Chapter 4: Agility in Higher Education: Key to Synchronizing Student-Centered Advocacy and Public Policy Engagement

by Jerry Falwell Jr.

Posted on December 05, 2017

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Recent events in our nation have caused the convergence of a tremendous amount of political changes, regulatory activity for higher education, and the pendulum of public attention swinging back to colleges and universities on a variety of important issues.

At Liberty University (LU), we have experienced an additional layer of engagement by being given the opportunity to provide our insight to the White House on some matters that are vital to higher education. This engagement was not solely from a theoretical policy perspective; rather, it developed to allow for our feedback from a very practical operational view. It was while pushing for operational efficiency that I discovered how advocating for our students and their families meshes with the task of simultaneously advocating for our University. In my role, like other university presidents, agility to address challenges is key. The ability to handle simultaneous challenges that are now emerging in the higher education realm has been a crucial advantage. I write to encourage you to further develop this institutional agility, to address internal and external challenges, as if your school's life and your students' education depend on it.

The ability to handle simultaneous challenges that are now emerging in the higher education realm has been a crucial advantage.  

Internal Agility is Crucial
In 2015, Jack Stripling at The Chronicle of Higher Education decided to do an in-depth examination on LU and write about what was occurring on our campus. Stripling came away with a new perspective which he presented in "An Online Kingdom Come: How Liberty U Became an Unexpected Model for the Future of Higher Education." This published outsider's view (from someone willing to understand LU from the inside) was a pivotal event in more than one way. While we were proud that it provided insight about LU to others in the higher education community, we also viewed the article as a new reminder to our team of how we had evolved internally.

The linchpin is our institutional agility. Our staff and faculty did not champion that specific phrase. It was not in a logo or developed by a committee. Instead, it was discreetly present behind so many other initiatives, phrases, and thoughts: speed to market, data-driven, simplification, student-centered focus, course development turn-around time, quality enhancement programs, and other initiatives. It is the antithesis of the unintended bureaucracy that many leaders in higher education face. I spoke to one of my administrators who has worked at three previous colleges. He described one previous institution that sent seemingly every decision to a committee. While shared decision-making among informed professionals is important, the committee format is not. In his case, the prior school was so dependent on committee involvement that the institution actually had a "Committee on Committees," a committee established to monitor, understand, and continually clarify the roles of the other committees.

No-Excuse Streamlined Administration
Streamlined administration and procedures are becoming non-negotiable in our industry. A hyper-informed, data-driven, decision-making environment can be established in a way that is not a threat to academic quality and care. In fact, when you require that new endeavors include adept financial analysis, along with student success and satisfaction metrics, the subsequent decisions become clearer.

A hyper-informed, data-driven, decision-making environment can be established in a way that is not a threat to academic quality and care.  

An example of this can be seen in the modification of existing academic programs. In some cases, we found that our academic program course sequences (Degree Completion Plans or "DCPs") evolved over time to become sluggish for our students, with too little flexibility for student-driven course exploration (and student curiosity should be rewarded in an academic environment). Some contained complicated course sequence criteria well above any accreditor-driven standards—even the tough standards of our regional accreditor, The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS). Academic programs that become a maze of extraneous requirements which hinder students' abilities to transfer credits, integrate individualized vocationally-relevant content, and complete the program in a timely manner have other side effects. Unwieldy degree completion plans drive up costs and slow student completion, which, in turn, unnecessarily push student costs and borrowing to higher levels.

With our students' success in mind, our provost and deans went to work to shed some of the unnecessary proverbial "hoops" students had to navigate. Modification of academic programs is not aimed at gutting quality; rather, it should be aimed at the unintentional scope creep that often does not enhance the program essentials. The result of our work improved academic programs and incorporated, in the minds of the participants, the value of continual self-evaluation.

Modification of academic programs is not aimed at gutting quality; rather, it should be aimed at the unintentional scope creep that often does not enhance the program essentials.  

