my first computer – a Mac Classic, which was a self-contained box about the size of a bowling ball bag, with a little black and white screen not much bigger than the one on my iPhone today. The next semester I volunteered to teach a course in writing in a new computer lab that had been installed in the English department (I was pursuing a doctorate in English literature), and I immediately saw the positive effects that a computer-mediated classroom could have on learners. I saw the downsides immediately, too – it took about 15 minutes of that first class to show each of the students how to place a floppy disc into the machines. But the big positive was that everyone participated in the class discussions that took place over the network, even the wallflowers who wouldn't speak in class. And that got me very interested in educational technology and computer-aided collaboration.
While I was writing my dissertation and finishing my doctorate, my future wife took a one year teaching position in Boston, and I followed her to complete my writing there. We thought we'd be in Boston for 9 months, but it's 18 years and counting now, with a couple of kids and all the rest. I eventually took a job with a management consulting firm in Cambridge, MA called Goodmeasure, and also taught at the Massachusetts College of Art and, later, Tufts University. The management consulting experience got me thinking about life outside academia, and so when I was offered a job at an IT research firm in Cambridge, I decided to leave university life and go examine how software engineers were using the internet to collaborate around the clock on global scale. Not long after that, I was introduced to a company called Eduventures, which was undertaking market research-like work in the field of education, and I ended up spending 14 years there as Executive Vice President and Chief Research Officer. Over that time I had the opportunity to work with thousands of higher education leaders at hundreds of colleges and universities across the country and around the world, studying how institutions were innovating to become more efficient, more market responsive, and, ultimately, more relevant to the marketplace. I was then recruited away to lead the higher education practice at a global executive search firm, but I found quite quickly the I missed the problem-solving intellectual engagement that research and management consulting involve, so I started talking with some industry colleagues, and soon after that I landed at Northeastern University.
Question 2: What is your role at Northeastern?
What attracted me to Northeastern is its capacity to transform. It's one of a small handful of institutions that has transformed dramatically in recent decades – in the case of Northeastern, from a large, urban commuter school to a global research university. Part of what makes Northeastern so special is that it is competing in very traditional ways, and has risen dramatically in recent years through the US News rankings, from about 120 six years or so back to 52 this past year. At the same time, however, the University is also innovating in some very interesting ways – particularly with respect to its international efforts, its focus on graduate programs for working professionals, and through its recent expansion into Charlotte, NC and Seattle, WA. There aren't many institutions that can think in both ways like that at the same time – advancing on the reputational front and advancing through these more experimental efforts.
Most interesting of all, for me personally, is that Northeastern invited me to come here and study innovative practice in higher education, particularly in service to non-traditional students. So I'm conducting research that is intended to help our own strategic efforts but also those of our colleagues and peers in the continuing and professional education realm.
Question 3: Can you identify your big goals for Northeastern and the College of Professional Studies?
Northeastern has a unique origin story, starting out as a night school at the local YMCA more than a century ago. It's always had a professional education focus, but it's complemented that core with significant investments in research capacity and global reach in recent years. As someone who's watched the University evolve over the last decade or more, I'm really happy to be able to contribute to the future directions of those efforts. President Aoun talks about our responsibility to integrate study with work in ever more meaningful and high value ways, and that's something I think the global economy needs like never before – there are many studies making claims of just that sort, there's plenty of evidence this kind of work is needed. So our job is identify where we can make the greatest contribution with our unique capabilities and focus our efforts there – whether "there" means delivering online programs nationally, or hybrid programs through our Graduate Campus Network in Charlotte and Seattle, or delivering programs overseas, or serving students right here in Boston. This is an ambitious institution, and we want to have impact on a global scale.
Question 4: What would you say are the most important lessons that you bring with you from Eduventures as you return to an academic institution?
I grew up in an academic household. My mother was an anthropologist. My brother is a former Dean, and a psycholinguist. My wife was an academic in comparative literature. So I have learned how to have dinner conversations with these people. At the same time, I've spent most of my career in business, supporting colleges and universities from that vantage point. And I think that actually is a good mix if the job is integrating study with work. I understand academic culture, I deeply value the role that higher education plays in our lives at a personal level and the role it plays as an engine of economic growth on a regional or national scale. But I also see opportunities for higher education to evolve, to become more nimble, more creative, more risk taking. Most of all, I hope I bring a strategic perspective to the questions we wrestle with on a day to day basis as we work to make this the most high impact institution it can be.
Question 5: You chose to pursue a non-traditional academic career mostly outside of the walls of academia. You did research, your wrote, and you are known as a thought leader in our field of higher education and innovation. What advice can you give all us who are also trying to pursue non-traditional academic careers?
Well, these days, by some estimations, the majority of students in higher education are "non-traditional." And I wouldn't be surprised if the corollary in the near future was that most academic careers were non-traditional, too. Again, it comes back to the integration of study and work. The ivory tower is not a good model for being responsive to the changing needs of the market. Within the College of Professional Studies, we have a scholar-practitioner faculty model – our faculty are people who have worked in the fields in which they teach. And you can see across all disciplines on campus a growing interest in faculty exchanges, faculty externships, research collaborations with industry, and so on, all of which is part and parcel of an effort to bring a different and more relevant mixture of experiences to the work of serving effectively within an institution of higher learning. Binaries are made to be broken, I guess. And I think innovative institutions recognize how to put energetic, enthusiastic, thoughtful people from non-traditional backgrounds to work in helping to meet those institutions' missions. The key thing, I think, is passion for the work – a real intellectual engagement with building better learning experiences, conducting relevant research, and having a positive impact on society along the way. Being multi-lingual helps too – by which I mean, being able to speak the language of academia as well as the language of the marketplace. And a sense of humor doesn't hurt either.
What would you want to ask Peter?