The University of Wisconsin System filed a lawsuit Wednesday against its Oshkosh campus’s former chancellor and chief business officer, charging that they oversaw illegal financial transfers and university guarantees supporting five foundation-backed real estate projects.
The suit alleges that former UW Oshkosh Chancellor Richard Wells and former campus Chief Business Officer Thomas Sonnleitner improperly transferred a total of $11.3 million from UW Oshkosh to the UW Oshkosh Foundation, largely for the real estate projects. They also executed what the university system called illegal guarantees pledging UW Oshkosh support for bank loans made to the foundation -- assuring banks that the campus would make debt payments for the foundation in the event the foundation could not meet its financial obligations. But the Wisconsin state constitution and university system policies don’t allow public entities to support a private organization like the foundation.
Foundation projects supported by the transfers and guarantees were an alumni welcome and conference center, two biodigesters, a sports complex, and hotel renovations in downtown Oshkosh. Some of the money has been repaid, but roughly $4.5 million is still outstanding, according to the Wisconsin State Journal.
Wells (at left) served as UW Oshkosh chancellor from 2000 to 2014, at which point he retired. He supervised Sonnleitner, who was at the university from 2000 to 2016. Sonnleitner stepped down as chief budget officer and vice chancellor in March, then retired at the end of May after being placed on administrative leave.
The university system is seeking reimbursement for investigation costs, plus damages. The suit comes after UW Oshkosh Foundation President Art Rathjen in April informed UW Oshkosh’s current chancellor, Andrew Leavitt, that the foundation might need assistance with debt payments on the alumni welcome center. That prompted a series of investigations.
Leavitt fired Rathjen Tuesday. He also placed an unnamed foundation accountant on administrative leave.
In a statement Wednesday, Leavitt said Wells and Sonnleitner “broke a sacred trust” and described their actions as “isolated behavior.” The University of Wisconsin System said it and its Oshkosh campus cannot be held responsible for the foundation’s expenses or debt service, because the campus could not legally guarantee foundation bank loans.
In this year’s presidential election, Trump University brought for-profit colleges into focus, but it should hardly be considered representative of the promise that lies within postsecondary education. To the contrary, for-profit institutions can, in fact, play a valuable role in furthering knowledge and career prospects for a large group of nontraditional students, including military veterans, working adults, single parents and unemployed workers.
The ability of such institutions to effectively deliver on that promise may experience a boost in the coming year under the incoming presidential administration. The stock prices of companies running for-profit colleges rose significantly after the election of Donald Trump. The president-elect is expected to roll back regulations that have negatively impacted hundreds of struggling for-profit schools over the past four years, many of which have been wrestling with falling enrollments and unprofitable operations.
But even though for-profit colleges may be poised to benefit from deregulation under the Trump administration, the potential reduction of regulations governing the sector should not be viewed as a signal that for-profit school operators should pursue taking a passive, business-as-usual approach to managing their operations.
If the goal is to generate better student outcomes and long-term success, as well as attract new financial investment, leaders of struggling postsecondary colleges must be willing to embrace change and move forward with a sensible rethinking of their business models and a restructuring of both their institutional assets and curricula.
Changing demographics are a key challenge for for-profit colleges. The number of eligible enrollments peaked in 2010, and the pool of 18-year-old high school graduates that would typically pursue postsecondary education isn’t expected to rebound until 2021. Enrollments at for-profit colleges have already declined markedly since 2010 as a result of student concerns about job placement and the return on investment of a college degree. In addition, economic challenges mean that students and parents have less discretionary income and ability to pay.
For example, Congress shortened Pell Grant terms from eight years to six years, reduced overall funding for direct-loan programs like Parent Plus, and renewed support for Perkins Loans for just two years. Competition has also heightened. Online offerings from nonprofit colleges have been luring students away from campus-based for-profits. What’s more, for-profit educators have also had to contend with the exit of traditional lenders from the sector. Nontraditional lenders, such as private debt providers, are starting to emerge to fill the gap in financing, but it comes at a price: a higher cost of capital.
