4 Ways Leaders are Effecting Change in Higher Education Today

4 min read

G. John Cole

shutterstock_380394427Education is our future: at its most basic, it develops the skills and personalities of those who will shape the world; at its best, it is education that foresees and defines the changes that lie ahead.

To prosper and excel and to serve their students, higher education institutions must stay ahead of social, political, and technical developments. It requires visionary leadership, even when that leadership exists amongst the buzzing hive mind of a lively and progressive academic community. 

Here’s a look at the inspiring people and initiatives effecting change in higher education across four key categories.

1. Leadership

Leadership itself is a changing beast – and, these days, a bit of a misnomer. Strong leadership in the 21st century often involves less ‘leading’ and more ‘guiding,’ with leaders of nearly every stature expected to walk among those whom they represent, and to take on board the ideas and wishes of the group.

University presidents, who may travel far and wide over their career, are keen to acknowledge local conditions and traditions while also bringing their outsider perspective to bear – even if it’s more progressive than the school might expect. Such was the experience of E. Gordon Gee upon taking the reins at Brown University:

“During my opening press conference, I made the seemingly innocuous comment that private universities ought to be in the public service,” Gee told Higher Education Today. “From the ensuing criticism, you would have thought that I proposed turning Brown into a trade school.”

In retrospect, it’s a point of view that Brown celebrates. But today, ‘acting local’ means situating your institution culturally and geographically, as part of a broader community and ecology. In many ways, the greatest example a modern institution’s leader can set is to throw open the windows and doors.

Neither are today’s leaders working in isolation – or in competition. The American Council on Education (ACE) has paved the way for better communication and learning between leaders by launching its ACE ENGAGE™ platform to connect leaders in education between an ongoing series of regional summits.

2. Data

Big data has been a ‘thing’ for some time now, but while universities around the world are gathering and processing reams of data on admissions, academic performance, and campus use, many schools are still to make the best use of this wealth of material.

The impact of big data can be both general and personal. A campus, like a city, is a vast feedback machine that can be designed and run effectively with a running analysis of the people and places involved: from marketing and filtering at the admissions stage to building and managing walkways, gardens, classrooms, facilities, and accommodation.

Personalized learning focuses this data-use to an acute point, with test scores, teacher ratings, and even voluntary behavioral data empowering educators to customize individual study programs. Privacy, transparency, and choice are essential to provide a system that benefits all students equally while acknowledging their particular culture, circumstances, competencies, and learning styles on a scale never previously imaginable.

The most progressive schools have recognized that while data is no magic bullet for the challenges or opportunities they face, it’s a powerful tool when used hand-in-hand with innovative thinking and a sensitive, personal touch to the people and environment to whom the data belongs and on which the institution’s decisions impact.

3. Inclusion

Diversity has been a buzz word over recent years as leaders and institutions have worked to correct historical imbalances in representation among students and staff and in the curriculum. Progress is being made as employers and selection committees are rightly made accountable for their biases – unconscious or otherwise – and, more to the point, inspired to consider more deeply the injustices the figures reveal.

But as Gailda Pitre Davis points out, “inclusion is less about representation and more about the environment in which we operate. Inclusion, simply stated, is about a sense of belonging that one or a group of individuals feels when able to participate in the majority culture on campus as valued members.”

Diversity is often referred to through statistics alone. But leaders need to make space to consider the “how” as much as the “how many.” Learning to listen, encouraging healthy discourse (and creating opportunities to discover what that means), and working proactively to dispel stereotypes and biases, are all actions that begin at the top: the pace is set by the leaders that a school employs and the actions they take.

4. Marketing

The world of marketing has not stopped for breath since the world wide web appeared three decades ago. If marketing was once an art, today it’s a culture – but thankfully there is plenty of science behind it. The trick is finding somebody who knows how to leverage that science (and again, a big part of it is data) to attract not just quantities of students, but the right students.

Any university marketing department that hasn't had an overhaul in the past half-decade needs to confront some big questions: what happens when you apply ‘influencer' marketing to the world of higher education recruitment? What would a meaningful video marketing strategy look like? How do you strike a balance between the trend for authenticity and the need for a consistent brand voice when your ‘product' is many-armed?

Schools are finding answers to these questions without missing a step by turning to expert third-party higher education marketers and utilizing customer relationship management to harness the power of search engine optimization (SEO), social media, and expanded PR.

It’s not always straightforward to balance a multi-pronged marketing strategy with an accessible student/applicant interface, analytics with creativity. Outsourcing elements of progressive marketing strategy can free up space for internal departments to discover their voice, work with their people, and capitalize on the ‘real world’ attractions of their institution while others deal with the science.

‘Global Leadership, Learning, and Change’

These considerations and more will be hot property at the NAFSA: Association of International Educators Annual Conference from 26th-31st May in Washington, D.C.

The theme is ‘Global Leadership, Learning, and Change,' and in today's climate, those are bigger questions than usual.

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