Academic Leaders Explore Solutions to Tactical Challenges

Six speaker headshots

CIC’s 48th Institute for Chief Academic Officers, this year with academic team members, took place virtually November 7–10, 2020. The Institute’s theme, “Managing the Moment: Forging the Future,” highlighted both the tactical challenges CAOs face and the strategic thinking they will need to lead their institutions into the future from a position of strength. The Institute explored many of the immediate issues that chief academic officers confront in the coronavirus era, including “Curricular Adaptation to the COVID Crisis,” “Instructional Technology Challenges and Solutions,” and “Support for Student Mental Health.” Sessions also focused on group problem-solving strategies to help teams respond to new pressures.

The event was CIC’s first virtual Institute. Hosting the Institute on an interactive online platform made it possible for participants to connect safely across vast distances and multiple time zones. This year, participants joined the discussion from across the United States as well as from Canada, Dubai, Mexico, and Pakistan. The event attracted 220 chief academic officers and 328 academic team members—and a grand total of 658 participants. The platform offered participants many opportunities to seek out colleagues, presenters, and sponsors for individual conversations and informal gatherings. Over the course of four days, more than 1,500 private messages were exchanged and 34 informal small group discussions were fully subscribed.

While the program addressed a wide range of practical topics of immediate concern, it began and ended with visions of the future. Futurist Bryan Alexander, senior scholar in the Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship at Georgetown University, opened the Institute with a plenary address based on his 2020 book Academia Next: The Futures of Higher Education. And during the closing panel, experienced CAOs discussed their aspirations for the future of their institutions and of higher education more generally. The panelists included Laura L. Behling, provost and professor of English at the University of Puget Sound (WA), Junius J. Gonzales, provost and vice president for academic affairs at New York Institute of Technology, and Titilayo Ufomata, provost of Saint Mary’s College (IN). A plenary address on “The Future of Higher Ed Finance and Student Success” was delivered by Sandy Baum, senior fellow at the Urban Institute, professor emerita of economics at Skidmore College, and author of Student Debt: Rhetoric and Realities of Higher Education Financing (2018). And David A. Thomas, president of Morehouse College (GA) and coeditor of Race, Work, and Leadership: New Perspectives on the Black Experience (2019), led a plenary discussion on “Academic Leadership, Diversity, and Forging Ahead.”

In addition to a wide variety of concurrent sessions, the Institute also offered workshops on such topics as college finance, conflict resolution, federal and foundation grants, and online course sharing. Other features included a special online “brunch,” “Women and Higher Education: Where are We Now?” led by Judith S. Eaton, recently retired president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. Following Eaton’s remarks, Institute participants were able to join interactive small-group conversations related to leadership in independent higher education.

“The Institute’s online format was able to inspire active interpersonal engagement, thanks to participants’ energy, generosity, and dedication. Along with the strong programming, the professional community at CIC’s events creates great value,” according to Michael Sosulski, provost of Wofford College (SC).

During the Institute, CIC presented its 2020 academic and leadership awards. Yolanda Page, vice president for academic affairs at Dillard University (LA), received the Chief Academic Officer Award, which honors a CAO who has served in an exemplary way to enhance the role and work of the private college CAO. Page was recognized for her dedicated service to Dillard University as well as her wise counsel and generous assistance to academic leaders of other institutions. As a frequent and expert presenter at CIC’s Institute for Chief Academic Officers, Workshops for Department and Division Chairs, and other leadership programs for academic administrators, and as a member of the CIC Chief Academic Officers Task Force, she has strengthened hundreds of independent colleges and universities nationwide. Bryan Alexander received the Academic Leadership Award, which recognizes outstanding contributions to American higher education. Alexander was recognized for his unfailing devotion to student-centered innovation at liberal arts colleges and universities. As a visionary, explorer, and colleague, he has inspired and supported faculty and staff at independent colleges and universities to innovate. He also has built networks and communities of practice dedicated to the principle that pedagogical excellence and digital innovation are intertwined.

Registered participants have access to many of the Institute’s recordings and materials for a year; the resources are available on the Institute platform. The 2021 Institute for Chief Academic, Chief Student Affairs, and Chief Diversity Officers is scheduled to take place November 6–9, in Louisville, Kentucky.


Alexander Envisions the Future of Higher Education

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Keynote speaker Bryan Alexander (top right), senior scholar in the Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship at Georgetown University, and an ASL interpreter.

The Institute’s opening plenary featured noted futurist Bryan Alexander, author of Academia Next: The Futures of Higher Education and recipient of the 2020 CIC Academic Leadership Award. His remarks were framed by three questions: “What Just Happened?” “What Was Happening?” and “What Might Happen Next?”

What just happened, above all, was a global pandemic and the resulting movement of much of higher education to online formats. Further, at nearly the same moment, a renewed examination in the United States of anti-Black racism in all aspects of American society, including higher education, emerged forcefully.

These unexpected developments must be considered, Alexander emphasized, in the context of longer-term trends that were well established long before the events of 2020. Specifically, trends toward increased internationalization, global demographics, climate change, and pre-professional curricular programs provide a framework for considering the possible futures of higher education. Forecasting the future is, he explained, a matter of anticipating the possible interactions of long-term trends with one another and with current events.

For example, Alexander asked whether trends toward internationalization, which have been paused in response to the coronavirus, might be permanently affected by the combination of the now-demonstrated effectiveness of remote learning and rising concerns about the environmental implications of travel. Further, noting that times of social unrest often affect government policies, he considered whether increased government restrictions might reduce international travel for both students and faculty. In such scenarios, even after the pandemic, some combination of increased reliance on technology, concerns about carbon emissions, and government restrictions on travel might result in a rapid reduction of international scholarship and enrollment.

Similarly, Alexander noted that complex questions arise from the relationship between climate change—the subject of his next book—and increased reliance on IT and remote learning. Will IT budgets continue to expand, as environmentally aware students increasingly prefer to reduce travel by studying remotely? Or will efforts to reduce the carbon footprint of campuses lead to a reduction in IT budgets and therefore of remote learning, reflecting the fact that technology drives a significant portion of campus energy use?

Turning to the curriculum, Alexander noted a decades-long shift toward majors in the health sciences, engineering, public policy, business, and other pre-professional fields. Students who have lived through a global pandemic might well exhibit an even stronger preference for careers in the health professions in the near future, just as those who have come of age in an era of intense concern about climate change might be drawn to engineering and public policy. And those who have witnessed intense political tensions might be attracted to political science, public policy, and related fields. Alexander speculated that while pandemic-driven cuts to academic programs and personnel may be reversed, they may be restored in different fields, accelerating the long-term trend toward pre-professional majors and programs.

Finally, Alexander noted, these forces also open some exciting and inspiring possibilities. Changing global demographics may lead to greater engagement of adult and senior learners and more opportunities for students from Africa and the Middle East. Curricular change may accelerate to accommodate these new populations of learners as well as the shifting professional interests of all students, and pedagogical change may respond to increasing reliance on virtual teaching as well as new science of learning. The future may look somewhat different from the present for campuses and universities serving such students, but in some ways it might look better.

CAOs Respond: Our Academic Futures

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(From left to right, top to bottom) Closing plenary panelists Laura Behling of the University of Puget Sound (WA), Junius Gonzales of New York Institute of Technology, and Titi Ufomata of St. Mary’s College (IN), together with an ASL interpreter.

The Institute’s final plenary session featured a panel of three chief academic officers whose remarks returned to the theme of “our academic futures.”

Laura Behling, provost of the University of Puget Sound (WA); Junius Gonzales, provost of New York Institute of Technology; and Titi Ufomata, provost of St. Mary’s College (IN), work in different parts of the country and at institutions with different characteristics. They acknowledged that, as Behling put it, each institution needs to find its own “unique way forward,” but they also recognized that many of the opportunities and prospects they see reflect shared circumstances and challenges. Gonzales noted that, like many CIC member institutions, their three campuses are considering similar strategies, although perhaps in different proportions or with different priorities that result in distinctive institutional combinations.

