Communicating with Students in a Noisy World
Learn how you can improve your relationship management to attract and retain non-traditional students
The following interview is with Philip DiSalvio, the Founding Dean of the University College at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. DiSalvio led the movement to turn the university’s continuing education division into a distinct degree-granting academic unit. In this interview, DiSalvio discusses the reasoning behind the move, elaborates on a few of the challenges faced during the transition into a university college and shares some of the lessons learned during the move.
1. One of the major opportunities you noted as a reason behind reconstituting the continuing education unit as a degree-granting institution was meeting the needs of non-traditional students and accelerating the go-to-market speed of programming aimed at this group. What led you to decide to focus so heavily on serving the non-traditional market segment?
Today the new-traditional student is not the 18-21 year old but it’s instead adult learners who comprise the majority of students in higher education today. Adult students are the fastest-growing demographic in institutions of higher learning. It’s interesting to note that between 2006-2017 the number of students over 25 will increase nearly 20 percent; that’s a growth rate double of that among young students. I think it’s important that we understand how the trends are going in terms of the proportion of students in higher education today. At a time when our economy demands more educated and skilled workforce, adult learning is really important.
I constantly have my ear to the ground in terms of student demographics and I heard on a recent National Public Radio interview that the typical college student in America has a job, a family, is enrolled part-time or has some combination of the three. It’s estimated that about 70 percent of students enrolled in higher education today are the non-traditional leader. As part of the mission of U-Mass Boston, in terms of access, it makes an enormous amount of sense to focus on that non-traditional market segment.
2. And that non-traditional market segment is different from the traditional students who we understand to be on campuses?
Absolutely, I think many folks believe that the traditional student is the 18-21 year old, but instead it’s the adult learner that comprises the majority of students in higher education today.
3. A financial obstacle that you noted was the difficulty in managing process differences, like admissions and registrar responsibilities, between the University College before and after becoming degree-granting. How have you overcome the operational hurdles of changing the culture and aim of the University College?
There are a number of leadership challenges, operationally, that faces an individual who leads the charge in terms of reconstituting a division to a college. I embarked upon five general strategies. …
The first thing I saw was a need for an internal strategic communications strategy. That meant conveying the message about the new college brand and enhancing an understanding of the mission goals of the college and realigning perceptions internally. There are a number of concerns that our colleagues had in the university, and part of it is diminishing concerns about issues like poaching on other disciplines, or lessening of academic quality, or diminishing the fear of a loss of academic control by the other colleges. It was important that I had to really articulate the strategic role of the University College and create a transparent college between the University College and other colleges. …
The second was looking at many more effective long-term internal processes. What I meant by that is really establishing a series of interrelated activities towards driving new program development, incentivizing collaboration with other colleges and accelerating growth. One of the first things that I saw that had to happen was incentivization; what was in it for the other colleges to work with University College? So we established a revenue-sharing arrangement for partnering, we establishing a number of transparent processes for program development and part of those is to make those consistent and to really emphasize the notion of transparency and incentivizing growth. We see University College as being that unit that is not only entrepreneurial but that crosses inter-disciplinary lines in developing new programs. …
A third was change management, and… change management is a challenge. That comprises instituting a proactive, systematic approach to easing that transition and controlling the transformation from division to college. And that means changing cultural perceptions; it means articulating our role as an entrepreneur, it means creating a transparent culture between University College and other colleges—establishing a trust relationship, staking out clear academic areas of interest that don’t overlap, and then really establishing University College as an interdisciplinary lynchpin. …
Financial obstacles; you’re really dealing with the process of differences. … Adult learners really need to have different tracks of registration, admissions, student support because they have different needs. So managing that process was important. We also had a different academic calendar and other variations to satisfy the needs of our adult learners. Having that academic calendar that is different is a challenge. Those operational, financial obstacles were important to face head-on.
The fifth is an external strategic communication strategy, and that really addresses interrelated activities toward market branding and identifying ourselves as a college. It has somewhat of a different connotation than a division. And then carving out the competitive advantages through the identification of the college is important, and leveraging the status of the college as a unit that not only support but is able to confer its own credits.
There are a number of leadership challenges that we had to address head-on in terms of the hurdles and changing the culture.
4. Ultimately, the core lesson you identified from this transition was the importance of understanding that reconstituting a division to a college would be seen as a threat to the status quo, as it upsets the entrenched power structure of an institution. Why is upsetting the status quo such a problem during a time when higher education institutions are being encouraged to disrupt traditional operations, and how did you overcome this major hurdle?
I think the overall, over-arching lesson learned is a reality that drives the challenges that we just talked about and really defines the opportunities—and that’s the displacement of the status quo.
We talk about disruption a lot in higher education today, disruption internally can be in some ways very traumatic for the university because it does displace the status quo. A new academic unit inevitably presents a perceived threat to the existing discipline-based silos that control the means of production.
