President’s Point of View
The following is a selection of posts from President Avaltroni’s LinkedIn page.
The Cliff of Higher Education
I had the opportunity to read a terrific article on the multiple “cliffs” facing higher education. We’ve spoken about the demographic cliff for quite some time, and have seen this coming for a decade or longer based on birth rates from the Great Recession of 2007-08.
However, there are a number of other “cliffs” that are more unpredictable which more recently have found their way into the higher education space. These include the student debt cliff, which is leading to a major shift in the perception of higher education’s value. This debt cliff intertwines with a devaluation cliff, where many are perceiving higher education degrees as invaluable, unnecessary or not beneficial to positioning them for their future.
And, lest we forget the political cliff, which has been bubbling up amidst the politically polarized landscape, and is now seen playing out in extremes during the past months as idealogical polarization and many missteps continue to cause much of the public to lose faith in institutions of higher education.
Perhaps not a cliff, you can also add in other challenges, such as the jagged terrain of the FAFSA debacle, where delays in the federal government’s processing of the critical forms necessary for student to receive their grants and loans has caused students a great degree of financial uncertainty about their college journey.
Sadly, each of these trends creates a system of winners and losers, and much like what always happens in society, the losers are usually those who would have the most to gain from the benefits of a college degree. The outcome of all of these trends will not affect all institutions equally, and will not affect all students equally.
We will continue to see the “haves” have access and options, while the “have nots” will be the ones losing out. When institutions fail and go away, when students give up on the college application process because of frustrations, delays or lack of options, and when they look at the costs as a hill too high to climb, it is typically those from disadvantaged backgrounds that are left on the outside looking in.
I have tremendous concern about where the higher education landscape is headed for many obvious reasons. But, perhaps one less obvious one is that the continually gloomy landscape will end up doing what most things in society do…widen the gap between those who have access and means and those who do not. We claim that education has the power to be the great equalizer, but the landscape is shaping up to make access to education become a great divider that further widens the gap between those who have the tools and resources to navigate it, and those who do not.
“Life is lived in time. Therefore, those who waste time waste life.”
I spent my Tuesday before the sun rose, this time headed south to Washington DC for an annual advocacy day to speak with several Congressional representatives about the state and future of higher education. It was set to be a long day, with my first meeting there at 8:30 am, and a packed schedule all the way through a 7 pm dinner. It was also a heavy day filled with a lot of the ongoing conversations around the challenging, crisis-filled state of our sector to be rehashed repeatedly with each lawmaker and staffer.
When things are so busy and so intense, my tendency is to struggle with distraction, thinking about the hundred other things I need to be doing while immersed in the current one. It is far too easy (and far too tempting) for this to consume my work life, my home life, my relationships. The stakes feel very high, and the urgency even higher, so it feels necessary (and almost admirable) to constantly be “all in” on my work amidst a time when so much needs to be done.
Toward the end of one of my schedule of meetings on Capitol Hill, I received a text message. I read it and my heart sank. Jason Amore, our Senior Vice President for University Advancement and a dear colleague, had passed away. It was devastating news, made even more devastating by the knowledge of his young family that he leaves behind, the excitement he had shared with me over a chance to return home and pursue a new opportunity, and over the fact that all of this was gone in a moment.
Suddenly, the next thing in my day didn’t seem to matter. The next meeting could wait. The next email could go unread, and the next task on an endless list could go undone.
It was a reminder that not a single day is promised to us, and that life is precious. The days are long, but the years pass quickly. Time wasted isn’t returned.
And, it made me quickly realize that the greatest thing I can be is present. The greatest legacy I can leave for family, friends and co-workers won’t be the things I accomplish, but the impactful human interactions and memories made.
Our culture rewards achievement, accomplishment and accolade and not soccer games coached, dance recitals attended or meaningful conversations had. Yet, sometimes the most difficult and painful reminders make us realize that they are the only things that truly matter.