However, what has really been putting a choke hold on revenue and cash-flow generation for many for-profit schools -- which typically derive upward of 86 percent of their funding from federal dollars -- has been stiffer government regulation, such as the Obama administration’s gainful-employment regulation that took effect in July 2015. That rule stipulated that for-profit colleges must ensure a student’s annual debt payment does not exceed 20 percent of his or her discretionary earnings or 8 percent of his or her total earnings. Programs that do not meet the gainful-employment thresholds will need to either be discontinued or shortened, which reduces revenue. The stakes got higher in March, when the U.S. Court of Appeals rejected a challenge to the rule brought by the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities (which is now called Career Education Colleges and Universities). Industry operators are hopeful that relief comes from the new Trump administration, but no specific changes have been discussed or announced.
In addition, some for-profit institutions shut down due to the U.S. Department of Education declaring them ineligible for Title IV programs, terminating their students’ ability to receive financial aid. In February, for example, the department announced that it denied eligibility to 23 campuses of Marinello Schools of Beauty, leading to the subsequent closing of all 56 of the California-based institution’s schools in five states.
Given all that, it shouldn’t be surprising that the prognosis hasn’t been good for for-profit colleges. Data from the U.S. Department of Education, which analyzed the financial health of 160 private colleges, indicated that 66 for-profit institutions failed the government agency’s financial responsibility test. (The test combines three ratios from an education institution’s audited financial statements: a primary reserve ratio, an equity ratio and a net income ratio.)
A Ray of Light
All that said, owners of for-profit enterprises may have reason for hope after the new presidential administration takes over in January. But perhaps an even greater cause for optimism is the recently approved $1.14 billion sale of Apollo Education Group, which owns the University of Phoenix, to a group of three private equity firms. As former Deputy Secretary of Education Tony Miller, an investor in the deal, said at the time, “We are excited by the opportunity to build on the transformational work being done by the company. For too long and too often, the private education industry has been characterized by inadequate student outcomes, overly aggressive marketing practices and poor compliance. This doesn’t need to be the case.”
The statement is telling, but more important, it should signal a call to action to owners of for-profit enterprises. When an institution representing one of the largest operators of for-profit institutions has been able to generate interest from a group of institutional investors at a time when regulation has undercut the industry, it illustrates how restructuring can attract new investment.
Indeed, the good news is that for-profit-college administrators can undertake a number of restructuring alternatives, without resorting to filing for bankruptcy, to improve their business operations, maintain accreditation, strengthen financial resources, improve use of campus resources and bolster enrollment. Traditional Chapter 11 reorganization isn’t a viable solution for postsecondary colleges that depend on Title IV funding. But owners and administrators at these institutions can be -- and must be -- willing to be accountable, as well as more open to restructuring, if the goal is not just to survive but also to thrive.
Making the Most of Fixed Assets
The way forward for challenged institutions may not be easy, but they can take a number of practical steps. For starters, for-profit operators can scrutinize and reduce capital expenditures as well as costs for duplicate or unnecessary staff involved in campus administration.
For example, one of the biggest challenges for troubled for-profit colleges is how to use campuses efficiently and manage costs connected to long-term property portfolios. Owners of for-profit institutions should close or put up for sale any facilities that aren’t being used and hire a qualified third-party selling agent to manage the process.
As part of that, leaders of for-profits should recognize the impact of liquidity on campus asset sales. If an institution has limited liquidity, it is not going to command top dollar for the sale of its assets. Therefore, it’s crucial for administrators to improve their college’s liquidity before initiating a formal sales process by improving the efficiency of their Title IV funding operations to receive timely disbursements from the Department of Education.
Long-term leases should also be renegotiated with landlords, with the focus being to secure rent concessions. At campus locations with short lease periods or that are facing imminent shutdown, administrators should not be reluctant to move courses to other facilities off-site. They should also consider holding the same courses online to reduce costs and retain students. Beyond leases, for-profit institutions would be wise to review and renegotiate all types of contracts with major vendors for food service, conference center operations, the bookstore and other services.