Opening the discussion, Behling focused on the question of “what happens after COVID-19?” She noted that at her institution, developing new academic programs that are distinctively current and interdisciplinary and that can be developed at a relatively low cost has been a plan that will become an even more immediate priority in a post-coronavirus environment. Data-informed planning will be increasingly important as such programs are developed, she said, as will additional opportunities for collaboration. Sharing campus resources with community partners, academic resources with other institutions, and courses and degrees with industry were examples of areas where she expects to see increased collaboration. After a long period defined by social distancing and the isolation of quarantine, she pointed out, “rusty social skills” may need attention to support this increased level of engagement and cooperation.

Behling proposed a distinction between “academics” and “education.” What if the question were about our “educational” futures, rather than our “academic” futures? She predicted that educational options such as certificates and other non-degree programs of study, courses developed and offered with corporate or community partners, and courses that take place outside the conventional structure of classrooms and credit hours will rapidly become central offerings of independent colleges and universities. As a result, as independent colleges and universities move toward their educational futures, they may find themselves moving “away from the four-year undergraduate degree, the 15-week semester, and the 50-minute class,” the conventional structures of the current academy, toward other measures of educational impact.

Junius Gonzales began his remarks by noting that his professional background is varied and that, as a first-generation college graduate, he is happy to be in higher education. At his institution, planning for a post-coronavirus future involves “looking at what we do, how we do it, and who we are.” Like Behling, Gonzales anticipated the increasing importance of collaboration and “co-creation” of academic and educational content, often with non-academic partners. For example, such collaborations with corporate partners could result in new course content or in professional development for faculty members. He too noted the value of data gathering and analysis as new directions are explored, in order to understand the views of faculty members and of students and discover where they align.

Turning his attention to student demographics, Gonzales noted that higher education’s reliance on international enrollment may have to be reconsidered as a result of the pandemic, as reluctance to travel and public policy may depress international engagement for some time to come. He also spoke to the importance of higher education as an engine of social mobility, predicting that concerns about access and affordability will only become stronger in the very near term and that institutions must not lose sight of their responsibility for both economic access and economic outcomes.

“Pivot,” Gonzales pointed out, “is an overused word about course delivery and new modalities.” As institutions attempt—necessarily—to become more agile pedagogically, he suggested, they must recognize that they can’t do everything for everyone. As he put it, on his campus “we must make choices because we have more good ideas than we can pursue.” Further, he noted, the future will be shaped by external actors as well as by institutional constituencies. For example, the rate at which external actors such as accreditors and government agencies come to accept new forms of education credentials will affect the future of the curriculum. “Ability to make change will be defined by those outside of ourselves as well.”

Titi Ufomata continued the focus on social mobility. “I believe very strongly that education is the single most effective way to lift up the community and its individual members,” she began. The continued ability of families to afford an independent college education must be a high priority. Ufomata also agreed with Behling and Gonzales that collaboration and partnership would be even more central to her institution’s future. For example, she described St. Mary’s relationships with neighboring Holy Cross College (IN) and University of Notre Dame, which are based in a shared commitment to education of the whole person.

Ufomata saw many “silver linings” in the extraordinary challenges faced by higher education in recent months. Listening to the Institute’s keynote address, she said she was once again struck that “it took us the whole of ten days to move online in the spring. . . . It was what needed to happen, and we did it,” demonstrating the effectiveness and creativity of faculties and staffs. Further, she noted that the crisis had the positive effect of accelerating action on changes campuses had long planned to do or knew they should do. “Possibly this semester is one of the most exciting I’ve ever had in terms of innovation. It hasn’t always been easy, but it has been fascinating.” One example she pointed to is “the incredible ability to reach a much larger audience.” Her institution presents an annual lecture that typically attracts about 1,300 attendees to an auditorium on campus. This year, offered online, the event attracted 43,000 participants from six continents. This was just one example, in her view, of how lessons learned from the pandemic can increase the impact and reach of educational institutions.

Questions from the audience, submitted via live chat, were read by Kerry Pannell, CIC vice president for academic programs. One participant asked about innovations the panelists definitely wanted to sustain after the pandemic, and also about changes they might wish they hadn’t made or wished to undo. Gonzales responded that he hopes to continue gathering information and data about how remote learning works. Behling mentioned that the crisis created a “chance to learn” that “changed a number of minds across campus” on such topics as hybrid learning. Further, she noted that shared governance flourished when used to address more strategic educational and institutional questions, as it had to do in shaping coronavirus response. Ufomata spoke for many, it seemed, when she said that on her campus “we have learned how precious community is during this pandemic.”

Another question submitted from the audience asked how the panelists have maintained open-mindedness on their campuses, retaining agility rather than striving to return to the “old ways.” All three panelists spoke of communication and transparency. Finding new ways and structures to communicate, communicating in a way that recognized emotional stresses on the campus community, and openly explaining the context and reasoning for moving in specific directions were cited as essential to sustaining open-mindedness “to help people think differently with the why and the how,” as Behling described it. Gonzales identified how the pandemic “uncovered” gaps or inconsistencies in policies and practices, creating openings for renewed discussion on changed terms.

Each of the panelists saw the seeds of a mission-centered and innovative future in the forced and difficult changes their campuses had undertaken in the last year. And each expressed confidence in the distinctive ways independent colleges and universities will use the lessons learned to serve students better.

Leadership, Relationships, and Alignment Are Key to Advancing Diversity and Equity in Higher Ed

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(Clockwise) David A. Thomas, president of Morehouse College (GA), together with session moderator Kerry Pannell, CIC vice president for academic programs, and an ASL interpreter.

David A. Thomas opened the plenary session “Academic Leadership, Diversity, and Forging Ahead” by reflecting on the intersection of higher education, racial inequity, and leadership. Thomas is president of Morehouse College (GA) and an expert on workplace diversity, equity, and organizational change. Previously, he was dean of the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University, and earlier, senior associate dean and H. Naylor Fitzhugh Professor at Harvard University. Against the backdrop of two pandemics—the coronavirus pandemic and the metaphorical pandemic of systemic institutional racism—and from his viewpoint as an educational leader coming up through the system of academia, he shared his thoughts “on the role that we play as academic institutions in higher education and as leaders.”

Thomas stated that although higher education is important for society to move forward on the issues of race and racial inequality, most higher education leaders are not prepared to lead on these issues. “It’s very clear to me that over the last 40 years or so, […] we’ve invented all of the social technology necessary to move the needle around race and equity and building inclusive communities, but we haven’t done a very good job at it.” For Thomas, three things are required to achieve lasting change for racial equity: leadership, relationships, and alignment.

Regarding the first factor, leadership, Thomas explained, “One of the observations that I’ve made of both leaders in higher education and leaders in other sectors…is that we tend not to bring the same leadership acumen to issues of diversity, in particular race, that we do to other important issues for moving our organizations forward.” For example, Thomas was struck by the lack of diversity among senior leadership in higher education, and he observed that when people of color are chosen for leadership roles, these “are not the ones that ultimately lead to provosts, presidencies, or chancellors—the people who actually rise to lead the systems.”

Thomas emphasized that the drivers of diversity in organizations should not have to rely on specific programs or initiatives; instead, people should drive diversity as an intrinsic part of how they lead. He gave an example of when he became dean at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business and noticed that very few Black students were winning academic awards. He brought together senior leaders, worked with department chairs, and spoke with students, faculty, and staff about the issue and ways to overcome cultural and relationship barriers and close a first-year performance gap. Within a short time, he saw significant improvement. For Thomas, “the interesting thing about it was, we didn’t have a diversity initiative at Georgetown McDonough School of Business. I made it part of how I led, and for that matter, I was the chief diversity officer.” He added that CEOs, presidents, and provosts should also act as the chief diversity officers for their institutions, and they fail at this role when they do not integrate diversity into the way they lead in all areas and the way they choose leaders.

