Published on 2015/09/10
The EvoLLLution | Flying a Plane Versus Higher Ed Management: Lessons in Safety and Risk
If higher education leaders are not comfortable taking risks and trying new ideas, they will find themselves dooming their institutions to irrelevancy and failure.

Many years ago I earned my private pilot’s license and began to fly small planes all around the Northeastern United States. Being a successful pilot is all about studying and planning and then contingency planning. It’s about doing things as safely as possible while experiencing something that is inherently dangerous.

Of course, learning the “book” theory is one thing and the actual experiential learning another. Experiencing summertime air pockets that bounced my head off the plane’s roof taught me to fly early in the morning when it was still cool and before the warmth of the day created thermals that eventually became deadly thunderstorms. Unexpected winter snow squalls that caused white out (and white knuckle) visual conditions taught me to listen to other pilots’ condition reports as well as to check and recheck local weather reports. Having your electrical system fail and deny you GPS (or LORAN in the early days) maps and location coordinates reminded me that the printed sectional map that I had strapped to my knee never ran out of batteries. But part of the enjoyment of piloting a lighter than air vehicle is knowing that you have mastered something that very few others have—and living to tell the tale.

Recently someone asked me if I thought that becoming a pilot prepared me for a leadership position within continuing education (CE). After some thought, I have decided that it did in some respects save one—risk taking. As a pilot, you should do everything that you can to avoid risk. As a CE professional, you should do everything that you can to embrace risk.  In flying they say, “There are old pilots and there are bold pilots—but there are no old bold pilots.” In CE the reverse might be true. If you are not trying new things (“risking”) then you are probably going to doom your unit to a slow and painful death.

Let’s just look at online learning. Many of the early adopters (mostly CE units) who combined online with new professional degree programs have flourished over the past 10 years and experienced 20 percent plus growth. Those who were slow to the game and are now just entering are usually trying to do it for survival and to stem their declining enrollments rather than to push the envelope as innovators within the field. We may all be struggling for new enrollments, but the original innovators are in much better shape than the also-rans. The same can be said for new program development.

A few years ago, the Education Advisory Board did a study looking at the largest program areas versus the largest growth areas in higher education. Not surprisingly business, healthcare and education were the largest program areas but all had declining enrollments. The real growth areas were boutique programs where smaller institutions could really compete. Why is it then that everyone wants to put yet another MBA program online? You want growth? Get creative and risk some new degrees, add-on bachelor’s credentials (according to Burning Glass, these can increase an individual’s annual earnings up to $17K), or professional certificates in the technology areas.

What ever you do, just try something different. If you are not risking more than 2 percent of your business, you are doomed to go out of business.

As John F. Kennedy once said, “There are risks and costs to action. But they are far less than the long range risks of comfortable inaction.”

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Readers Comments

Beth J 2015/09/10 at 10:53 am

It’s true that there are industry that refer to the phenomenon of being early adopters as working “one the bleeding edge” but I think it has been shown pretty clearly that that isn’t the case for higher ed. Recognizing from the start the embracing risk is one of—if not THE—key to success is so important. Nice reminder.

Carol Perry 2015/09/10 at 7:28 pm

I feel like the lessons about how the map strapped to your knee never runs out of batteries is also an apt one for dealing with all the new technology involved in running a successful CE program ☺

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