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Blurring the Lines

Participants at NACUBO’s inaugural Thought Leaders Program predict that emerging forces will reshape higher education’s traditional structures.

By Donna Klinger

American colleges and universities traditionally have been known to be highly structured, neatly arranged, and generally well managed. Those qualities of order and discipline have led to a system that has been the envy of the world. But, times are changing, noted participants at NACUBO’s inaugural Thought Leaders Program: Leading Through Changing Times, in St. Petersburg, Florida, earlier this year. A far less certain—and more competitive—future has begun to blur those neat lines. Conference attendees and presenters identified the growing need to allow for less distinct physical and organizational boundaries, leadership positions and responsibilities, and even content-creator and
-consumer roles.

Disappearing Boundaries

Opening speaker James Duderstadt, president emeritus and professor of science and engineering at the University of Michigan encouraged participants not to bind teaching and learning too tightly to campuses or even institutions. “Certainly, both learning and scholarship will continue to depend heavily upon the existence of communities,” he said, “which, after all, are highly social enterprises. Yet as these communities are increasingly global in extent, detached [by technology] from the constraints of space and time, we should not assume that the scholarly communities of our times would necessarily dictate the future of our universities.” To underscore his point, Duderstadt asked: “For the longer term, who can predict the impact of exponentiation of technologies on social institutions, such as universities, corporations, or governments, as technology continues to multiply in power a thousand-, a million-, and a billionfold during a single generation?”

Sharing Content and Its Creation

Clearly, online learning communities and social sites have joined the lecture hall and student union as active learning venues. Participants and speakers agreed that the technology supporting these communities is a primary driver in changing how institutions function and in causing major restructuring of higher education.

For some students, these changes are not happening quickly enough, said Susan Jurow, NACUBO’s senior vice president of professional development, who delivered remarks prepared by Philip Goldstein. In his presentation materials, Goldstein, research fellow at EDUCAUSE Applied Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado, noted that the push for change is clearly evidenced by a YouTube video titled “A Vision of Students Today” (www.youtube.com/watch?v=dGCJ46vyR9o). The video, prepared by Michael Wesch in collaboration with 200 students at Kansas State University, Manhattan, summarizes how students learn and what tools they want and need to facilitate their ways of gaining knowledge.

Not only has much learning migrated to the Web, but open access and the ability to enter into virtual conversations—and even post content—have changed the dynamics of learning. University of Michigan’s Duderstadt said: “Perhaps the most interesting activities in higher education today involve an extension of the philosophy of open source software developed to expand opportunities for learning and scholarship to the world by putting previously restricted knowledge into the public domain and inviting others to join in its use and development.” Duderstadt reeled off several examples, including Google’s print library (http://books.google.com/googlebooks/library.html); Sakai open software for instructional and scholarly support (http://sakaiproject.org/); and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Open Courseware (http://ocw.mit.edu/OcwWeb/web/home/home/index.htm) projects.

Jurow noted that Goldstein refers to these developments as the “blurring of creator and consumer” roles, adding that collective intelligence is often better than individual thinking.

Along with cyberinfrastructure, Duderstadt sees open-source, open-content, and open-learning technologies as the building blocks for truly global universities—or what Charles Vest, MIT president emeritus, terms the “metauniversity.” The current higher education model is simply inadequate, Duderstadt said, to meet the “exploding needs for education and knowledge throughout the world,” as lifelong learning evolves from a privilege for a few to a right for all.

World View

“Globalization” was top of mind throughout Thought Leaders sessions and informal conversations. Community college vice presidents for finance talked about their need to prepare students to work in a global economy. Independent research university business officers explained the importance of their institutions’ international affiliations. Speaking for Goldstein, Jurow examined the growing sophistication of college and university leaders as they seek to prepare their institutions and their students for effective interaction in a global economy. Goldstein’s work offers three stages that reflect higher education institutions’ quest for internationalization:

  • Outpost: study abroad programs, international recruiting;
  • Replica: international affiliations and branch campuses; and
  • Global integration: metauniversities incorporating multiple international campuses and programs.

“Higher education,” noted Duderstadt, “is engaging in the early stages of globalization, through the rapid growth in international partnerships among universities and through the emergence of truly global universities. [Such institutions] not only intend to compete in the global marketplace for students, faculty, and resources, but are also increasingly willing to define their public purpose in terms of global needs, such as public health, environmental sustainability, and international development.”

Michael A. McRobbie, president of Indiana University told participants that he sees both opportunities and threats in globalization. One of the things that keeps McRobbie awake at night is international competition, especially from China. Chinese leaders aspire to create 10 world-class universities, and McRobbie thinks that American higher education institutions could feel the effects of that goal within 10 years. The other issue that gives McRobbie insomnia is the international battle to attract “the best brains in the world” as faculty.

Brain Drain and Bench Strength

In addition to noting concern for potential “brain drain” to other institutions and to private industry, program participants discussed several other human resource issues. Some college and university leaders, for example, are seriously thinking about succession planning and related “bench strength.” Realizing that the same top leaders are involved in all the decisions, some institutions are considering blurring the lines of leadership responsibilities to make the decision-making process more nimble and inclusive, while ramping up the number of potential leaders in the pipeline. Jurow alluded to Jim Collins’s landmark book Good to Great, in asserting that colleges and universities need to make sure that they have the “right people on the bus” to achieve greater productivity and efficiency. Paul Jansen, director of McKinsey & Company, New York City, suggested looking to the University of Phoenix for productivity and scalability tools.

Joining Forces

One way that higher education institutions are improving productivity and efficiency is through working with peers and partners. Many participants talked about such collaboration: from research universities partnering with each other on initiatives of mutual interest to small colleges coming together to purchase insurance or outsource technology to larger institutions. Community colleges and universities are offering joint degrees, and higher education institutions are working with K–12 schools to integrate students’ education and better prepare students to transition to the next level. Goldstein’s work has led him to advise chief business officers to analyze collaborations carefully to ensure that the loss of autonomy is outweighed by the financial benefits.

Modeling the Future

Duderstadt and Jansen urged higher education leaders to go beyond talking to begin exploring possibilities for the future. When doing so, Duderstadt advised, chief financial officers have the responsibility to “guard the assets” by investing and spending wisely in this time of flux. Duderstadt concluded: “In a rapidly changing world, characterized by unpredictability … rather than continue to contemplate or debate possibilities for the future, a more productive course might be to build several prototypes of future learning institutions as working experiments. In this way we could actively explore possible paths to the future.”

DONNA KLINGER is director of publications at NACUBO.

The Thought Leaders Program was made possible through a grant from Aetna, Inc.

The Buzz

The issues on the minds of business officers have changed somewhat in the past two years, as evidenced by differences in the interactive discussions at NACUBO’s 2006 annual meeting, “Campus of the Future,” and the 2008 Thought Leaders Program. Human resources issues, globalization, and collaboration have risen to the top of the list. Here are comparisons of priority issues identified by constituent groups at the two events:

 

July 2006 February 2008
Campus of the Future Thought Leaders Program

Community Colleges

expectation of 24/7 access, sustainability, lack of preparation in K–12 students, institutional rigidity, more commitments from external stakeholders, market forces, delivery of learning, ever-changing community needs and demands, workforce development needs, program offerings, minority access, and facilities expansion

government funding declines and enrollment growth; new revenue sources; distance education boom; remediation; internationalization (preparing students to be able to compete in global world); mergers; societal issues, such as immigration and crime on campus; productivity; and collaboration/partnerships

Comprehensive/Doctoral Institutions

diverse student needs, competition for talent, sustainability, increasing importance of experiential learning, local market environment and climate, productivity, market forces changing education delivery, and skills necessary to deliver education

brain drain from labor market competition with other industries and institutions, administrative effectiveness, sustainability/climate commitment, globalization, accountability, showing value, and tuition discounts

Research Universities

human capital development, knowledge decentralization, increasing obsolescence, academic capitalism, delivery mechanisms, public policy regarding scientific research, availability of qualified students and staff, economic development, and increased competition for faculty

performance and efficiency measures, staffing metrics, start-up funds for new researchers, evaluating enterprise risk management, ERP implementation, bandwidth on campus, maximizing use of facilities, compliance, student technology demands, leadership and succession planning, building a globalization infrastructure, creating next-generation economic models, and recruiting and retaining faculty

Small Colleges

faculty and staff housing, external expectations, affordability, impact of governing boards/trustees on operations, delivery
of education services, institutional inertia, and collaborative learning

alternative delivery methods such as distance learning, compensation packages for workforce, workforce productivity, diversity, student technology demands, compliance and regulation, predicting future facility/student needs, accessibility for and preparedness of incoming students, tuition pricing sensitivity, tuition dependency, and globalization