The second criteria Thomas explored is relationships. He said that in his studies of networks and mentoring relationships in organizations he has found that surprisingly few senior-level executives, even in higher education, have diverse networks that they rely on to support them when they are making important decisions. When leaders complete an exercise in which they are asked to draw the network of those they turn to for support around professional, career, and other issues—and then to code the people in those networks based on demographics—most white executives list racially homogeneous networks. That means, Thomas said, “when they’re in moments where they have to provide leadership around these issues and topics and create conversations, they don’t really have any relationships that they can turn to with their vulnerability to get consultation or straight talk.” Without this rich network, these leaders are often unable to create authentic engagement with a diverse community, even if they have the correct rhetoric.

Next, Thomas elaborated on the importance of the third factor, alignment, which he described as a willingness to challenge and change practices and patterns in organizations that will impede racial equity and diversity. He cited college selection criteria, namely an overreliance on high test scores, as a significant roadblock to increasing diversity. Instead of giving strong students with low SAT scores a chance, some selective colleges still maintain high test score requirements.

In contrast, Thomas praised the work of the Posse Foundation, on whose board he has served. The Posse Foundation identifies, recruits, and trains young leaders and sends them in “posses” to top colleges and universities across the country. The organization uses an alternative assessment method, as in most instances, those students wouldn’t naturally meet the restrictive criteria for many institutions due to reliance on test scores. The vast majority of these students are Black, Latino, or from economically disadvantaged households, and they thrive in higher education, with a 90 percent college graduation rate. Thomas commented that if we really want to create diverse institutions, “then we have to ask the question: Why haven’t we taken those lessons and challenged our admissions processes and criteria?”

Another aspect of alignment for Thomas is “how we think about who we invite to the table.” He observed that throughout his career, “when there were issues that specifically had to do with race, I got invited to the conversation…but I was always called only for the questions that had to do with race.” He said this experience is common among faculty members of color, and that their diverse perspectives need to be represented for many types of decisions that could have consequences for race and racial dynamics. He pointed out that “whether it’s building a building, naming something, or designing the curriculum, we sometimes discover…that we should have had that perspective at the table because we got challenged on it.”

Another consequence of not inviting a diverse range of leaders to the table for Thomas is that “we’re not developing our faculty of color, and in particular our Black faculty, to move into leadership roles, because the kinds of assignments they get don’t give them an opportunity to see the broader aspects of what’s going on in the university.” Without having served on, for example, a fundraising or master planning committee, they might not be considered for dean of the school.

Thomas concluded the session after discussing how students of color are less likely to feel seen at predominantly white institutions. He emphasized the importance of creating a campus environment where students feel not just welcomed and seen, but seen as potential top scholars.

Although Thomas highlighted many areas for improvement and reflection for academic leaders in his presentation, he ended on a hopeful note. He told the audience, “There’s a lot of work out here to do. But…I see things happening in this environment that make me hopeful that this will be a positive inflection point for higher education at the intersection of leadership and racial equity.”

Supplementing this plenary session, the 2020 Institute also featured several discussion groups about race, equity, and inclusion on campus—such as Encouraging Campus Dialogue about Race; Promoting Racial Equity on CIC Campuses in the COVID-19 Era; Inclusion and Equity Essentials for White Higher Education Leaders; and Leading for Equity as an Administrator of Color. Related concurrent sessions also explored issues of racial justice and civic engagement.

Four CIC Member Institutions Share How They’ve Committed to Racial Justice and Civic Engagement in 2020

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Panelists David Timmerman (top left) of Carthage College (WI) and Donna Heald (bottom) of Loras College (IA), together with an ASL interpreter.

In recent years, many colleges and universities have struggled to come to terms with their historiesexposing slaveholding founders, acknowledging their institutions’ indebtedness to slave labor, and reflecting on who is honored on the campus and why. In a session on “Responding to Calls for Racial Justice,” two chief academic officers provided insights on how they grappled with controversies on their campus amidst the widespread demands for racial justice in 2020.

Donna Heald, vice president for academic affairs and academic dean at Loras College (IA), focused on a common issue at many CIC member institutions—how should institutions deal with buildings or statues of college leaders whose legacies have now been reassessed and found wanting? She shared recent revelations about the college’s founder, the first Bishop of Dubuque, Mathias Loras. The college was already grappling with Bishop Loras’s history as a slaveholder, as letters and journals showed that he owned a woman named Marie Louise from 1836 to 1852. However, in June 2020 new research in the diocesan archives revealed that money earned through Marie Louise’s labor was integral to the development of the new diocese and of the seminary that would become Loras College. Heald said that this information was “shocking to us, and shocking to the community, because this was not consistent with who we were or our teaching,” citing Loras College’s mission to promote social justice and the dignity of all persons.

At Carthage College (WI), longstanding debates about the college’s nickname and logo intersected in summer 2020 with intense and ongoing protests for racial justice. Located in Kenosha, Wisconsin, the college was at the epicenter of the protests after the shooting of Jacob Blake on August 23, only a week before the new academic year was set to begin. David Timmerman, provost and chief academic officer of Carthage College, described the pain felt on campus after the shooting and the subsequent deaths of two people during the protests. He highlighted that peaceful protests are ongoing in Kenosha, and that the college has used the momentum from these events to further develop and implement an anti-racist plan announced in July by President John Swallow. At the same time, Carthage College is reckoning with the ongoing controversy surrounding its nickname and logo, which reflect discriminatory language and potentially offensive imagery about Native Americans.

Both Heald and Timmerman emphasized the need to work with stakeholders across the college community to make change. At Loras College, a diverse task force composed of college regents, alumni, and trusted advisors was created with the priorities of communicating openly, honoring the life and dignity of Marie Louise, and asserting the commitment of the college to ending racial injustice on campus and in their communities. Ultimately, the task force recommended that a prominent statue of Bishop Loras be placed in storage. But they also called for the creation of two new scholarships to honor Marie Louise and Father Norman DuKette, the first Black graduate of Loras College in 1922, as well as the expansion of efforts on campus to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion. Timmerman focused on how the board of trustees can work with the college community. He stated that the board voted to change the college’s nickname and logo in 2019, but will work with students, faculty, staff, and alumni to choose new options in spring 2021.

The presenters also gave other suggestions for addressing these contentious issues, focusing on curricular development and strengthening ties with the local community. At Carthage College, faculty members are developing new general education requirements on diverse perspectives and the legacy of race in the United States. The college also has launched a new program for first-year students, the Anti-Racism and Intercultural Seminar Experience (ARISE), that aims to foster intercultural literacy. At Loras College, Heald said it was particularly important to include local community members in the discussion of Bishop Loras’s legacy, helping them to understand the full history of the college and its founder. As part of this effort, the college has launched a series of community discussions on slavery and the Catholic Church.

Community engagement and civic responsibility also were the driving force for a session on “Educating Civic Professionals,” which explored how students in professional programs such as health sciences, architecture, and accountancy could prepare, alongside their academic training, to play a role in public life. The session focused on a recent project led by the New American Colleges and Universities (NACU) in collaboration with the Kettering Foundation. This project brought together academic leadership to better understand how higher education can prepare graduates in the professions to contribute to improving democracy, drawing on a concept of the “citizen professional” developed by Harry Boyte, senior scholar in public work philosophy at Augsburg University (MN).

Sean Creighton, president of NACU, began the session by highlighting how NACU member institutions were a natural fit for this project, as their missions, priorities, and integrated models of learning already prioritize training students to make a difference in society. Though an initial survey found that many academic leaders were not familiar with civic professionalism, Creighton noted that there was a great enthusiasm for this new framework. Thus, part of the project involved promoting leadership strategies for advancing civic professionalism on campus by incorporating this terminology into the rhetoric on campus and providing incentives for faculty professional development.

The two other presenters on the panel were chief academic officers at institutions that had participated in the project: Andrea Talentino, provost and vice president for academic affairs of Nazareth College (NY), and Beth Harville, executive vice president and provost of Drury University (MO). Talentino and Harville shared how the project helped them reflect on and amplify the facets of civic professionalism that were already present at their institutions.

Andrea Talentino explained how Nazareth College already integrates civic professionalism into the core curriculum, as students have an experiential learning requirement and also complete an integrated studies project that applies knowledge from three classes to a real-world problem. The college also is designing an integrated and comprehensive student experience framework that will include civic agency and identity. The goal of these elements, according to Talentino, is to “build the disposition of a civic professional” and provide the necessary knowledge and skillset.

