• Dr. Mary Darden

The Importance of Research-Based Coaching and Consulting in Higher Education

By now, nearly all higher education leaders have acknowledged or are acknowledging that higher education in America is experiencing one of its most challenging times. Many of us are calling this a full-blown crisis. As institutional closings escalate, it is essential that we ground our institutional transformations in research and proven best practices. The kind of leadership provided by college and university presidents ten or twenty years ago is simply not going to be effective enough to insure the future of most institutions. Change is happening too rapidly. Instead, we must now break through the long-established operational barriers and conduct continuous and ongoing research to discover and hone ways for colleges and universities to “thrive” in this new reality.


I was recently asked for my definition of “thrive” – at least as it relates to higher education. In simple terms, an institution that thrives is one that:


1. Has outstanding, well-prepared, highly skilled, innovative, and collaborative leadership. This is essential. Full stop.

2. Offers highly relevant and outstanding education – an education that results in gainful employment and greater life-fulfillment for its graduates. Institutions thrive when their students and alumni thrive.

3. Has a stable and substantial financial foundation to ensure greater longevity and essential transformation.

4. Is highly flexible and open to making the needed and necessary transformation to continue to thrive.

5. Is culturally healthy and is proactively and intentionally working at all levels to achieve complete diversity, equity and inclusion for all students, faculty, and staff.

6. Provides excellent professional education and critical tools to help leaders at all levels be innovative and entrepreneurial.

7. And all the above must be anchored in excellent and continuous research so that we know that our focus is on what is proven and effective.


It is the research piece that weaves this whole list together. Too often, when things get difficult, we bring in people who once served in leadership roles and ask them to guide and direct new presidents or institutions needing transformation. This in and of itself is not a bad thing. However, if what they are teaching/coaching/advising is not based in the most current and important research, it may be too little, too late, or worse, actually moving things in the wrong direction. What worked 10, 20 even 50 years ago is not relevant enough today. Things are just that different in the world of higher education today. Additionally, there is no one-size-fits-all approach, which requires specific institutional research and assessment to know what is needed and how to develop and apply solutions.


At Higher Education Innovation, LLC, we continue to conduct ongoing, deep-dive qualitative research at the institutions we work with. When we need to know more or get specialized insight, we conduct in-depth interviews with subject matter experts. We test and assess our methods and track our outcomes. And we teach our client institutions and leaders to do the same. Rather than coming in and occasionally bringing trucks of fish, we are teaching leaders at all levels how to fish.


We believe that this is the only long-term effective way to work together to move into a thrive mode and ultimately to transform the future of higher education in America.

And that’s why we are here.


Dr. Mary Landon Darden is a futurist, founder, and President of HEI. Her new book is Entrepreneuring the Future of Higher Education: Radical Transformation in Times of Profound Change published by Rowman and Littlfield and the American Council on Education.

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