Given the task of building a new university from the ground up, most traditional higher education leaders might enlist the help of faculty members, presidents of other universities, and members of the community.
John Ellis Price has a different team. The president of the University of North Texas at Dallas, a 10-year-old campus that gained its independence from the system's flagship in nearby Denton in 2009, has turned to a prominent management consulting firm, Bain & Company, primarily known for working with Fortune 500 companies.
The unconventional partnership is a reflection of Price's unconventional goal. He's not trying to emulate Ivy League institutions, the University of Texas at Austin, or even his university's own flagship campus, which, like so many universities, has pursued a research-intensive path.
Instead, he wants to create a model of higher education that, he says, is more accessible, more flexible, and more student-focused. "The one thing at the forefront of everything we do is what can we do to drive down the cost of instruction and the time that it takes to complete a four-year degree while maintaining quality," Price says.
Over the next year, Price and Bain will convene a group of 10 community, business and education leaders, known as the "21st Century Commission," to help the university draft a strategic plan to grow from about 2,000 student to 16,000 by 2030. Judging by statements from Price, Bain consultants, and members of the commission, the plan is likely to include several ideas that have been discussed with increasing frequency by higher education reformers, such as an emphasis on online technology in education delivery, a restructuring of the traditional 15-week semester, and consideration of new ways of financing education.
The ideas thrown out by Price and the consultants at Bain have troubled faculty members when they were proposed at other universities, with professors arguing that such changes water down the educational experience, strip faculty of traditional rights, and place too much emphasis on what students want rather than giving them a well-rounded education.
But because UNT-Dallas is so young, and because the majority of the faculty are either assistant professors or lecturers, positions that do not come with tenure protection, public criticism of the commission has been minimal. Some faculty members have expressed concern about the direction of the institution, but they feel they have no latitude to stop the changes.
If UNT-Dallas ends up adopting these ideas, and if they prove successful, the university could influence how other institutions adapt to a changing higher education landscape. The initiative could also have ramifications for Bain, which has already shown interest in consulting with universities on administrative issues. Success in creating a new kind of university could drive other institutions to seek the firm’s assistance (or those of other firms) to delve further into university structure, including previously untouched areas such as academics, research and student life.
"We really are trying to figure out a model that can bend the curve on education costs pretty dramatically," says Mark Gottfredson, a partner in Bain's Dallas office, which will be working with the university.
Price and Gottfredson say UNT-Dallas makes a good testing ground for new approaches. It is the first undergraduate public university situated within the city limits of Dallas. (Despite its name, the University of Texas at Dallas is located in a suburb, Richardson, Tex.) UNT-Dallas sits on a 264-acre campus in the south of the city, an area that has historically been underserved by higher education, local officials say. They believe demand exists in the area for a low-cost bachelor's degree that can be flexible with nontraditional students' schedules.
Since it began in 2000, the university has been growing at a rate of about 14 percent a year. When it reached 1,000 students in 2009, it became a full-fledged institution independent from UNT's main campus. It now runs undergraduate and graduate programs in business, education, criminal justice and applied arts and sciences.
Price says he took his position in 2001 with the goal of creating a new model of higher education. "I had a strong belief back then, which is still a strong belief today, that current universities are outdated, outmoded and, in many cases, irrelevant," he says. "I wanted to lead an effort to create a new paradigm for how a university in the 21st century could function, and I figured that if anyone had the chance of being successful it would be a new university, one that was created from the ground up."
Until now, he says, the university has functioned under the accreditation of the main UNT campus, and Price hasn't been able to put in place many of his goals. The institution is slated to receive its own accreditation in 2012, and Price wants to be ready to execute new ideas when that rolls around.
To be ready, he enlisted the services of Bain, which worked with Cornell University, the University of California at Berkeley, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2008 and 2009 to improve administrative efficiency.
At UNT-Dallas, the firm will provide about $1 million worth of services at no charge. The firm regularly does pro bono work for nonprofit groups, though it charged Cornell, Berkeley and UNC. Berkeley, which paid the firm $7.5 million, was the only one of the three institutions to disclose how much it was paying. An anonymous donor funded the firm's work at UNC for an undisclosed amount. Cornell, a private university, did not have to disclose its arrangement with the firm.
