Reflections on 40 years in Higher Education..and what’s next

September 1, 2014

July 1, 2014 marked the 40th anniversary of my career as a college administrator.  In 1974, I started working full time in the admissions and financial aid office at Teachers College, Columbia University, where at the ripe old age of 22, I was pursuing a doctorate in higher education administration.  Little did I know that 40 years later, I would still be excited about my work.

I have had the privilege of serving some really remarkable institutions — Colgate University where I would learn how admissions and financial aid come together to enroll a class; Union College where I first became a director and also learned about student life outside of the ‘view book;”  Johns Hopkins where I served as dean of enrollment for a decade; and Dickinson College, where an energetic new president put his faith in me to manage a large division that impacted students from the time they were looking at the college through their alumni years.  I took early retirement from that tremendous experience after ten years of service and proceeded to accept an invitation from my son’s alma mater, Lafayette College, to serve as their first VP for Communications.  I have just stepped down from that position after five years.

Looking back and peeking ahead 

During the past five years, I learned quite a bit from my colleagues in college communications.  While I oversaw this area at Dickinson as the VP for Enrollment and College Relations,  and developed a brand strategy that served that college well, I did not get into the nitty gritty — day in and day out — of how to position the institution best.  At Lafayette, I learned about web management, televised athletic contests, story editing, crisis communication, design elements, the rapidly changing and emerging field of social media — the list goes on.  As an admissions officer, I certainly knew how to promote my institution, but my work with the professionals at Lafayette gave me a new appreciation for the work that is involved to reinforce the college brand in everything we do — from brochures to web to tweets to design to media relations.  I have developed an enormous respect for these “behind the scenes” professionals.  They are not in front of crowds of prospective students or alumni.  They do not enroll the class or bring in the bucks.  But they are every bit as responsible for a college’s success in admissions and development as are the troops on the road.

In my last post, I spoke about how social media is changing the ways in which we recruit students, engage alumni and communicate with one another.  I issued a caution about that, urging us to be substantive in our messaging while retaining the “fun” aspect of the medium.  But the challenges of communicating in 140 characters or less pale in comparison to the substantive challenges created by the “culture of more” that has infiltrated higher education with a vengeance.

Since 1983, higher education has watched as popular rankings took hold and began to influence our behavior.  We try to influence reputation by flooding presidential mailboxes with expensive publications touting our college’s excellence, we generate more applications so we can become more selective, we hire more faculty so we can lower the student/faculty ratio, we care about alumni participation in the annual fund as much as the dollars we raise because that is a measurement of alumni satisfaction, and we spend more money on academic and social facilities to remain competitive and attract more students and donors.  One could certainly argue that colleges and universities ought to be doing these things anyway — that strong institutions want to get stronger.  But one consequence of the “culture of more” is that it drives up costs and thus price.  And today, everyone from the President to the working class parent is complaining about the high cost of higher education.  Indeed, today’s four year degree costs more than it did twenty years ago not only because of labor costs, technology, and general inflation, but because we are providing more to students — more services, more labs, more study abroad, more field trips, more internships, more research opportunities, more facilities, more choices for food….more, more, more.

So far, parents have been demanding more and willing to pay, at least for some of what we offer.  For years, the “solution” to a high price tag has been to — somehow — provide more financial aid.  That is still part of the answer.  But the basic dilemma of “more” needs to be addressed.  When we add, what can we subtract?  I do not have an answer to this question, but in 25 years as a senior administrator at three institutions, I have found it to be a question seldom asked and never really answered.

The rise of on-line education and the increasing example outside of higher education for  “unbundling services” threaten the traditional four-year, residential education model.  I will not get into this issue here, other than to say that “unbundling” could pose a threat to some colleges and universities that have not made a strong case for the value of what they offer.  While taking just what one needs to meet the minimum requirements for a credential will always cost less than the full package toward a degree, I believe from my own experience that what we learn from one another in direct class and out-of-class interaction adds great value that will make a huge difference in career and in personal satisfaction over a lifetime.

What’s next?

As I begin by fifth decade in higher education, I am humbled by my experiences, but not ready to hang out a shingle just yet. I have accepted an invitation from Lafayette to help raise a total of $400 million in a capital campaign that will be launched in New York City on November 21, 2014 — one day before Lafayette and Lehigh will meet for the 150th time on the gridiron with Yankee Stadium serving as the venue for this historic game.  If those two events were the only backdrop, it would be an exciting time to be active and engaged in my profession.  But there is much more of course, as we discussed above.

The most obvious is that I will be learning a new system. While I am no stranger to building the relationships that would be required for effective fund raising, I will be learning new skills and systems that are necessary in order to manage prospective donors efficiently and effectively and to contribute to the success of Lafayette’s campaign.  A life without learning is not really a life at all, so I am looking forward to being teachable and to “doing” something new.

A last comment

With all of the changes I have seen over forty years — from how we promote ourselves, to how we interact, to the programs and services we provide — one thing has remained constant as I moved from Colgate to Union to Hopkins to Dickinson and now to Lafayette.  The educational experience of the student is at the core of what we do and my administrative colleagues and I remain committed to supporting the faculty in their work to prepare our students to make important contributions to our world, and to helping the many other campus professionals who teach students leadership and responsibility in their daily lives.  As he accepted the position of Commissioner of Education in the Carter administration, Ernest Boyer simply said, “Education is still the most important activity of life.”  I have kept that quote on my office wall since it was said.  And that is one other thing that has not changed over the past forty years.



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