Changes Across Higher Education Set the Agenda for Coming Conversations at St. Norbert College

This past May marked 20 years since I walked across the St. Norbert Commencement stage and accepted my diploma. Just when I was feeling pretty proud of that anniversary, I ran into Father Sal Cuccia who said, “Well, it’s been 50 for me, you young pup!” Leave it to our Norbertine fathers to always show us our place in this great ongoing procession of our alumni. 

Those years since my graduation have included the past 11 during which I’ve been working at St. Norbert. Since arriving in June 2002, I have had four jobs and six offices, in at least three buildings, with five different bosses – who have included two of our presidents. It’s been complicated. But for me, it’s always been about seeing what the college can do next, and how I can help. Sitting still doesn’t work for me, or for today’s higher education model. 

Now it’s my turn to try something new. Over the course of the next year, I’ll be working part-time, partnering with President Tom Kunkel on strategic initiatives for St. Norbert College. We’ll look at ways to advance the college to ensure it is in even better position when I get to Father Sal’s current milestone. (It’ll also be the first full year for my new company, O’Connor Connective. I’ll be providing strategic planning and strategic communication consulting services for a wide variety of clients – and that’s where the other part of my time will be spent.)

As I transition from position #4 to position #5 at St. Norbert, here are a few issues that Tom and l will be paying attention to – issues that I believe are critical to the college’s future – along with a glimpse into what my past 11 years have shown me. 

Access and Affordability
Let’s continue to explore deeply how we can ensure access and affordability to all who seek our degrees and are qualified to earn them. 

You might not know that I was a Pell Grant recipient at SNC myself. I ask that we not forget what can happen when financial aid helps a kid like me earn a St. Norbert degree. I have never taken that privilege for granted and I hold the experience of finding ways to pay for college as one of my best life lessons. I remember it every day as I see our students trying to make the same dream happen for themselves. But it’s even harder in today’s world. A student can no longer earn enough in a summer to pay for a semester, let alone a year of college. So, what might we do rather than talk about that? Well, let’s diversify.

Diversity of Programs
Just like our portfolios, a college must diversify for its security and prosperity. Programs, hours, offerings and master’s degrees are just a sampling of areas where I’m encouraging us to continue to expand (or eliminate if it’s the right thing to do, as a way of helping reallocate institutional resources for our students’ needs today.)

Look at our history. During World War II, the college faced enormous challenges as its students departed to the battlefield and was successful in responding to the needs of the changing marketplace. St. Norbert became the headquarters of the 3658 Army Specialized Training Program. Following the war, veterans were to returned to the college in considerable numbers under the GI Bill. We adapted in difficult times. Let’s be that nimble again. 

Colleges and universities in the United States cannot continue raising tuition (with recent raises averaging about 5 percent a year at St. Norbert) and think that American families will be able to justify the cost of higher education. And, even if we do know that the very best financial decision young people can make for their future is to get a college education, families simply will not be able to make that choice. 

Many say that the higher education business model is broken. My perspective is that some of that is true. We do need to control costs and not pass all of the increases on to families. One way we can secure the resources necessary to hold down our undergraduate tuition increases is by offering robust, but not mission-changing, graduate programs on our campus. Other colleges have been successful with this model. And in today’s climate of increased competition, we need to take a serious look at this option.

Let’s consider what higher education as a whole has done with the graduate school business model. For starters, it has enlisted corporate sponsors to help build the graduate school. Then, it has asked corporations to pay for their employees to attend. Revenues from said graduate school then help support undergraduate programs – and undergraduates themselves. Hmm. It’s a model that even public radio gets. Corporate sponsorship can lead to good things.

Why have we been slow to connect this notion of corporate sponsorship with our undergraduate programs? Perhaps it boils down to two things: our worry that we will not have the academic freedom our liberal arts colleges hold sacred; and our sense that  corporations only care about graduate students and research findings, not undergrads. Well, I’d argue that the right corporations care very much about building tomorrow’s future, and the right corporations will also wisely leave faculty members to do what they’ve always done so well, with no attempt at interference. 

Is this Pollyannaish? Maybe. Is it a bigger problem than my simple idea of corporate sponsorship suggests? Probably. But why not explore the concept at some level? We need to be ready to consider new solutions lest, as some say, higher education might just be the next newspaper industry or housing market.  

OK, I don’t really think that we will implode as an industry. But I do think there will be more colleges closing in the near future. And I think our models of delivery are forcing all kinds of change. Demand will drive our future. And we need to respond more urgently as an industry than we are doing right now. That change starts at home. We need our campus community to be comfortable with change – and most of us insiders would say that our beloved higher education industry is as change-adverse as they come. 

Diversity of People
Let’s, too, continue to diversify our faculty and staff. And by that, I also mean to be mindful, keenly mindful, of the positions of leadership held (or not held) by women on campus. We are now at a point that, at Commencement this year, we offered 100 more degrees to women then men, yet we have a significant imbalance of positional power.

It’s my perspective that today’s modern college campus should mirror the population that it serves. People of color, along with women in general, constitute the student populations that are on the rise nationally. Are we providing, among our faculty, staff, leadership and trustees, mentors who look like the students we are enrolling? If not, what else might we do to make this happen? I’m delighted that Amanda Kim is joining the college as our senior adviser for diversity, equity and inclusion. But I am keenly mindful that it needs to be not just hers, but all of our jobs to improve in this area. 

Competition is Brewing. And Marketing Matters.
At our last board committee meeting, I showed the group television ads from Marquette, University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and Rasmussen College – three schools that are right in the heart of our market-share. We discussed the ever-increasing competitive positioning of public universities, for-profit institutions and private colleges. They are aggressively seeking top-of-mind awareness. We must enter this arena to advance our position of strength. 

Historically, we have held that if we are good, they will come. But that is no longer so. We need to make sure our name and reputation cuts through the noise. If you live outside the Midwest, then you know that not everyone has heard of the Norbertine campus you hold dear. Heck, even if you are in Minneapolis, you know of what I speak! But we can change this if we invest more in our brand awareness. 

Hail to Thee, St. Norbert College
Lastly, I’d like to say that while there are areas to improve upon, we are doing pretty darn well. It can be easy to be impatient. But we cannot forget that we are in a position of strength, despite the challenges faced across our industry. 

We have new partnerships – a key strategic advantage – with such friends as the Medical College of Wisconsin. We keep adding facilities when others haven’t ($100 million in the last five years, all donor supported.) And we have rising academic and diverse student populations on campus. All of these things are the envy of my industry colleagues. But let’s not say that it’s enough. Let’s not stop. Let’s never stop thinking about how we will ensure that the St. Norbert College mission continues to provide the life-altering and completely transformative experience that I enjoyed. Let’s make sure our next steps are as bold as Norbert of Xanten’s. Because, after all, Father Sal, and I, will be watching. 

July 2, 2013.