Business issues

UC system weighs shift in tuition payments to after graduation

Proposal being weighed by University of California to shift student payments to after graduation and tie them to income would be a dramatic change in how education is financed.

A presidential spouse muses about the current environment for higher education (opinion)

The expanse of prairie stretching beyond our breakfast room window turned out to be an unexpected bonus. A decade ago, when my wife and I bought our house in the Chicago suburbs, curb appeal, room layout and proximity to the university were its major attractions. Sure, the calm, subdued beauty of nature struck me, essentially a city guy, as a pleasant novelty. But I regarded it offhandedly as “nice.” I had no idea how that superficial reaction would change.

My wife, Elaine, president of Governors State University, identifies the location of her campus as “where the prairie meets the city,” which aptly describes the setting of our home, too. At first, I occasionally surveyed the casual opulence spread before me with fleeting appreciation. I did enjoy glimpses of color change accompanying spring rebirth and autumnal retreat. I particularly liked being surprised by the infrequent appearance of a few deer, white tails flicking and heads jerking at any suggestion of danger. Rarely, I’d even spot a coyote slinking through tall grass, a reminder of sorts that generally benign nature contains elements that coexist uneasily. That realization foreshadowed what I came to feel about the culture now enveloping us.

For many, the past year has tested our sense of national direction as well as our expectations for responsible political conduct. Its initial surrealism has largely ceased to shock. The unthinkable has lost its prefix as the plummet from rationality continues.

At first, I kept my growing disaffection to myself, considering it perhaps an overreaction. I’m not, after all, someone generally uncritical about the machinations of government. Soon, however, I found my morose responses to a new normal replicated among many friends and colleagues. Adapting to this incomprehensible new world has required most of us to devise strategies that ease dismay and agitation, at least to some extent.

Mine often involves truly seeing what at first I only looked at: the prairie. Because each part generally contributes to an organized whole, it provides an antidote to encroaching disarray. Almost daily, finishing my coffee before driving to the campus with Elaine, I concentrate on elements like islands of wildflowers, to which category I’ve promoted that maligned “weed,” the dandelion. What I’ve seen helps sustain me when parts of the day scrape against the whole.

I’m glad I have so many visual inspirations, because contributors to my dis-ease exist both nationally and in Illinois. When national politics become temporarily unthinkable, follies of my state fill the angst void, particularly its lamentable policy toward public higher education. Recently, our public institutions endured more than two years without a budget. Somehow, the relationship between funding allocations and achieved value seemed not to occur to many policy makers, who were concerned primarily with enhancing reputations as tightfisted “guardians” of state revenue.

That posturing has ended, at least temporarily. Now we deal with various impacts of their “economies.” At many Illinois public universities, enrollment has dropped as prospective students opt for universities in fiscally responsible states. Some faculty members and key administrators, weary of repetitive financial uncertainties, have sought stability elsewhere. Not to be minimized, deferred maintenance has been deferred and deferred.

Perhaps worst of all, many low-income students have been discouraged entirely from seeking higher education. For the last three years, according to the National Educational Clearing House, 34 percent of prospective freshmen who met qualifications for admission to Governors State University enrolled nowhere -- not out of state, not at private institutions, not at community colleges -- nowhere. The state budget impasse and threats preceding it closed on-ramps to the middle class for those students. Long-term consequences of squandering this potential can’t be calculated.

As a veteran educator myself, I have always believed that the health of the eye does, indeed, require a horizon. Currently, that horizon grows more distant. To endure the agita accompanying this dour situation, I welcome new sources of comfort and perspective renewal.

One recent morning, taking my last look at the prairie, I noticed something I hadn’t observed before. Fastened to a reed that swayed violently in a strong morning wind was a small black-and-yellow bird. It clung tenaciously to its perch despite being buffeted in various directions. Captivated by the minidrama, I delayed leaving. After a minute or so, when gusts abated, the little creature flew off, leaving me to reflect on what I’d just seen.

Knowing virtually nothing about ornithology, I chose to mythologize the episode. I admired what I saw as strength, courage, resilience, balance and, yes, sheer stubbornness in a struggle against adversity. Some deep impulse, I projected, powered the bird to hang on until it could choose the next moment of its life rather than have it imposed by an outside force. Fantasy? So what! Why waste an insight whose time has arrived?

In our political climate, living constructively requires determination not to capitulate to multiple adversities. Surrendering to dejection, and, therefore, retreating morosely to inactivity cedes society to various idiocracies vying to seize control. Resistance to this aggressive takeover doesn’t require melodrama. It can be mustered effectively in the too-often neglected power of voting, which should be exercised without fail nationally, statewide and locally. And that includes in primaries. Numbers of votes, not irrefutable logic and thoughtful vision, command attention from some career-focused lawmakers.

And in social venues, we must rationally but with restraint (a difficult but attainable mix) counter the persistent onslaught of propaganda posing as ideas. Maybe we can help resuscitate the meaning of “news” and help demolish the science-fiction concept of “alternative facts.”

Working to correct our course will be arduous. Recovery from the blindsiding of common sense demands the determination of that bird I chose to imagine willfully resisting the winds. In our particular moment, regular outages of reason threaten an illuminated future. Still, we must actively resolve that good sense, for the most part, will ultimately be restored.

And “nowhere” cannot be accepted as an educational option. With the restoration of a regular state budget, applications for Governors State University’s next fall freshman class have increased by 15 percent. Like my avian model, we must, in all ways imaginable, actively help shape our destinies and make sure that universities remain places of hope.

Mort Maimon is a retired educator, a writer and a dedicated campus volunteer. His wife, Elaine P. Maimon, is president of Governors State University.

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Small colleges in financial distress should consider mergers sooner than later (opinion)

Higher Education Mergers

The recent announcement by Mount Ida College that it would be closing its doors and selling its Newton, Mass., campus to the University of Massachusetts was met with harsh criticism -- not only from Mount Ida’s students, faculty and staff members but also from the University of Massachusetts community, other institutions of higher education, politicians and the general public.

While Mount Ida’s approach to a tough decision was clearly less than ideal, their problems are not distinct, nor are they easily solvable. Given the realities for many small colleges today, and the decisions others will likely have to make in the coming months and years, it’s important to realize the myriad factors that need to be considered to avoid the kind of backlash Mount Ida is facing.