Many who knew Jason reached out and remarked on how much they will miss his friendship, warmth and his ability to engage and care. Not a single person will remember the number of advancement dollars raised, but rather the impact of the conversations and interactions. May that be a reminder to make the most important things the most important things in our lives.
The Future of Higher Education
This past Saturday was filled with the usual things…drop offs and pick ups and errands, but additionally, this particular one was filled with emails, text messages, LinkedIn messages and the like, all of them with the same attachment to the same article. The title, “Why Americans Have Lost Faith In The Value of College” goes on to articulate the many reasons that our society has soured on the notion of college for all, the rising costs, the ongoing narrative around elitism and the concerns about the irrelevance of a degree in preparing students for the workplace and beyond.
Hardly a relaxing way to spend a weekend, I realized as I crafted my responses to all the senders that there is an inherent problem that isn’t going away, but I also realized that it is high time for us to own up to the fact that much of what is said about us is in fact grounded in some truth.
The biggest mistake people make in anything they love or value is a lack of acknowledgement that it isn’t all perfect. Even our most respected institutions, businesses and people are flawed and often fall short of hitting their mark. Higher education is no exception.
We need to own the fact that for many, higher education institutions have failed to deliver on our promise. For every success story we parade across our publications, there is someone who carries a monthly debt payment from our institutions who does not hold a degree. For every person that used a degree from our universities to become a self-made success, there is someone whose degree has left them at a dead end. This is a reality, and it is time for us to own up to the fact that we can and must do better.
I still believe firmly in the value of college, and there is extensive evidence around its value toward higher earnings, a longer lifespan and a host of other benefits. That said, I also acknowledge that an industry that is unchanged in decades (or centuries), that often talks more about social justice and equity than practices it in the classroom or on campus, and one with far too much of the student journey left to chance is one in need of change.
The future of higher education can still be a pathway to upward mobility, changed generational narratives and success, but we must do our part to realize that we need to acknowledge our need to improve to assure that this promise is realized more often, with more consistency, by more people across our campuses and communities. We are a deeply valuable piece of the societal fabric, but we also need to understand the need to do better to make more people realize that through the life-changing experiences we can provide for them, their loved ones and their communities.
Becoming a Purposeful Leader
With a full year of university leadership behind me, it was a good time to have some time away to take an opportunity to reflect on the past, present and future. Perhaps the best lesson learned during the past year, and the thing I will be working on for the next one, is to focus my attention on becoming more purposeful as a leader.
The thing I learned the quickest from day one in this role was that if I chose to be, I could be “on the go” 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Saying yes to every event, opportunity, partnership or offer could easily consume every waking moment of my life. The best lesson I’ve learned, and the one I will try to focus even more so on in the coming year, is to be a more purposeful leader.
Often, the hardest thing for me to say is “no”, and by nature, I love to be involved, to solve problems and to pitch in and lend a hand in whatever way I can. I’ve learned that this trait can be all-consuming, and can actually hurt, rather than help, my contributions in this role.
Instead of trying to be all things to everyone, and taking a scatter-shot approach to my contributions, I am trying to narrow my focus on where I need to invest my time and efforts in an attempt to be driven by purpose.
Sometimes it means saying “no”, and sometimes it means saying “not now”. But, I realize that the need to do this actually means having a greater impact on things I am engaged in. It means being more present at the purpose-driven things I am doing, rather than being present in body at the current commitment, all while thinking about the next thing, and the next one after that.
So much of the last year has clarified something I’ve struggled with my entire life: you cannot be all things to everyone forever. During the coming year, I will be using the tools in this well-framed article to ask: what is my purpose, what is my role, whom do I serve, what aligns with my values, and how can I authentically be present and engaged in everything I do?
I will be asking these things of myself, but also will be using them to hone our institution’s purpose as we acknowledge that we also cannot continue being all things to all people. In focusing on our purpose, we can do things we do with excellence, and invest the needed tools and resources to build a better future. More than anything else, I believe that higher education desperately needs to focus on its strengths to be ready for its sustainable future!