When assessing institutional resources, owners of for-profits should also evaluate management and teaching staff. If a number of administrators or instructors are determined to be underutilized, or campuses are expected to close, it’s important to be able to make the hard but necessary decisions to reduce the size of the staff. Most for-profit institutions do not typically cancel programs and reduce faculty members unless they lose eligibility for the program. Or, for example, they might hire more counselors and advisers, when instead they should be more effectively training the employees that they do have to perform better and to foster a culture that encourages students not only to enroll in the institution but also to persist and graduate.
Indeed, in some instances, for-profits should not have expanded but rather should have focused on increasing retention by emphasizing student placements and outcomes, the creating of a high-quality culture, and lowering tuition costs. Strayer University, for example, reduced its expenses significantly and cut its tuition costs by 20 percent by more closely managing its operations.
The fact is that the most effective way for-profit institutions can improve their profitability is to enhance retention among their students. Thus, instead of hiring more instructors and staff, a better use of resources might be investment in data and analytics that can provide thoughtful intelligence about when a student needs help so that the institution can effectively intervene and provide the support that student needs.
One of the other most important steps for-profit educators can take to improve student outcomes is to innovate their curricula, particularly programs that are relevant to students’ job placement after they graduate. Course offerings should reflect current trends in education delivery and include high-quality online courses that can strengthen retention and lower campus costs.
In addition, for-profit educators would do well to consider the role local businesses can play in developing new course material. That approach offers a win-win for businesses and pupils alike. Many students are interested in securing employment opportunities in their local community upon graduation, while companies are often eager to use low-cost interns to assist with business projects, as well as scout for future employees. In some instances, some interns are qualified to become full-time employees. Teaming up with corporate partners to develop curriculum also leads to diversification of revenue streams.
For-profit institutions can also augment their traditional sources of revenue by offering contracted education and training services to corporations. For instance, Strayer University has reportedly teamed up with Fiat Chrysler to provide education programs for its work force, including employees of the company’s auto dealerships. By engaging in such contracted services, for-profits can help train and educate new student groups and also use any additional revenues to invest in new programs and support services for their students.
One thing is certain: unless for-profit educators engage in more hands-on restructuring of their institutions, they won’t be able to serve the large number of nontraditional learners that turn to them to advance their careers. The demise of more for-profit colleges would not be a good outcome for millions of students -- or for America’s future job growth in years to come.
Joseph R. D’Angelo is a partner at the investment banking and advisory firm Carl Marks Advisors. He has extensive experience in the education sector, particularly in working with underperforming businesses and advising on restructuring matters.
The outlook for nonprofit U.S. higher education continues to be stable heading into 2017, but issues lurk that could drag on the sector in the future, Moody’s Investors Service said Tuesday.
Expected revenue growth, strong demand and steady enrollment levels support the stable outlook for next year, an outlook that carries over from 2016, according to a new report from the ratings agency. Potential issues for the sector include rising costs and uncertainty about federal policy.
The outlook indicates Moody’s expected business conditions for the higher education sector in the next year to 18 months. Operating cash flow margins are projected in the 10 percent to 12 percent range for most public universities. Margins are projected between 12 percent and 14 percent for private universities.
Moody’s expects aggregate revenue growth for public and private universities to hold above 3 percent and credited higher education for its diverse funding streams. Tuition revenue is expected to increase modestly amid a focus on affordability, state appropriations are projected to rise incrementally, academic medical centers are expected to perform well and research funding appears stable.
Aggregate state funding is expected to grow 3 percent to 4 percent for the current fiscal year before slowing to between 1.5 percent and 2.5 percent growth in fiscal year 2018. But funding levels will vary substantially from state to state. States heavily reliant on the energy sector, like Louisiana and West Virginia, face high pressures on the amount they allocate to higher education. So do states with high pension liabilities, like Illinois, and those where policy decisions have eroded revenue growth, like Kansas.
Total enrollment growth is predicted to be modest, averaging 1.5 percent for the 2017 and 2018 fiscal years. A slow improvement in retention rates will help stabilize enrollment, Moody’s predicted, noting that retention rates rose by two percentage points for classes entering between 2009 and 2014 as institutions invested in retention efforts like more intensive counseling.