To accomplish academic and administrative efficiencies, you must pay for and surround yourself with top professionals. It should be common in our field for top professionals to make frequent decisions saving tens—even hundreds—of thousands of dollars or generating that equivalent in clearly measurable revenue. This financial acumen should result in a healthier school with more resources and options to enhance the student experience and simultaneously push students' costs down. Return on investment (ROI) cannot be a disparaged acronym in our national higher education context. If this sounds much like a business approach to education, it is. We embrace that approach. Our insistence on it has placed our total resident cost of education into the lowest quartile for private schools in the country. This is good for our students and their families. In this unsettled market, college and university presidents are either increasingly employing business techniques or remaining in denial that they are already neck-deep in a tough business environment.

Throwing Off Encumbrances
As a leader, I have learned to simultaneously model and expect constant introspection. This stance has increased levels of accountability for faculty and administration. In a growing age of online education, for example, teaching faculty must be highly engaged with students in a measurable and positive way. Additionally, higher education must continue to address the demands of the market and the future. The ability to make curricular changes and stop poorly-performing programs remains important.

As a leader, I have learned to simultaneously model and expect constant introspection.  

We have developed agility not apart from, but in concert with, our academic leadership and faculty. This stance has energized academicians on LU's campus. They view this as a challenge to quickly navigate the work of regional accreditor and external agency approvals while maintaining distinctive standards embedded within our degree programs.

Institutional agility is no small matter. To address it, leaders must openly face issues of academic administration and advocate internally for a mindset that will continually throw off that which encumbers us for the sake of our school and students.

Agility and External Challenges
Not all challenges to the mission and work of your institution are self-inflicted. Many develop externally—especially from within state and federal bureaucracies. To remain agile and continually press for healthy innovation, college and university presidents are challenged to continually wade through political and regulatory processes and avoid getting stuck.

Remaining focused on our task and avoiding distractions is crucial.  

As leaders, remaining focused on our task and avoiding distractions is crucial. In our interaction with state and federal agencies, we frequently must cut through the daily political noise and grab hold of the longer-term objectives for our schools, knowing that the bureaucratic models of enforcement will impose upon higher education burdens far beyond thoughtful accountability. This bureaucracy often hurts our students. I propose two representative examples of this with recent events pertaining to federal agency behavior and the debacle of the Borrower Defense to Repayment regulations.

Wading through Regulations
First, I will address an example of federal agency behavior representative of what we faced, especially in and prior to 2016. A student at our school felt that he was treated unfairly after his financial aid was adjusted, due to the student's complete withdrawal in the middle of a semester. (As a side note, ask your financial aid director about his or her opinion on the onerous federal "R2T4" calculation requirements; you will be amazed at the unnecessary complexity and audit risk). In this case, the student did not believe he was treated fairly and sent one complaint email to one agency. LU received a notice from that agency asking LU to provide records from more than 3,000 students, which would have resulted in the necessary compilation of more than 39,000 documents. Thankfully, we were able to involve top professionals at our University with in-depth legal and compliance-related knowledge to show the agency that its request went far beyond anything that it needed (and, quite frankly, had the time to review). This agile stance saved the University a large amount of work, which, when repeated, helps to drive down our overall costs.

What this story also shows is that agencies are fully capable of poorly planned, almost brutish, enforcement methods. We regularly identify state and federal agencies that attempt to enforce loosely defined guidance beyond their statutory or regulatory authority. Some may speculate that it is driven by the agency's unfounded assumption of implicit bias within the school. Others believe it is simply an over-worked agency administrator delving into an investigation with little thought regarding a responsible or efficient approach to the matter. Regardless, it is a burden to higher education, and leadership agility to navigate away from such a burden is critical.

From a recent regulatory perspective, the Borrower Defense to Repayment (BD) regulations are a second example of unnecessary overreach. The regulation name "Borrower Defense" sounds appealing at first glance. The idea that bad-actor schools will be held accountable for their deceptive practices also sounds appealing. However, as leaders and advocates for our students, we must understand that there is more nuance to this than recognized in Washington. The U.S. Department of Education already had enforcement power through previously existing student consumer information regulations and an existing enforcement route (announced or even unannounced federal program reviews of schools). This was in place long before the modified BD regulations were developed. Yet, the new BD rules would impose new massive and unnecessary regulations onto schools. The cost to defend your school— especially against false claims by individuals tempted to have all of their student loans forgiven—will be exorbitant.

