Chapter 3: Stages of Transformation: Threading the Needle

by Leo M. Lambert, Ph.D.

Posted on October 31, 2017

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Disruption is not a new concept for American higher education. In the 20th century, the Great Depression and dramatic enrollment falloffs during World Wars and a historic surge in enrollments following WWII due to the GI Bill brought dramatic changes to many campuses.

But when we speak of disruption in the early part of the 21st century, principally two meanings come to mind:

  • How technology is transforming every facet of life, including the ways we access information, and the impact of emerging technologies on all levels of education
  • How the business models of higher education are being challenged, with declining state support for public institutions and, for some private institutions, shocking sticker prices and runaway tuition discounting, which has further shifted the tuition burden onto students and parents and caused many CFOs to question the sustainability of the current course1

Elon University's transformation from an undistinguished regional college in the 1960s to a thriving university that draws students from across the nation and around the globe, hosts a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, and maintains a national reputation for excellence in experiential learning is well-documented in George Keller's case study, "Transforming a College: The Story of a Little Known College's Strategic Climb to National Distinction".2 Keller observed that Elon's rise in quality was the result of its focus on student learning; a disciplined adherence to a strong financial model; long-serving leadership on the board of trustees, administration, and faculty; and an institutional culture of planning, with faithful execution of a series of ambitious strategic plans over several decades. 

Elon continues to be shaped by two cultural forces. The first is a series of what might be called intentional disruptions of our own making—decisions or events that caused us to make substantial institutional course changes. The second is to remain in a state of what George Kuh has termed "positive restlessness,"3 that is, an institutional culture of always seeking to be better, embracing an innovative and entrepreneurial mindset, taking calculated risks, and remaining in a state of continual reinvention. I believe these deep cultural forces will continue to position the University well to meet future challenges.

Even when an institution chooses to disrupt itself in a significant way, true and lasting transformation takes time.  

What are the principles to bear in mind in order to steward such a culture and best position an institution for success in uncertain times? The following five themes top my list.

1. Think in decades and keep your eyes on the far horizon, even as change is all about.
After 19 years in the presidency, I have concluded that it often takes a decade to get really difficult things accomplished in higher education. Even when an institution chooses to disrupt itself in a significant way, true and lasting transformation takes time. In the early 2000s, Elon decided to recommit itself to excellence in the arts and sciences as the centerpiece of efforts to achieve a higher tier of academic quality. We supported efforts by faculty leaders to shelter a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, a true marker of academic excellence. This required investments on many fronts, including reinstating a foreign language requirement, dramatically improving library collections, greatly expanding the faculty and thereby reducing the student-faculty ratio, investing substantially in faculty development support, improving metrics of student quality, reinventing the honors program, creating a new seven-building quadrangle for the arts and sciences, and much more. We believed these initiatives would make us stronger year by year, that 10 years of investment in quality would pay off, and that this effort was central to an academic repositioning of the University. We kept our focus on the horizon and eventually welcomed a Phi Beta Kappa chapter in 2010, after a decade of commitment by faculty, administrative staff, and trustee leadership. 

2. Academic distinctiveness places an institution in better control of Its own destiny.
The Moody's Investors Service August 29, 2017, Higher Education report was headlined "Strategic Differentiation Fosters Stronger Revenue Growth at Private Universities."4 This should come as no surprise. Successful institutions find ways to distinguish themselves in a sea of competition. Elon has been involved in a decades-long effort to establish a leading reputation for engaged and experiential learning, beginning with a redesign of the general education curriculum in the 1990s. For the past several years, Elon has led all colleges and universities in the US News and World Report "Programs to Look For" recognition of academic programs that lead to student success: study abroad, internships, writing in the disciplines, learning communities, undergraduate research/creative projects, service learning, first-year experience and senior capstone.5 In fact, Elon is the only school in the nation cited as exemplary in all eight programs. Elon's "brand" of pedagogy—highly relationship-rich with strong ties between the classroom and out-of-class experiences—is the central reason for our student recruitment success. But again, keeping in mind principle #1 above, this distinctiveness has taken more than two decades to cultivate.