Being a Visionary Leader
I woke up this morning to an article in my inbox, entitled “You Could Not Pay Me Enough To Be A College President”, published in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
It states within the context how difficult it is to serve the various constituencies, and how much more difficult it is getting with each passing moment and each consecutive crisis. The last sentence concludes with: “What worries me about this acrimonious moment is that the longer it continues, the number of folks willing and able to do these jobs will shrink into nothingness.”
I also worry about the decreasing length of college presidents, the difficult no-win moments that we often find ourselves in, and the nearly impossible task of keeping faculty, staff, students, regulators, alumni and countless others happy and engaged. However, I choose to think that maybe this is a moment of opportunity, and what needs to change is the type of leadership college presidents exude.
The current positioning of higher education indicates from every angle and every measure that we are facing a tectonic shift that has never been observed before in the history of our industry. A confluence of factors are upon us, and the need to adapt or die is real for just about every institution that can’t stand on the safety of its endowment size as the waves of change crash on our shores.
Maybe we need bold, courageous leadership that is unapologetically willing to lead this industry in a new direction, toward a greater relevance amidst a narrative that suggests that what we do is increasingly inconsequential. Maybe we need to rethink who we are, who we serve, how we serve them and maybe we need to do so with a confidence that is unflinching, even when each of the aforementioned constituents are displeased with our direction.
I think that the biggest problem of higher education has been trying to be all things to all people and make everyone feel validated. I believe that visionary leadership is required, and it will mean sometimes being willing to be unpopular to hold the line on where we believe we need to go to do what’s right for our institutions.
The cliche about hockey great Wayne Gretzky was that he could anticipate where the puck was going before it got there. Great leadership in higher education will do the same in anticipating where the future needs and opportunities of learners are before our surrounding world arrives at that conclusion. Rather than thinking about all the reasons not to be a college president, I am excited about this possibility of boldly leading toward a future we don’t yet see, and I hope other leaders are as well!
What is Your Story?
To say it has not been a good stretch for higher education is an understatement. Tough times surround us, and it feels that there is a constant, uninterrupted need to extinguish fires and navigate impossibly choppy waters. To say we are an industry that has lost its way might be a fair assessment.
I’m reminded of something said to me as I assumed my current role. The instruction given to me was to fully embrace my role of storyteller-in-chief. For those who know about my enjoyment of Disney parks and experiences, the thing I find most engaging is the depth of storytelling that moves hearts, stirs emotions and creates connections. It is high time for us to begin creating those connections by telling the story of what we do that transforms lives and generational narratives.
While our industry is far from perfect, when higher education “gets it right”, we do so to the benefit of students, families, communities and generations to come. We need that message to be the thing we articulate as the critical component to what we do. It is our core mission, core purpose and core value.
In a time when there is much that we need to do better, the stories of our students point to what we do well, and it is time for us to point to the living examples of impact that we see in our students, our alumni and the lives they touch as they impact the world around them. More of that needs to be the center of the story we tell the world!
Changes to Higher Education
As many hours as there are on a week, that seems to be the number of exciting, interesting (and challenging) conversations about the future of higher education. It seems that there continues to be this wave rushing over our space that is a confluence of factors all culminating in one moment of crisis and opportunity.
Among the things I’ve been exploring lately is how to future-proof the concept of college, thinking about what constitutes a valuable credential at a time where everything is changing. In a digital world supplanted by machine learning, artificial intelligence, and a constant need for re-learning and re-invention, what is the value of four years of learning at a university, anyway?
The question I believe we need to start thinking about is how a college degree builds transferable skills of leadership and adaptability that make someone into a lifelong learner who can take any concept that they learned and apply it to new information, ideas or learnings.
To achieve this, it will require us to completely restructure how we educate. Our focus should be less about majors and disciplines, and more about how building on fundamental concepts that introduce and then reinforce transferable skills of leadership.
