Visit Modern Campus

Navigating Uncharted Waters in Higher Ed: A President’s Perspective

Having a leadership position in higher ed is about putting the student first and embracing change to suit new needs as they arise.

The pandemic spurred tremendous change for higher educations, and there’s still a need for more. To evolve effectively, higher ed leaders must assess how far they’ve come and where they need to go to serve learners and their new needs. In this interview, Stephen Easton discusses the past year of higher education, what leaders need to start prioritizing and shares advice on how to adapt to change.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): As you reflect on 2023, what notable achievements or successes can you identify for either higher education as a whole or specifically your institution?

Stephen Easton (SE): Something we might not notice until we think about it is we’re no longer dominated by the pandemic. Now that most of us survived, our campuses are seeing a new kind of energy. At least, that is what it feels like in western North Dakota.

At Dickinson State, the energy level is up among our students. More of them are at our events, supporting each other. There are students studying in the library again. Levels of enthusiasm and passion are up. What could be better for a campus than student enthusiasm and passion?

During the pandemic, most of us shifted quickly from a traditional classroom to a hybrid model. Dickinson State was founded a hundred years ago specifically to increase access to higher education, we never turned off the classroom computers and monitors. Almost all our classes are available face-to-face and via simultaneous remote access, which we call DSUliveTM. Thus, the horror of the pandemic provided us with a new access opportunity.

We’re able to reach students farther away than before. Our new normal increases the diversity of life experiences that students bring to the classroom. Some of those who access our classes remotely are older students who have valuable life lessons to share with their younger colleagues, most of whom are on campus.

Evo: What are some key considerations higher ed leaders need to start prioritizing to stay ahead of this rapidly evolving landscape?

SE: We have to build higher education institutions for today and tomorrow, not for yesterday. That’s not easy for higher ed because our industry is stunningly resistant to change. The fundamental challenge is overcoming the status quo. Without innovation, we won’t grow.

We don’t like to admit it, but if you look at higher ed from a business perspective, there’s too much capacity. There are too many physical spaces and employees for the demand. We will not all survive. Some schools will close. Indeed, it has already started to happen. Innovation will separate the survivors from those who will go extinct.

We must be responsive to what students demand. Our massive, industry-wide resistance to change is a huge challenge for us, as we face the realities of shrinking demand for our programs, products and services.

Evo: Are there other challenges you’d like to highlight?

SE: Nobody likes it when I raise this issue, but we have to seriously look at tenure and how it stifles and often kills innovation. We make judgments based on an employee’s work habits for their first six to eight years, then lock ourselves into one-way forty-year marriages. If that is such a great business model, why has no other industry adopted it?

In addition to stifling innovation and adjustments to changing market realities, tenure can create significant disparities in faculty workload. Due largely to widespread tenure, we tend to treat unproductive faculty members the same as our many productive faculty members. That is a recipe for morale problems.

If we don’t look at changing tenure from the inside, someone from the outside—like legislatures or governing boards—will force changes upon us. We need to seriously consider reforming our outdated tenure system, not simply provide window dressing that does not address the massive inefficiencies tenure brings about. Our industry can no longer afford to tolerate them.

Evo: What advice would you share with higher ed leaders when it comes to adapting to change?

SE: First, as someone once said about being loved in the politics of Washington, D.C., if you want to be loved unconditionally, get yourself a dog. Changes need to be made, and most people—including or perhaps especially faculty—hate change. You shouldn’t take on a leadership position in higher ed these days if you’re looking to be loved.

Indeed, I would go so far as to say that, if everyone likes you all the time, you are not an effective higher education leader. If no one is resisting your changes, then you’re not moving quick enough. To be sure, being disliked is not necessarily a sign of effective leadership. They may legitimately dislike you because you are not effectively leading. But being universally liked is a sure sign of ineffective higher education administration.

For what it might be worth, my dad, a longtime community college president, shared his leadership philosophy with me when I got into higher education: “Whenever possible, do what’s best for the students.” I cannot improve on that. Unfortunately, it is not always possible, but often it is, though sometimes painful. Be willing to accept that pain as the price of helping your students.

That does not mean you should always do what students ask or demand you do. Students have a perspective that’s very important for us to listen to and seriously consider, but your job is to do what is best for them, even if they don’t like it.

Create an environment that facilitates the magic of higher education. The best thing about working in higher education is that it gives you the opportunity to change students’ lives. Keep the focus on students. Do whatever you can to provide them with as many paths to success as you possibly can. That is a great career, even if some won’t like you.


This interview was edited for length and clarity.