Graphic for Inside Higher Ed Events, part of the 2018 Leadership Series: "Joining Forces: Merger and Collaboration Strategies." Presenting sponsor Strada Education Network. April 19, Washington, DC. Register now.A 2016 report from Parthenon-EY predicts that nearly 800 private institutions with 1,000 or fewer enrolled students will close or merge in the next 10 to 15 years. The 18- to 22-year-old college-going population in the United States is declining, and New England is one of the first regions that will experience this demographic trend -- one not expected to change until 2033. College presidents and boards should consider these facts a call to action. The earlier an institution in financial jeopardy takes the necessary steps to facilitate a smooth transition, either through a merger or a closing, the better the outcome for its students, faculty and staff members. (Disclosure: Parthenon-EY is a sponsor of Inside Higher Ed’s upcoming event “Joining Forces: Merger and Collaboration Strategies.”)

Last fall, working with Parthenon-EY and facing many of the same realities as Mount Ida and others, we made the very difficult decision to merge Wheelock College with Boston University. While financial and enrollment trends at our institution were declining, they were not yet at crisis level. Recognizing the inevitabilities earlier, though not easy, did provide us time and resources to find the best possible outcomes for our students. It also gave us the opportunity to ensure teaching positions for many of our faculty members, and it provided staff members whose jobs duplicated roles already occupied at BU many months of time and career resources to find new jobs elsewhere.

Still, it has been a difficult year for the Wheelock community. We knew that leading such a significant change would not be easy, but we also recognized that we needed to muster the courage and humility to steward our students, faculty and staff, and, ultimately, Wheelock’s mission through this transition. We have had the privilege of working with a team of talented faculty and staff members to build the new Wheelock College of Education and Human Development at BU while simultaneously developing transition plans for our community. While the necessary layoffs and ultimate transition have been extremely challenging for many of us, the work we’ve done to build a new college has been creative and generative, and it gives us hope for the future of Wheelock’s legacy.

With guidance from our board, we made the decision that we felt would best serve our community and preserve the important historical mission of our institution. We searched nationally for an institutional partner that demonstrated that it valued that mission, and we found such a partner in BU. With our partnership, we are keeping Lucy Wheelock’s name and our campus alive for future students and our community. BU has also committed to provide financial support to our students, keeping their tuition and fees at Wheelock levels throughout the transition period.

In addition, we have the privilege of working with deeply committed faculty, staff, alumni and community partners from the two institutions to create a new college of education and human development. The new college’s goal is to have a greater impact on the lives of the children and families in Boston and beyond than the BU School of Education or Wheelock College have had separately. Our hope is that in working collaboratively with Boston Public Schools, our community partners and the City of Boston, we will continue to play our part in helping to identify solutions to the education and human development challenges we now face in Massachusetts and beyond.

What did we learn in the process of merging? If you lead a vulnerable institution, search for an institutional partner when you still have enterprise value and bargaining power. Formalize your decision when you have the time and the financial assets to plan for a successful closure, one that allows for a supportive teach-out for your students and severance packages for your staff and faculty members.

Higher education leaders should make their difficult choices when those choices remain theirs to make and when they can find a partner that shares their institutional values. Hard decisions are easier to make when you know you are doing the right thing for students and preserving the long-term legacy of a beloved institution.

David Chard is president and Mary Churchill is vice president for academic affairs at Wheelock College. Both Chard and Churchill are featured speakers at Inside Higher Ed’s event “Joining Forces: Merger and Collaboration Strategies,” Thursday, April 19, in Washington.

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Why more colleges should acknowledge the need to merge (opinion)

Many institutions of higher education should be considering a merger, as they are facing an existential crisis. They can merge, close or suffer unremitting deterioration. To admit that the situation is what it is does not assign blame, as no individual at any college or university can control the market forces bearing down on many campuses. 

Whether or not a college can continue to function as it is proud to have done for generations is among the most difficult discussions to begin, much less literally bring to closure. Opening up such a conversation compels campus leaders to acknowledge that the academic enterprise, even if traditionally nonprofit, happens to be a business as well, and that they must develop strategies to deal with the undeniable reality of fewer students, greater costs and increased competitiveness. Payroll must be met, bills must be paid, and the same rules must apply to higher education as they do to other sectors of the economy. Colleges are like newspapers, brick-and-mortar retail stores or manufacturers of internal combustion engines. The disruption that defines our era threatens us all. 

Graphic for Inside Higher Ed Events, part of the 2018 Leadership Series: "Joining Forces: Merger and Collaboration Strategies." Presenting sponsor Strada Education Network. April 19, Washington, DC. Register now.

Faculty members are understandably concerned primarily with the academic quality of the programs that their institutions offer and tend to avoid tough decisions about financial concerns. But today, they must become involved in fiscal matters. Progressive professors understand the argument that it is the students who pay their salaries. They will regret it if they allow others, professionals with different backgrounds and corporate values, to make profound decisions about the entity within which they expect to continue teaching and researching. It would be wrong for a chief academic officer to have less influence than a chief financial officer. But scholars will be subordinate to accountants if they do not demonstrate an interest in reading -- and a corresponding capability to read -- financial statements.

Other stakeholders have their own agendas that keep them from facing the facts. While board members have a fiduciary duty and are ultimately responsible for the sustainability of the operation, they often may be reluctant to eliminate their own roles.  And one of the most disheartening impediments to broaching the subject of merger is alumni pride, as those who previously attended refuse to accept the institution is no longer what it once was.

The temptation for all who are concerned is to believe the superior leader, capable of more effective fund-raising, will take care of everything. Yet the problems are structural. For many colleges, even a 10-fold improvement in annual donations will not make up for a downward trend in tuition revenue. It’s impolite to note, but an objective analysis of some of the “transformative” gifts that institutions announce with fanfare suggests those donations may be turned into a new building, new curricula or tangible benefits for just a handful of selected professors and students. They cannot in the abstract, and they do not in reality, make a meaningful difference in the cost of attendance for the average student.

The math is not a mystery. Law schools, liberal arts colleges that are not among the most prestigious and stand-alone institutions specializing in a limited range of fields are the most vulnerable -- but they are not alone. Among law schools, for example, Whittier Law School is closing, and Valparaiso University School of Law hopes to avoid the same result. The liberal arts institution Sweet Briar College has averted its demise, but only so far. Westminster Choir College, historic and highly regarded but also restricted thematically, has been put up for sale by its parent institution.

