From population trends to economic drivers, we’re living at an inflection point. We’re having fewer kids, living longer and working differently. For many private universities and flagship state systems facing pressure to thrive, the central question is how to establish change as an opportunity instead of a hazard.
Amid declining enrollment, diminished public confidence and generational shifts in the workforce, change is a universal necessity in the 21st century. Adaptation demands that organizations and institutions overcome knee-jerk fears and instead welcome evolution as their durable path to success. If they don’t, the future falters.
However, if organizations do make the courageous move and adapt, they must be prepared for a change-making strategy. Over the past year, the University of North Carolina Greensboro has joined other college campuses making that move in 2024. Consider how we’ve adapted—and how we plan to thrive.
Before one can change, one must self-assess
As we opened the new calendar year, I announced that UNCG would discontinue 20 academic programs in line with the deans’ recommendations. The reality is that we can’t be “everything, everywhere, all at once,” and we can’t pretend to be. However, we will forge bolder leadership in areas where we are—and where we can be—among the best.
The first step was honest self-assessment, which gave us a basis for growth. In late 2022, we set the groundwork for an academic portfolio review, which helped us sharpen our institutional focus and fortify standout programs while global conditions toughen.
It’s essential to position academic reviews in the context of their long history and widespread use. Although their particulars and names differ among institutions, these assessments share a mission: to bolster institutional sustainability, strength and excellence. By evaluating programmatic data through the lens of institutional values, academic reviews equip schools to rebalance resources and fulfill their highest goals.
The principles of self-assessment
Fundamentally, it’s not about throttling back but about emboldening the future, a message that university leaders must make universally clear from the outset.
Likewise, the work hinges on faculty engagement in identifying key areas for growth and improvement. As experts in their fields, they hold invaluable insight into programs worth expanding, adding or discontinuing. They can help flag areas of study that are no longer, or will no longer be, sustainable. UNCG’s Faculty Senate and community feedback events were indispensable in the review here. The process requires making program-by-program data readily available to faculty and leaning into long-established priorities to steer final decisions.
To drive discussion, program analyses should follow a long-term vision rooted in where the institution strives for the most significant impact. Without that outlook, plugging immediate budget gaps can become a steady drumbeat of widespread program cuts that shortchange an entire university community, and such weakening would undermine the institution and everyone who relies on it. Programs I chose for discontinuation together represent 1.3% of our student body. All those in the affected programs can finish their chosen studies here.
Another cornerstone is highlighting the vision through regular communication, gatherings and real-time conversation. Although a vocal minority will push back—and push back hard—with a playbook known well in higher ed, we must continue to engage, be transparent and persist in knowing we are doing the right thing.
What keeps us motivated to change
At UNCG, the big picture centers on social mobility, preparing generations of lower- to middle-class students to be in high demand for good-paying jobs. More than half of our students are the first in their families to attend college, going on to meaningful careers that change their lives.
Our responsibility to uplift these students is foundational. Their future rests on our ability to develop a suite of programs tailored carefully to support their self-discovery, intellectual growth and needs in this market. Our actions can leave no doubt: While all universities need business-like functions for survival, they cannot operate solely as businesses. Our outputs aren’t profits but empowerment, wisdom and better lives.
Critics will argue our actions tell a different story, that we’ve let market forces run amok like a company with a singular bottom line. The truth is more nuanced. Any forward-looking organization sensing challenges or hardship on the horizon takes stock and adjusts course. It steels its core to emerge more focused and effective without compromising its vision, mission and values.
To make good on our vision and responsibility to students present and future, we must change, innovate and reinvent.
Opportunities won’t wait.