UNH president: Students aren’t ‘customers’
University of New Hampshire president Mark Huddleston talks about the economic impact graduated students have on the state's economy, Friday, June 22, 2012 in Rochester, N.H. A new report concludes that the university contributed about $1.4 billion to the state's economy during the 2010-2011 academic year. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)
University of New Hampshire President Mark Huddleston recently gave a State of the University address, focusing in part on the future of higher education. Here are some highlights:
When we look at the issues facing UNH and higher education more generally, it’s hard not to be apprehensive – or at least extremely attentive. The future is rushing at us – especially those of us in traditional residential colleges and universities – faster and faster and faster. Far from hitting the pause button and taking a break, we have to be prepared to act, swiftly and with wisdom. . . .
For more than three decades, U.S. family income has risen about 3.8 percent per year on average. That’s not close to the average increase in one major expense for families – medical costs – which have been the focus of so much public attention. Yet college tuitions and fees have gone up even faster than that, at nearly twice the rate of family income. That is simply not sustainable.
Public funding has also failed to keep pace. . . . State support for the university system has dropped 28.1 percent over the past 12 years. However, enrollments have remained strong over that same span, rising 21.6 percent. So, from a state support standpoint, we are truly educating more with less. . . .
Demographics are not on our side. From 2009 to 2020, the number of students graduating high school in the U.S. is expected to drop by 2 percent. But it is going to plummet here in the Northeast by 7 percent. And thanks to our aging demographic, it is expected to fall a stunning 18 percent in New Hampshire. While recently updated projections indicate national trends may level out or even rise slightly by 2021, the downward trend for the Northeast and New Hampshire will remain severe.
Finally, we face these challenges of costs, public support and demographics in a higher education world defined increasingly by disruptive innovations. We are all aware of many of these, such as massive open online courses and for-profit online schools that saturate the airwaves with ads promising fast, low-cost and relatively easy paths to a degree.
So, what do we do in the face of these challenges?
What not to do
Well, let me start by identifying two things that I’m sure we shouldn’t do.
The first thing we should not do is yield to pressures to commodify higher education, turn students into customers and drive relentlessly to lower unit costs of production.
Pressures to do this are real. . . . Traditional higher ed is arguably pricing itself out of the reach of the American middle class. Politicians across the ideological spectrum have seized upon college costs and curricular relevance as potent issues. The Obama administration, thought by many to be fundamentally sympathetic to higher education, has joined in, readying a scorecard to assess our compliance with externally imposed metrics of price and completion rates. Just last week the president himself raised questions about the merits of art history as a field of study. Small wonder, then, that we are advised just to call it a day – throw everything online, substitute call centers for face-to-face interactions and award competency-based credits for college-level analogues of GED degrees, all so that our customers can enjoy everyday Walmart prices.
I don’t like that idea. And America can’t afford it. As I regularly tell our friends in the state Legislature and beyond when they ask why UNH can’t be more like certain low-cost providers, that’s a model I’ll embrace the day I see them drive across a suspension bridge built by an engineer with a degree from Online University of America. I suspect they also prefer their lawyers, physicians, teachers, business leaders and artists to be people who’ve spent formative years in classrooms and laboratories, working shoulder to shoulder in real time with real people, including with mentors who deeply care about their development as human beings. As do I.
So, just making education cheaper is not for me a satisfying option.
But then neither is a second extreme, one where we dig in our heels, refuse to change a single thing about the way we teach, do research, operate our campuses, recruit students, or engage with our various constituencies. . . . We are stewards not just of our own lives, but of this institution. We need to do what is right, not just for now, not just for ourselves, but for generations of Wildcats to come. . . .
The University of New Hampshire is a student-centered, research intensive, highly engaged, residential public university.
Those are not just words. They are unerring, defining characteristics. They tell us what we are and what we are not, what other institutions we are like or what institutions we are different from. Importantly, those words also tell us what we may or may not do in our daily operations. We cannot, for instance, remain the University of New Hampshire while moving all or even most of our activities online. We cannot decide to become private, as some have suggested, however little support the state provides, and still be true to our mission. We can’t decide that research is too expensive – or that teaching undergraduates is too bothersome – and still be UNH. . . .
Today, I call upon on the university community to come together again and renew our strategic plan. . . .
Over the last year or so, we’ve identified five overriding strategic priorities, derived from the original plan, that have guided our daily work. . . .
First, enrollment. Undergraduate tuition is, for better or worse, overwhelmingly the primary source of UNH’s revenue. Assuring a steady flow of qualified undergraduate students – resident and nonresident, domestic and international – is the cornerstone of everything else we do. Consequently, I have been asking my staff to focus relentlessly on this issue – to expand our recruitment areas, design more attractive materials, develop a better web presence, re-engineer campus tours and other yield events. I’ve also urged them to work with deans and departments to make sure that we have the space and faculty available for the most popular programs.
In somewhat more of a challenge to our traditional culture, I’ve asked that we rethink our academic calendar, our curriculum, our online presence and interdisciplinary program options, our articulation with K-12 and the community colleges, how we position our students for life after graduation, how we measure the value we add, and what we might do to shorten time to degrees.