A study of the balance sheets of almost all higher education institutions reveals they are tuition dependent even if they pretend to be a peer of Harvard University or Stanford University. The bulk of their revenue comes from what they collect from each enrolled student, reduced by the discount rate. So if college leaders can predict that the number of students will most likely decline, and tuition has reached a natural ceiling, the temptation is for a short-term fix of offering “scholarships” that are unfunded -- rebates or transfers from one student to another based on credentials or other characteristics. But without sizable reserves, that strategy is untenable for anything longer than a brief period. Even with a modest endowment, one can calculate how long until the income is insufficient and the corpus must be invaded.

The predicament of higher education is not new. The conventional responses, however, are no longer as readily available. You can boost tuition revenue by attracting multitudes more or charging them more, but it is not reasonable to believe, given demographic trends and the political vicissitudes affecting international applicants, that the pool of qualified students will grow much. Nor is it feasible to ratchet tuition upward indefinitely, at rates exceeding inflation or any other measure, without giving much of it back via the discount rate. In the worst cases, colleges end up bringing in a class that is smaller and not as highly credentialed and that pays in the aggregate an amount below the preceding year, thanks to “scholarships” that had to be awarded.

A consensus among key campus constituencies that costs ought to be brought under control is insufficient. People who wish for cuts to expenses assume that they themselves are not facing the risk of layoffs. The trouble is that the bulk of the expenses at colleges and universities, especially those that are well run and not spending excessively in capital projects, are for what makes them renowned and distinctive: their human resources -- in particular, faculty members. Ironically, the principles of shared governance often ensure that the administrators who possess the resolve to reform lack the political support to do so and vice versa. 

Ratcheting up pressure, as the economist Adolph Wagner observed a century ago, when societies become more affluent, they expect their governments to offer more services. Wagner’s thesis was that the accumulation of wealth usually tends toward more, not less, taxation as people demand better and better. Higher education exemplifies Wagner’s law. It is labor intensive -- and not only in the actual teaching but also in the support services it offers. “High touch” costs more than high tech, without even taking into account extravagances such as climbing walls and lazy rivers. Unlike a series of gadgets, higher education cannot introduce a brand-new set of features each year for the same price. A seminar is not an iPhone, and it cannot be treated as if it were.

Here are two examples of additional functions imposed on higher education in recent years that exacerbate the dilemma. Both are laudable, and to say that they cost money is not to argue against the dollars being spent. It is only to point out the obvious fact that someone must pay for such mandates -- which generally means the students. (Public support for public higher education is crucial, and its loss is another subject to be taken up.)

First, colleges have to be more “transparent” and demonstrate that they are adding value. For example, government entities increasingly demand they compile, publish even audit statistics on employment of graduates and student learning outcomes. That is good, but data cost money. Staff must be assigned to do the job of finding the facts and tracking down people, some of whom do not wish to reveal their status.

Second, institutions today have a moral imperative to address rampant sexual assault and harassment, providing prevention, investigation and remediation. Title IX has been expanded (though it may contract again). That also is positive change, but it also isn’t gratis. Experts who know what they are doing are required for this type of work. People already on the campus must be trained or new people with the appropriate experience must be hired.

Institutions that are not comprehensive research universities intrinsically lack economies of scale to copy comprehensive research ones. If everyone must submit employment statistics to an oversight agency and put them on the web, the institution with 1,000 students has much more of a burden, on a per-capita basis, than the one with 10,000 students. The costs for virtually everything that has to be done will be greater for the former compared to the latter, once divided up and passed on to the students.

Hundreds of decent liberal arts colleges have inadequate endowments for their plans. They cannot keep up fiscally. They cannot do what Williams College or Amherst College can do. They also do not want to do what their for-profit counterparts are willing to do. What's worse, the institution that is fine but not equal to the elite is locked into a rankings race with those at the top of the list. They are held to the same metrics, evaluated as if only skill in the game would put them ahead.

The task for many of them is not to choose among conventional tactics. If they do not contemplate becoming something altogether different, their alternative will be to cease to be. There should be no shame in proposing merger. It may inspire other creative options. The choice is not black-and-white, because there are intermediate arrangements or affiliations, such as the Claremont McKenna consortium.

The condition of many colleges and universities is not what they would like the world to believe. To confront the facts and take action is wiser than to be nostalgic about the bygone era when the gentleman’s C was as sufficient for higher education institutions as it was for their students.

Frank H. Wu is a Distinguished Professor at the University of California, Hastings, a stand-alone institution affiliated with the University of California system, where he formerly served as chancellor and dean. He was widely credited for initiating the trend of reducing law school enrollment.

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Report shows private colleges are adapting and aims to encourage more change

A report from the Council of Independent Colleges shows how dozens of small private institutions have changed programs or structures -- and aims to spur consideration elsewhere.

Colleges should more regularly kill academic programs for underperforming (opinion)

My first real job was a triumphant lesson in unplanned obsolescence. I landed a paid internship at a New York PR firm called Creamer Dickson Basford and was assigned to the Pizza Hut account. It was an auspicious summer for Pizza Hut public relations. Not only was Pizza Hut launching a 3-D campaign for its Chunky-Style Pizza -- I was responsible for assembling a 3-D press kit, complete with 3-D glasses and 3-D photo of chunky toppings bursting from the pizza -- but Creamer Dickson Basford had convinced its client to run a national blimp tour to draw attention to the launch of the Bigfoot Pizza: a 21-slice rectangular pizza, or two square feet of pizza.

As this wasn’t just any old pizza, it couldn’t be just any old blimp. The Bigfoot Pizza Blimp was the first with a fiber-optic night sign, permitting 24-7 promotion of gluttony. On July 2 it was scheduled to fly from Boston to New York to provide a magnificent large-pizza-themed aerial spectacle alongside the fireworks over the Hudson River.

But on the morning of July 4, as the blimp flew over the Hudson River, it began losing air. A lot of air. Seeing no other choice, the pilot of the dirigible I had promoted to Sports Illustrated for Kids as “safe and fun” crash-landed on the roof of a squat seven-story apartment building in Hell’s Kitchen.

