Avoiding Sweet Briar: Five Tips to Help Institutions Become More Nimble

The EvoLLLution | Avoiding Sweet Briar: Five Tips to Help Institutions Become More Nimble
Nimbleness is crucial for colleges and universities that want to remain not just competitive, but viable, in the modern era.

Sweet Briar College, a century-old (and then some!) women’s college, recently closed its doors, citing declining enrollment and financial woes. Their challenges included an $84 million endowment that was highly encumbered. A task force explored ideas to save the college—including merging with another institution and opening the college to male students—but these recommendations arrived too late and Sweet Briar College, like many other colleges in recent years, came to an end.

Educators and administrators who study the demise of institutions like Sweet Briar must wonder what steps might have been taken to avoid a similar fate. Could Sweet Briar have foreseen the problems ahead and taken steps in a different direction? How does a modern college or university remain agile in the harsh and ever-changing marketplace of higher education?

1. Watch, Learn and Pivot

Agile institutions watch and learn from the innovation and mistakes of others. Sadly, Sweet Briar joins Antioch College and other colleges with proud histories that have failed in recent years. In order to continue to grow and retain relevance in today’s educational marketplace, institutions must look to both industry and successful programs as inspiration—then incorporate innovation and disruptive concepts into their own programming.

In my book, Revolution in Higher Education: How a Small Band of Innovators Will Make College Accessible and Affordable, and its companion, Abelard to Apple, I explore the inwardly focused pattern that repeats itself throughout the history of academia. When institutions become too assured of their central role, they inevitably lose ground to innovators who are better connected to the needs of students.

Look at the recent success of companies like Coursera, edX, and Udacity, whose founders recognized that technology could help meet the demand for a new way of learning. In response, a number of top-tier institutions—including my own institution (Georgia Tech) with its Online Master of Science in Computer Science (OMS CS) degree program—have watched, learned and pivoted to provide institutional space for this sort of in-demand programming.

2. Strategy Drives Brand, Not The Other Way Around

One of the great mistakes an institution can make is to let their strategy be determined by brand. A growing and agile institution’s brand is defined and driven by what it chooses to do, not the other way around.

Take the University of Mary Washington (UMW) and the Edupunk movement, for example. In 2006, Jim Groom, an adjunct professor at UMW, along other faculty members, began to implement a new strategy of openness and innovation in university life. Over time, this strategic shift, propelled by the intentionality of Groom and colleagues, successfully shifted the brand perception of UMW. Even revered brands like MIT embraced shifts in strategy to anticipate and adapt to the changing needs of students and society.

A truly strategic college or university does not cater to the whims of culture, or to agenda-driven authority figures. Recognizing that academic brands are built over many years, an agile college or university looks to its long-term vision and strategy to propel branding efforts and outreach.

3. Keep Things Flat and Distributed

There is a disconnect between how a college or university functions and public perception. From research to classroom teaching, and even to administrative duties, faculty are expected to take on too much. As a result, innovation in education—a university’s main product—often takes a back seat. The same is true for administrative decision-makers. Modern universities must provide space, time, and resources for faculty and administration to innovate.

Harvey Mudd College (HMC) is small compared to schools like MIT and Stanford, with whom it competes for students. Yet, president Maria Klawe is in no rush to expand or build a graduate program to attract greater numbers. Her goal is to remain focused on doing what HMC does well: innovative undergraduate STEM education. Harvey Mudd is incredibly successful and Klawe, in streamlining and focusing the institution, has created space for her faculty and administration to innovate.

Layers of administrative hierarchy work against agility. Whether it is a desire to protect brand, or the need to protect endangered culture, colleges have a way of making themselves rigid and immobile. Flat organizations and distributed decision making are a defense against this kind of paralysis.

4. Use Technology

Technology enables institutional change. Educational technology can create value and increase the productivity of faculty, staff, and students. It also provides agility as universities and college seek to redefine themselves in a world where social capital is now determined, by and large, in digital means. If there is one thing that higher education should learn from the history of the Internet, it is that no industry can withstand the onslaught of technology for very long. It took only three years to go from a relative handful of students engaged in online learning to the nearly fifteen million who today routinely enroll, sometimes for credit, in MOOCs.

The availability of MOOCs and online degree programs, from universities all over the world, has created a space for rapid, dynamic shifts in the affordability and availability of college. Flipped and blended classrooms are more prevalent than ever before. To cut costs and innovate, agile institutions learn how to best utilize technology.

5. Your Customers Do Not Yet Exist

Finally, agile institutions must recognize that most of their customers do not yet exist. College and universities tend to consider the wants and needs of the students currently or previously enrolled in academic life while they should be considering the needs of students who will be in attendance in four or eight years. Rigid institutions not only fail to understand their future students, they have no way to find out what their needs will be.

If a computer science undergraduate were to list the top software development positions available today, the list would look drastically different than a list from four or eight years ago. In 2000, the faculty and staff at Georgia Tech were faced with a rapidly shifting landscape in the field of computer science. Students were looking for more creative, design-oriented computer science programs. By creating a “threaded” curriculum, through which students could customize a degree path, the College of Computing at Georgia Tech became a more agile program and opened the door to future growth.

Remember, technology and the workplace are in constant transition. Thus, we cannot know a great deal about our current students, much less the middle school students who will eventually enroll in institutions. Agile institutions recognize that students will be seeking jobs that do not yet exist and require skills that are yet to be invented.

A culture of learning and change, avoiding brand paralysis, and creating organizational tools that promote adaptation are hallmarks of agility in higher education. Systemic problems like high cost and low productivity can only be solved by technological innovation, and agile institutions are quick to experiment with technologies. In the end, agility means anticipation. Each new generation of students is an opportunity to reinvent the college experience and agile institutions do not shy away from that challenge.

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Update on Sweet Briar College’s Status

This article was published in May 2015. In June 2015, Virginia’s attorney general announced a deal to save Sweet Briar College. According to Inside Higher Ed, Sweet Briar’s former leaders agreed to relinquish control of the college to a new president and a largely new board. This effort was buttressed by an organization of alumnae called Saving Sweet Briar who agreed to raise $12.5 million to continue operating the college during the 2015-2016 academic year. This led the attorney general to remove the restrictions on $16 million of the college’s endowment and drop all litigation.

To learn more about the efforts that led to Sweet Briar College keeping its doors open, please click here.

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Readers Comments

J Klein 2015/06/17 at 3:51 pm

These institutions need to figure out what it takes to stay afloat and figure it out quickly. The public is definitely not comfortable with bailouts and I don’t think higher education institutions can expect any help in being propped up by the taxpayer, despite their clear impact on employability and regional economic growth.

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