Elon has been involved in a decades-long effort to establish a leading reputation for engaged and experiential learning, beginning with a redesign of the general education curriculum in the 1990s.  

3. Culture is everything. And if you do not pay attention to it, you will be disrupted.
In my final opening of the University address to Elon faculty and staff in August 2017 before I conclude my presidency this year, I emphasized how important Elon's culture had been to the institution's success. There is a management maxim, sometimes attributed to Peter Drucker, that "culture limits strategy," or more colloquially, "culture eats strategy for breakfast."6 As noted above, Elon has embraced strategic planning at all levels of the institution, linked those plans to the annual institutional budget process, and faithfully followed through on executing these plans. But I believe that it is only because of the strong campus culture, rooted in deeply embraced values, that the community has risen to the challenge of achieving stretch goals and then summoned the courage to reach even further. Those values include:

  • A constant focus on students and learning that guides all of the University's decision-making
  • An embrace of the teacher-scholar-mentor model, which prizes excellence in teaching and mentoring of students as the primary work of the faculty, even as the University has invested heavily in supporting faculty scholarship and encouraged faculty to involve students in their scholarship as undergraduate researchers
  • Engaged staff members at all levels—from gardeners to admissions counselors to IT professionals—who see their roles as contributing to the construction of a dynamic environment for learning and student development
  • A community that values kindness, respect, nimbleness, innovation, experimentation, and the avoidance of complacency

The main job of university leaders is to foster culture, and it can be quickly eroded or weakened if left unattended.

Elon has embraced strategic planning at all levels of the institution.  

4. Innovation and strategic priorities will disrupt the institution's business model. Plan for it and be ready to make big pivots.
Going Global
New priorities and strategic initiatives often have profound impacts on institutional business models, with consequences for budget and space utilization. One of the priorities of Elon's current strategic plan is to ensure 100% access to study abroad (international) or Study USA (domestic) experiences offered through our Global Education Center. With financial assistance from a growing number of endowed scholarships to support global engagement, participation in these programs by the Class of 2017 increased to 83%, continuing Elon's #1 ranking for study abroad by the Institute of International Education.7 But consequences of high participation in off-campus study are lost tuition revenue from students enrolled in programs at partner institutions, as well as unfilled beds and classroom seats on campus. Our response has been to increase the overall student body size to offset tuition and room and board revenues, a tradeoff we see as a good investment in ensuring Elon students are globally aware citizens. This is but one example of how slow, controlled enrollment growth has been essential to meeting strategic goals. It is also an illustration of how an institution can further improve upon an already successful business model as a strategy for adaptation and evolution.

Slow, controlled enrollment growth has been essential to meeting strategic goals.  

A Role for Online Learning on a Residential Campus
To cite a second example, over a decade ago, after lengthy campus deliberations, pilot experiments with online classes during summer session met with great success. Class sizes were capped to allow for a high degree of faculty-student interaction, and the appeal of online options in the summer quickly grew, principally because students could simultaneously enroll in a summer session course or two and pursue an internship or work experience away from campus. Today, 74% of Elon's summer session is offered online, and we have seen summer session enrollments grow over ten consecutive years.

Investing a Generation Ahead for Alumni Engagement
Elon's enrollment growth in the past 20 years has resulted in an unusual demographic for our alumni body—64% of alumni are in their 20s and 30s. In response, the University has made big pivots in the past ten years to plan for the future. We have invested heavily in young alumni programming and leadership development, because we have confidence that the accomplishments of this outstanding generation of alumni are crucial to furthering Elon's reputation and future leadership.

