The Best Recipe for Success in Higher Ed: Equal Parts Resilience and Innovation

I look forward to the CIC President’s Institute each year because a) it gives me the opportunity to listen in on the heartbeat of private higher education just as the new year begins; b) the themes and programs are consistently of high quality with excellent presenters; and c) I hear great stories from presidents who are excited to share their successes.

While attending the conference, I’m often reminded of our days as new parents, when we compared notes with other new parents about growth indicators, health and abnormalities among our babies. “Does your baby drool buckets?” “How big is your baby’s head?” “Our baby flew off the changing table onto the floor before I could catch him…” The conversations among presidents sometimes sound similar: they chat amongst themselves about their campuses, sharing concerns, measures of success, and ideas for future progress. And rightfully so: their campuses are like precious babes that need care, love, and constant attention. Indeed, one of the greatest values of this conference is discovering that you are not alone. Others are facing the same challenges.

I always come home from this conference buoyed by what I’ve heard—inspiration and consternation.  But this year, I particularly connected with the conference theme, “Resilience and Innovation,” given that our work at RHB helps great causes—colleges and universities—succeed. While I’m still rehearsing ideas from our time in Florida, here are a few musings inspired by the many great presentations and conversations that we encountered:

1. Things can’t take time.

I frequently heard the phrase “well, these things take time” in conversations. That may seem true, but we live in a time when the traditional pace of higher ed no longer satisfies the market, the public, the employees or the students. Higher ed has to move faster to meet demands. Processes must be streamlined, approvals must be granted more easily, committee and governance structures need to be scrutinized to ensure that the brilliant and innovative ideas on campus get to market readily. The “first to market” idea is a notion that often runs counter to higher ed’s natural reticence; we like to study ideas in meticulous detail. However, in that process, wonderful opportunities are often lost.

2. Staying alive until 2024

Can you hang on for seven years? As you might expect, WICHE data about student demographics received attention in several sessions. The growth forecast for 18-year-olds looks bleak for the next 20 years, save that blip in 2024. The road ahead requires creative thinking, new ways of conducting business, and a stronger focus on areas of potential growth. Most-if any-growth will occur because you are offering something avant-garde and certainly something more than what you are doing now. The alternatives: you might consider what it could mean NOT to grow or what it might mean to get smaller in ways that allow you to improve quality in some way or shape your incoming class differently. Higher ed is addicted to growth indicators so I don’t expect that many will be willing to choose the path of “smaller,” making the task ahead all the more difficult. If you are not planning in ways that match the reality of population shifts, you are not planning well.

3. Let students make their own concoctions.

I enjoyed Kevin Kreuger’s session (and loved GE’s Invention Donkey video, which I had not yet seen); it was full of rich data and gave context to the various challenges facing higher ed. He delivered an excellent metaphor for the condition of the market. He told us that when he was young, Coke machines offered a couple of options (either bottles or cans) within the product line—like regular Coke, Diet Coke, Fresca and orange soda. Today, his children become mixologists when they approach the Coke vending machine because it permits them to blend dozens of options in order to “design” their own beverages. A reflection of the culture and certainly of the iGen, today’s Coke machines serve as a symbol for how we should shape offerings to students of any age. Our customers expect the ability to design experiences and programs tailored to their interests and needs. There’s not much room for rigidity.

4. One. More. Time.

I was pleased to sit in on the joint session with Michael Maxey, president of Roanoke, and my friend Ed Sirianno, president of Creative Communication Associates, who addressed the issues of marketing and brand development as they influence enrollment. Their transparent reflections on their partnership offered many helpful insights, including the expectation that consultants deliver both diagnosis and prescription. Further, President Maxey called for prescription that took into account variables in order to carefully evaluate any trade-offs: What would I gain? What might I have to give up?

This session also made it clear to me that there is ongoing confusion about marketing terminology. I’m on my soapbox now because, without a clear understanding of these concepts, it’s easy to make judgement errors in planning, budgeting and expectations.

Your market POSITION is something you can choose. You determine if you wish to be the first, the best, the largest, the smallest, the most attractive—the “whatever”–within your category. Let it be noted that “average” and “mediocre” are not compelling positions to choose.

Your BRAND, however, is something that the market (your customers) decide based on your behavior and the messages used to support your position. You can manage your brand by delivering on the position you choose via consistent behaviors.

You may choose to promote your messaging through a CAMPAIGN aimed at educating and convincing your audiences to believe the position you have chosen. Your campaign may carry a theme, but that theme is not your brand.

For more on these important distinctions, see “The Brand Trap” and “How to Affect Your University’s Brand Perception through Positioning.”

5. Change can be difficult.

The closing session of CIC typically includes a panel of presidents who convey the good, the bad and the ugly of their experiences related to the conference theme. This year, Mary Marcy of Dominican University of California provided insight on her institution’s journey toward defining a signature experience. I’ve referenced her white paper previously. Kevin Ross of Lynn University addressed the long-range planning process his campus undertook, taking advantage of opportunities that advanced their timeline without disruption. John Williams of Muhlenberg spoke to the entrepreneurial progress on his campus in light of the College’s historic affiliation with a supporting church.

In each instance, and under the guidance of the session moderator Christopher Morphew of Johns Hopkins, the speakers candidly shared the challenges of “defense” and “offense,” internal and external audiences and the resilience necessary to face resistance to change. While confessions of feeling “beat up” resonated with the audience, each of these presidents spoke to the benefits of creative thinking and progressive change as a path forward in a tough climate.

So when it comes to resilience and innovation, the take away is: keep at it. The presidency in higher ed is tough work; we don’t see long lines of candidates ready and waiting to take the helm of institutions. Campuses are necessarily looking outside traditional arenas for their new presidents. But, for those with the fortitude to make change, to be avant-garde, to imagine new possibilities, there’s hardly a more rewarding place to make your mark than among tomorrow’s change agents and leaders. Best wishes for a great 2018.

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Rick Bailey

Rick is the Principal and founding partner at RHB.