At Drury University, civic professionalism grows out of the institution’s strong commitment to civic engagement. Beth Harville shared how the university has been working for a few years on making civic engagement experiences more intentional, reflective, and transformational for students. While Nazareth College has implemented civic professionalism across the curriculum, at Drury the goal is to address one major or program at a time, calling on students and faculty to consider what unique skills they can give back to the community. Harville shared one initiative, the Drury Service Corps, that has been particularly successful. In this program, students volunteer at a community health center to help those who are medically underserved. This initiative is beneficial for students considering health science careers, but an innovative grant program also offers students from other disciplines the opportunity to make a difference at the health center. For example, students have proposed projects to translate prenatal brochures into Spanish and to help recent refugees navigate public transit to get to their medical appointments.

As well as sharing their successes, Talentino and Harville also discussed challenges of implementing civic professionalism on their campuses. Harville noted that the current crises of the pandemic and widespread economic losses have made students and faculty members hungry to tackle major societal issues, but necessary health precautions have made it more difficult to provide learning experiences for students within local communities. Talentino presented a potential solution, sharing how Nazareth College has begun to engage virtually with community partners, not only in Rochester, New York, but also internationally. The presenters also reflected on how opportunities for civic engagement need to be equitable, taking into account that students may not have reliable transportation options to leave campus or may have jobs that don’t leave them time to volunteer.

These presentations from CIC member institutions highlight the powerful work being done at colleges and universities across the country during this time of great turmoil. These institutions are committed to furthering racial justice, even when it means questioning or leaving behind beloved college leaders and traditions. Students are encouraged to pursue lives of public service, creating opportunities to engage with their local communities when they are needed the most.

Baum Cautions: Saving Money and Saving Quality Must Go Together

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Plenary presenter Sandy Baum (right) and an ASL interpreter.

​In a data-rich presentation on “The Future of Higher Ed Finance and Student Success,” Sandy Baum, one of the nation’s foremost experts on higher education financing and a strong advocate for educational affordability, laid out recommendations on how colleges and universities could trim spending and make the most of their financial aid dollars. Noting that she could not predict the future, Baum highlighted the challenges colleges and universities may face over the next few years. She also outlined steps leaders can take to promote access and educational quality in uncertain times. Baum is a nonresident senior fellow of the Urban Institute and professor emerita of economics at Skidmore College; she was a co-recipient of CIC’s Allen P. Splete Award for Outstanding Service in 2014.

Baum launched into a discussion on revenue trends, pointing out that tuition and fees make up a larger percentage of total revenue for higher education than 20 years ago. Most independent colleges and universities are increasingly tuition-dependent, and most institutions have small endowments. As a result, nearly all institutions depend on maintaining enrollment and developing other modes of revenue generation in order to remain financially stable, especially in the wake of the pandemic.

Regarding the challenges in the coronavirus period, Baum remarked, “Most issues we face now are different in magnitude from usual, but they are not wholly new issues.” The main finance-related challenges campuses face today continue to involve revenue, enrollment, pricing, student aid, student debt, completion rates, and maintaining high academic quality. Baum said that colleges need to focus on where their revenue comes from—largely enrollment—which means they should explore their enrollment, pricing, and student aid policies as well as what the implications are for student debt. She emphasized, “As we face all of these financial pressures and as institutions look for ways to save money, increase revenue, and keep expenditures in check, we have to make sure that we don’t lose track of quality. We can’t just be cutting and not worrying about the success of our students.”

Baum said that the good news is that even with the pandemic and the swift shift of most campuses to online learning only about 4 percent of students at private, nonprofit four-year colleges dropped out in spring 2020—a percentage consistent with dropout rates from past springs. This fall, graduate student enrollment is up on many campuses. Undergraduate enrollments across all sectors fell 4 percent from last fall, but most declines are in enrollment from older students, not recent high school graduates, and in enrollment from international students. Private four-year college and university enrollments are down only 2 percent. So while enrollment is always a concern, the pandemic has not had as dramatic an impact on enrollment as initially feared.

Regarding college pricing trends, Baum noted that sticker prices of tuition and fees at private, nonprofit four-year institutions have increased over the past 30 years and are now double what they were in 1989. Some institutions have lowered prices for this year or at least kept them at the same level as last year. Private institutions’ published tuition rates are higher than for public institutions, but published prices do not reflect what most students pay. Average net prices at private nonprofit four-year colleges and universities fell after 2008 and have remained stable since then, due to an increase in the amount of institutional aid as well as federal and state aid. Despite public perceptions, the average debt for private four-year college graduates has leveled off in the past few years.

Next, Baum examined 2019–2020 tuition, fees, and room and board charges at a range of 40 CIC member institutions and noted both that “CIC institutions have very different student bodies and very different pricing and aid policies” and that “average net prices at CIC institutions do not correspond to sticker prices.” She also shared that in the private nonprofit four-year college sector, high-tuition private colleges and universities are more likely to have progressive institutional aid for income groups, giving more aid to lower-income students. For other private colleges and universities, institutional aid is approximately constant across income groups. This means that at some independent colleges and universities, students from lower-income families may have high levels of unmet need, and students from higher-income families may receive more aid than they actually need. Baum stated, “Understanding your own institution’s pricing and aid policies is very important…. There’s a range of what institutions like yours are doing. You need to ask questions, think about how students’ circumstances have changed as a result of the pandemic, and consider how that should affect your pricing, aid, and expenditure policies.”

Many administrators may believe they have cut expenses as far as possible without hurting students; Baum said that per-student expenditures at private nonprofit colleges and universities have grown significantly since 2000. “We know that things get more expensive and that campuses are doing things now that they weren’t doing before. But it’s important to take a moment and ask what we are spending on now that we weren’t spending on earlier…because we’re going to have less money to work with. Is the student experience improving as a result of spending that money?” Baum noted how many institutions have increased their use of adjunct and part-time faculty members in an effort to reduce costs. This switch can decrease personnel costs but, Baum added, it can also affect student learning—when fewer faculty members are available for advising, for mentoring student research, and for extended office hours.

Many institutions have moved courses online in the hope that it would eventually reduce costs. Baum, however, warned that “online learning is not a panacea” and emphasized that personal contact is a selling point of small independent colleges and universities and has been shown to decrease the socioeconomic success gaps for students. She added that high-quality support services affect student success in college more than price. For less-selective institutions, extra spending in student support—both academic and social support—can help more than lowering tuition.

“So where does this leave us?” Baum asked. “Many institutions face very difficult choices, and it will be important to balance short-term and long-term needs.” She said that because many institutions are tuition-dependent, they have to focus on how students will pay tuition. But she emphasized that although some families haven’t suffered financially during the pandemic, need-based aid is not a luxury. “Colleges can’t wait until the economy and their revenues recover to think about helping the students who can’t afford to pay. They need to do that consistently and now.”

She added that completion rates and student debt problems go together and said “We need to make sure students have the opportunities and resources they need to succeed…Getting students through [graduation] is the best way to ensure student debt won’t ruin their lives.” Baum concluded by reiterating that saving money and saving quality have to go together—“We can’t postpone the focus on quality in the interest of thinking about saving money.”

Institute Addresses Pandemic Response, Offers Guidance on Post-Coronavirus Planning

​The Institute offered several sessions on issues that are keeping academic leaders awake at night as their campuses both navigate the current pandemic and plan for the post-COVID future. Among the numerous concurrent and discussion sessions that explored coronavirus-related challenges, four are featured below.

Provosts Deliberate Closing and Re-Opening: What Worked and What Didn’t?

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(Clockwise) Moderator Jo Ellen Parker, senior vice president of CIC; panelist Cheryl Kisunzu of Washington Adventist University (MD); an ASL interpreter; and panelists Wendy Sherman Heckler of Otterbein University (OH) and Tracy Parkinson of Mars Hill University (NC).