The higher education sector is highly exposed to investment markets’ performance. Moody’s noted two consecutive years of poor investment performance, ranking a potential third year of weak market performance as among the sector’s greatest downside risks. Another major downside risk was the potential for changes to federal policy or funding levels in either the higher education or health care space.
Those risks join pressures like rising pension liabilities and labor costs. Borrowing costs are also likely to be moderately higher going forward.
Colleges and universities with strong brands or value propositions to offer students will fare best, Moody’s said. Smaller institutions and regional institutions are expected to encounter more difficulty.
Dowling College filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection Tuesday, moving to sell its two campuses on Long Island after shutting down this summer due to financial problems.
The small private nonprofit college estimated in court documents that its liabilities stand at between $50 million and $100 million. It estimated its assets as being worth between $100 million and $500 million. Dowling owns campuses in Oakdale and Shirley, N.Y., less than 20 miles apart.
Dowling will use bankruptcy protection in order to sell its real estate and other assets at the highest value possible, the college’s bankruptcy attorney, Sean C. Southard, told The Wall Street Journal. The college’s debt includes money owed on tax-exempt municipal bonds and general unsecured debt, he told the newspaper.
In June, Dowling announced plans to close after its enrollment dropped roughly in half since 2009 to about 2,000 students. Days later it said it was attempting to stay open by striking a partnership with Global University Systems, but it was ultimately unable to do so and closed its doors in August.
If another recession hits, many public colleges and universities are likely to increase tuition to raise revenue as they are squeezed by drops in state and local funding, according to a new report from New America.
The think tank released a paper Wednesday predicting how a theoretical future recession would affect higher education finances. It examined historical data on state appropriations, local appropriations, tuition revenue and enrollment levels from the past 15 years. New America then modeled each state’s likely outcomes in the event of recessions of differing severity.
Only a few states were projected to hold per-student tuition below the current national average of $6,006 in the event of a recession before 2022: California, Florida, Nevada and Wyoming. Meanwhile, Nevada, New York and Texas were among those found to be most likely to maintain tuition levels, lower tuition or receive increased state appropriations, even in the event of a future recession. Colorado, Delaware, Michigan and Minnesota were found to be likely to increase tuition significantly and receive state funding cuts.
The report’s authors noted that using past outcomes to predict the future is imprecise.
“States with high disinvestment and large tuition increases in previous recessions could easily reverse course should their priorities change,” they wrote.
The paper also calls for avoiding scenarios that negatively impact students by changing the way state higher education is financed. It suggests a requirement that state and local governments maintain per-student funding levels in order to receive federal aid and that a new state-federal partnership could be developed that would provide new federal funding for states agreeing to meet conditions like holding down tuition and raising state appropriations.
This past summer, members of the Organization of American Historians received an email titled “An easy way to protect yourself and your job.” A targeted advertisement, the email offered OAH members the chance to join K-12 teachers and affiliates of other academic associations in applying for professional liability insurance at a discounted rate.
As a news article published by Inside Higher Ed described, this type of solicitation raises a number of important questions. Is such coverage necessary? Are policies like the ones advertised a good investment? Why do organizations like the OAH sponsor these plans?
Those are important questions, but as historians of insurance, risk, labor and capitalism, we believe we must also think critically about the risks that professional liability plans are designed to manage and the political dimensions associated with the sale of such policies. In particular, we have found that private liability coverage shifts the burden of managing risk from the institution to individuals. Moreover, the privatization of on-the-job protections can threaten collective organizing and shared governance in higher education.
The Problem of Precarity
The state of faculty members at colleges and universities is clearly precarious. At best, tenure-track positions offer the possibility of long-term job security, a reasonable teaching load and contracts that guarantee certain rights and benefits. For adjuncts, postdoctoral fellows and visiting professors, however, where the next paycheck will come from is an uncertainty that must be navigated on a term-to-term or year-to-year basis.
As temporary employees, faculty members have good reason to be afraid. Their jobs are insecure, they have access to limited resources and they cannot trust the institutions they work for to protect them. Nor can they trust their own students -- at least according to insurance marketing -- since each one is a potential legal adversary. Regardless of whether or not a hyperlitigious environment prevails in higher education, private insurance sold on an individual basis is a palliative to such concerns.
