June 28, 2015
Dear Dr. President of St. Bridget College
Thank you for your letter of 6/26 where you outlined the major financial challenges faced by our institution. Your candor and transparency about the situation that we now find ourselves, and your willingness to honestly discuss some of the painful choices ahead of us, are all greatly appreciated.
In the spirit of your letter, I’d like to offer 3 suggestions for the leadership and Trustees of our beloved St. Bridgett College to consider as we collectively seek a path to sustainability.
The following suggestions and ideas for some changes we can make at St. Bridget’s to ensure our long-term viability are, unfortunately, not complete or exhaustive. My role at St. Bridget is to work at the intersection of learning and technology. While I may think I know something about other operations and areas of our college, my guess is that outside of the domains of learning and technology that I only know enough to be dangerous.
Suggestions 1 - Invest in Our Academic Strengths:
Attrition and austerity cannot be our only way forward. Our community needs a big positive destination to journey towards, as much as we need a dose of reality about the obstacles that we will face. Your leadership role as President of our institution gives you the authority and the responsibility of identifying our academic strengths. You will and the Trustees will need to make some hard decisions about where St. Bridget enjoys a comparative advantage in the higher education marketplace. The reality is that every department at our institution will say, and will believe, that they are critical for our mission. You will need to make this call. My hope is that this process is transparent, consultative, and informed by a deep knowledge and appreciation of both our history and culture - as well as the best available thinking about the competitive postsecondary marketplace.
Once you have identified and communicated our areas of strength, it will then be possible to shift resources towards these degrees, programs, courses, and faculty. The cuts necessary to make these investments will be no less painful to those affected, but at least our larger community will understand the need for investment and the rationale for the actions. We need a vision of where we will be going, not just about what needs to be cut. Investing in our academic strengths will, I believe, ultimately result in the creation of some new online and low-residency degree programs. We can leverage the power of online learning to aggregate global demand. The good news is that we don’t need huge numbers of students to work with our best professors and programs. We don’t need to go to scale to be economically viable. When it comes to online learning, small is beautiful.
Suggestion 2 - Think Like a Startup:
As we at St. Bridget’s prepare to make non-incremental changes, my hope is that we can use this opportunity to think and act like a startup. My guess is that if we were designing our institution in 2015, rather than in 1815 (the year of our founding), that we would make some different choices. Our values at St. Bridget’s should be inviolate and enduring, our practices should not. The first way that we can act more like a startup is to change our relationship to what we produce and own, as opposed to what we consume and rent. Today’s tech startups are built around creative teams and the intellectual capital that they create. These startups no longer need to own or run the tools that they use to create value. Let someone else who is expert in making and running those tools take on that burden. The best startups place all their energy on solving the problem for the customer, client, or partner that the company was created to solve.
At St. Bridget’s, all of our energy and time should go into serving the learning and development needs of our students. Anything less than a fanatical focus this goal will not do. Any attention or energy that takes us away from our students is a risk. We need to look at everything that we produce or run that is not about student learning and development and ask - “can someone else do this for us?” Sourcing our data centers and technology platforms to the cloud as a service is only the first step. Can we consume other non-mission critical operations as a service? HR?Finance? Payroll? What do we currently own and produce that we could rent and consume?
Suggestion 3 - Rethink How We Use Our Physical Campus:
We have an opportunity to rethink how we think about our physical campus. When it comes to the use of our buildings, our imaginations are naturally constrained by our history. Can we use this crisis to see our beautiful St. Bridget campus with fresh eyes? We should start with they knowledge that learning is social. Our main “product” at St. Bridget’s is relationships. How can we re-organize our spaced to maximize our relational goals? The academic library should not be the only building on campus that is giving up traditional space functions to create social and collaborative learning areas. Where else can we maximize density, collisions, and conversations? How can we change where faculty and staff work so that we are visible, accessible, and integrated?
What if we turned almost all of the offices currently utilized by administrators (not faculty) into residential space? Crazy you say? But why? Throughout big cities we see former office space turned into apartments. The demand for residential rentals has been soaring, just as we are facing an oversupply of commercial square footage. The same dynamic may be taking place on campus. We do not have enough residential housing to accommodate our students for all 4 years. Our administrators could work in the same way that knowledge workers at IBM and other companies work. We can hotel. We can be mobile. We can use conference and breakout rooms. Wherever our laptops and cell phones are that is where our offices will be. We can work in the same way that our students work. The last time I checked students pay for the privilege of renting a room. I don’t remember paying rent on my office. (And to be clear, let us give all of our faculty - especially our adjunct faculty - access to permanent offices).
I have no doubt that you are getting similar letters from other members of the faculty and staff here at St. Bridget.
Again, I want to thank you for your candid letter - and for your invitation to open this dialogue on our campus.
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