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After serving 35 years as president of New Jersey’s only university that primarily serves adults, George Pruitt is retiring.

Before becoming Thomas Edison State University's president, Pruitt was the executive vice president of the Council for Adult and Experimental Learning. As one of the longest-sitting college presidents in the country, Pruitt spent decades focused on educating nontraditional students long before many other educators began to focus on the issue.

Pruitt plans to take a one-year sabbatical before serving as a distinguished fellow at Thomas Edison’s John S. Watson School of Public Service and Continuing Studies. He spoke with Inside Higher Ed last week about the state of adult education. This interview has been condensed.

Q: What are some of the challenges facing adult education, and what innovations or new initiatives do you see addressing those challenges?

A: I've seen an entire education movement created around specialty institutions focused on providing high-quality work for a population the traditional sector didn't know how to address. But it hasn't come a long way. Thomas Edison has been doing competency-based education and focused on learning-based outcomes for 40 years, so we have to laugh at the current discussions. The day we opened our doors, we had all of these different methods focused on the needs of adults, and as an innovator, we had to demonstrate the quality of this model. We're obsessive about new metrics. Every student here has earned credit that is valued by a metric or an assessment. But it's trying to mix that into the rest of traditional higher education that was and still is focused on the 18-year-old -- that is the challenge, and trying to get them to acknowledge a new reality and have policies catch up to that new reality.

A lot of the debate in Washington is wrong because adult students are referred to as nontraditional, but the majority of students in the United State are over age 25 and are going part-time. The real nontraditional student is the 18-year-old expected to graduate in four years. Society has not come to grips with the diversity of higher education, and that’s a real challenge.

I’ve spent 35 years at Thomas Edison and more than 40 years in higher education, and it’s true for all that time that fads come in and out of education. Someone writes a book that gets a lot of attention, someone gives a speech that gets a lot of attention or politicians glom on to something they think is sexy. We go through the whole fad or innovation of the month, but the real innovation takes place when people in higher education focus on what are the needs of society and the needs of the learners out there and figure out how to serve those needs. Society is changing, and in some fairly dramatic ways, and public discussion has not caught up.

The last political campaign we talked about manufacturing sector needs and both parties talked about companies going overseas, but if you look at what’s happening to manufacturing, in most areas the jobs haven’t left chasing cheap labor. Automation has changed jobs. Ford is making twice as many cars with half the work force, and they’re better cars because they’ve embraced automation. Anthony Carnevale at Georgetown University found that we have millions of jobs vacant because we can’t find the people with the skill set to fill those jobs. The challenge before the country now is to have an educated citizenry capable of recreating itself and to do that constantly. Even if you go to college for a job, the things you learn as an undergrad are obsolete three years into a job because things are changing. We're in a society now where we have to constantly recreate ourselves, and that means education never ends.

Q: What do you think of public institutions moving more aggressively into the online marketplace?

A: The rest of higher education is discovering what we were doing for 40 years. A lot of it is motivated by diversifying revenues. There’s been a disinvestment in higher education, particularly from states to public institutions, and as the state and federal levels cut back, costs have escalated. Consultants visit universities and talk about diversifying revenues, but those things have been proposed and failing for 25 years. Most are not successful because they misunderstand the whole concept of applied technology to student learning. Online distance education is just one more tool, it’s not a means unto itself, and like any tool, if appropriately applied to the right clientele it can be successful, and if it’s not it will fail.

The strength of Thomas Edison is that we have never been defined by what we do. We define ourselves by who we are, and there’s a big difference. People keep trying to define us as an online university, but that’s not true. It’s one of the things we do, but not who we are. I believe we’re one of the first regionally accredited programs in the United States to offer a degree online. It’s one of the things we do, but it’s not who we are. We have a one-sentence mission: Thomas Edison University was created to provide flexible, high-quality, collegiate learning opportunities for self-directed adults. That’s who we are, and we’re focused on that. We’ve never aspired to be the largest institution of our kind, but the best of our kind. We have to understand that the really good and excellent institutions know what they’re good at and know what to stay away from. The successful institutions of high quality understand and know their mission and focus on being really good and not spreading themselves too thin chasing enrollment or resources.

Q: What do institutions or boards need to do to attract high-quality leaders, and how can institutional leaders better prepare future presidents?

A: I’m going on a one-year sabbatical to get out of the way, because the worst thing I could do to a successor is let the old guy hang around. I’ve seen presidents have a hard time letting it go, and I want to get out of the way to let whoever comes in be free to put their own vision on this place. I was one of the founders of the Millennium Leadership Initiative at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities to help groom the next group of presidents.

I know this is controversial, but I have spoken out against the governance in many colleges and universities in trying to get consensus and buy-in on presidential candidates. Right now the contemporary presidency is like running for office. They parade them on campus and don’t keep it confidential. The kinds of presidents who come through that process are compromised the day they come in, and at the same time many of the transformational leaders you want to attract won’t get near a campus if their candidacy is going to be public. Senior leadership has to be recruited. Once you identify strong, well-qualified leaders and persuade them to take on your institution, they aren't going to do that if their reputation is at risk and their name is going to be in the paper and they’re paraded before university constituency.

I’ve mentored people who have aspired to be presidents and currently serving presidents, particularly young presidents. After my sabbatical, I do want to influence the issues around leadership and preparation.

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