Images of the deflated blimp pancaked down the side of 410 W. 53rd St. dominated the New York tabloids for days. All the attention being paid to the Pizza Hut Bigfoot Pizza Blimp was astonishing. Fortunately no one was hurt, so we kept the blimp in the news with stories like how much we were paying to store remnants in the parking lot across the street. The front page of the New York Post later that week: “At Lee’s Parking on 53rd and 10th, it’s Cars $5, Trucks $10, Blimps $75.” The nonstop coverage drove Bigfoot Pizza awareness and sales through the roof.

Some things just aren’t made to last, like high-tech blimps. But what about programs of study at colleges and universities? They’re intended to last forever, and most do. In a 20-year period between 1978 and 1998, my alma mater offered 97 distinct academic programs or tracks for undergraduates. During that time, only three programs were discontinued, and two of the three were reorganized (engineering was split into various engineering tracks, and economics and political science became ethics, politics and economics). Meanwhile, over one-third of these programs and tracks -- including German studies-- failed to attract more than 100 undergraduate course registrations per year. And yet the only program to receive a Viking funeral was organizational behavior. That’s a generational obsolescence rate of 1 percent.

What other kinds of products have no expiration date? Physical infrastructure and industrial goods can only aspire to last this long. In contrast, knowledge- and technology-based products -- much closer to academic programs than to roads, buildings and airplanes -- are designed for a limited useful life with the expectation that they’ll be surpassed by new and better products, or fundamentally transformed by regular iterations.

This is what’s happening in India, where, facing massive unemployment and underemployment among its 750,000 engineering graduates each year, the government is now demanding that universities update all course syllabi “annually … per requirements of industry.”

Of course it’s true that the vast majority of academic programs (including lousy engineering programs at Indian universities) -- if pursued diligently -- inculcate core competencies, cognitive and executive function skills. A generation ago, the depth of these programs combined with the breadth of distribution requirements was sufficient to launch most graduates onto the first rung of a professional ladder. But unlike our programs of study, the economy hasn’t stood still. And while critical thinking is an unmitigated good thing, continuing to defend the status quo with broad terms like “critical thinking” doesn’t demonstrate great critical thinking.

The key question -- and the most pertinent to students themselves -- is what programs will mean for graduates and their pathways for the next five years.

Curriculum doesn’t become obsolete because knowledge -- when not supplanted by new and better knowledge -- doesn’t become obsolete. Cognitive skills survive the test of time. But for most students, a successful launch into an increasingly technical economy requires a combination of soft skills and digital skills.

Students are flailing about, trying to figure this out. We’re seeing massive shifts from arts and humanities to STEM. Alex Usher recently pointed out enrollment increases of between 30 and 60 percent in STEM programs from 2009 to 2016 at a number of Ontario universities. And the percentage of students who are hedging their bets by double majoring appears to have doubled since 2000.

I suspect that had Yale shuttered more than one program between 1978 and 1998, it would have launched more than two new STEM programs. And although the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point has launched six new STEM degree programs in the past decade, including applied computing, data analytics, health information management and technology, and health information management and technology, I wonder if UW-Stevens Point might have done even better had it eliminated any academic programs in that same period (it did not).

A more proactive approach could have boosted enrollment, reduced the $4.5 million deficit the campus faces over the next two years and limited the need for the drastic restructuring plan announced last week to cut 13 majors, including English, history and all three foreign languages.

The near immortality of departments and majors provides a misleading sense of academic plenty. College students may well be getting soft skills and digital skills -- and most do in their extracurricular activities -- but there’s little guarantee it’s happening in their program of study. And there’s no reason why not besides the absurd durability of programs that fall short. Planned obsolescence in designing academic programs -- or at least a systematic review of whether programs are doing an adequate job of producing all the skills graduates require -- would be helpful in this regard.

Yale can afford to be inefficient in a way that few other colleges and universities can. Every week we learn of new nonselective schools forced to shutter programs due to falling overall enrollment and mandatory institutionwide budget cuts. The key to avoiding becoming the next Sweet Briar College -- a school facing a conundrum of fundamentally needing to change, while relying on the generosity of nostalgic alumnae who don’t want change -- is, as Trace Urdan says, “beginning the process long before your back is against the wall.”

At a minimum, programs that fail to attract a threshold number of students should go under the microscope. But we ought to do better than react to student flows. Why not institute a regular, thorough review of whether every academic program is providing the skills graduates actually need, and make clear to all stakeholders that programs that fail to make the grade will be culled?

Such a self-imposed standard would be much higher than accreditors currently require, where the test of stating learning outcomes and demonstrating outcomes are being met ensures that an institution’s accreditation is as long-lived as its academic programs.

The challenge, of course, is facing the fact that curriculum can become obsolete -- or that you can become obsolete -- which is a lot less enjoyable than teaching exactly the same course you taught when you were much younger.

No one enjoys confronting their own mortality. But we die to make room for the new. To really understand this eternal tension, you’d need to take a few courses in humanities or classics. The problem, you see, is that few employers are profound enough to prioritize such understanding over the skills new graduates actually need to do the job.

Ryan Craig is managing director of University Ventures and author of the upcoming A New U: Faster + Cheaper Alternatives to College (BenBella Books).

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The overcommercialization of university mascots (opinion)

When I was in grade school in the 1960s, my dad took me to a few Penn State football games. And then in the 1970s, I was back in Beaver Stadium as a reporter hanging out in the press box. For a few games, I roamed the sidelines as a part-time sports photographer.

Later, I had the good fortune to work for Penn State. For half a dozen years while serving as vice president overseeing university communications, I watched the games from the luxury suites with donors, politicians, alums, special guests and senior administrators.

All that time, the Nittany Lion mascot was an important part of the game-day experience. In fact, the mascot has held his job for more than a century. And he has been a vital contributor to Penn State’s reputation around the world. The furry mascot is one of the single most valuable images of the 100,000-student school.

When I oversaw the marketing and branding efforts at Penn State, our staff conducted national public opinion surveys to get a good sense how Americans viewed the university. Year after year, the Nittany Lion mascot was always one of the very top mentions by people around the country. We regularly used him in TV, print and social media advertising encouraging high school students to enroll.