The spring semester will see our deans focused on this effort, which we are calling the University of Choice. This comprises the myriad ways in which we make UNH curricula and research more flexible, more creative, more accessible and therefore more affordable. You’ll recognize aspects of the University of Choice in our efforts to expand our summer programs; in J-term offerings that allow students to accelerate their time to degree; and in our commitment to increase and better fund co- and extracurricular experiences like undergraduate research, study abroad, experiential learning and the unique qualities of residential life. The University of Choice is first and foremost about enriching the academic and intellectual lives of our students. University of Choice is a deliberate double entendre that refers to making UNH both a place where students have multiple paths, multiple choices as they chart educational courses that work for them – and the place that students choose to attend.
By the way, facilities have a critical role to play in this equation. Our physical plant is literally how the world, including our prospective students, sees us. While we will never seek to build anything that is not to the scale and purpose of our institution – New Hampshire – to stay competitive, build and renew we must.
The UNH brand
A second, closely related priority is branding and marketing. These are words that chafe a bit to those of us who have grown up in the academy. We like to think that every spare dollar we can muster should be put to work in service of our core mission – hiring another faculty member, outfitting another lab, underwriting another scholarship. These are essential. But they are not sufficient. Quality is not enough if no one knows about it.
For too long, UNH failed to tell its own story effectively. When others thought about us at all, we let them define us. The results were all too apparent for all too long. In the future, we must do a better job of engaging our alumni, building a culture of philanthropy and making a convincing case to the people of New Hampshire for public support. We are no longer content to be an undiscovered gem and a well-kept secret. Our new visual identity, compelling as it is, is only a small element of our new emphasis on branding and marketing. We’ve launched aggressive new advertising campaigns, in both traditional and new digital media. We’re also working toward ensuring that all parts of our large and diverse university community are aligned as we get our messages out. . . .
Focus on STEM
An intensification of our commitment to STEM education – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – is our third strategic priority. The United States in general and New Hampshire in particular suffer from an acute shortage of STEM-educated students. We simply do not have the highly trained workforce that we need to drive innovation – thus productivity, thus economic growth – in a highly globalized, knowledge-driven 21st-century economy. Together with our sister institutions in the university system and the community college system, we have committed to doubling the number of STEM graduates by 2025. This is a tough goal, and it will take all these partners, and more, to reach it.
But it is to UNH that falls the mantle of leadership in this initiative. To that end, STEM faculty from UNH and the community colleges will meet at a STEM summit here on campus to build on a new agreement that will allow community college students who have earned a two-year degree in STEM studies to transfer seamlessly to UNH to complete a four-year degree. We are also growing our efforts to encourage STEM education and opportunities for K-12 students and their teachers, with expanded summer camps and training programs.
Additional efforts to build the STEM talent pipeline are under way at UNH Manchester, which is working on a path-breaking early college pilot with Manchester West High School and Manchester Community College. Finally, UNH Cooperative Extension is also doing its share and will hire eight new colleagues over the next two years in STEM education.
We are the only New Hampshire institution of higher education that offers the full spectrum of STEM education and research, providing graduates who actually want to stay here in New Hampshire when they enter the workforce or start their own businesses.
New Hampshire will reach this critical goal if UNH successfully drives the process.
I say all this about the importance of STEM education as an unreconstructed humanist. Our stress on driving STEM will diminish not a whit the importance of the arts and humanities at UNH. There is a line in the trailer for the movie Monuments Men, the story of a U.S. Army unit’s assignment in the last days of the Second World War to save the trove of Western art that had been looted by the Nazis, that captures this sentiment for me. The character played by George Clooney is taken to task by another officer for interfering with “the real war effort” by trying to save a bunch of paintings and sculptures. Clooney’s response: Paintings and sculptures and the heritage they represent are the real war effort, the reason we’re fighting. So it is with our focus on STEM education: Only by building a thriving economy can we free ourselves to pursue the true ends of human life that are expressed in art and music and literature.
Research and research commercialization is the fourth strategic priority. . . .
I have found that we often need to remind ourselves – and others – of this elemental fact, and to be careful not to allow our own policies and procedures get in the way of our research mission. In fact, the key finding of the presidential blue ribbon panel on research I appointed my first semester here, led by now-Senior Vice Provost for Research Jan Nisbet, was that we had done exactly that.
Once we addressed some of these impediments, we saw a reflowering of research at UNH – and a burst of long overdue commercialization efforts. In an environment where we have to ensure a hardy diversity of revenue streams, that latter point is crucial.
Finally, speaking of diversified revenue streams, there is the realm of advancement. We had a record year last year. I expect us to break that record this year. And, in the years ahead, as we move into the public phase of our comprehensive fundraising campaign, I expect that upward trend to continue. But even with those successes, private giving – annual gifts, bequests, and earnings on our endowment – constitutes to date only 4 or 5 percent of our revenues. We can and must do even better.
Our investment in the work of university advancement – including gift officers, IT services, alumni relations, marketing and communication, and so forth – is essential. And remember: Advancement is a team sport – and every one of us at UNH is part of that team – whether helping engage alumni and friends, telling the UNH story, or even helping with the “asks.”
So, we know what we are and what we are not here at UNH. And we have a clear idea of priorities. Let us leave here today with a renewed commitment to take to take all necessary action – gird ourselves for necessary change – to secure our common future.