If faculty members do indeed face systematic liability problems, then these problems deserve a systematic response. Taking out insurance policies as individuals will not eradicate precarity in higher education. In fact, the expansion of privatized security mechanisms might even make such problems worse. Professional liability insurance implicitly asserts that individual instructors should be treated as isolated defendants in workplace matters.
The Politics of Private Insurance
We must assert a basic premise: all insurance is political. Insurance redistributes resources, dictates responsibility and creates and determines the collective bodies through which risk is managed. Americans have become accustomed to thinking about Social Security, Medicare and the Affordable Care Act as programs that have social impacts and are thus worthy of public discussion and debate. Private insurance should demand similar political attention.
Private insurance in the United States has always coexisted with other sources of security. These have included extended kinship networks, mutual aid organizations, fraternal societies, unions and, more recently, federal and state governments. While private insurance can work in partnership with those institutions, insurance companies’ pursuit of profit means that the issuers of private policies have different motives than those of more representative, noncommercial security providers.
Many Americans imagine insurance as a highly technical industry that deals rationally with objective facts and statistical data. When it comes to marketing, however, insurers regularly appeal to our subjective selves. They invoke fear and depict the world as uncertain and unsafe. For the past half century, insurance companies in America have sold their product as a means to self-sufficiency and independence, and an option that responsible individuals choose in order to demonstrate foresight.
In that context, it should come as no surprise that the uninsured and those covered by public security programs are depicted as dependent and irresponsible. Those who are capable of purchasing private insurance are seen as deserving of security, while those who cannot afford such luxuries (those most in need of security) are not.
Advertisements like the one in question sell an easy route to “peace of mind.” But they also sell a vision of a prudent self who takes control of an uncertain environment by capably managing her own risks. The individualization of risk -- the notion that we are each responsible for ourselves and not to each other -- is a central tenet of neoliberal cost-cutting. In respect to preserving academic freedom, shared governance and the right to collective organization, academics have understandably resisted policies that would isolate them as employees. Private liability insurance that encourages educators to go it alone should be viewed with like-minded suspicion.
Our point here is not to accuse the OAH and other professional academic associations that offer members similar plans of perpetrating a scam. But questions of intention and transparency should accompany any solicitation that bears what appears to be the tacit endorsement of a private, commercial product.
The OAH, in numerous other forums, has rightfully endeavored to facilitate discussions among faculty members, graduate students and adjuncts concerning what can be done to better the situation of historians who are the most vulnerable workers. Participants in those conversations have emphasized the role that self-governance can play, whether through unions or other means, in allowing faculty members to determine what protections and rights they need and deserve.
Whether or not the OAH is heartened by the recent National Labor Relations Board ruling that graduate students are indeed workers, and therefore allowed to organize and engage in collective bargaining, is unclear. No email was sent to members articulating this one way or the other. That is in line with the OAH’s general stance that it is an association dedicated to professionalization, access to resources and advocacy for history as a discipline and field of inquiry. If OAH members want to take this stance they can vote to do so as a body, or issue such a statement on the level of committee.
But that is the very point about which we hope to raise critical awareness. Personal liability insurance is political, even if it comes in a commercial guise. It conditions educators to identify risk as something that needs to be managed individually. It encourages employees, consonant with other trends, to accept that “employment at will” means they cannot rely on colleges and universities to stand by them in circumstances where they are held liable for performing their jobs.
Finally, there is something ironic about an association like the OAH sponsoring insurance for supplemental purchase, as a service to be potentially rendered, in order to contend with problems that stem from the increased tendency of students to view their education as coming with consumer rights. One of the instances that Forrest T. Jones and Company, the policy provider, cites as an example of a paid-out claim involves a civil suit that a student brought against a professor after being placed on academic probation, resulting in the student’s dismissal. All parties involved might have been better served by an arrangement where such disputes are governed first and foremost by review boards comprised of students, faculty members, administrators and other stakeholders. If contractualism must prevail, let it be on the level of arbitration clauses that operate as preconditions of enrollment and employment. Let both plaintiffs and defendants be responsible to their peers.
