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  • Dr. Mary Darden

Another Five Institutional “Musts” for Success

It is no secret that many American colleges and universities face a host of crises – both

emergent and long-standing. Most stand at the existential moment when there has come a profound call to re-envision themselves for the radically varying needs and demands of the present and future. As a result, all face an ever-evolving list of “musts” that institutional success and even survival depend upon. Our previous blog identified the first five essential foundational traits for higher success. This blog describes the second set of five included in “Entrepreneuring.”

6) Cultural health as intentional and planned – including diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI)

Although it might be expected that – with the intellectual capital and long-trumpeted openness to exploration – the academy would be light years beyond society in cultural wellness. Unfortunately, too many of our institutions suffer from the same cultural maladies as our society. Racism, sexism, ageism and the rest still survive and too often fester within the walls of the ivory tower. Until ending the “isms” becomes an intentional and specifically planned part of the institutional culture, even to the point of including this end as part of the institutional mission, healing and health will continue to be evasive. Diversity, equity and inclusion must be at the center of any and all initiatives. Otherwise, the academy just becomes another in a long-line of well-intentioned hypocrites.

7) High-functioning and thriving organizational operations that focusses on students

Higher education is ultimately about the students – their learning, growth, preparation and welfare. And yet all too often the focus soon drifts in other directions. Whether it is in student services (where significant, shockingly anti-student behaviors have been discovered), curriculum development and delivery, career relevancy and preparation, the needs and wellbeing of students must be paramount. If any of our policies, procedures or practices overlook this critical factor, it will compound downward movement and potential failure of the institution.

8) Regular and thorough built-in assessment processes that are regularly reviewed and from which adjustments are made

Too often, outdated or unproductive practices continue within an institution because people have either become so accustomed to doing things “that way,” or because there is little or no real external awareness of what is truly happening within a division or department. In the worst of situations, fear may ever be a factor – people may be afraid to report serious problems. In something as simple as messaging sent to prospective and current students, frequently, even the president is unaware of how things are being communicated. We have had cases where we were told that an institution’s welcome letter sounded more like a rejection letter. Regular assessment, usually conducted by an external unbiased researcher, is the best defense and can provide the most effective tools to correcting serious issues within an operation. In one particular case, HEI conducted a thorough assessment of a student services department in one of the fastest growing areas of the nation. Despite the population growth, the colleges enrollment had failed to exceed 0.5% during the previous few years. After completing individual interviews and focus groups from throughout the division over just a three-day period, more than a dozen major findings were crafted into recommendations, which the president implemented, and resulted in a total growth rate by the following fall of 37%. The college increased gross revenue many hundreds of times over what it cost them to run the assessment. But just as important, it provided a healthier culture and a more welcoming environment to students.

9) Excellent, contemporary, urgently responsive, and relational student recruiting and admissions

Effective recruiting and admissions in today’s world looks very little like that of even a few decades ago. Rather than taking potentially years to consider, apply for, be accepted and enrolled in college, the average student today decides in a matter of days and frequently enrolls within months. This often hinges on what recruiter they connect and develop a rapport with first. Recruiting and admissions today must be immediately responsive, must move quickly and efficiently, be student-friendly, and proactively help to streamline and fast-track the process. Those institutions that are not good at this critical pivot, will lose out to the colleges who are, which includes the for-profit colleges.

10) A comprehensive, thorough, and frequently reviewed disaster relief plan

Imagine a college that is struggling to survive and – within less than eight months – is suddenly and unexpectedly swept up in a global pandemic. This is then followed by direct hits from major hurricanes, flooding and/or tornadoes. This happened in 2020. Climate change is intensifying and we have certainly not seen the last of pandemics, not to mention an array of other potential devastating disasters. We live in a time where it is no longer sufficient to prepare for individual disasters. We must prepare for multiple simultaneous events. Some universities, particularly in Africa, must include locus swarms on their list.

As higher education, we hold much of our own future, the future of our students, and potentially a significant portion of the future of our world in our hands.

Higher Education can be the greatest global game-changer! It can lead the way to solving the world’s most challenging issues including hunger, poverty, climate change, violence, technology needs for the future, and so much more! But it is the fully prepared, entrepreneurial and visionary institutional leaders who will plan and pave the way.

(Darden, 2020)

Dr. Darden is the president of Higher Education Innovation, LLC and author of two books co-published with the American Council on Education and Rowman and Littlefield. Her first book is titled Beyond 2020: Envisioning the Future of Universities in America and her new book is titled Entrepreneuring the Future of Higher Education: Radical Transformation in Times of Profound Change (now available for pre-order at):

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