Rather than worrying about everyone’s disciplines represented in a general education, what if we focused on educating around concepts of problem solving, communication, teamwork, creative thinking, ethical decision making, problem solving and related concepts. What if we built a curriculum focused solely on educating and preparing emotionally intelligent graduates?
In a world of interdisciplinary engagement filled with rapid and changing dynamics that shift on an order of days and weeks (and not decades), what if our focus was less about transferring facts, and more about preparing our students to be true lifelong learners and true lifelong leaders? It would be hard to argue that this would make a college degree valuable for today and tomorrow, regardless of where the future lies.
Not All Colleges and Universities are the Same
I read an important piece today that served as a very important reminder of the struggle we deal with across higher education…painting higher education with a broad brush of one-size-fits-all assumptions. Sadly, it seems that this is a symptom of a far greater ill, which is to assume that what you see or hear about a number of one somehow applies to the entire ecosystem.
Whether the media attention about rankings, legacy admissions, controversies on campus or other negative perceptions, it is important to understand that the vast majority of our campuses have very little in common with these “headliners”. On a more challenging side, our budgets, endowments and resources are often very dissimilar to those often thought of as the bastions of higher education. For every person who laments paying $75,000 a year to a school with billions in endowment, there are thousands of others whose situation looks very different and attends an institution where this is not the reality.
It is incumbent upon us to start better understanding that higher education, like any industry, is a spectrum. It is many institutions like ours who largely “fly under the radar” but are responsible for trying to create a community of access, opportunity and belonging amidst challenging financial situations and amidst equally challenging times.
While the headlines of $100 million donations often end up funding already wealthy schools, and while the headlines are often capturing the elite outliers of higher education, the majority of our institutions are providing a very important place in training tomorrow’s leaders. My hope is that more people begin taking the time to listen and learn the compelling stories of the things we do, the students we serve and the opportunities we provide, which, when it works well, are truly the best parts of what higher education can be!
“What if We Were a Startup?”
Anyone who is watching knows that higher education is embarking upon a season of change never seen before throughout its history, and the only question will be whether we choose to bring the change upon ourselves or wait until the external forces bring the change upon us. My sense is that those who emerge on the right side of the future version of higher education will choose the former and not the latter.
I have been having many deep and exciting conversations with leaders across our industry and beyond, discussing the foundational challenges, solutions and opportunities as this tumultuous season of upheaval is upon us. Among the most profound things I’ve heard was a suggestion that I begin reframing the questions of the future around one fundamental premise: what if we were a startup, building our future from a clean page?
I’ve started to give a lot of thought to that concept…what would higher education look like if we were building it anew?
How would it be delivered amidst a digital environment where information access is abundant?
How would it be priced to assure that students could afford to come, afford to stay, afford to graduate?
How would it be structured, knowing that the path to success isn’t measured by logging 120 credit hours, but rather by gaining transferrable skills?
How would students be supported, knowing the challenges they face, the burdens they carry and the things they encounter?
I’ve been saying it to anyone who will listen…every industry across every area of our lives looks nothing like it did a decade ago, let alone a century ago. The way we live, shop, bank, communicate, consume information and interact is completely unrecognizable from a generation prior. What if we took this as the opportunity to seize this moment as an opportunity to build for the future now?
I welcome thoughts on what a higher education “start up” might look like, and in particular, what would assure that students seeking opportunity for their future could realize it within the walls (both literal and digital) of our campuses. Every crisis presents an opportunity, and I fully believe that visionary thinking will allow the higher education crisis to become an inflection point to a brighter and sustainable future!
Do We Need Standardized Testing Anymore?
Compelling (and concerning) evidence verifies what many have already known…standardized tests are a much better measure and predictor of your socioeconomic status than your aptitude for college.