What lessons can be drawn from the way campuses closed in the spring and how they reopened in the fall? In a concurrent session on lessons learned during the pandemic, panelists Cheryl Kisunzu, provost of Washington Adventist University (MD); Tracy Parkinson, provost and vice president for enrollment management of Mars Hill University (NC); and Wendy Sherman Heckler, provost of Otterbein University (OH), explored what worked and what didn’t in decision making and actions taken as a result of the coronavirus pandemic that wreaked havoc on academic calendars in 2020.

Opening the session, Kisunzu said Washington Adventist implemented COVID-19 practices such as mask wearing, social distancing, and a blend of in-person and online classes, as well as contact tracing and taking temperatures. “We want to regain an in-person experience in spring 2021,” she said, “but COVID-19 cases are rising in the [Washington, DC] area. So we are caught in the middle of being attentive to the well-being of students and constituents and wanting to honor their legitimate requests and expectations for in-person learning.”

Parkinson has made decisions about campus closings, reopenings, and safety measures at two institutions during the pandemic—Coker University (SC) and Mars Hill—having taken office at the latter in June. Although the campuses are similar, he noted key differences in political and social views, public attitudes, and practices in the two states that affected how parents and students responded to campus decisions regarding the coronavirus. For example, students in South Carolina were less likely to question the university’s approach about safety measures, but they were much more likely to react negatively to those measures. And students in North Carolina were more inclined to comply with safety protocols, but their parents were more inclined to scrutinize campus decisions.

Heckler agreed that “place matters” as does “who you are.” When making decisions during the start of the pandemic, she said that Otterbein “had to double-down on its identity as a relational institution, so we allowed students to return to campus and choose a mix of online or in-person classes.”

Parkinson remarked that Mars Hill also allowed flexibility for the fall semester: Faculty members could choose to teach remotely or in person and students could be on or off campus. If on campus, students could choose whether to have a roommate. While this was the “right decision,” challenges arose when both faculty members and students changed their minds about remote versus in-person classes immediately before the start of the semester as coronavirus cases rose. The campus also was aggressive with quarantining and chose to move to a block schedule (with two seven-week blocks), which allowed students to take two or three classes in each block versus the typical five or six courses in a semester. This latter decision “immediately reduced the number of contacts among students and faculty, and it meant that we used half of our facilities…allowing us to leverage our best classrooms.” The new schedule was challenging, however, both for faculty members and students who had never experienced the system before. Parkinson concluded, “The biggest lesson for me is that every good decision that you make has a challenge associated with it.”

Shared governance and collaborative decision making has helped many campuses make solid, timely decisions during this pandemic. For example, Heckler said Otterbein created a series of ad hoc decision-making committees of students, faculty, and staff to focus on communications, budgeting and finances, and how to stay connected to the community, support students, and maximize experiential learning opportunities. These committees “allowed shared input and collaboration to help make critical decisions much faster than otherwise, in a manner that avoided suspicion and mistrust,” she concluded.

Trust and integrity are core values that help campus administrators make solid decisions, agreed Kisunzu. As for what didn’t work at Washington Adventist, she shared “We recognized we weren’t as attentive to strategies for community, for engagement, or to attend to feelings of isolation among students.” The university learned that students needed help to form virtual study groups and that administrators needed to attend to the psycho-social dimension of community learning.

As campuses look to spring 2021 and make decisions for the future, the panelists said they would encourage a culture of shared responsibility, factor in breaks for students and faculty members to recharge, try new approaches to course schedules (such as a January three-week term to allow students to catch up or retake classes), and attend to the psycho-social realities of online learning.

CAOs Explore Successful Academic Strategies for the Coronavirus Era and After

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(Top to bottom) Panelists Terri Bonebright of Hendrix College (AR), Kerry D. Fulcher of Point Loma Nazarene University (CA), and David A. Berque of DePauw University (IN).

Two Institute sessions explored academic strategies and curricular adaptations that CIC member institutions have implemented during the coronavirus pandemic. Presenters emphasized the importance of flexibility and teamwork during the pandemic as well as assessment of which adaptations to retain once the crisis passes.

Kerry D. Fulcher, provost and CAO of Point Loma Nazarene University (CA), began the concurrent session on “Academic Strategies for the COVID-19 Era and Beyond” by invoking blogger and executive development specialist Nick Petrie’s concept of “post-traumatic growth.” According to Petrie, some institutions respond to adversity by succumbing or barely muddling through while others learn to thrive—and “we wanted to make sure that we ended up in that thriving category.” To that end, Fulcher and his colleagues focused on three strategies: more flexible approaches to shared governance, better communication between academic leaders and other campus constituents, and selective adaptation of new technologies.

The key innovation in faculty governance at Point Loma Nazarene was the creation of a Summer Governance Council. Proposed by the university leaders and approved by the faculty, the council gave faculty members a voice in the exceptionally rapid decision-making process. Then, as the academic year began, Zoom-based faculty meetings and a temporary hold on many committee meetings opened more space for faculty members to concentrate on teaching and the most pressing governance issues raised by the pandemic.

These developments were supported by several new approaches to faculty communication, including Zoom-based town halls that routinely attracted hundreds of faculty and staff members (more than triple the participation in previous face-to-face events) and “virtual provost office hours” that served to “reduce [the inevitable] transactional distance barriers” between faculty and academic leaders, even on a small campus. The faculty, in turn, applied the same combination of flexible communication and new technology to the classroom, supporting hybrid courses across the curriculum and experimenting with clinical placements for nursing students outside of traditional hospital settings. These were all innovations for the university, “but we are going to continue them in the post-coronavirus context.”

Terri Bonebright, executive vice president for academic affairs and provost of Hendrix College (AR), also focused on flexible approaches to governance and new collaborations across divisional barriers as necessary responses to the pandemic. Under normal conditions, she noted, different parts of a college (such as academic affairs, athletics, and the business office) may have relatively little incentive to “collaborate actively,” while “some individuals with specific functions or jobs within [the college] also can tend to be inflexible in terms of their job duties.” But 2020 was not a normal year.

Bonebright described several unprecedented approaches undertaken at Hendrix during the pandemic. For example, the director of events, who was already familiar with campus facilities and used to working with external groups to bring events to campus, was pressed into service as the new contact tracing coordinator when the usual campus events were curtailed. Then, when Hendrix introduced a tuition-free fifth year for students whose residential experience was disrupted by the pandemic, the institution also created a new cross-functional team with representatives from academic affairs, the academic success office, admissions, athletics, and the registrar’s office to “make sure that students can take advantage of this…program in a way that really helps them focus on their careers.”

These initiatives have worked as emergency measures, but “flexibility is a double-edged sword.” Bonebright expressed particular concerns about redeployed staff members who might become overburdened with new responsibilities on top of old ones, the potential confusion when multiple new work groups “all try to solve the same problem” without adequate coordination, and the temptation to go back to old approaches too quickly. “We need to be very careful to make sure that we are assessing our student programs so that we aren’t cutting [new] things that work well and that we enhance things when our students are back.”

The final panelist—David A. Berque, vice president for academic affairs at DePauw University (IN)—continued to shift the conversation from lesson learned to “lesson that might need to be unlearned” once the pandemic is over. A computer scientist by training, he focused most of his presentation on the strategic uses of technology. Most colleges, he noted, “found ways during the pandemic to use technology to deliver existing courses online. We really didn’t have any choice but to do that.” But using technology for instruction was not enough, he argued. DePauw, for example, also devoted technology resources to student support services, faculty development, instructional support for faculty members who shifted to remote teaching, and to develop a timely new summer course on ethics and pandemics designed to introduce incoming students to college-level instruction while reducing admissions melt.

Despite the success of these immediate responses to the pandemic, Berque left the participants with a challenging question: “Are there things that we’ve learned that we can do which we may want to discontinue (or may need to discontinue) depending on the mission of our institution?” These things, he concluded, might even include the new approaches to flexible governance, operational structures, and reliance on instructional technology that the three presenters discussed during the session.

