Takeaways from the 2019 CIC Presidents Institute

Like every good learning experience, I walked away with questions.

Here we are at the start of 2019. IMHO, 2018 passed entirely too quickly. Still, it’s great to have yet another opportunity to celebrate a fresh start. Assuming you are reading this on a college campus, you may celebrate “new year’s” more significantly on July 1st , August 15th or September 1st, but the start of the calendar year is always full of promise ab out how life will be better.

At RHB, I start most years by attending the Presidents Institute hosted by the Council for Independent Colleges (CIC). This conference is one of my favorites of the year, not only because it’s usually held in a warm climate (though this year we were in chilly Scottsdale), because the speakers are selected for their expertise and relevancy. The conference tends to set the agenda for topics we’ll hear about from clients throughout the year. For me, the best part of this conference are the questions that surface in meaningful conversations with campus leaders across the country. I always come home with a head full of questions to shape our thinking at RHB that we translate to our counsel.

Nearly half of the country’s private college and university presidents attended this year’s Institute, so it’s natural that the topics shape what rises to the top of issues to address throughout the year. In the past, we’ve watched how the keynote speaker at Presidents Institute prioritized certain strategies: study abroad, core curricula, internship promotion, strategic planning, diversity on campus, service learning or the like. What we talk about at the CIC Presidents Institute often becomes the catalyst for concentration and focus for our work at RHB for the year. As presidents return from the conference, those themes trickle to senior leadership teams who ultimately call us for assistance with research, planning and/or implementation.

This year’s theme, “Leading Strategic Change,” covered an array of challenges in a volatile time for higher education. I am reminded of the War College’s VUCA military training equipping soldiers for Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous circumstances. I’d say VUCA fairly well summarizes where higher ed finds itself in 2019.

While I have your attention about the CIC Presidents Institute, I want to focus on a couple of takeaways. Actually, “takeaways” became one of the conference themes because they are so important to attendees. The takeaway portion of the sessions became a bit of a standing joke: speakers were sure to summarize their findings and recommendations. The opening keynote laid a foundation for the pattern of highlighting takeaways with an outstanding presentation from Howard Gardner, the Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, perhaps best known for his signature work in identifying ways of learning.

Gardner and his colleagues are now giving attention to studying higher ed after years of research in the K12 arena. They recently completed 2000 interviews with stakeholders on ten institutions representing a cross section of American higher education. They presented their collected data for the first time at this conference. I can’t say I was surprised by the findings from Gardner’s research (at least not as much as he seemed to be), though I found it fascinating and affirming. I appreciated his humor and his presentation, but I can’t say that I learned totally new information since the findings correlated with our research of the last 30 years after thousands of interviews we conducted ourselves. I’m guessing you were not surprised by those findings either, however it’s always great to be affirmed. As I heard the results of the study, I pictured many of you and nodded my head as I thought about how the data related to your circumstances. Of particular value was this study’s effort to quantify qualitative responses; I respect the formidable task of coding (or de-coding) the amount of information these researchers gathered. Theirs was a great service to us all.

In the study, Gardner and his team emerged with a sense that students were of four models or mindsets about attending college: inertial, transactional, exploratory and transformational. Gardner’s observations and categories brought to mind the work that Encoura/Eduventures has been doing with mindsets and college choice among a much larger sample and a quantitative study. The overlap of findings probably gives us all confidence that these mindsets are both real and accurate to the extent that research participants share the truth about themselves.

I am encouraged by this critical work in that it helps institutions come to terms with reality and improves the way we target and reach—educate!—prospective students.

I have written before about the differences between transactional and transformational mindsets (here). My position has been that most students (and their parents) see themselves as customers, a party in an exchange. They bring tuition checks or government financial aid awards in exchange for a college degree. The degree may have all types of implications attached to it: career, better life, opportunity for professional advancement, to name a few examples. On the other hand, most of us in higher education have deep appreciation and place high value on the transformative powers of knowledge, particularly coupled with the accoutrements of a college/university experience complete with benefits of being part of a community of scholars representing the good life. If one party in the exchange comes with a transactional mindset and the other party comes with a transformational mindset, a shared understanding of values can easily be challenging to achieve.