Strengthening the Business Model Through a Shift in Fundraising Priorities
Elon has also shifted fundraising priorities. In past decades, we emphasized bricks and mortar capital priorities, which were essential to complete the modern campus. But our last two comprehensive campaigns have emphasized funds for student financial aid, aiding the University in making significant gains in student ethnic diversity over the past eight years. Building the endowment to ensure Elon can be more competitive in attracting great students of middle-income and modest financial means will be our principal fundraising priority for decades to come and will help to undergird and strengthen the institution's financial model.

5. In forging a distinct institutional identity, there is a delicate balance between embracing innovation and knowing when to double down on more basic, traditional elements of campus life.
While Elon's ethos of continually reinventing itself has resulted in many innovative programs and approaches to learning, in other important respects we have heavily reinvested in very traditional, foundational elements of campus life. The first is a significant investment in faculty, who are the engine of the University. The considerable time that faculty spend with students outside the traditional classroom—mentoring an undergraduate research project, advising an honors thesis, having a long conversation about life goals, teaching a winter term class in the Pacific Rim—are hallmarks of what makes Elon special. We simply could not deliver a highly experiential, high-quality, and highly personalized education for our students without a substantial, permanent base of committed faculty. So while other campuses are increasingly relying on adjunct faculty to deliver a majority of undergraduate education, Elon has made a countertrend bet.

We have invested more than $150 million in the construction of new residential and dining facilities as a part of Elon's current strategic plan.  

We have made a second countertrend bet in continuing to believe the residential campus environment is going to continue to matter a great deal for institutions enrolling traditionally aged undergraduates, and so we have invested more than $150 million in the construction of new residential and dining facilities as a part of Elon's current strategic plan.

Understanding the demographic and financial realities of today's environment, we must remain sharply focused on our niche in the marketplace and claim a position of excellence and prominence among the nation's premier residential universities.

Remaining in a State of Continuous Reinvention
What will the future for higher education look like? Each institution will have to answer that broad question differently, given wide differences in the students we serve, academic program offerings, institutional mission, and fiscal resources. For Elon to continue to flourish, I believe we need to continue to be nimble in balancing tradition and innovation. Our reputation is founded upon excellence in experiential learning, grounded in the arts and sciences tradition, and rooted in a rich campus environment that intentionally cultivates life-transforming relationships between students and their mentors. For us, this is bedrock. But that does not mean we can afford to be stodgy and unchanging.

I believe we need to continue to be nimble in balancing tradition and innovation.  

Our successes with study abroad and internships, for instance, have taught us that the campus-based experience for students must be integrated with off-campus learning in order to achieve the most powerful outcomes. So we will seek new ways to be pioneers in experiential learning in places all over the globe.

Increasingly, we see students coming to college already intent on pursuing graduate and professional school degrees. So I suspect graduate program offerings at Elon will continue to expand, especially in creative 4+1, 3+2, and other dual degree options.

Our experience with online learning has taught us this pedagogy can be well integrated into a residential campus setting, if thoughtfully done. We want to continue to imagine how to combine the best of high-touch with high-tech.

I believe Elon's state of "positive restlessness," what George Keller called "continually seeking the cool spot on the pillow," will serve us well in staying in the mode of continuous reinvention. The joy of working here is that the process of creating the University is never complete.

1 Doug Lederman and Rick Seltzer, "The Rose-Colored Glasses Come Off: A Survey of Business Officers," Inside Higher Ed, July 28, 2017,

2 George Keller, Transforming a College: The Story of a Little-Known College's Strategic Climb to National Distinction (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014).

3 George Kuh et al., Student Success in College: Creating Conditions That Matter (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010).

4 Moody's Investors Service, "Higher Education - US: Strategic Differentiation Fosters Stronger Revenue Growth at Private Universities," August 29, 2017.

5 US News and World Report, "Best College Rankings and Lists," 2017,

6 Ken Favaro, "Strategy or Culture: Which Is More Important?," Strategy+business, May 22, 2014,

7 Institute of International Education, "Institutions by Total Number of Study Abroad Students, 2014-15," Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange, 2016,