A concurrent session devoted to “Curricular Adaptation to the COVID Crisis” revisited some of the same themes as the “Academic Strategies” session, including the importance of creative flexibility in the face of the pandemic and assessment of adaptations to retain once the crisis passes. Eric Boynton, provost and dean of the college at Beloit College (WI), and Suzan Harrison, vice president for academic affairs and dean of faculty at Eckerd College (FL), structured the conversation around five topics, with specific examples from each campus followed by a broader discussion and questions from the audience. Highlights of the five key topics follow:

  • Adapting the Academic Calendar: In May 2020, Beloit became one of the first colleges in the country to announce the shift from a traditional fall semester schedule to shorter teaching modules of six weeks and two courses each. The shift allowed for more flexibility in the event of campus closures and more focused attention on student learning. Soon after, Eckerd announced its own schedule of half-semester modules plus even shorter three-and-a-half-week blocks designed to stagger the return of students to campus in fall 2020. This adaptation required flexibility on the part of students, faculty members, and administrative offices. For instance, Eckerd’s Office of Institutional Research “had to develop an algorithm to help us figure out where to place the classes in this new structure in ways that would preserve as many student registrations as possible,” Harrison said.
  • Faculty Development for Teaching and Learning: Both institutions invested in additional faculty development. Eckerd recruited faculty members from colleges with more extensive experience in block teaching, including Colorado College and Cornell College (IA), to offer workshops on restructuring course syllabi while local faculty members developed a new Teaching and Learning Commons to collect and share resources. Beloit also drew upon the expertise of peer institutions, including Duke Kunshan University in China (a new liberal arts institution that focuses on modular instruction) and fellow members of the Associated Colleges of the Midwest (IL). Indeed, Boynton argued that a willingness to rely more heavily on partners and peers should be one of the enduring adaptive lessons of the coronavirus crisis.
  • New Mechanisms and Structures for Faculty Involvement: In addition to leaning on peer institutions in new ways, academic leaders at Eckerd and Beloit also leaned heavily on their faculty members. As Boynton recounted, “We had about ten days to restructure the semester into modules—which just made the hair in the back of my neck stand on end. But our departments and department chairs essentially trusted two well-regarded faculty [members] to take the semester system and put it into blocks.” The faculty also revamped the course schedule to explain to students the rationale for new course calendars and formats (online, in-person, or hybrid), in a process that Boynton described as “a mechanism that bred confidence … [because everyone could see] the experience that we were expecting people to have in the fall.” At Eckerd, faculty committees likewise took the lead in sequencing new course offerings, polling students about their initial experience with reconfigured courses, and developing an online forum for faculty to share questions and concerns about teaching through a pandemic.
  • Physical Adaptations to the Campus: Like many other colleges, Beloit and Eckerd moved at least some on-campus instruction out of doors during the fall semester. That might have seemed easier in sunny Florida than Wisconsin—but amidst the threat of tropic storms, Eckerd also needed to reckon with a lack of formal outdoor teaching spaces and an IT infrastructure geared toward interior spaces. Two faculty members in the environmental studies program stepped forward to map the entire campus and identify 30 locations that could hold socially distanced outdoor classrooms of 25 students or more; the IT staff increased Wi-Fi reception in these areas; tents were erected in the sunniest location on the list; and students were instructed to come prepared with folding chairs, bug spray, and sunscreen. Beloit also constructed outdoor tents during the balmiest parts of fall, but focused on reducing campus density through a combination of in-person and hybrid courses.
  • When the Students Came Back: The real test of adaptations at every college came when students returned to campus (or opened their laptops) in the fall. And the most important adaptation, Harrison and Boynton agreed, had to be the behavior of students. “We realized that early on we had to include students in the decision-making and policy-making processes [during the summer] in order for us to have a safe opening in the fall,” says Boynton, and efforts at both institutions “to foster a culture of … self care as community care” seem to have paid off. An important aspect of this was translating campus rituals and communal activities to alternative modes—such as Eckerd’s traditional candlelit ceremony for incoming students, which was moved outdoors this year (see photo below).

The session concluded with a discussion about lessons learned and adaptations that are worth retaining in the future. Boynton was especially optimistic about the embrace of new teaching technologies and new teaching strategies: “[Small colleges adapted these] very rapidly and very effectively, and so I just want to say, watch out for the kind of pedagogy that’s going to be taking place over the coming years … now that we have all these tools flooding the field that we just didn’t capitalize on before.” Harrison was enthusiastic about the new flexibility in both calendars and teaching spaces, noting that “the academic program has just taken over the whole campus, indoors and outdoors.” Boynton concluded by acknowledging the burden of adaptation on administrators and faculty members, who have not had a break in almost a year; “but now that we’ve shaken things up, let’s go ahead and don’t let them solidify back into what we had before.”

people sitting on a grassy hill
Eckerd College (FL) held its traditional opening ceremony outdoors on August 31, 2020. (Photo courtesy of Eckerd College)

Higher Ed Attorneys Highlight Accommodation and Personnel Challenges during the Pandemic

Campus administrators have had to make rapid adjustments to classroom and workplace circumstances in response to the pandemic, but decision making has not always focused on employment policies or accommodation practices. During a concurrent session on “Accommodation and Personnel Challenges during the Pandemic,” two experienced higher education attorneys provided an overview of the current legal landscape and assessed what lies ahead for student and employee higher education policies.

Opening the session, Marti Fessenden, special counsel to the president at Agnes Scott College (GA), and Hayley Hanson, a partner at Husch Blackwell, explored Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) accommodations related to the pandemic. The ADA and Title VII regulate employer disability-related inquiries and medical examinations for applicants and employees, prohibits employee exclusion from the workplace unless they present a direct threat to the workplace, and requires reasonable accommodations to individuals with disabilities, said Hanson. Title I of the ADA states that “a direct threat in the workplace is judged by the severity of the condition and likelihood of harm.” A pandemic that is declared a direct threat by health authorities “expands the employer’s ability to require medical exams, make health-related inquiries, and exclude workers from the workplace.”

Hanson explained that “an employee is a direct threat to the workplace if an employer determines there is a significant risk of harm that cannot be eliminated.” Citing a court case that is applicable to colleges and universities, Hanson said the “EEOC [U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] had previously established a position that the ADA protects employees against actions based on a perceived risk of a future disability or perceived illness. But the 11th Circuit court ruled that the ADA does not prohibit employers from taking employment actions based on a potential future disability that a healthy person may experience later.”  

What this means for colleges and universities, Hanson remarked, is that they can take the temperatures of employees because of the threat of community spread; require that an employee stay home if symptomatic; and require a doctor’s note as certification of fitness for work. She cautioned that institutions may keep a log of medical information but must keep it confidential. In addition, campus officials can release the name of individuals infected with the coronavirus to health authorities and others, but the individual must authorize the release and provide a signed waiver that discloses the individual’s name. Campuses must have written documentation of this action.

Hansen also outlined Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations applicable to campuses. For example, “All employers must ensure they are free from recognized hazards that are likely to cause harm.” COVID-19 falls into that category. To meet OSHA’s reporting requirements, she said “campuses must communicate health and safety standards and information and publish percentages of positive cases.” She noted that most campuses have created webpages that provide updated information on coronavirus cases. OSHA also requires employers to offer personal protective equipment such as masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer for employees, and campuses must stay apprised of changing federal, state, and local health and medical guidance.

Reopening campuses during a pandemic, said Fessenden, can lead to whistleblower complaints that the institution is not in compliance with OSHA regulations or voicing of concerns that CDC guidelines are not being followed. In whistleblower cases, an institution may not retaliate against the whistleblower. As campuses navigate employment issues in this pandemic context, she said, frequent and detailed communication with faculty, staff, human resources administrators, and counsel are all critical.

Campuses will need to consider what in-person learning looks like as cold weather requires everyone to be indoors, and whether to require coronavirus testing before the spring semester. Fessenden said campuses “may require a PCR (virus) test because of the direct threat from COVID-19 to the work environment” but the EEOC states that “employers cannot require an antibody (former infection) test in a work environment.” Hanson added that campuses “need a clear plan as to what to do with the tests, how that information will be protected, and how to address positive cases. In addition, she suggested that campus policies “should mirror the CDC’s guidelines on quarantining (when an individual has been exposed to the coronavirus) and isolating (when an individual has coronavirus symptoms).