This opening session and a couple of the following breakouts raised questions and ideas for me. I wondered if one mindset is good and the other bad. Strictly through observation, I sensed that the audience was a bit aghast, or at least disappointed, to hear that the largest segment of students in every institutional setting that Gardner studied represented the transactional model. Conversely, there seemed to be audible delight that at selective liberal arts schools, a larger portion of schools reflected the transformational model. Given the audience, the response may not be surprising. While hearing the audience response to the data, my mind went to recent campus visits where we’ve conducted Circles of Influence, our qualitative internal research methodology, and witnessed verbal and physical posture affirmations for students who were most intellectually engaged in the campus experience, i.e., those students who seemed to be embracing transformation. It appears that we give preference to the transformational model/mindset. But why is that? Do we really believe that expecting something in return for a tuition check is somehow less attractive? Why would higher ed be exempt from a consumer/transactional mindset?

Since the opening sessions, I’ve been wondering, To what degree to people really want to be transformed? Change can be unsettling; not everyone welcomes it. When we think of a higher ed experience as being transformational, do we think about transformation in stages, degrees or levels? Do students want total overhauls? What, if anything, do they want to be left intact? Are students okay with going in as Republicans and coming out as Democrats? Going in as devout Catholics and coming out as something else? Going in as a homebody and coming out as a wanderer? Or does transformation have limits? What do students think transformation is? Are we speaking only about a transformation of the mind or mindset? Are we limited to an expanded worldview? On a related note, how do we account for varying degrees of transformation readiness and how do we prepare students for transformation?

Are transactional and transformational mindsets incompatible with each other? Can a student be both eager for growth or expansion and equally concerned about receiving a return on their investment? Does a transactional mindset always translate to an expectation for job readiness or job placement (Gardner’s research suggests this seems to be predominantly the case)? Do students see transformation as part of the exchange in transaction? Gardner’s website and blog provide insight to the research team’s interviews. This post is particularly clear that a duality of mental models may often exist among students.

I’m certain we’ll be hearing from our clients about this topic throughout the year and it will be fun to see how these questions are addressed as well as the creative solutions that evolve as a result of our work together.

We’ll also hear requests for assistance with the issues of diversity and belonging. One of Gardner’s findings was the high number of mental health concerns cited among students often stemming from anxiety and loneliness. I was disappointed that I was unable to attend the sessions led by Nathan Demers of Grit Digital Health and Chris McCarthy of Hopelab entitled The Loneliness Cycle: A Campus-Wide Challenge, described as offering solutions for the rampant incidences of stress, suicide and depression among college students. That such a session was part of this conference’s program hints of its importance to the national higher ed agenda. Another conference keynote, Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist from New York University, provided a somewhat controversial, though gripping,  perspective related to creating a climate for civility amongst diverse points of view. His new book, The Coddling of the American Mind, is now on my must read list. He suggested that we’ve been doing a poor job of preparing students for the realities of life; by protecting children from failure and pain we are doing them a disservice in preparation for healthy living. I particularly enjoyed his visuals comparing playground equipment from my youth to today’s injury-proofed jungle gyms.

Of course, I’m asking myself how our clients can possibly have influence over student traits years in the making. If students come to campus ill-equipped, how can colleges and universities better serve families to prepare their children for the rigors of the higher ed experience? Does higher ed have a responsibility to serve in this regard? And if colleges and universities do not assist to prepare future students, who will make it possible for campuses to provide the quality of service and experience for which they are missionally-driven? Will these cultural realities influence higher ed to evolve or expand its scope? If so, in what ways?

I love this work (most days). Don’t you? All the best for the new year.

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Rick Bailey

Rick is the Principal and founding partner at RHB.