And it worked. His image, and the overall marketing program, attracted more applications to Penn State than to just about any other higher education institution in the country.

I don’t go to games any longer, but I do follow the university and the team, and I don’t like what I see the beloved Nittany Lion mascot doing these days. He’s sold out. Literally, he is sold out to commercial companies.

In addition to being one of the key images for one of the largest, most well-known universities in the nation, the mascot now sells coffee and doughnuts in his spare time. He has joined with mascots of other major universities across America to sell home mortgages. And he appears in television commercials selling beef jerky with Sasquatch.

The mascot can be seen in advertisements aired around the country during college and pro football games, as well as on social media platforms like Facebook. The Nittany Lion mascot is not alone in selling out. He appears in the 30-second beef jerky commercial with the University of Iowa’s Herky the Hawk. They are having their portrait painted by Bigfoot. You can view the commercial on YouTube.

And the mascot is showing up on TV and online, promoting Rocket Mortgage by Quicken Loans. He is in good company. In the 45-second version of the ad that you can view on YouTube, he appears with a tiger, elephant, duck, bull and other major university mascots. They are doing flips, giving high fives and executing their trademark moves every student and alum of their institutions memorized long ago.

The YouTube description says, “When it comes to leading cheers and one-handed push-ups, mascots have all the confidence in the world -- except when it comes to mortgages. Luckily for them, there's Rocket Mortgage by Quicken Loans. Now they're confident on and off the field. Get your own mortgage confidence at”

The Nittany Lion appears several times in the ad. Early on, he is seen running past a crowd of cheering fans in Beaver Stadium. He carries a blue-and-white Penn State flag with the university's sports logo past a blue wall also emblazoned with the logo. Fans in the background cheer, “We are Penn State!” In another quick scene in the ad, we see the lion crowdsurfing over a group of fans. In a third scene, he does a backward flip in front of a crowd of fans and the sports logo. The ad ends with a group of about a dozen college mascots, and there again is the Nittany Lion doing his famous (at least among Penn Staters everywhere) frenzied ear-scratching move.

You can even watch a special two-minute behind-the-scenes video that explains how all the mascots were flown in from around the country to film the commercial.

The university mascot has also been deployed to sell coffee and doughnuts. He popped up as an ad in my Facebook news feed last fall clutching Dunkin’ Donuts cups in his paws, promoting $1 cups on Mondays following a Penn State football team win. You can see a photo of the mascot with his coffee standing in Beaver Stadium in news coverage of the deal.

While all this may make for fun television, it is doing the Nittany Lion and Penn State a big disservice. Athletic departments should not be selling out their university mascots. I realize hiring multimillion-dollar coaches and building and operating expansive facilities to train, feed, entertain, tutor and pamper athletes is expensive. Penn State’s athletic budget was $144 million for the 2016-17 fiscal year.

But a mascot has a bigger role to play for an institution, especially for the best-known institutions. They are a symbol of pride and tradition.

The Nittany Lion mascot has been a central image for Penn State since 1904. He’s wildly popular with students, alums and residents of the state. By any measure, he has been a successful mascot for the institution. He was recently named a new inductee to the Mascot Hall of Fame, a multimillion-dollar facility being built in Whiting, Ind.

If you are an alum or a super Penn State fan, you can book the lion for an appearance at your wedding. I’m fine with that because the lion is doing what he was originally created to do: help promote school spirit.

A good mascot is priceless for a brand. Mickey Mouse, Tony the Tiger, Mr. Clean, Captain Morgan, the Geico Gecko, Colonel Sanders, the Jolly Green Giant and even Burger King’s creepy looking king are tied inextricably with their brands. They are pure pop culture icons.

In higher education successful mascots are a key part of our institutions’ brands. They should not be pitching beef jerky and home mortgages on their days off.

Bill Mahon is president of Ground Zero Ready Communications, a former vice president of university relations at Penn State and a partner of the Ketchum University RepProtect suite of services.

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Poorly defined roles of provosts and deans can lead to problems at major universities (opinion)

You know something is amiss when offices of the provost have to explain what they do at comprehensive universities. And what they do -- or, more specifically, what many have failed to do -- is one of myriad reasons why budget cuts are occurring at large, often public, universities across the country.

You’ll find such cuts at institutions in Connecticut, Illinois, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas and Wyoming, to name a few. Cuts are not the rule, as Inside Higher Ed reported last year, showing modest increases last year in three-quarters of the states. But tuition keeps rising, debt keeps mounting and provosts and deans are at the forefront of containing costs.

Go ahead and google “What does a provost do?” You’ll find several websites trying to explain what the job at a major university actually entails.

One of my favorites is by Kerri Schuiling, provost and vice president for academic affairs at Northern Michigan University, who posted “What Exactly Is a Provost?”

“If you don’t know what a provost is, you shouldn’t feel bad. With the exception of people who work for a university, the term provost may be a bit of a mystery. If you check the origins of the word ‘provost,’ you’ll find that the original definition was ‘keeper of a prison’ -- certainly not what a university provost is today!”

What is a provost?” asks the provost's office at the University of Michigan, which sees fit to include the dictionary meaning before describing responsibilities of the position (and yes, “keeper of a prison” is included above “high-ranking university administrative officer”):

pro-vost n [ME, fr. OE profost & OF provost, fr ML propositus, alter. of praepositus, fr L, one in charge, director, fr. pp. of praeponere to place at the head] 1: the chief dignitary of a collegiate or cathedral chapter 2: the chief magistrate of a Scottish burgh 3: the keeper of a prison 4: a high-ranking university administrative officer

Emory University has a similar website, titled “What Does the Provost Do?” Better still, its president, Claire Sterk, a former provost at that institution, has a YouTube video by the same title, explaining the position.

Let’s be clear about the aforementioned executive officers: I do not know them. They are probably excellent administrators. Neither am I denigrating the provost's duties, which multiplied considerably when a number of presidents appended the title "vice president for academic affairs."

That is when troubles began. The VP title delegated to provosts the primary duty of president -- to be a visionary. This also effectively removed provosts as the advocate for and titular head of the professoriate. (That role has fallen to chairs of faculty senates and unions.) In the past, it was not unusual for provosts to be at odds with presidents if professors failed to get adequate compensation or if operations -- from technology to curricula -- inflated the budget. When it did, provosts held deans responsible.