Better Paths to Security
All instructors should feel entitled to seek out protections from the institutions that employ them, and, in the language of the advertisement in question, aim to obtain a “relaxed” state of mind. But we would certainly advocate for a path to security that travels through collective measures like unions and other efforts to achieve shared governance. Even in the absence of union representation, employers should take the lead in managing liability, if for no other reason than to ensure that their instructors do not sacrifice critical teaching practices out of fear of being sued. Asking individual faculty members to go it alone, and to assess their own professional liability on a case-by-case basis, is at best a Band-Aid to the current state of precarity. No educator should have to purchase from a private company protections that they should be guaranteed through employment.
Caley Horan is an assistant professor of history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Andy Urban is an assistant professor of American studies and history at Rutgers University New Brunswick.
Even the most well-intentioned colleges and universities have a hard time figuring out where to start on the path to improving student success and completion. Financial incentives that keep students on track toward graduation have, in many cases, proven effective, but they often don’t scale in an era of tight budgets. Emerging technologies promise transformation, but they can fall short in a world where financial or organizational challenges tend to stymie implementation.
As it turns out, the road to innovation is lined with real-world hurdles. Initiative fatigue abounds. And all too often, fiscal and organizational barriers can win the day when colleges and universities consider doing something new.
But what if colleges and universities flipped that model on its head? What if the most successful initiatives started with doing less, not more? Can colleges and universities drive outsize gains without spending any money or imposing new responsibilities on faculty and staff members?
Savvy colleges and universities are doing just that, by embracing basic engineering strategies like design thinking or process mapping. Process mapping, as the name suggests, entails mapping out an institutional process from start to finish. The goal is to understand processes from the perspective of the person encountering a product or service -- in the case of higher education, students. It requires institutional leaders to ask, “How does a student engage with our college or university when trying to do X?”
The exercise is inherently empathetic -- it demands that administrators and faculty members put themselves in students’ shoes. And it guarantees, at the very least, greater self-awareness and knowledge of pain points and hurdles that students experience and that need to be removed.
Underlying this approach is a somewhat controversial premise: colleges and universities were not, historically, designed around the needs of students. Like those in charge of many organizations that evolve to meet new demands, well-meaning administrators and faculty members have put processes into place with an imperfect understanding of the user experience. Most campuses have unintentionally put the onus on the students to navigate the complexity of a college campus. When you start looking at problems from that perspective, design flaws leap out.
As consumers, we expect that retailers or service providers have designed the experience around the customer. We become frustrated when things are counterintuitive, bureaucratic, slow, difficult or painful. So why should we tolerate flawed processes that frustrate our students? If colleges and universities really want students to complete their degrees, why is it up to students to let the university know when they are ready to graduate? And why should the students then have to apply to graduate -- and often pay a fee?
Process mapping allows the university to identify and confront the roadblocks for students and then work to remove them, yet it also reveals where faculty members, advisers and administrators are encountering inefficiencies and unnecessary work.
In fact, some of my favorite examples of campus transformation began with process mapping.
Georgia State University has used process mapping to better understand how the university communicates with students, mapping out every email, letter and call that students receives from dozens of offices across campus from the time that students first apply through the end of their first semester. The results of the exercise -- showing an overwhelming stream of often repetitive, conflicting and uncoordinated messages -- inspired the university to better organize how it orients news students and how it explains the choices that they face.
Those insights, in turn, led to more substantive changes -- changes that helped them transform the institution into a national model for student success, eliminating race and income as a predictor of academic outcomes. For instance, university administrators saw how freshmen immediately upon enrolling were expected to make a choice between dozens and dozens of majors, an overwhelming and stressful experience with students too often feeling pressure to make ill-informed decisions. Instead, they paired down the initial choice into seven “metamajors,” or broader-themed categories of study, to give students an opportunity to explore and discover during their first year of college. That small shift has led to a decline of more than 30 percent in the number of changes in major among students at Georgia State -- saving students both time and money in earning their degrees.
