What is a new traditional university and why is the vision so vital?

Dr. Robert Johnson of Western New England University says the moment of reckoning has come for higher education. Will leaders look to the future or get stuck in the past?
By: | December 22, 2021
Photo courtesy of Western New England University

If Dr. Robert Johnson, president of Western New England University, has a message for other higher education leaders, it’s this: “We are in that moment. Twenty years from now, people will be reading and writing articles and books about the normal of higher education. We must understand that we are writing the chapter of what normal is going to look like within the Academy.”

That is, if they do it well. The disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic only made clear what the Academy must to do remain relevant: turn young students into leaders who can see beyond a textbook or CMS to make a real difference in the world. Johnson’s vision, borne out of 30-plus years of work in executive offices, conferences and committees as well as his studies at Morehouse College, is laid out clearly in his writings and his empowering speeches in which he presents the notion of a New Traditional University.

So what is it?

“It embraces the possibilities of the future through a transformative, dynamic and innovative institutional model that really empowers agile and adaptive learners,” he says. “It gives them the ability to navigate change and disruption while achieving professional success and creating value in a global society. It prepares learners and earners for the future of work and jobs that do not yet exist. If we don’t do that, they will not be ready.”

It does borrow some of the tenets of traditional higher education but doesn’t get bogged down by them. The innovative, ever-evolving new model delivers learning in ways that are transformative, keeping students agile, pivoting and creating dynamic ways of thinking that will help them meet workforce demands over the next decade. In a word, it gives them value. In turn, it keeps a university from losing its value.

University Business sat down with Dr. Johnson to learn more about this vision and why higher education leaders should be embracing the thought of a new university:

How does the New Traditional University prepare students for the future?

We provide students with an agile mind education, preparing them to learn, unlearn and relearn as a steady state. If you’re going to have 12 to 17 jobs over the course of your career, working in multiple industries that do not exist, agile mind education teaches students how to create value. So the job that I take straight out of college, if I’m still there three years from now, I have to unlearn and learn new stuff or I will become obsolete. The second piece is personal exploration, discovering and pursuing your why and building that into the general education curriculum starting freshman year. It is not sufficient to just go out to the world in any job. You must understand that as a global citizen. You’ve got to give back and leave the world better than the way you found it. It is not our mission to tell people to go out and get a job. It is our goal to help them go out and transform the world.

We want you to do that with a purpose. So that the engineer who’s designing that next bridge might build one that is friendly to the environment. The CFO who comes through our accounting and finance program might make fiscal decisions within that corporation that leaves the planet better than the way they found it. They understand that they are part of something bigger because as an educated citizen they are speaking for those who have no voice. It’s holding onto the best that the Academy has, but embracing the future.

How does online learning fit into that model?

All institutions have to have some form of hybrid learning. I don’t think 100% face-to-face is efficient. Maybe 15 to 20% of program offerings are online. That’s OK. That’s what a new traditional university does. It’s holding onto the things that have been important in the past—that student-faculty-mentor relationship—but students can use technology and become more efficient. That helps them to pursue personal exploration in this transformative learning process. But this notion that everyone will go online is totally false. It is the socialization that makes the Academy what it is. Those interactions between faculty and students help a younger person grow and evolve morally, ethically, socially and psychologically. If we can take the best of what we’ve always done and embrace new things we have, we have something pretty powerful.

Are there barriers preventing this new model from happening, the sorts of traditions that institutions are often wedded to?

I think COVID removed all of those barriers. I started in early August 2020. If I had started in January and walked in and told the faculty at the end of the semester that we were going fully online, I wouldn’t have had a job. We need to have a percentage of our portfolio that is online. If any faculty member stands up and says, I can’t do that, we can. In March of 2020, we did it in two weeks. There’s no normal to go back to. We can’t be ahistorical and take a bunker mentality and wait till the storm passes and go back to the way things used to be. I think faculty and staff understand that. The barriers are not, we can’t do it. We’re in turbulent times for the next decade with learning loss and the challenges of the K-12 system. The barriers are us managing and leading through ambiguity.

What dramatic changes must occur on campuses and beyond to make this a reality?

We have to look at partnerships, collaborations and K-20. We need to start teaching social and emotional intelligence starting in grade school, showing everyone how to throw Legos across the table to create something out of nothing. Times to degrees have to be shortened. Institutions have to have a segment of portfolios strictly focused on lifelong learning and professional studies (certificate programs, stackable credentials). We have to partner with community colleges and school systems and create clear pathways.

Public schools have to retool their curriculum. If 70% of the curriculum is fixed, there ought to be 30% that is preparing them for current jobs. If we do that, then we are in a position to put ourselves in a steady state of evolving curriculum in a very agile way. What a company is going to want from a college graduate today is going to be very different five years from now. If we redo our curriculum and it stays the same for the next 15 years, that’s planned obsolescence for us to go out of business.

What are some of the lessons you’ve learned over the last year-plus?

One, we have to create an environment that supports mental health, faculty, staff, students and the entire campus community. COVID has traumatized every segment of the Academy. We have to create an infrastructure that supports that. Two, we can create an environment where people can work in a hybrid model in certain jobs. Third, empowering people to utilize technology, understanding that we can get our jobs done without necessarily being on campus 12 hours a day, seven days a week. That technology allows us to become more efficient. Lastly, we have to teach managers how to manage employees to give them the flexibility to work in that type of environment.