These two examples are provided to illustrate specific challenges that require executive agility. The capability to push back at an overreaching agency or challenge unnecessary regulation, in this case, is important to both your institution and, ultimately, your students. Agility for presidents here means knowing there is more to the issue, understanding BD's operational impact, and taking action to advocate against regulatory burden in concert with your institution's professionals who understand and watch for each new development.

Expect Open Dialogue, Acknowledge Nuance
As leaders, we must continually teach that nuance is often avoided in public dialogue. An "either/or" mantra exists in some public dialogue. Avoiding the complexities of an issue provides an opportunity for an individual to float a summative statement that is both compelling and completely misleading. At our colleges and universities, we must be pragmatic regarding our policy goals and be open with our students about the issues at hand. We should even celebrate when students conquer depth on an issue and not parody what they hear in the media.

Our resident and online students have the opportunity to participate in LU's convocation three times a week during the school year. Just last year, we were pleased to see a poignant demonstration of the value of our gathering. Many would never have expected LU to invite Senator Bernie Sanders to speak to our students – but we did, and he accepted.

Senator Sanders began that exchange with a very clear list of the many policy areas where there would be widely anticipated disagreement. Sanders then delivered a message seeking to find some common ground in areas of economic policy. Although there was widespread disagreement with him there as well, it was a positive experience for all in attendance, both in person and online. Our students were listening and understanding different views in order to expand and challenge their own worldviews. Senator Sanders was gracious in his remarks, and that is exactly how a dialogue should happen. Our students listened attentively (which is not an assent to Senator Sanders's positions). They listened without turning their backs, shouting him down, or walking out in protest.

Understanding that policy issues include operational complexities for our schools is an acknowledgement of details that are not a concern of some enthused policy makers, yet it is in the details where we find the administrative burden and cost on schools. As our students listen to convocation speakers, like Senator Sanders, our students must acquire the vital skill of listening for the details behind the policy proposals.

As a leader in higher education, I am responsible to teach employees and students that there is always much more depth to a policy issue than the sound-bites they regularly receive. We should encourage students to not quickly "accept the premise" but challenge the embedded definitions within the argument. The goal of this instruction is not to encourage obstruction. Neither is it retribution. The goal is that clarifying the dialogue—finding the depth and nuance on an issue—is noble. It is foundational to constructive dialogue. In an era when speakers are being shouted down and threatened off of campuses, embracing dialogue is a useful exercise. I was so very proud of our students as they listened respectfully and attentively to Senator Sanders's presentation during our campus convocation.

I encourage you to embrace the journey and remain an advocate for your students through an insistence on internal performance and external advocacy.  

Be Encouraged—Agile Leadership is within Reach!
I want to encourage you that institutional agility is achievable. Leadership in higher education is a non-stop, challenging, policy-filled, administrative, and academic ride to help thousands of students meet career and life goals. To me, there is no better journey. We have seen progress in the last few months at the federal level. That alone is a great encouragement. Federal guidance and regulations, for example, related to Borrower Defense to Repayment, Gainful Employment, OCR review procedures, and third-party servicer rules are all now being reevaluated. During this time, I encourage you to embrace the journey and remain an advocate for your students through an insistence on internal performance and external advocacy. Ensure that you have the top professionals on board so that you can openly chase down inefficiency in all areas of your institution and reap the benefits of simplifying processes and lowering costs for your school and students. Embrace policy issues by advocating at the state and federal level. It is vital to hold state and federal agencies to their authorized duties rather than acquiescing to their self-defined fiefdoms. Finally, enjoy one particular leadership opportunity—showing students and employees that issues are so much more than sound-bites. Embrace this concept, and develop a culture of meaningful analysis and action.