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Professional Opinion

Challenges of a new president

Strategic planning and the ratings frenzy
University Business, May 2014

It would be very easy to be jaded about the future of higher education if it were not for the fact that those of who serve this industry view it as a calling. We know that we can make a difference in the lives of our students and in society. We try to do the very best for our students while addressing the issues of the day through our research and community outreach. Not a bad calling, in my view, and why with great pride I have spent my adult life in the academy serving four institutions over the past thirty years as a faculty member, administrator and now university president.

But let me go back to the jaded part, particularly given the industry bashing that is coming at us from all fronts. We are accused of being unaccountable to the very constituents who matter the most to us, our students. We are accused of being too expensive and too indifferent about meeting the needs of our students when defined by employment after graduation. Simply put, we are accused of hiding in our “ivory towers” out of touch with the realities of today’s higher education landscape that is calling for more accountability and transparency, and specifically, metrics to quantify our performance.

This is not a pretty picture for someone like me just beginning a presidency at a private, primarily residential university striving to entice qualified students to take a four-year, life-altering experience with us–especially when the price tag is a challenge to so many of these students and their parents. At Monmouth University, my colleagues and I have the opportunity to contribute to the evolving definition of sensible and meaningful metrics for the myriad of ways students learn to equip themselves for life after leaving our campus upon graduation. Besides learning the intricacies of my new institution, I’m also in the throes of doing something else that many new presidents do early in their tenure–strategic planning. Currently, our entire community is immersed in strategic planning, targeting later this year for completion of the process. Appreciating that these are challenging times, I’m confident that we are up to the task because we recognize that matching student interest with market demand is important, that trade-offs are inevitable given tuition and fees will not grow substantially in the future, and that identifying meaningful metrics is essential to the exercise.

Crafting appropriate metrics is challenging because most institutions side-step this critical aspect of the strategic planning process, resulting in few meaningful metrics that allow us to benchmark with other institutions. But today’s environment, fraught with conversation about ratings, affordability and accountability of universities, makes it not only a necessity but the right thing to do to ensure we can judge our performance in delivering on our promises to our students. I’m as much an advocate for accountability as anybody in order to evaluate where we are and where we want to get, but accountability measures in order to be effective must be much more nuanced than what is proposed by many of our critics. One size does not fit all. Each institution should be governed by its mission, and Monmouth University’s mission can be distinguished, for example, from such New Jersey neighbors as Brookdale Community College or Princeton University. Leaders need to inventory the full array of learning experiences that each institution offers its students, capture the benefits of each of these experiences in the context of the institution’s mission, and then identify a set of metrics that hold the institution accountable for judging success down the road.

Furthermore, I believe that the value of an education cannot be measured by objective benchmarks alone. In other words, looking at a scorecard or rating system that includes graduation rates and employment at the expense of other benchmarks is by no means a complete picture of accountability.

Employment, graduate school, public service, and all variations of these as celebrated outcomes should keep us constantly thinking about what is best for our students. Beyond the obsession with the troika of graduation rates, level of debt and affordability which appear to dominate the ratings conversation led by President Obama’s educational team, our strategic planning is guided by our unstinting desire to serve students, including developing meaningful metrics for holding ourselves accountable to students and their families.

We will be held accountable, and I look forward to sharing our strategic planning laboratory results with the President’s Secretary of Education and others who understand and appreciate our “calling.” Our job is to distill the myriad ways we serve our student into meaningful benchmarks for judging our success in helping our students meet this goal.

Paul R. Brown is president of Monmouth University in New Jersey.