The firm's work at UNT-Dallas is slightly different from what it has done at other institutions. UNT-Dallas is much smaller than the other universities. The work also centers on long-term planning, instead of institutional analysis.
Bain's efforts at UNT-Dallas also represent a new foray for the firm, which was prohibited by the other institutions it worked with from looking at the academic core, focusing instead on administrative issues such as organizational structure, purchasing and information technology. Gottfredson says the firm's role will not be to set an agenda but to support the commission as it determines the institution's direction. Much of that work will be analyzing the feasibility of ideas.
He said he's excited for the opportunity and the unconventional circumstances that Bain and UNT-Dallas get to work under. “It’s so rare that you get the chance to do something like this with a clean sheet of paper, when you’re not fighting tenured faculty, and you can make all the decisions about what the curriculum will look like, what the learning model will look like, and you get to decide what programs you’re going to put in place,” Gottfredson says. “It’s the opportunity to design something for the 21st century, a new model that encompasses the full scope and range of the university.”
While Gottfredson frames Bain's work as a charitable endeavor, it could also open new doors for the firm. "While Bain is giving us consulting on a pro bono basis, this is also investment for them,” Price says. “When this project terminates in successful recommendations that are implemented, that’s going to result in more and more clientele asking them to look at other universities and make recommendations at those as well.”
While Price and the consultants have made it clear that low-cost, high-quality education is their goal, how they get there, and what that looks like, is up in the air. The commission will consider questions about all aspects of the university, such as how many buildings it will build and whether the campus should be residential or commuter, and questions about curriculum, such as which majors the university will offer, how much instruction will take place online, and how faculty hiring and promotion will be structured.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, now a candidate for the Republican nomination for president, has advocated for an undergraduate degree that costs no more than $10,000. Gottfredson says that number came up in the commission's first meeting, but Price says that meeting the governor's expectation is not his goal.
The composition of the committee gives some hints about its likely direction. One of its most notable members is Clayton Christensen, a Harvard Business School professor who recently published a book, The Innovative University, about forces in higher education, such as online communication, that will disrupt traditional models. Kim Clark, the president of BYU-Idaho, was also slated to be on the commission, but Henry J. Eyring, BYU-Idaho’s vice president for advancement and Christensen’s co-author, will be filling his seat while Clark recovers from a kidney transplant. BYU-Idaho, which has bucked convention on several issues, features prominently in the book and was featured by the American Council on Education at its annual meeting last spring.
UNT-Dallas faculty members will have a liaison to the committee to communicate ideas, but no representation on it. There are no tenured academics other than Christensen on the committee.
Eyring says the commission gives him a chance to discuss ideas he and Christensen developed while writing the book and see how they can be put in place at UNT-Dallas. "It’s fun to come in with a lot of theories and know that you have to apply theories to a unique setting," he says.
Eyring thinks one of the most interesting questions the committee will tackle will be how the university develops physically and whether it invests in the amenities to become a residential campus. Given the cost of new construction, he says, the answer to that question could have ramifications for how the university finances everything else.
One of the major reasons BYU-Idaho has been successful at innovating is its ability to stay focused, Eyring says. He attributes that to a 21-sentence declaration by the president of the Mormon Church of exactly what the university would and wouldn't do. He hopes the same type of focus emerges from the 21st-Century Commission. “Whatever the physical manifestation of this process ends up being, I hope that the community will be clear about what we do, and especially what we don’t do.”
UNT-Dallas has about 40 faculty members, most of whom don't have tenure. For several years they operated on renewable one-year contracts. Some faculty members, who declined to speak on the record because they don't have tenure, say they have been marginalized by the commission. They expressed concern about the direction of the institution and what might come out of the commission.
They worry that the institution's educational quality may be compromised in the drive to provide a cheap degree, and that the target student demographic may not be informed enough to recognize the difference. They also worry that, because of the unique structure, faculty members won't have the same protections they enjoy at other universities.
They don't have a representative on the commission, they say, and they don't trust the administration, consultants or committee members to look out for their interests.
Price insists that, for the most part, faculty members are on board with the institution's direction. "The advantage I have is that I’m new, and when you're new you get a chance to establish your culture," he says. "The faculty and staff hired on here came with the knowledge that this was not going to be a traditional university. We're going to be something different and distinct. The culture here is that we are a learner-centered university. We exist to serve the needs of the students."
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