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Future of Higher Education

What One University President Sees for the Future of Higher Education

Photo: Courtesy of Joshua Hoehne

With Americans’ trust in higher education dropping, we asked West Virginia University president Dr. E. Gordon Gee, who has served as a university president for 40 years, about how institutions can positively move forward while focusing on equity, accessibility, and diversity.

Dr. E. Gordon Gee

President, West Virginia University

What do you believe are the prevailing issues threatening the vitality of higher education? 

This is an existential time for higher education. When I became a university president in 1981, there was a public survey showing that 95 percent of people in this country thought higher education was important. It has now fallen below 50 percent, even though higher education is the most important element in our culture and economy right now.

This is happening in part because change has not been part of higher education’s portfolio. Universities are made up of two elements: talent and culture. Most universities have very talented people, but they have the culture wrong. We need to spend much more time developing a culture of change, a culture of creativity. Universities are places of curiosity. We have great people thinking about great ideas and doing great things, but we have no curiosity about how we make ourselves better.

If I were king for a day, first, I would get rid of colleges and departments, and create centers, institutes, and working groups, and organize around ideas. 

Another problem is that every institution is chasing after other institutions, rather than trying to be themselves. Because of that, I think a thousand institutions are going to fail over the next couple of years.

How has your leadership at a number of universities and colleges prepared you for the current climate and circumstances of higher education? 

In my 40 years as a university president, I have experienced what I thought was every possible challenge, including wars, the 1987 stock crash, riots, tragedies on campus, 9/11, and multiple recessions. 

But the COVID-19 pandemic is testing education — and every other sector of society — as never before.

Personally, I am approaching our current situation a bit like a freshman showing up for their first day of class: a little anxious, but eager to try new things and learn all I can.

This is a “Black Swan” moment that requires educational leaders to ask questions, rather than pretend we have all the answers. And, as we work through current challenges, we must constantly fix our eyes on the future. We must learn from our mistakes and from what we do right. 

Because changes to our world will linger after this virus subsides, we must find ways to educate and sustain our institutional families while operating in a new environment. In my conversations with senior university leaders, I have asked them to couple their immediate crisis responses with thinking “from the other side of the mountain.”

This means thinking about how we can use what we learn to reposition West Virginia University in a more powerful role of leadership locally and nationally. 

What is one piece of advice you have for leaders of higher education institutions to improve student success?

The most important priority leaders can address today is increasing the quality of higher education while ensuring that it is cost-effective and affordable for students. 

In my state, West Virginia, you hear a lot about the need to create jobs, which is real, but the state also has many jobs that are wanting for people. We just have not trained them in the right way.

While not everyone needs a four-year college degree, everyone needs some post-secondary training to succeed in today’s economy.

I chaired the Commission on Higher Education Attainment, which issued an open letter to college presidents outlining some important ways to increase college completion and reduce student debt:

o Create a campus culture that promotes student success and persistence

o Provide greater support for non-traditional students

o Find new ways to assess and provide credit for students’ previous learning experiences

o Deliver courses more efficiently and in more flexible ways

o Do a better job identifying at-risk students and provide better remedial help for them.

What are the key characteristics and values you believe are needed to successfully and thoughtfully lead higher education institutions? 

I often say that university presidents should have thick skin, nerves like sewer pipes, and a good sense of humor. That is because criticism is part and parcel of leadership, especially when you venture beyond your institution’s comfort zone. And in this unprecedented crisis, when Americans are crying out for new ideas and fresh visions as never before, comfort zones are disappearing under our feet. 

America needs fearless innovators. We need strategic risk-takers.  We need to take aim at that most fearsome of tyrannies: “the way we have always done things.”

When we think big, we generate hope — and we change lives.

How can universities and colleges put equity, accessibility, and diversity at the forefront of their missions? 

Helping our academic community embrace diversity is a passion for me. I think that is because I had rather narrow horizons when I first arrived at college more than half a century ago. I grew up in Vernal, Utah, an isolated town of 2,000 people. Vernal was not what anyone would call diverse. 

Rural states like West Virginia still have such homogenous pockets, where young people can grow up without encountering people who look, worship, or think differently than they do. That’s why it is so important for universities like ours to open students’ horizons and engage them with a diverse group of peers and faculty members from around the country, around the world, and from many different backgrounds.

Increasing diversity is key to our land-grant mission of teaching, research, and outreach. We are preparing students to thrive in a diverse world, so we must open their horizons and engage them with a diverse group of peers. And we are working to unfurl our inclusive spirit throughout West Virginia.

As individuals and institutions, we will never fulfill our true potential unless we are willing to open our eyes to new perspectives and extend our hands to all people.

Our university is making good progress by increasing multicultural awareness throughout the university; building support systems for faculty, staff, and from under-represented groups; and engaging faculty in teaching, research, and outreach on multicultural topics.

We are also working to help more students from underrepresented groups earn doctoral degrees, and guiding women and minority students toward the STEM disciplines, which are so important to our nation’s future.

And we are always striving to make our campuses even safer and more supportive for all Mountaineers.

What is one coming innovation that you believe will change higher education? 

If anyone had told me last year that West Virginia University could become a totally online institution within two weeks, I would have bet against that. But we did it, quite successfully, just as other universities around the country made a quick and amazingly smooth transition to online learning this spring.

I believe one of this pandemic’s results will be a discovery that there are many ways to learn remotely without losing the immediacy of in-person communication or the comfort of human relationships. Online learning has a growing place in higher education, especially for working professionals who are trying to further their studies. 

Educational technologies such as online learning support a university’s highest calling — providing access to opportunity. Digitization can help us reach more people with more relevant learning opportunities for today’s economic landscape.

But despite ever-evolving technologies, we cannot let what has historically elevated higher education as a public savior slip away — face-to-face, personal interaction between teacher and learner.

Why is this such an important time for higher education?

At colleges and universities, as everywhere, we all want to get back to “normal.” 

In truth, this crisis will culminate in a “new normal.” The real question for all of us is this: What will or should our institutions look like as we face this new world?

Moving forward means gleaning what we have learned from this moment and applying it immediately to our educational enterprises. As never before, we will either be the architects of change or its victims.

I am a higher education heretic who shuns academia’s most revered scripture — the strategic plan. Strategic planning in education functions less often as a compass and more often as a speed bump impeding progress. Instead of strategic planning, we need strategic action. 

Instead of long-term objectives, we need immediate solutions. Find the sweet spots, find the opportunities, and dash into those. Strategic planning is a way to delay decision-making, and we have no time to delay.

We may find that this disruption inspires innovations in academic engagement, community service or other areas that serve us well long after this pandemic has passed. We may also find that some tasks we eliminate now as non-essential were never very essential to begin with. 

Bludgeoning bureaucracy is always difficult in the tradition-bound world of education, but we have the chance to emerge from this crisis with schools that are more agile and effective than ever.

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