Challenges of a new president

Meeting strategic planning and the ratings frenzy head-on
By: | Issue: June, 2014
May 26, 2014

It would be very easy to be jaded about the future of higher education if it were not for the fact that those who serve this industry view it as a calling.

We know we can make a difference in the lives of our students and in society. We try to do the best for our students while addressing the issues of the day through our research and community outreach. Not a bad calling, in my view, and it’s why I have proudly spent my adult life in the academy serving four institutions over the past 30 years as a faculty member, administrator and now university president.

But let me go back to the jaded part, particularly given the industry bashing that is coming at us from all fronts. We are accused of being unaccountable to the very constituents who matter the most to us—our students.

We are accused of being too expensive and too indifferent about meeting our students’ needs, when defined by employment after graduation. Simply put, we are accused of hiding in our “ivory towers,” out of touch with a higher education landscape that is calling for more accountability, transparency and metrics to quantify our performance.

This is not a pretty picture for someone like me, just beginning a presidency at a private, primarily residential university striving to entice qualified students to take a four-year, life-altering experience with us; especially when the price tag is a challenge to so many of these students and their parents. At Monmouth University, my colleagues and I have the opportunity to contribute to the evolving definition of meaningful metrics for the myriad ways students learn to equip themselves for life after graduation.

Like many new presidents early in their tenure, I’m in the throes of strategic planning—currently, our entire community is immersed in this process, scheduled to be completed later this year. We recognize that matching student interest with market demand is important; trade-offs are inevitable, considering tuition and fees will not grow substantially in the future. Identifying meaningful metrics is essential to the exercise.

One size does not fit all

Crafting appropriate metrics is challenging because most institutions sidestep this critical aspect of the strategic planning process. This means there are few meaningful metrics that allow us to benchmark with other institutions.

But today’s environment—fraught with conversation about ratings, affordability and accountability of universities—makes it not only a necessity but the right thing to do to ensure we can judge our performance in delivering on our promises to our students.

I’m as much an advocate for accountability as anybody in order to evaluate where we are and where we want to get. But to be effective, accountability measures must be much more nuanced than what is proposed by many of our critics.

One size does not fit all. Each institution should be governed by its mission. Leaders need to inventory the full array of learning experiences their institution offers, capture the benefits of each of these experiences in the context of the institution’s mission, and then identify a set of metrics that holds the institution accountable for judging success.

Meaningful metrics

Furthermore, I believe that the value of an education cannot be measured by objective benchmarks alone. In other words, looking at a scorecard or rating system that includes graduation rates and employment at the expense of other benchmarks is by no means a complete picture of accountability.

Beyond the obsession with the troika of graduation rates, level of debt and affordability—which dominate the ratings conversation led by President Obama’s educational team—our strategic planning is guided by our unstinting desire to develop meaningful metrics for holding ourselves accountable to students and their families.

I look forward to sharing our strategic planning laboratory results with the president’s secretary of education and others who understand and appreciate our “calling.” Our job is to distill the myriad ways we serve our students into meaningful benchmarks for judging our success.

Paul R. Brown is president of Monmouth University in New Jersey.