In one of the early warnings about the dual title, “Vice President v. Provost,” authors Ray Maghroori and Charles Powers correctly state that “the two roles entail distinctly different and, at times, even conflicting responsibilities.”

University employees usually do not know what provosts do apart from being the voice of the administration. All too often, presidents and chancellors with inflated salaries are gallivanting across the country in university jets, fund-raising, hobnobbing with alumni and business leaders, attending athletic events, participating in educational organizations, networking with regents and legislators, and relying on vice presidents of diversity as buffers when multicultural crises arise.

Robert Sternberg, former provost and senior vice president at Oklahoma State University, and now a Cornell University professor, writes in a post subtitled “Wanna be a provost,” “The role of a provost actually is somewhat ill-defined. At some level, it is whatever the president or the chancellor wants it to be. Presidents often will delegate to provosts tasks that they do not want to do or that they see as outside their skill set. So provosts need to be ready to be something of a jack-of-all-trades.”

Central administration should focus on one paramount requirement: keeping tuition reasonable. In this, too, many have failed. Their core strategy is begging. Beg the Legislature for funding. Beg benefactors, too. Raise tuition. Tinker with the preposterous budget model used by a growing number of institutions called responsibility-centered management, which often rewards student credit hours rather than major enrollment, thereby inflating pedagogy.

Explaining the Budget Model

Here’s how the model typically works. The office of provost no longer is chiefly responsible for budget (centralized system); instead, college deans are responsible (decentralized system). Budgets are not pegged primarily to departmental enrollment as in the past but increasingly to tuition, with revenue generated by student credit hours. That puts departments in competition with one another, duplicating efforts and courses, as explained in the article “Your Tub or Mine,” leading to what one critic calls “perverse incentives, like engineering schools that want to teach English.”

As a result, duplication abounds, with course catalogs expanding each year. A traditional provost would monitor that in a centralized system. However, since many provosts are expected to be visionaries instead of accountants, with systems now decentralized, the new class of deans typically hasn’t a clue about accounting -- apart from relying on tuition and formulas for student credit-hour generation and, failing that, increasing fees for just about everything.

With responsibility-centered management, you can balance budgets as long as tuition and fees keep rising, because costs are passed on to students registering for classes. The longer you keep students in the institution, the better for the budget, explaining in part why only 41 percent of students graduate in four years, with a quarter of them dropping out because of cost, according to The New York Times.

I have been writing about this for more than a decade, advising provosts about what they can do apart from begging the Legislature or benefactors for more funds. You’ll find numerous articles in Inside Higher Ed alone, not to mention other media outlets. Here’s a quick sampling.

The more we keep raising tuition, the more universities will operate on the status quo, allowing costs to rise without provosts and deans being held accountable. As a result, we will continue to confront these distressing problems:

  • Rampant curricular growth because typically no one is monitoring that apart from student credit-hour production as a means to raise revenue;
  • Fewer tenured professors and armies of underpaid adjuncts hired not because of expertise but to deliver the inflationary curricula;
  • Longer graduation timelines and lower retention rates because convoluted curricular growth complicates the path to commencement; and
  • Debt-ridden graduates (or worse, college dropouts because of cost), who will continue to pay student loans into middle age.

Defining the Dean

If you were unsure about what a provost does, you’ll be perplexed at what many deans do anymore. The reason for that is simple: when a growing number of provosts stopped advocating for faculty and balancing budgets in centralized systems, they typically lost focus and/or interest in the requisite duties of deans, especially since deans in decentralized systems often are responsible for revenue generation.

I coded the first 10 advertisements for college deans at comprehensive universities on the Inside Higher Ed job site, knowing in advance what I would probably would find. Academic gobbledygook often associated with "vision," upon which job candidates may expound with little knowledge about institutional history, budget and strategic plans. Those parameters are set. Advertisements mostly overlooked requisite skills needed to run a complex organization, emphasizing curricular-based experience associated with enrollment management, assessment, certification, curricular streamlining, nonduplication of pedagogy and transparency -- hard metrics to measure student success, including average student debt and rates of retention, graduation and job placement.

Of the more than 50 general and specific qualifications and duties in all these ads, these were most cited: advocate for the college, communicate well, collaborate, have vision, know budgeting, raise funds, promote diversity, share governance, support research, and meet promotion and tenure requirements for full professor. Other requirements less mentioned included the ability to promote student success, engage stakeholders, support professional development, oversee promotion and tenure cases, operate a complex organization, and possess good character.

Here is a hypothetical job description for today’s dean, based on advertisements for the position in colleges of arts and sciences, business, education, engineering, and social sciences:

“The successful candidate should have experience in leading a complex organization, including knowledge of budgets and fund-raising, and possess a scholarly record for appointment at the rank of tenured professor. As chief advocate for the college, the dean supports research and grantsmanship, oversees promotion and tenure, collaborates with deans across campus and shares governance, promoting diversity and communicating effectively with internal and external constituents. Above all, the dean should possess a clear vision to take the college to the next level of excellence, ensuring student success.”

Only one of the position statements I reviewed at the time included specific reference to curricular expertise: Texas State University, in its search for an education college dean, required “experience in innovative curriculum development and delivery; academic program accreditation; and credentialing.”

At Iowa State’s Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication we go even further, posting our metrics on a public accountability website. You’ll find student retention rates, compared to rates of the college and university; graduation rates; placement rates; scholarship amounts; paid and unpaid internship percentages; enrollments by degree major; student course evaluation data; and median starting salaries in our disciplines.

Moreover, we have a public, online assessment plan, stand-alone diversity plan and, most important, a strategic plan for the school.

Every department in every college should have these metrics, and deans should be evaluated by them before any reappointment. Once upon a provost, that was precisely what they did.

Thus, a hypothetical job description for an effective dean might read:

“The successful candidate should have knowledge of enrollment management, accreditation and certification requirements, and outcomes assessment for continuous improvement in evaluating quality of teaching. The dean also should be aware of curriculum’s impact on budget and take steps to help chairs streamline pedagogy, improving graduation rates. A scholarly record for appointment at the rank of tenured professor is required, as well as understanding of promotion and tenure processes associated with support of faculty research and advancement.

