Chancellor Johnson publishes chapter on the evolution of higher education

Colleges and universities need to adapt in order to equip students with not only current skills but skills that will allow success in a future of unknowns

Students in 3D printing lab

Today’s graduates will face a hyper-connected, rapidly changing economy and looming global challenges. Over the course of their lives, college graduates will hold nearly 20 jobs in five different industries, including industries that do not yet exist.

Unlike previous generations, graduates must not only seek their first job but plan to create their future careers since they cannot depend on their employers to do it for them. We must prepare them to utilize nascent and not-yet-created technologies to solve problems that have not been identified. Within 15 years, nearly half of today's jobs will be lost—not to immigrants, but to machines. For these reasons, the academy must evolve from a static, 19th century learning model to an agile organization that not only meets the needs of the present but anticipates and meets the needs of the future. Failure to do so is nothing less than educational malpractice. 

What does it mean to meet the needs of the next generation of learners? The academy must give students a skillset and mindset that prepare them for a volatile, complex, and ambiguous world, one where the uniquely human skills that cannot be replicated by artificial intelligence and robots will be essential. Institutions must shoulder more responsibility in evolving and creating avenues for students to develop the skills and mindsets to thrive in such an atmosphere. To meet the needs of the next generation of learners, institutions must grow into “Agile Universities.” 

Rooted in the origins of the academy to impart knowledge, the Agile University goes further by fostering learning, empowering people, and embracing change to add and create new value to society. Universities must be agile both to prepare students for the future of work and because financial pressure to educate more students with fewer resources is the new normal. If the academy does not disrupt its status quo, it will be disrupted. Agile universities need agile leaders, support for creative and innovative faculty, the ability to create value, and risk-savvy boards. These four elements together are required in an Agile University and will be described below. 

Agile Leadership
Leaders of the academy must embrace change, be disruptive, foster a positive culture, and not be averse to risk. Embracing change is a paradigm of continuous learning and improvement, especially when 65% of the jobs that current grade schoolers will hold as adults do not yet exist. As the academy prepares to educate this generation of students, we must embrace new ways of operating so that our institutions remain relevant in meeting the needs of a very different world of work. 

For leaders to build the Agile University, they must be willing to take risks to do things differently. Taking risks means building systems that allow for selective experimentation to enhance the student experience and allowing teaching and learning to take place in ways that are meaningful to the student and not merely convenient for the institution. Selective experimentation means freedom to try new and innovative ways to conduct business. It requires recognizing what currently works and, at the same time, trying new approaches and taking calculated risks to improve outcomes. 

Consider the classroom 20 years ago and a classroom of today. The widespread use of smart phones and social media is little more than a decade old. Are we teaching and creating student experiences the same way we were 20 years ago? Do we allow academic leaders to selectively experiment with new ways of doing things to meet the needs of this generation of learners? Do we build systems that enable them to be disruptive in their approach to improve the student experience? Today’s leaders must evolve a culture of talent, change, and inclusiveness to create the optimal institution. An Agile University provides the platform to create such an environment. 

Support Faculty Creativity and Innovation
As the lifeblood of any academic institution, the faculty engage learners and advance the academy in teaching, research, and scholarship. Supporting program development, exploring different content delivery modalities, and considering stackable credentials are essential ingredients in building an Agile University. In the Agile University, faculty are encouraged and incentivized to change, create, and develop programs that are relevant to the world of work that graduates will enter. 

Twelve years ago, the job title of social media manager did not exist. Today, marketing and technology have melded, and it is a job in great demand. How do we create an environment that supports faculty in selectively experimenting with new programs and in thinking deeply about what artificial intelligence, augmented reality, and the automation of jobs will mean for current and future academic programs and how we educate students? 

Faculty must be given the opportunity to think creatively about what a 21st century learning environment looks like and provided the tools and incentives to try new approaches that will be relevant for the future of work and the broader needs of society. What should the teaching and workload model be in this type of construct? 

To accomplish this, we must disrupt some traditional, established processes, systems, and protocols. Not all elements should be disrupted—faculty should always control the curriculum and learning outcomes. They must have academic freedom and the opportunity to manage creative tension between the status quo and building new learning models. Students will always benefit from human interaction and engaging with faculty members, but other modalities like online learning or the flipped classroom have great benefit. We can have both if we allow faculty flexibility with new technology tools and teaching modalities to augment the students’ learning experience. 

Entrepreneurs speak about failing early and often in order to build the next great company. How do we build systems that allow faculty to selectively experiment and take calculated risks to build the Agile University, even if that means some experiments do not work as planned? 

The Agile University – Value Creation
A key tenet of the Agile University is to add and create new value to society. Creating new value to society in part means providing students the mindsets and skillsets that develop the uniquely human skills that cannot be replicated by artificial intelligence and robots. As today’s college graduates go through frequent job changes, their mindsets and skillsets will enable them to thrive in the maelstrom of the new normal. Some argue that this is simply teaching the liberal arts, albeit in a new era. It is not. 

The primary objective of the academy, from its inception, was to impart knowledge and to teach students to think critically and solve problems. At Morehouse College, I had a liberal arts education. I was taught how to solve problems and think critically. However, I was not intentionally taught, while I was solving problems and thinking critically, to seek ways to add and create new value as part of that process. This value-creation mindset is a cornerstone of the Agile University, and it will ensure that college graduates thrive in a rapidly changing, hyper-connected future. 

How is the university designed to support faculty in creating content that provides skillsets and mindsets that add and create value to society? If faculty maintain the status quo and build only the skills for competence in a specific field, then students will be ill-prepared for value creation in tomorrow’s economy. If students are provided with the skills to understand human needs, to create something out of nothing, and to solve problems, they will truly be prepared for the future of work. Faculty must be given the latitude to take risks, selectively experiment, and fail when necessary in order to form the disruptive learning models that will be relevant to employers and the jobs of the future. Building an Agile University requires an environment where faculty, staff, and students work together to disrupt and change the status quo when and where appropriate. 

Risk-savvy Boards
Presidents who are leading higher education institutions right now are writing the next chapter of what the academy will look like 50 years from now. The times call for leaders to disrupt or be disrupted in order for their institutions to grow and prosper. University boards must also evolve their thinking and governance model to support an Agile University. They must understand that their fiduciary responsibility as a board is not mutually exclusive with disruption and change. They can maintain their fiduciary responsibility while being risk-savvy to allow their president to be disruptive and navigate the rapidly changing higher education landscape. 

The most important decision any board makes is hiring its president and supporting her/his vision. It must trust that leader to create the operational plan to fulfill that vision and evolve the institution to the next level. The board cannot agree to the strategic plan and then tell the president how to achieve the plan’s goals. It cannot say it wants “change” and then tell the president what to change or not support the changes because “the institution has been conducting business this way for the last 20 years.” They cannot say, “build new learning models” but not support the president’s entrepreneurial endeavors that will build an Agile University. 

As boards see the disruption caused by demographic shifts, too often the response is to re-trench and wait until the storm passes. This is not the answer, and it is certainly not what the leader of an Agile University has been hired to do. Boards must accept their roles as policymakers, stay out of the day-to-day operations, and understand that having a tolerance for risk does not mean abandoning fiduciary responsibility. The Agile University requires boards to hire visionary leaders who understand what it means to lead an adaptive, nimble, and entrepreneurial institution and to be risk-savvy in supporting this type of leader. Hiring the best leader possible and trusting their decision to let her/him lead is a foundation for creating an Agile University, one that is advantageously positioned for the future.

This chapter originally appeared in President2President.

Chancellors Office, Gallery