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Do Online College Experts Have a Seat at the Strategy Table?

Online learning is here to stay, so it’s critical that higher ed’s online leaders be involved in key discussions to give students the best possible learning experience.

I’ve been thinking lately about the extent to which leaders with online experience serve on the very top of higher ed councils, sitting at the same table as presidents and provosts, participating in high-level discussions of present and future strategies. With online enrollments now occupying a third of higher ed college students and with 50% of students or more taking at least one online course, it seems only prudent to invite seriously knowledgeable online academics and administrators to serve at the highest levels of current and long-range college thinking. With online enrollment on its way to being equal with on-campus enrollment, it’s not only a wise move but likely one that will redirect the university from continuing to act as if its principal mission is to meet the requirements of on-campus students only.

But are online experts invited to join other senior college officials at crucial strategy sessions? Are they seated with other members of the president’s cabinet? I reached out to several astute observers to learn what they think. Their insightful responses confirmed what I had long suspected. 

At most institutions, in addition to the president and the chief academic officer, you may find a chief financial officer as well as the general counsel and, at large universities, deans of various academic schools. Sometimes, you’ll also find specialists in student recruitment, research, fundraising and other key competencies that help run today’s complex academic enterprises. In responding to new challenges, seats may now even be occupied by unexpected specialists in AI, crisis management and student protests, among other hot-button issues. 

“People who are sophisticated about online learning are unlikely at the seat of power,” says Mike Goldstein, Managing Director at Tyton Partners, an education strategy and investment banking firm. “At most institutions, online learning is separate, as far from the seat of power as the parking lot.”  

Richard Garrett, Chief Research Officer at the higher ed consulting firm Eduventures, agrees, “Typically, online leaders are not seated at the table in the university’s cabinet.” Garrett says that online learning is not commonly integrated with the rest of the university. “Its leaders are not especially close to senior officers, who may have captured their attention but whose knowledge of digital education is often limited and their understanding vague.”

Phil Hill, Consultant and Market Analyst at Phil Hill & Associates, is more positive, recognizing that college leaders are now more willing, especially in the present enrollment crunch, to consult with their own more sober online experts. For a time, Hill recalls, presidents were often dazzled by digital learning promoters promising big bucks without big investments.

“In making serious decisions, online experts were not often brought to the table,” Hill reminds us. “No one is promising pipe dreams anymore. Now presidents are looking for solutions that really work. They are willing to listen to the good and the bad, that it will take time and cost you something.”

According to Eric Fredericksen, Associate Vice-President for Online Learning at the University of Rochester, chief online officers at the nation’s colleges don’t commonly join cabinet sessions but are woven into each institution’s academic fabric, with more than half reporting to the provost.

Looking ahead, it’s unlikely online leaders will find themselves headhunted for senior cabinet posts anytime soon. “When I think about the complexity of the presidential role, there are so many big items—fundraising, crisis management, student protests, revenue generation,” observed Ruth Shoemaker Wood, Managing Director at Storbeck Search. “But colleges are not quite ready to make the leap that online is critical.”

“It’s clearly a moving target,” says Richard Ekman, President Emeritus of the Council of Independent Colleges. “Everyone in higher education is becoming more cognizant about the need for online learning.” Ekman, who participates in many top recruitment searches, said, “I have not seen online come up yet.” 

Just as in dysfunctional families, not everyone is invited to the party. At highly polished conference tables, a few steps from the president’s office, not everyone who matters is present. As Rochester’s Fredericksen tells us, merely 5% of online officers report directly to the president.

When the most powerful exclude online, they not only arrest its growth but undermine the wider influence of online theory and practice in on-campus teaching and learning. If there’s no one at the top to champion digital education, who will guide classroom faculty to introduce active learning, peer-to-peer instruction, project-based teaching and other progressive innovations? Who will steer higher ed to welcome working students, adult learners and other unconventional students? 

With digital education among the most pressing questions facing higher ed, the lack of remote learning intelligence informing our senior academic leaders is an embarrassment. Universities are credited with being at the heart of the nation’s intellectual life, but—when faced with examining their own vexing questions—they fail to give those with most experience and insight their rightful place at the table. Until higher ed sets a place for our online leaders at the table where pivotal decisions are debated, remote education will remain a scandalously unresolved open question.