“A dean should have exceptional interpersonal and communication skills, explaining ways to maximize resources so faculty take the initiative to increase enrollment, reduce student debt and prioritize job placement within six months of commencement. In this sense, vision is important, as is fund-raising, especially in providing professional development opportunities for faculty and scholarships for students. The dean should ensure that every department posts a stand-alone diversity, assessment and strategic plan aligned with institutional priorities and publishes metrics about enrollment, retention, placement, scholarships and other data showcasing the unit and collaborative efforts to achieve student success.”

The problem with such an advertisement is that fewer and fewer dean applicants can meet those requirements or discuss them intelligently in finalist interviews. In my travels across the country, in the role of invited consultant, it also has been my subjective experience that provosts no longer realize the cause-and-effect impact on institutional priorities of budget models based on student credit-hour generation rather than major enrollment.

Such oversights help explain why so many low-paid adjuncts have been hired to deliver the burgeoning curricula, at the expense of fewer full-time, continuing faculty members. Moreover, adjuncts teach more classes than graduate students who require tuition waivers, and that affects graduate school enrollment and faculty research. And with fewer continuing professors, and less time for research, remaining tenured faculty members have growing service obligations. That one factor alone may explain the growing, unhappy ranks of associate professors who cannot meet promotion and tenure requirements.

In sum, higher education cannot continue with these failing practices, particularly with poorly defined roles for provosts and deans. So-called administrative bloat, hiring more assistant and associate provosts and deans to do basic tasks, only adds to budgetary woes. If the current situation continues, unmonitored curricular expansion due to ineffective budget models will result in skyrocketing costs, and the domino effect will worsen student debt and undermine enrollment, retention, compensation, health insurance, retirement benefits and, most important, recruitment of continuing, full-time professors whose research and teaching are paramount for institutional reputation and student success.

What do provosts and deans actually do? The answer seems to be, in too many cases, not enough where it matters.

Michael Bugeja, former director of Iowa State’s Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication, teaches media ethics. He is an elected member of the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications. In 2015, he won the Scripps Howard Administrator of the Year Award. These views are his own and not associated with ISU.

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Lessons learned in merging a college with another (opinion)

In 2009-10, I was an American Council on Education fellow. All who undertake that leadership development preparation have a memorable experience called Pennyfield. Groups of fellows come together as the president and senior staff of Pennyfield College and -- based on a range of information about finance and mission, competitive market complications and national circumstances -- are asked to work together to create a presentation for the college’s Board of Trustees.

Teams have about 24 hours to identify core problems, propose solutions and, most crucially, reformulate the annual budget. Mentors are available around the clock, and groups can quickly become enthusiastic, competitive and dedicated advocates of the fictitious college. I do not remember what solution we found to Pennyfield’s financial morass nor how we proposed to solve the budget dilemmas, although the Pennyfield board, composed of former and present college presidents and chancellors from around the country, applauded our PowerPoint presentation and solution.

Contrast that experience to July 2012, when I became president of Shimer College. The board I worked with was not a role-playing one gathered to teach and mentor aspiring leaders. Nor were the students, faculty, staff, alumni, community members or our partner institutions imaginary. The financial dilemmas were real, the market challenges facing liberal education (especially in Illinois) immense, and our educational mission perplexing to or misunderstood by many people around us. In this, I was not unlike many of my peers who imagine administrative work and then face the realities of institutions that have their own particular histories and possibilities. Shimer was not Pennyfield.

And yet I thought about Pennyfield repeatedly during my years as president of Shimer College. I thought about who was not in the room when we undertook our 24 hours of work (faculty, students and administrative staff, for example, not to mention local community leaders). I thought as well about the ways the Pennyfield experience, created to help aspiring leaders understand finance, risked allowing educational mission to slip into a secondary place in the work of each team.

In fact, Pennyfield came to mind over and over again as insider’s shorthand for the intersecting dilemmas and hopes, the Gordian knot, that is American higher education generally and American private liberal arts colleges more particularly.

Recently, I reflected anew on Pennyfield, as I thought about the processes by which I led Shimerians to a new future. The work required finding Shimer College a potential partner (eventually North Central College). Then followed a nearly two-year process of regulatory, legal, financial and curricular work at two institutions, undertaken alongside significant data management, technological, infrastructure and employment changes. This past summer, Shimer and North Central College’s deal was completed, and what was once an autonomous Shimer became the Shimer Great Books School of North Central College. In one sense the deal was done. In another, it was simply another step along the way to a fully embedded Shimer Great Books School of North Central College.

Three Motifs

Neither the form of this victory nor the lessons I learned in pursuit of change would have occurred to me as I worked through the night on the difficulties facing Pennyfield in 2009-10. Here are three that are worth remembering.

First and foremost, life is not a case study. No matter how messy any case study is, reality is much messier. Much, though not all, of that mess may be discernible only in hindsight.

In the case of mergers and acquisitions in higher education, the messiness is not limited to a single aspect of the institution(s) but can be pervasive, reaching into every arena of institutional functioning -- including personnel, finance, governance, marketing and communication. Whether understood through the lens of structural, human resources, political or symbolic frames, the full organization is involved. (Of course, no such deal occurs in a vacuum, so the messiness may extend well beyond institutional boundaries.)

Among the messes that were notable were those where the governance differences between the two institutions were most evident. For example, internal Shimer governance was an assembly, which included all students, staff, faculty and administrators. And our Board of Trustees included two faculty members and three students as voting members. North Central follows a more traditional shared-governance model. Shimer’s community was tiny and close-knit, while North Central’s was larger.

As a result of those two differences, our communication plan at Shimer was substantially more complex than one might have guessed given the smaller scale -- for every member of the Shimer community had a governance role in our decision making and following one’s governance procedures is vitally important in such transactions. In our case, as well, every Shimerian, whether faculty member, administrator or student, was affected -- though differently -- by our decisions. Our student trustees, by the way, were amazing in their capacity for confidentiality and for responsiveness in the process.

Among the messy details we addressed together were:

  • shifting from semesters to trimesters;
  • ensuring students at various stages of their Shimer careers were able to graduate on time;
  • meeting the housing and commuting concerns of students -- whose needs varied significantly as we moved to a residential campus;
  • retaining staff members when few would be offered jobs at our new campus;
  • supporting student and staff choices about their futures with an eye to what was best for each individual while meeting metrics of student and staff continuation that would ensure the success of the deal;
  • raising substantial dollars from alumni and friends while navigating nondisclosure agreements;
  • planning for deal success while knowing how to manage deal failure;
  • managing emotions associated with loss and success as the deal neared completion; and more.