If we are going to accept college as a gateway to the future, we need to look at all aspects of the college journey, from the admissions process through the four years in school and beyond, to understand how the gate is flung wide open for some, and is much narrower (or closed) for many others. Access to SAT prep courses, college advisors, extracurricular activities and many other advantages mean that much of your access to the future is challenged by where you begin.
It is incumbent upon us as educators to not accept the fact that college is a privilege for the few with means, because doing so makes the unfortunate statement that your starting point in life will directly correlate to where you end up. This leads to the propagation of a wealth gap, an opportunity gap and an access gap that we will never close.
I am proud that Fairleigh Dickinson University represents an opportunity for a personalized private education that offers transformational learning with tremendous access. It has been our mission since day one, and in my opinion, there is no greater opportunity to change lives and our world than by realizing this mission each day.
Running Toward The Fire
1. You face a rapidly rising cost to operate, but are unable to increase the overall cost to your customer.
2. You have created a price structure where many are unable to afford the product, many of those who try to afford it do so by relentlessly borrowing to obtain the product, and many perceive the value for the product received to be not worth the cost.
3. The public has demonstrated a rapid perception decline in the perceived value of the product you sell.
4. There will be a significant demographic downturn in the demand for the product.
5. Your industry is structurally built to be resistant to change at all costs, with bureaucratic layers across levels making rapid response to these shifts challenging at best, and impossible at worst.
Such is higher education in 2023, and while it is refreshing to see some authors starting to write about this turning point, the denial of its existence is stunning. A recent study of college presidents showed that “80 percent believe that their institution will be financially stable over the next decade at the same time as 72 percent believe that their “institution needs to make fundamental changes in its business models, programming and other operations.”
While the realities are indeed stark and denial seems to still be present in our unwillingness to acknowledge reality, I believe that what has always been true will remain true amidst this industry’s current day of reckoning and change. Those who are willing to innovate, re-define the model and demonstrate the value of what we offer will be winners, even amidst the turmoil and upheaval that is on the horizon.
For every industry at every point of inflection, those who were willing to lead the path to a relevant, new and adaptable model were those who became the innovators who paved the way for the necessary change to follow.
While the answers aren’t easy, I do believe that there are answers. We need to address affordability. We need to address the changing needs of learners. We need to address what we teach for relevance in a digital world. Most importantly, we need to teach transferable skills that won’t be obsolete as the world continues its radical change.
But, for this outcome to be realized, we need to acknowledge reality, understand that the ways that were are not the ways that will be, and understand that the time has come to build a way forward that allows higher education to be ready for its students and not the other way around. Openness to change is the only way that the clock doesn’t run out on our industry. Most importantly, we need to realize that the time for this is now, before we are swept away in the unforgiving tides of change and irrelevance.
The Ninth President of Fairleigh Dickinson University
I shared many things during my address, but the recurring theme that I hope came forward in my remarks was the constancy of others in my life who made an impact to get me where I am today. I am able because many others are or were willing to invest in me.
I shared the many ways that this has been demonstrated in my life at home, at school and at work, where this has been my constant reality. So often, the recognition of one’s accomplishments loses sight of the many others who are largely responsible but often hidden from the “main stage”. I am a product of so many who were willing to believe in me, to support me and to sacrificially invest in me to get me to this point in my life and career.
Whether it was exemplified by people pouring their time and resources to support me in my educational journey, or the sacrifices of my wife in providing a stable and supportive home, or the many others who are part of a team that supports my work tirelessly every day, these are the many who I am so grateful for in helping to position me to lead and take on the challenges of the future.
I truly believe that as educators, this comes naturally. Our legacy is being the foundational support to give others the wings to fly and the tools to succeed. My “ask” for our community during my address was to commit to leaving this legacy, and to invest with me in building for a future that we don’t yet know, that we may not get to see, but that we know is of the utmost importance on a path toward a sustainable future and the success of a new generation of students.
I am eternally grateful that so many were willing to make that investment in me, and equally grateful that I lead an institution committed to doing this same thing for others.