Georgia State’s success inspired Michigan State University to bring together representatives from across the campus to map all the ways the university interacted with students from the time they were admitted to the end of the first semester. They discovered that each new student was being barraged with about 400 emails from admissions, financial aid, the registrar’s office, student life, housing and residence life, academic advisers, the student accounts office, academic colleges, and more. The process mapping team found messages that were redundant, that could have been delivered in a different format or that could have been delayed so that other, more critical communications would get noticed.
The campus was overwhelming new students with noise during the time when they really needed clear and thoughtful guidance. That was especially problematic for first-generation and low-income students, who often lack external support in navigating university processes.
The team at Michigan State immediately started work on identifying ways to streamline, prioritize and redesign their interaction with students to be particularly sensitive to the needs of low-income and first-generation students. Financial aid communications now take priority for new students, while notices about extracurricular activities like intramural sports or clubs can wait until students arrive on the campus.
In the past, students who ended up on academic probation at the end of their first semester would receive four different emails from four different people. Now, Michigan State sends one email with clear information about how the student should seek academic advising help and get financial aid questions answered. Viewing the institution through the eyes of the students has allowed Michigan State to find new ways to help students who are at risk of going off track just out of the gates.
Most higher education institutions can benefit from a similar exercise. I have never found a campus that is too self-aware of how they impact their students, faculty members and administrators. Process mapping takes very little time and no additional financial outlay. The team at Michigan State, for example, was able to convene over the course of a day to map out the various communications students were receiving and, in the following weeks, agree upon which messages would be prioritized in the admissions-to-enrollment process.
Process mapping isn’t limited to enrollment and admissions. Colleges and universities can also use process mapping to examine a wide variety of operational challenges, such as course scheduling bottlenecks, barriers to graduation or the delivery of nonacademic student support services. Process mapping can also help the university ensure that students from diverse backgrounds feel welcome and supported on the campus.
Change doesn’t have to be complicated. The harder we make it to change, the less likely it is to happen. If you are asking yourself where to start working to improve student success, a simple exercise like process mapping is the right answer.
Bridget Burns is the executive director of the University Innovation Alliance, a national consortium of large public research universities collaborating to improve outcomes for students across the socioeconomic spectrum through innovation, scale and diffusion of best practices.
Over the last few years, there has been no shortage of news coverage and commentary remarking on the seemingly real or perhaps only greatly exaggerated death of the liberal arts in American higher education.
We are not alone in thinking that the debate about the relevance of the liberal arts is tired and simplistic. To our minds, the liberal arts are as relevant as ever -- as a means of enriching lives, developing engaged citizens and nurturing foundational professional skills.
But if the public, rightly or wrongly, is becoming increasingly skeptical of the value of the liberal arts -- and enrollment trends at certain institutions would suggest that they may be, at least in some measure -- then schools of liberal arts will have to accept some share of the blame themselves.
Undoubtedly, public pronouncements arguing that we need “more welders and less philosophers,” as former presidential candidate Marco Rubio claimed late last year, irk many in the liberal arts -- and not solely because of Rubio’s poor use of grammar. This notion that liberal arts graduates are terminally unemployable is achieving a kind of -- to borrow Stephen Colbert’s famous neologism -- truthiness. And that kind of misinformation can be particularly frustrating to faculty members and students who have devoted their energy and enthusiasm to these fields of study, and enjoyed successful careers as a result of it.
The fact is, as researchers in the field of employability will tell you, a great many organizations have a real interest in hiring college graduates possessing communication and reasoning skills blended with technical expertise and strong character. In an Inside Higher Ed commentary from early 2016, Burning Glass CEO Matthew Sigelman argued that his firm’s research on labor demand has shown that many of the fastest-growing jobs are hybrid in character, requiring “people who can bridge domains and synthesize ideas.” Few would argue that the liberal arts don’t have a contribution to make in producing these sorts of graduates.
Still, frustrating though they may be, news headlines and political commentary aren’t the real obstacles to sustaining the future of the liberal arts. That challenge has less to do with media perceptions or careless politicizing than with the traditional organizational structures and curricular approaches of schools of liberal arts themselves. Here’s what we mean.