Such pervasive messiness has been acknowledged in the literature on mergers and acquisitions in higher education at least since the wave of mergers in the 1970s and the spate of meta-analyses of these that followed. While we may forget such messiness eventually -- as perhaps has happened in the decades-old cases of Carnegie Mellon University and Case Western Reserve University -- recognizing its likelihood may help prevent a forced choice between closure and merger, enhance our understanding of mergers as one of a series of kinds of strategic alliances, and strengthen the potential to accomplish the missions to which we are all committed.

It turns out, on reflection, that messiness can be the source of creativity and hope rather than failure. Working to ensure that is the case is one lesson to take from Shimer’s experience that is perhaps less obvious than what one learns from the more staged work of a case study.

Second, although Pennyfield was developed to facilitate financial and budgetary learning among aspiring leaders, nothing in higher education is simply or solely about money. In short, decisions about money have far-reaching implications and ought not be made in isolation. That is equally true of decisions regarding educational mission that willfully ignore the financial situation. In some very real sense, the tension between educational mission and the “business model” of higher education operates as a fractal -- it appears whether acknowledged or unacknowledged, in every decision, large or small, made by every actor in higher education.

Certainly that was true at Shimer, where the educational mission was distinctive and beloved and the financial precariousness both legendary and long-lived. To be successful, the acquisition, which led to the emergence of the Shimer Great Books School of North Central College, required meeting fund-raising and fiscal management goals and sustaining a continuity of curriculum and culture.

Third, presenting the idea is not the conclusion of one’s work -- most often, it is the beginning. Whereas the work of Pennyfield was done when the fictitious board applauded, the work of the real world is not concluded when the actual board receives reports, votes or recommends action. Much of the effort preparing for board meetings -- and then the follow-up work that comes from board decisions -- is relatively invisible to anyone not regularly on the campus. And the extraordinary work of a merger takes place in the interstices between routine educational, regulatory, financial and other activities.

There were many board votes at both Shimer and North Central, each a decision marker along the way. Each brought increasing commitments to engage with shared governance as well as rising demands for staff and faculty members at both institutions to prioritize efforts to make the deal “work.” That included a full summer of intensive labor (often by North Central personnel) on a change of control document for the Higher Learning Commission, a regulatory approval prerequisite to any further action, and the fulfillment of additional deal-related requirements. Some of Shimer’s board members appeared on a regular basis (and at some points, on a daily one) on the campus as we moved toward the future -- communicating, raising money, managing budgets and personnel, and helping ensure that the board’s decision came to fruition.

The idea of coming together with another institution as a new form of Shimer was, thus, only the beginning. We came to know that as the days, weeks and months wore on from our initial conversations to the final signatures on documents. The changes we were managing -- leading -- always felt rushed and always took too much time. The carrying of the business solution of mergers and acquisitions into the landscape of our particular corner of American higher education did not mean that the tension between speed and deliberation, business model and educational mission, dissolved.

In fact, regulatory, legal and financial tasks of higher education mergers and acquisitions are time-consuming. They have opportunity costs and are often undertaken in circumstances where staff and faculty members are already stretched, as was the case with Shimer and to a lesser extent North Central College. What began, we thought, as a six-month process was, in fact, a two-year process. As we build change together, we are both building and refusing history -- working at the cusp between a certain past and an uncertain future, when history matters less than the stories we tell to hold past and future together. Time matters -- and we never have enough to be prepared for what comes next.

Wicked Problems

Everything else is a corollary to these three points: messiness is pervasive, money is not everything and ideas are the start -- not the end -- of institutional work.

Whether we are discussing the kind of asset purchase agreement undertaken by Shimer and North Central or other decisions on other campuses, the quandaries we face in higher education are what I referred to above as a Gordian knot and what some refer to as “wicked problems,” raising matters that are ethical and managerial -- affecting more people than one is likely to imagine both at individual and group levels. Those matters are located at the confluence of the symbolic, the political, the structural and the interpersonal. Rarely is our time frame 24 hours. Rarely are our options singular. Most often, they require a both-and approach rather than an either-or. Change is always about loss and gain.

The kinds of full-on change that Shimer -- and North Central, perhaps less obviously -- risked involve every one of the characteristics of wicked problems: “a social or cultural problem that is difficult or impossible to solve for as many as four reasons: incomplete or contradictory knowledge, the number of people and opinions involved, the large economic burden, and the interconnected nature of these problems with other problems.” Wicked problems require us to resist both simple binaries and endless perseveration, both the absence of analytical thought and analysis paralysis, both simplistic approaches and immobilizing complexity.

Indeed, a quick review of the literature on higher education reveals that much of what we at colleges and universities do has been labeled a wicked problem in recent years: assessing our quality, strategy and strategic planning, as well as our capacities to transform our institutions to meet the needs of the social order; moderating the growth of tuition; addressing access and affordability; and much more. While Pennyfield was itself attempting to present us with a wicked problem, capable of many solutions and yet nearly impossible to solve, such problems become more salient than ever when one moves from case study to real life.

Among the challenges facing us at Shimer were the conflicting requirements to hold matters confidential yet to be transparent, to use democratic processes of shared governance yet retain the urgency of top-down, board-level decision making. In real-world dynamics, we had no choice but to focus on institutional (regulatory, legal, financial and educational) change and the cultural particularities of Shimer itself.

The fact is, whether we are discussing Pennyfield or Shimer, change in higher education is always about refusing the easy solution. It is about change as loss and gain, about the human impact of all we do, and about the capacity to hold multiple possibilities in mind and in action as we build a more sustainable educational model.

When we are successful, leadership in higher education and in the classroom means navigating between necessary change and change for change’s sake, between proactive and reactive stances. When we are successful, we are the bridge between past and future that refuses nostalgia and empty optimism in favor of hope. That is the victory Shimer has found -- for now.

Susan Henking was the 14th president of Shimer College. She is president emerita of Shimer, professor emerita of Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and a senior consultant to Academic Career and Executive Search.

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