The panelists also explained regulations regarding the hiring process and the coronavirus. The bottom line is that “campuses can screen for applicants with COVID; they can delay the start date of a candidate with COVID symptoms; and, if a position requires an immediate start, they can withdraw an offer of employment if an applicant has COVID or symptoms,” said Fessenden. But again, campuses should remain in close contact with their human resources administrators and legal counselors regarding personnel matters.

Team-Building Is Key to Effective Academic Leadership

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(Clockwise) Andrea Warren Hamos of Academic Search, an ASL interpreter, Kathy Ogren of the University of Redlands (CA), Sandra G. Affenito of Norwich University (VT), and Jeffrey Frick of Washington & Jefferson College (PA).

​Chief academic officers should keep several important elements in mind when building academic leadership teams, according to panelists on two concurrent sessions on this vitally important topic. Panelists in both sessions agreed that team-building, especially under the intense pressure of the coronavirus pandemic, requires first making the right personnel decisions and then cultivating key qualities across the team: strong and intentional delegation, diversity of perspective and talent, and a culture of risk-taking and innovation.

Making the right personnel decisions is fundamental to effective team-building and one of the most challenging responsibilities any leader faces. Andrea Warren Hamos, vice president for leadership development and senior consultant at Academic Search, served as moderator for the session “Building Strong Academic Affairs Teams,” which looked closely at the hiring process and personnel decisions. She premised her questions to the panelists on her conviction that institutional context and the situation of the chief academic officer together determine the strategies for building the team.

Hamos asked Sandra Affenito, provost of Norwich University (VT), what it was like for her to come in as a new chief academic officer with a team that had been in place for some time. For Affenito, as for most of the other speakers at both sessions, Jim Collins’s Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t, with its injunction to “get the right people on the bus” and “get them into the right seats,” is a touchstone for academic team-building. Affenito said that even in situations in which they are new while their teams are not, CAOs must ask themselves whether they currently have the right people on the bus, or whether those people occupy the appropriate seats, and to take corrective action if the answer to either question is “no.”

Hamos asked Jeff Frick, vice president for academic affairs and dean of the college at Washington & Jefferson College (PA), about how he built his team at two different institutions. He focused mostly on his previous position and addressed making difficult personnel decisions, arguing that chief academic officers need to “trust their gut” in hiring team members. He gave an example of a hire that he made reluctantly, based on recommendations from others, and then regretted because the person was a poor fit for the institution and the position. Citing another example, he described the internal hire of a faculty member who was somewhat reluctant to assume an administrative role—but who thrived in the position and ultimately left for a presidency at a different institution. Both cases demonstrated the importance of being willing to make difficult calls when the CAO’s own professional experience and instinct suggested a particular hire wasn’t right for any reason, as well as the costs in time and energy of appointments that don’t work out.

Kathy Ogren, provost of the University of Redlands (CA), had been at her institution for many years before she became chief academic officer and described how the evolving nature of her institution affected her approach to team-building. She emphasized the advantages of external hiring at a moment when her university needed fresh vision and greater diversity of perspective and experience. She also discussed the importance of providing one-on-one mentoring to “build confidence and allow team members the autonomy they need to be effective at implementing the team’s collaborative vision.”

Panelists from another session, titled “Developing Your Academic Affairs Team,” also focused on the individual qualities and team characteristics that strong leaders seek to develop through mentorship and professional development once the right people are in place.

Kim Coplin, provost of Denison University (OH), led with a quotation from Patrick Lencioni’s book The Advantage: “The single greatest advantage any [institution] can achieve is organizational health. Yet it is ignored by most leaders even though it is simple, free, and available to anyone who wants it.”

To Coplin, organizational health can be increased by fostering innovation, which requires a willingness to trust team members to generate new ideas and a willingness to accept that some new ideas will not succeed. For her, strong and reliable delegation—assigning responsibility to trusted team members and then getting out of their way—are of the utmost importance in creating a healthy culture of innovation. Coplin’s remarks echoed Ogren’s emphasis on the importance of giving team members autonomy and rewarding them for using it effectively to support organizational health.

Lori Werth, provost of the University of Pikeville (KY), continued the emphasis on innovation and delegation, saying she seeks to develop team members who are “not afraid to fail.” She described how she had built a highly collaborative and innovative team by fostering a “family atmosphere.” In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, she used a “family circle” as a team-building model—communicating with personalized emails and cards, sharing photos and articles, holding nontraditional meetings, and encouraging time off. By creating a sense of interdependence and mutual support, she encouraged her team members to take risks and move forward together to address the institution’s most pressing challenges.

John D. Kolander, provost of Wisconsin Lutheran College, echoed these themes and also emphasized the importance of building teams around different strengths and abilities, noting that diversity of talents and skills is important in addition to diversity of identity and background. Like others, Kolander acknowledged the importance of “true delegation,” while adding an emphasis on “heart of service to all” and “true empathy.” “Intentional mentoring” on the part of team leaders is achieved through “meaningful one-on-one” interactions as well as by offering team members “purposeful leadership opportunities.”

Affenito’s summation served as a perfect take-away for both sessions, which were well-attended and generated lively interaction with participants: “Building a leadership team takes courage, it takes empathy, it takes energy, it takes humility, and it takes self-awareness. The good outcomes for students and the joy that results from those make it worthwhile.”

Equity in Student Success Requires Reforming Gateway Courses

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Panelist John N. Gardner of the Gardner Institute.

​Curricular innovation and student-success improvement efforts at independent colleges and universities often focus on first-year seminars and college success courses. Although such courses can be a laudable investment of both faculty and financial resources, panelists in the session “Reforming the Gateway Course Experience to Promote Equity in Student Success” encouraged the roughly 100 session participants to reposition priorities and resources. Their argument: While supporting students through the transition from high school to college is important, retaining students to sophomore status and increasing the likelihood that they will complete an undergraduate degree depend much more on their performance in gateway courses. A student’s ability to achieve at least a C grade in gateway courses that are foundational to their pursuit of a major or the completion of the general education curriculum is a key to their ultimate success. Panelists included John N. Gardner and Andrew (Drew) K. Koch, chair and chief executive officer and president and chief operating officer, respectively, of the John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education. They were joined by Tracy S. Parkinson, provost and vice president for enrollment management of Mars Hill University (NC).

In Gardner’s assessment, larger survey courses of whole disciplines, such as U.S. history, Introduction to Psychology, or Biology 101—a feature of American higher education often unloved by both the students who take survey courses and the faculty who teach them—represent “American higher education’s Bermuda triangle into which thousands of students enter never to be seen again.” They are “a bridge to nowhere” and need to be recognized as a significant “social justice failure.”

Koch backed up the assessment that “the single greatest impediment to undergraduate student success is their performance in gateway courses” with empirical data from one of the many studies the Gardner Institute has conducted and supported. What the data show repeatedly, no matter the discipline, are two key lessons. First, if a student earns a D, F, W, or I grade in one of these gateway courses, retention beyond the first year is in jeopardy even if the student otherwise remains in good academic standing. Second, negative impacts are unequally distributed. If such students are male, first-generation college students, Pell Grant eligible, or members of a non-Asian minority group, the likelihood of their opting not to return for their sophomore year increases significantly, as does the likelihood that they will not graduate with an undergraduate degree from any institution in the next six years. Therefore, as it stands, negative gateway course outcomes hurt all students and especially higher-risk students. These negative outcomes also damage colleges and universities financially and lead to mission underperformance.

Gardner called on the CAOs and academic team members in attendance to address this “deplorable performance of American higher education” by transforming gateway courses to improve retention and degree attainment with a laser focus on high-risk student populations. Why are CAOs, working with their academic team members, so essential to this work? They are the senior officers at colleges and universities who are in the best position to shape the academic cultures of their institutions; they are the advocates for the faculty, any college’s most important asset; they can be change agents for innovation to improve student success; and overseeing the faculty rewards system, they can be powerful influencers of faculty members and academic departments to undertake meaningful change. “It is you,” Gardner emphasized, “who must take the leadership of academic integration with student affairs and student success colleagues. It is you who must be the principal convener around innovation and student success.”

