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Anyone who worries that the future of higher ed will be one of decline and irrelevancy should spend a couple of days on the SNHU campus. While the rest of us spend much of our time worrying over the incremental pace of change in our industry, SNHU has been laying the foundation to become the next global university brand.

The SNHU story was my strongest impression after participating in my fifth HAIL (Harvesting Academic Innovation for Learners) campus convening. For those of you who have not heard of HAIL, the group is interesting for as much as what it is not as what it is. HAIL is not a professional association, a consortium, or any other type of organization. There are no employees of HAIL, no dues, and no charter. HAIL has no positions, no hierarchy, and no permanent leadership.

What HAIL is is a "network for higher ed leaders who have demonstrated an awareness of and commitment to experimentation for transformational change as a response to the uncertainty in the broader education ecosystem." What HAIL does, in its grassroots and loosely organized fashion, is hold small convenings on college campuses for leaders of higher ed learning innovation.

What was so exciting about bringing the HAIL community to the SNHU campus is that SNHU feels like a university that has been designed to change.

Creating an institution around the idea of constant and continuous reinvention is a challenging concept for most academics (such as myself) to get our heads around. I know that I like to talk and write and opine about innovation. Actually living in an environment where ideas around innovation are rapidly translated into action feels - well - a bit risky.

SNHU's warm and curious and down-to-earth president, Paul LeBlanc, customarily gets credit for leading his institution to a place where it enrolls 130 thousand global learners - while simultaneously growing the quality and long-term sustainability of its traditional residential campus-based programs. What president LeBlanc really should get credit for is nurturing SNHU's culture. This is a place where "relentlessly challenging the status quo" is in the mission statement

Spend a couple of days chatting with SNHU's academic and innovation leaders, and one comes away with the idea that nobody is afraid to make big bets and take some real risks. This is an entire institution that believes that higher education (including credentials) does not need to be expensive to be high-quality. That it is not only possible to leverage every new technology and pedagogical strategy to bring affordable and learner-centric postsecondary opportunities to traditionally underserved communities across the world, but that doing so is a moral imperative.

The HAIL Storm community is all about catalyzing institution-led learning innovation. SNHU, from what I can tell, is something of an experiment in what happens if the ideas of learning innovation become the ideas that run a university.

SNHU may be too busy creating new learner-centric, competency-based, and low-cost degree programs aimed at underserved postsecondary students to take the time to study its place in the broader higher ed ecosystem. I left HAIL wondering about how to we are going to build a critical scholarship of learning innovation, and how SNHU might be studied in relation to the future of higher education?

I also left HAIL believing that, if possible, every professional higher ed meeting should be held on the campus of a college or a university. The folks at SNHU put an enormous amount of thought, energy, and time into hosting this convening. They will have to tell us if what they got out of the gathering as an institution was commensurate with what they put in.

I know from the perspective of a participant, there is no way to understand the culture of an institution unless you put boots on the ground. Hearing all the presentations and visiting all the websites in the world about a school's initiatives and programs can never convey an institutions culture. And it is culture - in the case of SNHU a passion for principled and data-driven institutional reinvention - that matters more than any specific initiative or program.

Who are the scholars that are studying the future of higher ed by spending time on campuses?

How might existing higher ed associations reinvent themselves from professional to scholarly organizations?

What would we need to create a network of learning innovation scholars?

Should more schools follow the lead of SNHU (and other HAIL hosts), and invest in convening cross-institutional discussions about creating the future of higher education?

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