Chapter 4: Questions on the Path to a Sustainable Future
Posted on November 14, 2023Download as a PDF
Download as a PDF
Since you’re a college president, you’re likely old enough to recall staring at a wall of blue and yellow boxes on Friday night at your local Blockbuster Video, which launched in 1985. By 2004, Blockbuster had over 9,000 stores and roughly 85,000 employees. Today, only one store is still standing (in Bend, Oregon, in case you’re curious). Yet the entertainment industry is alive and well, as is the American appetite for movies.
What changed, of course, is that technology evolved, as did how people consumed entertainment. Blockbuster failed to pay attention as streaming services like Netflix emerged, and by the time executives understood the need to adapt, their thinking was too small and too late.
Blockbuster’s demise illustrates how hard it can be to stay responsive to an evolving future and to find the courage to adapt. This can be particularly challenging for a ubiquitous industry like higher education, which (not unlike entertainment) can rest on the assumption that we inform the world’s changes, rather than the other way around.
Therefore, as we consider the sustainability of the higher-education enterprise, we must assess how to meet current needs without eroding future opportunities. As presidents, our daily choices and distant dreams can be guided by three simple but important questions: What should stay the same (a question of relevance)? What needs to change (a question of adaptability)? How fast should the change take place (a question of pace)?
What Should Stay the Same? A Question of Relevance
I believe that the relevance of post-secondary learning (i.e., higher education) will never be called into question, given its critically important role in preparing a constantly evolving workforce, fostering economic development, sustaining democracy, and promoting multicultural competence. In fact, I can’t imagine American society without organized platforms to help people become better citizens, employees, and human beings. However, our definition for what we mean by “higher education” must expand. By this, I mean that if we are to anticipate changing demands and demographics for a sustainable future, the umbrella under which traditional colleges and universities operate must also incorporate other forms of learning and credentialing, from non-profit and for-profit structures to online certificate programs and trade schools. This definition will be hard for some to swallow—particularly our faculty colleagues—yet thinking about higher education in this broad manner will better allow us to meet the needs of tomorrow’s learners and offer sustainable pathways for our industry’s future by offering room for innovation, experimentation, and strategic risk taking through variations in scope, scale, audience, methods, and outcomes.
Therefore, as college and university presidents, our question is this: will our particular model be among the evolved or the extinct in the future of higher education? Perhaps a bigger question is, what we will change if we try to adapt?
What Needs to Change? A Question of Adaptability
As I’m writing this piece, basic assumptions about all sorts of things are being tested as artificial intelligence and other technological innovations land in the marketplace. It reminds me of Subhash Kak’s (2018) pre-pandemic article in Smithsonian Magazine where he observed: “Automation and artificial intelligence technologies are transforming manufacturing, corporate work and the retail business, providing new opportunities for companies to explore and posing major threats to those that don’t adapt to the times. Equally daunting challenges confront colleges and universities, but they’ve been slower to acknowledge them.”
When I was a young doctoral student at the University of Maryland, my academic advisor Robert (Bob) Birnbaum, a former college president himself, was fond of telling my fellow graduate colleagues and me to “complicate ourselves.” Bob’s counsel was a persistent and overarching encouragement to avoid simple solutions for really complex problems. He often invoked the “law of requisite variety.” This idea suggests that for organizations or people to deal effectively with the vast diversity of problems in society, the repertoire of nuanced potential responses must exceed the problems faced. As Karl Weick writes in his seminal book The Social Psychology of Organizing, “It’s because of requisite variety that organizations have to be preoccupied with keeping sufficient diversity inside the organization to sense accurately the variety present in ecological changes outside it” (p. 188). Two decades later, this concept feels even more compelling—the diversity in the external environment has exploded exponentially and continues to do so at an accelerated pace. I often ask myself whether we have adequate internal diversity to interpret the external environment.
I often ask myself whether we have adequate internal diversity to interpret the external environment.
How Fast should the Change Take Place? The Question of Pace
I’m from a particular tribe of higher education—the traditional residential campus. Just a year ago, I was working as a vice president of an enormously popular public land-grant university, and I was worried about the sustainability of that educational model. Now, serving as president of a small, modestly endowed college, my anxiety about sustainability is amplified. Both types, the large public and the small private, are models at risk—arguably only separated by the amount of time each model has to adapt. Survival will always be based on the ability to continually transform at a speed protected by financial resources, including endowment and prestige. In short, the more modest your prestige, the more quickly you need to adapt. Many of us find ourselves with absolutely no time left to spare.
Survival will always be based on the ability to continually transform at a speed protected by financial resources, including endowment and prestige.
However, as my advisor wisely counseled, we must not let the need for speed simplify how we approach the complex task before us. Interestingly, this idea harkens back to Blockbuster’s poor and ill-timed attempts to change. Former Harvard professor Clayton Christensen, best known for his theory of disruptive innovation, observed in his book How Will You Measure Your Life? that Blockbuster failed because its leaders tried to “leverage what they [had] put in place to succeed in the past, instead of guiding them to create the capabilities they’ll need in the future.” Christensen noted, “If we knew the future would be exactly the same as the past, that approach would be fine. But if the future’s different—and it almost always is—then it’s the wrong thing to do” (Christensen, 2012, as cited in Allworth, 2020).
A Sustainable Path Forward
As a hopeful person, I’m bullish about a bright future for higher education. I also resist the description by some that higher education faces an “existential crisis.” I see our reality in more practical terms based on broader societal and industry challenges with which colleges and universities nationwide are grappling. Put simply, higher education faces a supply-and-demand problem that will result in winners and losers. The winners will be those institutions that have considered relevance, adaptability, and pace, so they are courageous and nimble enough to adapt to the needs of today’s and tomorrow’s generations rather than take comfort in how they’ve always been.
Allworth, J., C. M. (2020). A Final Lesson From Clayton Christensen. Medium. https://marker.medium.com/a-final-lesson-from-clayton-christensen-on-the-dangers-of-marginal-thinking-e04aa534f745.
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