Few college presidents can casually mention being good friends with Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple, when discussing the implication of AI in higher education.
But upon closer examination of the dynamic career of businessman, author, Toastmasters award winner and High Point University (N.C.) President Nido Qubein, it seems quite natural when he does just that.
Qubein’s rise to the highest ranks of higher education despite his lack of administrative experience seems as farfetched as HPU managing to continually improve enrollment since his tenure began in 2005, surviving the blows of the 2007-08 Great Recession and the pandemic.
“My life and my business background have prepared me to be a person who can build a brand and manage it, and for me, it’s a work of the heart,” says Qubein. “I believe in this work. I believe that nothing is more important than preparing the future leaders of the world, and that’s the business we’re in every day.”
And business is booming. According to College Viability, a college comparison service, enrollment and school endowment have increased by 33% and 37%, respectively, in the last decade, the latter anchored by an informal fundraising campaign that’s won the school $600 million since Qubein has taken office. The school boasts a 99% placement rate for students, 14 points higher than the national average. And to top it off, Qubein nears 20 years of service in January 2025, an impressive feat amid declining president career averages.
The cornerstone of High Point University’s brand is the trust that Qubein has instilled in community members with him. It’s what builds a sustainable—and successful—operation that can run in spite of him. It’s also the principle he will carry when working through some of the biggest challenges he sees facing higher education today.
Access and affordability: Building students’ practical experience
A constant stain on higher education’s public perception is its hefty price tag. It’s a reality that Qubein has learned quite well from the parents who have to fork up the money for their child’s degree, a dubious credential if it doesn’t reap any long-term rewards.
To gain students’ and parents’ trust, Qubein frames the value of higher education like a pendulum. On one side is the public good of research and discovery. The other side is the private good paying parents receive when their student has become a developed young adult fit to contribute to society.
“I don’t want to get caught into the semantics of what ‘consumer’ means or what ‘client’ means,” he says. “What we have here is that parents today understand that they have to pay a lot of money to send their children to college, and they want to see some practical benefit from that.”
Qubein is a steward of practicality. It’s about wasting no time providing students with the relevant curriculum to the organizations they will apply to when they graduate. One way High Point University keeps its coursework on the pulse of the corporate world is its armada of A-list in-resident experts. Among them, according to Qubein, are Mark Cuban, AT&T independent chairman William Kennard and Domino’s Pizza CEO Russel Weiner.
The ethics of AI
As ambiguity around AI’s potential swarms across higher education, High Point has brought in a steady stream of national experts to speak to the community. That way, they can hear its latest breakthroughs from the horse’s mouth.
Words from Wozniak (his friend, remember?) have helped inform Qubein’s approach to AI: We may have artificial intelligence, but we will never have artificial wisdom.
As explosive the potential of AI is, so is the importance of cultivating humanity’s sense of awareness, judgment and connection to place, community and society, Qubein says. Consequently, HPU’s newly adopted honor codes urge students to integrate this new technology into the curriculum, when applicable, while still being mindful of their peers.
Qubein hopes that, at the least, the sense of community HPU integrates into its experience has given the university one fragile yet potentially powerful weapon: trust in their students to use AI for the common good.
“We hope and we pray that our students are responsible and adhere to the honor code, which is very clear about social justice, human responsibility, respect of others, civility, etcetera,” he says.