All panelists urged participants to first recognize and establish emphatically that gateway courses are both a student success and a social justice matter. An informal participant poll during the session revealed the challenge: Forty-six percent of respondents ranked equity opportunities and outcomes as a high institutional priority, however, 48 percent identified their institutional awareness level of the gateway courses’ impact on equity and social justice outcomes as “largely unaware.” When asked about their institutions’ highest student success initiative priority, academic advising received 38 percent, first year and student success courses 33 percent, and gateway courses 2 percent. In addition, 53 percent of respondents judged faculty development resources being directed toward this issue as “minimal”; and 94 percent noted that faculty roles and incentive structures were altered “not at all” or “very little” to incentivize gateway course design.

To make the case, the panelists argued, a detailed performance assessment of outcomes is essential. Koch predicted that institutional data, no matter the institutional type or resources, will likely demonstrate that the gateway courses are where “the student success movement has to meet and mesh with the social justice movement.” Parkinson advised participants to pay attention to section outcome variations that may point to differences in faculty performance in supporting high-risk students. And he urged CAOs to have conversations with faculty members “in a safe way such that faculty members in a small program where everybody knows each other can be receptive to pedagogy advice” without losing face. A participant concurred noting that “data can be immensely helpful to depersonalize the conversation and shift the focus on what we need to do for our students.” Another added “the CAO defines what excellence in teaching means and so can focus not on failure but on emphatically setting the aspirational goals of equitable student learning outcomes and success at a high overall performance level.”

CAOs should not tolerate excuses—for instance that students are immature, underprepared, or privilege athletics over academics; instead CAOs should insist that it is an institutional responsibility, one shared among academic affairs and student development administrators and faculty members, to take steps to achieve equity in student success. The panelists also advised that CAOs should appeal to the conscience of the faculty, to their commitment to social justice and the moral imperative to equip students for social mobility, in making the case. In addition, CAOs need to identify a respected champion or champions among the faculty to motivate other faculty members to action and lead the work that needs to be done on their campuses. Together with these faculty champions, the CAO should “boldly frame what excellent teaching” means: Meeting students where they are and taking them as far as they can go. As Parkinson emphasized, to be bold in using excellence frames with faculty is “fundamental to our roles in the success of our students.”

The Gardner Institute recommends a three-year, multiple-phase process. In year one, the focus should be a thorough study of gateway courses that have been identified as dysfunctional. The study should examine not just content, but also pedagogy, assessment methods, co-curricular components, and absentee rates and policies. Year one should culminate in an evidence-based plan for redesign. For example, the plan might involve embedding academic support into the course via the use of a peer leader or adding learning communities, out of class learning experiences, and enhanced research opportunities. In addition, the plan might include a faculty development initiative or other incentives to reward faculty members to become involved as “early adopters” in the project. Furthermore, the typical division of labor between adjunct and tenured faculty, who have often outsourced first-year foundational courses, should be considered. In year two, campuses should implement and assess the redesigned course and develop a plan for its refinement. And in year three, campuses should implement and test the second version of the course and gather data about the impact that redesign is having on retention.

Gardner emphasized, however, that an institution’s commitment to such a plan ultimately rests on CAOs and their academic team members: “You have to literally appeal to the collective conscience of your faculty.” With the current designs and approaches to gateway courses, Gardner said, “we are perpetuating a lack of social justice by perpetuating the structures that lead to inequitable outcomes.” It all starts with, Parkinson concluded, CAOs consistently and frequently “articulating the problem and suggesting some broad ideas as to responses or solutions,” which is to say to define their role more as innovation than operations officers. And “we’ve all got to step away from the mindset of the faculty of resistance to start with” and instead inspire change, dedication to assessment, and focus on improvement.

Strong Teams Needed to Integrate General Education with Career Preparation

Screen capture of webinar
The four “Integrating General Education and Career Preparation” panelists together with moderator David Cunningham (top right), director of NetVUE.

​Undergraduate students are frequently anxious about future employment prospects and mystified about the relevance of general education requirements, while faculty members often prefer to focus on the academic program and leave matters of employment to the career services office. As institutions work to bridge the perceived gap between the liberal arts and professional preparation, many have found that encouraging student reflection on “calling” and “vocation” can be a highly successful strategy. In a session on “Integrating General Education and Career Preparation,” leaders from two institutions outlined their efforts to strengthen the relationship between the academic program and the career services office by supporting their students’ exploration and discernment of their various callings in life.

Presenters from Wheaton College (IL)—Karen An-Hwei Lee, provost, and Dee Pierce, director of the college’s Center for Vocation and Career—opened the session. Both discussed the college’s required first-year seminar as an important opportunity to demonstrate the relationship between liberal arts and one’s future direction in life. During the seminar, students are introduced to the idea of vocation and calling, and instructors address some myths about vocation, such as the idea that their future will be dramatically revealed to them (which Pierce described as the “burning bush” tendency in student thinking). The senior capstone course provides a way to revisit these issues as students prepare to graduate. In addition, Wheaton aims to help students integrate these issues across the rest of their undergraduate experience through an interdisciplinary curriculum called “MyStory,” in which the classroom becomes the venue for teaching some of the lessons and skills that are traditionally imparted in the career center—such as how to give an elevator pitch or how to “build your brand.” Faculty members are eager participants because the curriculum is designed with other educational goals in mind, including writing and critical thinking.

Wheaton also uses Instagram Live as a platform to make students more aware of how their liberal arts courses provide them with skills that will be useful in their work life, such as creativity, persuasion, and resourcefulness. In addition, the Center for Vocation and Career generates content that faculty members can adapt to create assignments that are germane to their particular fields, but that students will see as relevant to their future work lives. For example, although students need to develop their writing skills, they may see academic writing as less relevant than business writing or other forms they are likely to use in their work life. Pierce asked, “What if, instead of writing a five-page paper on Jane Eyre, students were asked to write a one-page memo?” (Provost Lee suggested a memo to Mr. Rochester on improving his interpersonal skills!)

The Wheaton presentation was followed by one from Huntingdon College (AL), led by Tom Perrin, vice president for academic affairs, and Anthony J. Leigh, senior vice president for student and institutional development. At Huntingdon, vocational exploration initiatives take place largely during students’ sophomore and junior years. Two required courses in the Huntingdon core create a common vocabulary and approach across campus, on which faculty members can draw as they help students move into various phases of their trajectories of discernment. Students also participate in the Sophomore Guide program, in which students select a mentor from among the faculty or staff. Together, they undertake an assignment that Carter Aikin, chair of the philosophy and religion department at Blackburn College (IL), originally posted on the CIC Network for Vocation in Undergraduate Education blog under the title “Please Steal This Assignment” (“So we did!” says Perrin). Huntingdon also strongly links the students’ work in these core courses to their internships and externships, asking them to reflect on their experiences with reference to their reading assignments.

Leigh spoke about the importance of the location of the Center for Career and Vocation within Huntingdon’s Alumni and Development Office, which leverages external partners for the benefit of students. Many alums have been offering to serve as mentors and advisors to students, which also allows them to connect with their own former professors and increases the level of buy-in to the program among faculty members. The college has created a number of videos from alumni who offer advice on career readiness, preparing for graduate school, and making professional connections.

With nearly 200 participants, this well-attended session generated many questions and a lively discussion. Among the most important takeaways from this session:

  • A focus on vocation can take place at various points in a student’s career, but integrating vocational exploration into the curriculum is key;

  • Faculty buy-in is important, both for the theory (vocation and calling as a scholarly approach) and the practice (compensating faculty and not requiring too much extra work);

  • Many resources are available to provide content on which students can reflect, including several important anthologies, podcasts, and blog posts, to which faculty members can be directed as they integrate these issues into the classroom; and

  • Career services offices can become “Centers for Career and Vocation,” which can give them more opportunities to reach the students who might not otherwise cross the threshold of the office.