Departmental structures can be inflexible and inhibit creative responses to changing market expectations. At a number of liberal arts institutions we work with, faculty express great interest in interdisciplinary work and other forms of innovation. In some respects they find organizational structures -- the proliferation of schools, departments, divisions, units -- just as frustrating and inhibiting as administrators do. But when faculty become uneasy with the tenor of the public debate about the contribution of the liberal arts and feel threatened, they often rely on these structures as a bulwark against change. Others may resist on principle any movement that might be perceived as moving in the direction of vocationalism or focusing on work readiness associated with linking the liberal arts to professional programs.
In both cases, the result can be the same: faculty hunker down. They look at the growth of faculty lines in engineering or business and argue that their departments would grow, too -- if only similar investments were made in their faculty. Of course, increasing capacity doesn’t automatically increase enrollments. Yet for those individuals, the fight for resources is viewed as a zero-sum game, and some faculty members and department chairs would seek to preserve the structures that they know rather than risk reorganizing in ways that merge departments or explicitly require collaboration with the professional disciplines -- even if such changes might deliver more value to students. But of course, such mergers and collaborations are possible where adjacent disciplines complement one another -- such as writing and English programs or communications and performing arts. Restructurings of these sorts can not only avoid unnecessary redundancies in staff positions and other organizational overhead, but also foster the development of a more contemporary curriculum and enrich the student experience.
Departmental structures can constrain the evolution and effectiveness of general-education curricula. As the volume of majors in the liberal arts disciplines continues to fluctuate, general education programs may be seen as an increasingly powerful mechanism to promote traditional liberal arts values. But they can also offer students new forms of interdisciplinary intellectual exposure via minors or other ways of bundling sequences of courses.
For departments with declining majors, general-education course enrollments are frequently seen by faculty as crucial evidence of their value. As a result, there is often resistance by faculty members and department chairs to restructuring general-education programs in ways that might deviate from the more immediately measurable performance models based on numbers of department majors -- even if such restructurings may lead to more relevant and flexible curricula for students. For example, while the contemporary student may derive significant value from experiential learning components and interdisciplinary capstone courses, their inclusion in general-education programs is often met with resistance by faculty as they fall outside the traditional disciplinary or departmental structure.
Departmental structures can necessitate organizational workarounds, such as the creation of interdisciplinary liberal arts centers or institutes, to find a home for innovation. While interdisciplinary centers or institutes can serve as vital catalysts for innovation and collaboration across the disciplines, merely establishing them will not necessarily overcome the force of decades of departmentally focused priorities. As a result, these interdisciplinary centers can sometimes evolve into isolated interdisciplinary silos. Indeed, the lack or perceived lack of incentives for faculty involvement, a misalignment with departmental promotional criteria and the absence of clear expectations with respect to the roles that particular departments or disciplines are meant to play in these centers can all contribute to their eventual marginalization and failure -- which can make it even more challenging to recruit and retain high-potential faculty. Paying lip service to interdisciplinarity isn’t sufficient. In fact, it just exacerbates tensions between units and can make numerous departments less productive. What’s required is a commitment to interdisciplinarity and the centers that promote it as hubs of cross-discipline engagement, for faculty and students alike.
Our view is that the liberal arts matter. Why? Because they prepare students to reason and solve problems, because they develop critical communication skills, and because they teach students how to engage in a process of discovery -- whether it be intellectual discovery, self-discovery or professional discovery. If schools of liberal arts put these same skills to work in examining their own efforts and organizational structures, the liberal arts might well flourish.
Such schools would be more apt to bring together data analytics and the study of literature, or revolutionize the way they think about the role and contribution of general-education programs, or promote liberal arts minors for engineers and biologists in lieu of fighting for more majors within the liberal arts. They might, in other words, rethink the longstanding organizational structures that have housed -- and for many years nurtured -- the liberal arts, but which have now begun to constrain and limit their impact.
Peter Stokes is a managing director and Chris Slatter is a manager in the higher education practice at Huron Consulting Group.