As a unit now that can confer its own degrees, it no longer depends on the other colleges to develop new programs. We as a college can develop programs on our own and confer our own degrees. And that cuts across the existing power structure, where there are entrenched interests that exist. It requires a commitment to a well-thought-out cause and effect analysis and an attention to the leadership challenges. I talked a little bit about trying to diminish the fear of poaching; one of the fears was that University College would create programs that are redundant with other programs, or go after certain areas that are traditionally part of the discipline, and that was a great fear. One of the other great fears was lessening the academic quality; the residual history of a division is that some people perceive it as not having the kind of academic quality that you see in the other colleges. That was important too.
Despite the fact that higher education is changing, despite the fact that we see in higher education today the need to go beyond the traditional, there is still that [attempt to try] to hold on to the old model. That’s not unexpected. Part of our mission is to be an entrepreneurial arm of academic affairs so it’s really important that we are able to do that, but it takes as much internal work to be able to do that as much as anything else.
Changing culture, changing perception is really important. Continuing to talk about the need for market agility; the need to really encourage non-traditional formats like online learning, the need to accelerate the time to completion, a career focus for many adult students is very important. …
We have a long traditional of the strong college model that emphasizes individual brands of different colleges and that empowers schools to attract talented scholars and funding, but it can also reinforce insularity and that makes it less likely that scholars from different colleges on the same campus will come together. Because of the silo traditional, it’s hard to leverage value across enterprises. That strong college model, while it has advantages and a long, distinguished history, it makes it sometimes hard to collaborate. Each college having its own agenda, there is a wisdom to that. But I think there needs to be a cross-campus cross-disciplinary approach to thinking about how we can best provide access and provide the kind of education students are demanding.
5. You note that the University College has the opportunity to expand its strategic programming choices and allow for the delivery of more high-risk programs. Why does the University College have this advantage over traditional campus units?
It’s important that as a university entity, as an academic unit, that not only do we have to fit in and be consistent with the spirit of the university and the culture of the university, but it’s important that we control our own review processes. Controlling the review process related to approval, curriculum. … In many ways, now that we have our own review processes, we can accelerate the process, and that’s important.
It’s important as you begin to streamline processes, to streamline procedures for curricular changes and faculty support, and at the same time have a governance that tunes to the unit’s mission. A steering committee, who is essentially our governance, really understands the mission of the University College so it’s important to have those, now that we have control over our own review processes, we are hiring our own faculty now, we’re developing our own programs, and we still are partnering with our other sister colleges. That really gives us additional flexibility, especially as an entrepreneurial unit, that has to be aware of going quick to market, accessibility formats that are attuned to the needs of the adult learner, all of that is really important. It really is one of the primary reasons that a reconstitution of a division—if it’s in a position to do it—has some strategic opportunities.
6. Do you have anything to add about your experience reconstituting a continuing education division into a fully-fledged college?
As a former professor, I’m always aware of lessons learned from the field. … If I were to advise colleagues who were contemplating a similar organizational restructure, I see four major lessons.
One is overcoming the trauma of birth. I think that active and ongoing internal strategic communication plan is important, realigning perceptions, changing the internal brand as much as changing the external brand is important, and continually articulating the strategic role. That all helps to overcome the trauma of birth. It doesn’t hurt also to have active support from the top and we had that.
The second lesson is moving forward as a partner. There has to continue to be a win-win mindset with… the other colleges. Transparency and clarity is important, incentivizing partnerships through the Dean, incentivizing sharing faculty for program development and relationship building. I spent my first year really building relationships with my Dean and colleagues.
The third lesson is establishing the college as an academic unit. As an academic unit there had to be an internal culture change. As a division, the folks that were associated with the University College were very successful, but as a college there are multiple priorities, so a culture change is important and being able to articulate clear strategic priorities is important too. Carving out college-specific niches and trying to span the silos through interdisciplinary program development helped to establish the college as an academic unit.Fourthly; building an external identity. As well as building an internal strategic communications plan you need an external one. You need to articulate the strategic role of the new college and you need to have a well-thought-out external culture change. That is shedding the sometimes-confusing organizational identity with a clear identity. If you are part of a large state university system, few really understand the meaning of a division. Within a campus and system itself the division means different things to different people; it could be a department, it could be a unit like a department, it could be a center, and it could be a larger unit spanning the entire university. Establishing that clear identity was an important part of that. …
It’s a daunting task to be able to put that all together, but I think we’re going to be seeing more and more of this kind of thinking about the strategic opportunities involved in a reconstitution and the leadership challenges that are associated with it. It has been a rewarding and enriching experience and we continue to move on and we continue to be very successful in the work that we do.
Learn how you can improve your relationship management to attract and retain non-traditional students
Author Perspective: Administrator