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Business and Policy Areas
Business and Policy Areas

Drivers of Change in Higher Education

May 8, 2017

By Karla Hignite

Shifting demographics, evolving work environments, the emergence of big data, and advances in technology on all fronts were priority concerns for many of the participants in a series of TIAA advisory council meetings held in 2016. TIAA used a list of 18 drivers of change that emerged from the 2016 World Economic Forum to engage council members in conversations about what is shaping current higher education strategy discussions and what is most likely to impact institution activity in the coming years. In this article, two members of TIAA’s Hispanic Advisory Council share their perspectives on how these trends are gaining the attention of leaders on their campuses.


It goes without saying that technology is core to the academic mission of the California Institute of Technology. But, from a workforce standpoint, Caltech faces many of the same technology concerns as every college or university, from privacy to what data to store in the cloud. Chief among the institution’s tech-related challenges are how to provide the best systems and tools to employees to be efficient throughout their workday, says Ofelia Velazquez-Perez, senior lead, employee and organizational development and special projects. “From an HR standpoint, some of what we look at on a daily basis is how to best manage benefits online, how to provide open enrollment platforms for employees to navigate without too many clicks, and how to make applicant and tracking systems more flexible and robust.”

Changing workforce demographics are also capturing the attention of Caltech’s leaders. In particular, the institute is paying attention to age differences among its workforce, says Velazquez-Perez. “Like most higher education institutions, Caltech employs many long-serving faculty and staff members. One big concern for us is how to ensure we transfer that institutional knowledge so that our younger workers are successful.” Passing along institutional knowledge should remain a priority even though work styles will no doubt vary from one generation to another and workplace culture will naturally evolve over time, argues Velazquez-Perez.

Even when employees are receptive to that knowledge transfer, it can be difficult to determine how best to go about this, adds Velazquez-Perez. “Like any organization, Caltech has an overall culture, but also subcultures within our divisions and departments where there may be slight differences in process, leadership styles, and how employees approach their work.” That requires Velazquez-Perez and her colleagues to work with department leaders, managers, and individual employees on a case-by-case basis to address workplace dynamics, including age stereotypes. “For us to continue to be a great institution, we need to evolve, and that includes learning how to work together and absorb what is changing within our own workforce,” says Velazquez-Perez.  

Bringing younger employees on board includes establishing expectations about workplace practices and culture, even as this newest generation of workers in particular may seek changes to the current model, says Velazquez-Perez. One matter of growing interest for Caltech employees is more flexibility with their work schedules and work arrangements. In fact, a growing number of Caltech employees are working flexible hours, shifting from full-time to part-time work, or telecommuting for portions of the workweek, notes Velazquez-Perez. That said, not every manager has the same tolerance level for flexible work. “To the extent that we can establish an institutional process, we want to do that,” says Velazquez-Perez. “Bottom line, the work still needs to get done, and core goals must still be met, but this is really a matter of employees working out those issues on a case-by-case basis with their managers.”

For her role, Velazquez-Perez is trying to better prepare managers for addressing these requests and setting expectations for their employees. “This will likely take time for some leaders to get comfortable with more flexible work arrangements, but workplace trends are certainly heading in the direction of increased flexibility, and we need to find ways to offer what more employees want if we want to remain competitive as an employer.”


One way technology is driving change in higher education is through growing reliance on big data for decision making. “No institution can make plans around loose data. We have to look at the hard numbers,” says Carlos Medina, vice chancellor and chief diversity officer for the State University of New York (SUNY) System. One direction the data are pointing for SUNY, and arguably for most higher education institutions these days, is toward an increasingly diverse student population and workforce, he adds. “Among 75 million millennials in this country, about 45 percent are people of color. And within three decades the United States is projected to become a majority minority country. That is a reality that many employers are only starting to grapple with,” says Medina.

For higher education, the rise in minority populations increases concerns related to issues of affordability and completion, since these students still tend to lag behind in terms of college readiness and achievement, due in large part to persistent inequities by race and ethnicity that affect health, housing, employment, and educational attainment, says Medina. “Yet, without bringing along these populations who are in most need of assistance and support, this country cannot remain competitive. If we don’t learn to engage everyone, we are in trouble as a nation.”

Diversifying your workforce or your student body does not occur by happenstance, insists Medina. Of paramount importance is for senior leaders to understand and embrace diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts to ensure that students feel supported, because students who feel like they belong are more engaged and ultimately more successful, says Medina.

