To ensure that their institutions make necessary adaptations, university presidents must ask themselves a critical question: Where do our schools fit in the higher education landscape—today and in the years to come?
I came to Bentley University at an exciting and challenging time. The chair of our board of trustees had declared that Bentley’s next 10 years would be as important as our first century, and I also believe that to be true. At the time of my inauguration, undergraduate enrollment at institutions across the nation had decreased by seven percent since 2010.That number, however, should rise slowly at a national level over the course of the next decade in advance of another significant decline.
The impacts of the changing landscape are already apparent. Institutions have been forced to close their doors or merge with larger entities. Students have been forced to transfer so that they may continue on the pathway to earning the degree. This has led many institutions to expand the scope of their activities in an effort to remain financially viable. But as institutions expand their offerings, they offer more marginally viable programs and become less differentiated.
This reduction in differentiation does not serve our students nor higher education more broadly. One of the great strengths of America’s higher education system is that it contains many different types of institutions that provide students with viable pathways toward many different types of degrees. To ensure that a variety of choices remain viable, institutions must be fiercely proactive in recognizing the elements that differentiate them within a range of higher education offerings and explore ways to build upon that niche. Personally, I found that some of my most valued partners in clarifying Bentley’s niche and considering opportunities for innovative academic initiatives have been members of the board.
As they pursue differentiation, university leaders must examine student-centered questions. Who are the learners of tomorrow? What kinds of learning will help them build a foundation for lifelong thriving and success? How will we create the conditions for this learning to occur? Universities will also need to partner with supporters who can help them envision bold, landscape-defining responses to these questions. Million-dollar ideas about how to foster the kind of learning the students of the future will need can lead to million-dollar asks.
In May, Bentley launched a new Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning, made possible by a generous gift from departing chair of the board Bob Badavas ’74 and his wife, Kally. This new center offers a vital resource for our faculty as they explore the aforementioned who, what, and how of higher education. Bob was the one who proclaimed the importance of Bentley’s next 10 years, and together we developed this center as one pathway for Bentley to meet that challenge. It is a center that plays to Bentley’s strengths, and niche, as a forward-thinking, innovative business school grounded in the arts and sciences that is always reinventing itself and the future of business education.
But this center also has value beyond its immediate impact. Bob is building upon Bentley’s rich tradition of trustee leadership and giving for “million-dollar ideas.” My predecessor, President Gloria Cordes Larson, partnered with then chair of the board, Steve Manfredi ’73, to launch another multimillion-dollar idea. With their combined vision and the philanthropic support of Steve and his wife, Chris, as well as a few others, Bentley launched the Center for Women and Business, which has focused on leadership opportunities for women, as well as diversity and inclusion initiatives from the classroom to the boardroom. Direct support from trustees like Bob and Steve encourages continued innovation and exploration within our community, both critical components of the future of higher education.
In this era of change we must remain steadfast in our commitment to innovation, but we must also commit to defining and owning our niche. One institution cannot be all things to everyone; thoughtful decision making will enable us to make clear and appropriate choices. Partnership with the board combined with philanthropic support can make all the difference. I was so fortunate to receive that partnership and support in year one. Now, we begin planning for the next million-dollar idea.
Alison Davis-Blake, PhD, is the president of Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts.