Board Evolution as a Catalyst for Transformational Change in Higher Ed

Changing Higher Ed Podcast 105 with Guest Gerry Czarnecki

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Board Evolution as a Catalyst for Transformational Change in Higher Ed

Board Evolution as a Catalyst for Transformational Change in Higher Ed – Changing Higher Ed Podcast 105 with Guest Gerry Czarnecki

Board evolution is happening in numerous ways (or at least it should be), and boards must now be the catalyst for transformational change in Higher Education.  Some of these changes have been hastened by the pandemic and some are a matter of social and technological transformation. There are multiple drivers of these changes including:

The technology industry is increasingly dominating the world and national economy – and, as a result, many individuals work in this sector. Technology employees fall into two categories – those who do the grunt work (stacking shelves, completing clerical activities, etc.) and those who must have technical skills such as coding.

This group requiring coding and technical education is creating a skills revolution, which is a completely different direction than the comprehensive education revolution that was embraced just 10 years ago.

While some Higher Ed leaders are adapting to these changes and are focused on playing a role in advancing the skill development process, most boards and administrators are not evolving – many traditional institutions are trying to continue to be what they were before the technology revolution started. This will not work unless you are one of the “elites,” e.g., your name starts with Harvard, Berkeley, or the like.

While a liberal education does offer significant benefits, a significant portion of the population believes that they can make just as much money or more by doing coding. This group understands that a liberal education is not necessary for what they want to do.

Higher education leaders can no longer ignore the fact that earning a living wage in the current technological environment requires specific skills that often are not part of the current curriculum. This gap impacts potential student attitudes about education because, rightly or wrongly, they believe they do not need to earn a degree to have the lifestyle they desire (or deserve).

Higher Education Relevance in the Marketplace

To fill these skill gaps, boards must begin to start questioning how important a specific type of knowledge or skill is to the marketplace. If it is important, how is the institution going to respond to it?

Part of addressing the marketplace needs comes down to the changing role of boards in higher ed, i.e., higher ed boards need to consider the college or university’s work as a business that generates revenue, and then analyze the institution’s current and desired place in educating students for the marketplace.

For example, Arizona State’s president – with board support – has focused on lifelong learning and meeting students where they are, educationally. To that end, ASU has created well-received and industry-leading certificate and micro-credential programs that meet students’ (and graduates’) life-long learning needs.

Unfortunately, many institutional leaders don’t see higher education in this same light. These leaders are caught in yesterday’s paradigm, are a product of that paradigm, and are having difficulty letting go. These perspectives make it difficult for the institution to transform into something that is different.

Faculty’s Role and Academic Freedom

Czarnecki criticized the attitude of faculty members who focus exclusively on academic freedom and are not willing to work with administrators and board members in relation to what is being taught. This offers an extreme statement of how faculty and administration don’t want to address what is happening in higher education as a whole. It also shows how it is hard to change and get faculty buy-in.

Additionally, it’s important to incorporate the RACI accountability matrix – responsible, accountable, consult and inform – into faculty governance. Higher education also must deal with academic freedom, tenure, programs, and curriculum, all of which are critical issues. When faculty inflate and combine these issues (as does AAUP), the institution can end up in an intractable situation.

Faculty governance (and accreditors) put the onus on faculty for curriculum. However, leaders need to educate faculty that student enrollment in classes equates to higher education revenue. Therefore, faculty need to teach classes that students want and need to take that will help further their ability to display a core competency, whether it be a liberal education or technical education. This requires the faculty member to be a subject matter expert AND understand what employers want and need from graduates. Faculty must to be able to pursue knowledge about their discipline, but they should not have the freedom in relation to what courses they teach that cause the institution to lose money.

Board Evolution as Better Managers

Boards need to evolve into better managers of their institutions by digging down into the data and asking the tough questions of administration.

For example, most institutions that didn’t have an online education program moved to Zoom, which did not work well for students. How is/did the board question what’s going on regarding the institution’s mission, which is educating students? Did they demand that the institution take a look through its program assessment and program review process as to the efficacy of its online education? If they didn’t do this, they were derelict in their duties.

One suggestion for the higher education CEOs or a consultant is to encourage the board to answer the question, “What did we learn over the two years of the COVID crisis?” Some of the answers may not be what boards and leaders want to hear, while some of the learnings may not have any answers. However, if institutions don’t make a point of learning from troubling times, there’s no way to avoid these painful lessons the next time or to improve. Therefore, boards should ask questions, such as:

  • What were the pain points for students and faculty?
  • What did social distancing teach us?
  • What did the pandemic do to the institution in relation to producing student outcomes?

Because of the pandemic, many institutions had to make changes to their way of life because they were on the brink of financial ruin, while others had deep enough pockets and could avoid change. However, all institutions need to look at this experience and ask what they have learned from it. Additionally, leaders may identify some good things that came from it – and then should consider how the institution can capitalize on these good things. Some of the necessary changes could be a major strategic shift for the institution. These shifts are not easy, especially in academia, but are necessary in light of the challenges our industry is facing.

Boards and Institutional Transformation

Higher education boards as a whole are not as engaged as they could (or should) be. One way to improve this is through having better-trained board members. For example, holding annual board retreats and conducting in-depth industry training to help them understand the current and future environment that higher ed is operating in. They need to realize that while change is inevitable, success is optional.

In some cases, there are institutional barriers that determine who is going to be on the board, which can make it difficult to maintain a high level of quality. Some boards get lucky and have a few members who have a strong personality and the commitment to bring change, but many others do not.

There are two primary ways that change can happen in higher education. The first can come from the board asking the right kinds of questions, analyzing the data, and challenging the administrative leaders. The second level comes from an enlightened administrator who pushes the board, which creates pressure on both the board as well as the administrative team. A third way – bottom-up pressure from faculty – rarely happens in higher education because the faculty are happily living in the current higher education culture. Few are change agents.

Leadership matters, whether it’s at the board or administrative level. It takes at least one strong leader to make a difference. This person cannot be an autocrat who orders people to do things. Instead, this leader seeks a vision and fixates on the vision, works through how to make that vision a reality, and then helps staff execute the vision. This requires leaders to empower, enable and inspire those who work for them.

Three Recommendations for Higher Education Leaders and Boards

  • Higher education boards are facing numerous challenges in guiding the institution. These factors include the enrollment decline, increasing societal skepticism about the value of the degree, and the increasing need for technology skills (as opposed to academic knowledge) for careers.
  • Most higher ed boards and administrators are not adapting to the needs of the technology revolution. Instead, they are trying to maintain the institutional status quo.
  • Boards need to ensure that an administrative team is in place that can execute a new vision. They need to be committed to this change; otherwise, the vision will be unfulfilled and will remain a dream.

About the Host of the Changing Higher Ed Podcast

Dr. Drumm McNaughton is a Higher Education Consultant, CEO of  The Change Leader Consulting Firm, and an international leader in transformational change for Higher Education. 

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