In late 2014, in response to a charge by SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher, Medina worked with SUNY’s provost to create and co-chair a task force to review issues of diversity throughout SUNY. The 35-member task force represented all aspects of university faculty, administration, and staff. The focus of the task force centered on how to accomplish four primary goals: 1) increase student diversity, including taking a hard look at access and other issues that impact student success; 2) increase faculty and staff diversity; 3) nurture a campus climate that supports diversity; and 4) develop and sustain leadership to assist all campuses with addressing these priorities.

“We drafted a resolution that we presented to SUNY’s board of trustees, which then voted on this sweeping policy that has since rolled out systemwide,” says Medina. “Our diversity, equity, and inclusion policy has been critically important for how we are now moving forward with our diversity agenda across the university.”

For starters, the policy made it mandatory for all 64 SUNY campuses to hire a chief diversity officer and likewise requires each campus to submit a strategic diversity plan for addressing the four areas of concern, says Medina. “The fact that we have earmarked performance improvement-type funding from the budget to advance various diversity and inclusion initiatives mentioned in the policy indicates the high priority SUNY is placing on diversity going forward.” Another indicator: The policy requires the chief diversity officer for each campus to report directly to the institution’s president or provost, says Medina. Currently, 43 chief diversity officers are in place, with active searches for the remaining open positions. Campuses have until the fall 2017 semester to fill the positions, notes Medina.

The approach for most campuses has been to start by reviewing current levels of representation of students, faculty, and staff of diverse background to identify where they should focus recruitment efforts, says Medina. “We know that within New York, roughly 18 percent of the state’s population is Latino and about 16 percent is African American. If we say we want to mirror that within SUNY, then we know what work we need to do.” Currently, SUNY’s Latino student population is about 11.5 percent, and African American representation is approximately 10.6 percent. “The challenge is even greater within our faculty and staff ranks, where Latino faculty comprise only 4 percent of the population and African American faculty only 7.5 percent,” says Medina. In fact, a big dilemma for many institutions is that even while student diversity may be increasing, diversity within the makeup of faculty and staff remains largely stagnant, in part because faculty and staff turnover doesn’t happen quickly, says Medina.

“The larger piece of this is about intentionality, about changing our thinking and making this a priority,” says Medina. “What a strategic diversity plan does is put in place a structure to address the imbalances. None of this will happen overnight, but it most certainly won’t happen without a policy and a mechanism to track progress.”

Expectations regarding demographic representation will not be the same for every SUNY campus since population demographics vary geographically across the state, says Medina. “The main point to stress here is that as the state of New York and the nation become more diverse, we have to ensure that our students and faculty and staff populations reflect those shifts.” Medina also acknowledges that as SUNY’s student body and faculty and staff populations become more diverse, this will certainly also change the culture of the SUNY family and how the system conducts business. “Ultimately, we believe that helping to shape that social and workplace culture in a positive and intentional way is going to help SUNY remain viable and successful as an institution.”

Something else higher education must be mindful of, says Medina, is reaching out and working more intentionally with secondary and elementary schools to ensure that the students SUNY enrolls are ready for the rigors that exist in higher education. “We are working on a number of initiatives to leverage resources to ensure that more high school students in New York understand the opportunities that college can provide and to help them become more engaged in their learning,” says Medina. “As higher education institutions, we can no longer afford to sit back and say, ‘Send us your best students.’ We have to be actively engaged in preparing students before they enter college.”

SUNY is mindful of the kinds of high-impact learning practices that translate into greater student success, including mentoring, internships, undergraduate research, and experiential and applied learning opportunities, and campuses are looking for ways to enhance these activities, says Medina. As chief diversity officer of the system administration office, he provides professional development opportunities for all SUNY chief diversity officers. Medina also provides training and educational development opportunities for senior leadership on specific topics such as unconscious bias. “When we talk about diversifying faculty and staff, we have to keep in mind that institution culture is as important for them as for students,” says Medina. “Are they welcomed? Do they feel like they belong and can thrive? When you recruit diverse talent, you have to be prepared to retain them or else they won’t want to stick around.”

More details about SUNY’s efforts to diversify its student and faculty and staff populations are included in Medina’s April 2017 Insight Into Diversity article, “Diversity Engagement in the Largest Comprehensive System of Higher Education in the Nation.”

Karla Hignite, editorial consultant to NACUBO, is editor of NACUBO's HR Horizons; e-mail: