The CBO as Full Partner
In these transformative times, chief business officers need wide-ranging acumen to help lead their institutions, says ACE President Molly Corbett Broad, a keynote speaker at the NACUBO 2011 Annual Meeting.
By Liz Clark
The role of the chief business officer has never been bigger," says Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education (ACE), the nation's coordinating body for higher education institutions. Broad, an economist, is president emerita of the University of North Carolina and has extensive experience in higher education administration.
While some issues facing colleges and universities are perennial—such as tuition pricing and policy, enrollment capacity limitations, and concerns about state operating support for public institutions—Broad asserts that major social, cultural, and economic shifts are fundamentally altering the business of higher education.
"This is a game-changing time," she says. "We can't just ride out this recession and think we're going to return to the way things used to be. The best institutions and the strongest leaders will be the ones that have leapfrogged these changes and positioned their institutions in a stronger way. It means being courageous enough to leverage a crisis to accomplish things that might not be doable in calmer times."
"The role of information technology, in very disruptive ways, is changing the terms of the game. And, if we do nothing, we are probably at significant risk," says Broad. She refers to Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen, a leading thinker in organizational innovation whose disruptive technology framework examines the way a simple change in a product or service can take root and eventually alter an entire market or industry. Christensen has notably applied his theory to higher education, particularly as it relates to online learning and distance education.
"Issues of productivity improvement are ones that have not felt very comfortable on the university table," Broad asserts, but "if we are strategic and innovative in a focused way, information technology holds the potential to improve our quality, our scale, our scope." In fact, Broad reports that a recent ACE survey revealed concerns about productivity not only from presidents and leaders in financial affairs, but also from those in academic and student affairs. Research at the intersection of cognitive science and IT "can help us to transform and improve our productivity." As an example of such work that demonstrates ways to enhance learning outcomes and increase results, Broad cites Carnegie Mellon University's Open Learning Initiative.
Broad also contends that technology is changing how children learn and that higher education needs to prepare for students of the future. "For the kids who are under 12, by the time they get to your campus, if you are not ready for them you're going to have a very difficult time. Their brains are going to be wired differently from the students of today," says Broad. She points to social scientist Bob Johansen, distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future, who has studied the influence of lifelong exposure to technology from early childhood—video games in particular.
Broad is optimistic about how academic leaders and others are preparing for such changes in, and out, of the traditional classroom setting. After recently attending the Atlantic's Technologies in Education Forum on video games and education, she says, "It was phenomenal to see education department officials, state leaders, foundation heads, and major publishers all talking about how games can be used very effectively to enhance learning."
A Role for Learning Outcomes
Broad also addresses the matter of defining academic outcomes. "Whatever you might say about the Spellings Commission, they certainly put the issue of learning outcomes front and center as a national priority," she says.
In 2006, the Commission on the Future of Higher Education, appointed by then Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, released a report focusing on access, affordability, and accountability. The report included some controversial recommendations, including support for a student-level database to track student progress through higher education, and adoption of accountability measures focused on outcomes, not inputs. Think tank and foundation leaders as well as policy makers from both sides of the aisle have continued to press publicly for such outcomes measures.
"There is a very substantial number of colleges and universities now using the available tools to take a snapshot of issues around learning outcomes," reports Broad. "The Collegiate Learning Assessment test and the National Survey of Student Engagement are now being used by colleges and universities on a regular basis." However, Broad believes that the process needs to involve and engage the "grass roots"—individual faculty, faculty committees, faculty senates, and ad hoc groups affiliated with teaching and learning centers on campuses that can develop best practices and community-based activities to reinforce learning outcomes.
"This is hard work. It's not going to happen overnight," Broad says. "But, I think we are definitely on a path where the attention of the leadership on improving learning outcomes is front and center."
In response to increased pressures on America's system of quality assurance, ACE is establishing a National Institutional Task Force on Accreditation. ACE has asked Robert M. Berdahl, retiring president of the Association of American Universities, and Edward L. Ayers, president of the University of Richmond, Virginia, to co-chair the effort. "We're going to examine what reforms might be valuable in order to sustain what has been the linchpin in the quality and diversity of American higher education, namely the voluntary peer review assessment of academic quality," Broad says.
"The central challenge confronting higher education and this task force is balancing demands for accountability and transparency while maintaining academic autonomy," she continues. "The task force will see if there is a bright line for the role of consumer protection and accountability, and where that role is best served."
Downturn Hurts Productivity
The recent economic downturn has made it much more difficult for higher education to achieve its goals. Take international education, for example. UNESCO and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development recently reported that the number of internationally mobile students is growing—up 57 percent from 1999 to 2009. However, Broad says, "The fact that we are grappling with the consequences of the recession and the financial impact on campuses makes it harder to come up with funds to invest in sending faculty away to study or to teach, and, similarly, for students. We have concluded we need to take a fresh look."
In response to these dynamics, last October ACE announced the appointment of 19 prominent education and international affairs leaders to a Blue Ribbon Panel on Global Engagement led by John Sexton, immediate past ACE board chair and president of New York University.
The recession has also influenced many institutions' ability to achieve optimal productivity, particularly in achieving the Obama administration's goal for the United States to have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020. The White House recently released a toolkit encouraging state governors to commit to supporting the goal.
Broad laments the disconnect between this goal and the fiscal circumstances public institutions are facing-and, moreover, the budget pressure states are facing. However, she encourages business officers "to stay tight with the other senior administrators on ways in which we can achieve these productivity programs."
"We are all doing everything we can, being creative and thinking about persistence and completion. That part, we all have firmly in focus. But, at the same time, public institutions are suffering from a huge scaling back of support coming from the states." She adds, "We're not making any steps forward if we keep pouring more students in but we don't have the resources to help them finish on a timely basis."
What does this era of technological change and fiscal challenges mean for college and university business officers? "You need to be broad-gauged. You need to be a full partner with the president, with the chief academic officer, with the chief information technology officer. And, while you may not be able to be interchangeable parts, you ought to be overlapping parts," says Broad. "Financial and accounting acumen are nowhere near enough to be a successful chief business officer today."
LIZ CLARK is director, congressional relations, at NACUBO.