Contemporary Challenges to the System (Part I)

Higher education is increasingly faced with challenges that are not easily surmounted. These are contemporary challenges with no simple answers or quick solutions. While the list below could be ten times longer based on who you talk to, several contemporary challenges include, in no particular order:

a) Increase in Title IX incidents
b) Rise in student debt
c) Decline in federal and state support for instruction
d) Rise in tuition, room/board, and fees
e) Competition for market share of decreasing high school graduates
f) Change in student profile from traditional to non-traditional students
g) Pressure to increase retention and completion
h) Shortage of classroom space and human capital to handle higher enrollments
i) Decrease in tenure track positions and continued rise in adjunct model of teaching
j) Increase in number of students needing developmental education
k) Challenges associated with serving a growing international population
l) Pressure to prepare graduates to work in the era of globalization
m) Increase in plagiarism among students and faculty
n) Pressure to align programs, certificates, degrees with industry needs
o) Pressure to increase college educated workforce to 60 percent
p) Role of MOOCs and its resistance to commodification
q) Growth of for-profit higher education sector
r) Increase in accountability by Higher Learning Commission and DOE
s) Question about the return on investment of a college degree
t) Increase in scrutiny by the media on how public dollars are spent
u) Demand on resources created by ongoing technology upgrades
v) Challenge to provide increased security on campuses
w) Impact of Affordable Health Care Act on budgets
x) Looming retirements of administrative and academic leadership
y) Aging facilities and infrastructure on campuses
z) Fill in the blank ___________________________

Again, this list is far from complete. Most of the challenges identified are from the perspective of what might keep higher education leaders awake at night. We could list an entirely different data set by spending time in the trenches, where we would discover additional challenges with campus infrastructure, student behavior, and personnel that would make our heads spin. Or we could conduct an inquiry with faculty and the list would grow even more. Garnering the student perspective would reveal unique challenges that we never knew existed, and let us not forget to include the challenges seen by the external community partners. The list of contemporary challenges would grow exponentially. Furthermore, these challenges are escalating, and creating pressure on a higher education system that was not initially designed with them in mind. These challenges need to be resolved or they will remain an ongoing distraction that pulls and pushes the educational economic, and civic mission of higher education off course, or simply prevents it from maturing. Where do we go from here? Part II will focus on solutions.

Complex Challenge/Collaboration=Solution

At the recent SOCHE Fellows forum, a year-long program designed for emerging academic leaders, it was no surprise that collaboration emerged as a main theme, as well as the subtext, in several discussions. It emerged as a desired outcomes needed right now to address the myriad of contemporary challenges facing higher education; challenges to a higher ed system that was not created with these challenges in mind, nor the intrinsic wisdom and collaborative culture to address them. Fortunately, such complex challenges that require systemic change, ultimately, can be solved through future-oriented collaborative thinking. Simply put, the equation looks like: complex challenge/collaboration=solution (x/y=z).

pictured: SOCHE Fellows working together
to come untangled as part of an exercise
on Difficult and Crucial Conversations.

CI: Beyond Higher Ed’s Origin of Silos

Whenever I talk about SOCHE, people are repeatedly fascinated that an organization exists to purposely facilitate, find, and forge collaboration. Whether I’m at TED Global, Harvard Kennedy School, Valencia College, riding the Metro, or striking up a conversation in the local supermarket, people recognize that collaboration is the critical ingredient missing in many different settings. At a recent event, it was noted that academic silos serve as the antithesis to collaborative thinking. For good reason, the silo structure and culture were created to engender deep, focused research and scholarship. However, a closed system as such can evolve only so far before it becomes desperate for change or, worse off, headed down a path of exhaustion. As much as higher education has improved efforts in campus-community partnerships, where can you find on campus the nucleus for intra-collaboration, the resourced collaborative infrastructure (CI) that facilitates, finds, and forges collaboration internally?  It seems too obvious that each campus needs a SOCHElike office, embedded within the campus operation to ensure academia is truly a learning system that evolves itself beyond its origin of silos.


TEDx is an independently organized TED event. Over 3,000 have occurred around the globe. While each TEDx is uniquely programmed by a local community, there is one thing that successful TEDx events have in common. Their creativity comes from the ability to effectively leveraging volunteer collaboration. While the volunteers are attracted to TEDx because of the power of the TED brand, an ethos of collaboration emerges in the TEDx process and, essentially, collaboration becomes the driving spirit that permits innovation as we uncover “ideas worth spreading.”

TEDxDayton 2013 pic.

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Collaborative Magic

The Global Impact STEM Academy, Springfield City Schools, and Yellow Springs Schools worked together to develop waiver applications from state mandated testing in Ohio. The intention of the waiver is to use alternative assessments that are compatible with the educational programs of the applicants, while still maintaining a consistent level of rigor and accountability. While very different public schools in size and scope, these school leaders clearly indicated that the strength of their applications came from the opportunity to collaborate, as they wrestled with alternative pathways. In the spirit of collaboration, superintendent of the Springfield City, Dr. David Estrop, and superintendent of Yellow Springs Schools, Mr. Mario Basora, held a joint press conference and performed a little collaborative magic. They pulled a bunny out of a hat that held the waivers along with a promise to help state and federal bureaucrats understand and accept this innovative approach to assessment that reduces state required testing by 50-70%.

Estrop and Basora Waiver Press Conference 02.27.15 B



The Entrepreneurial University

To shape and sustain its future, higher education must become deliberate about establishing new connections, building new partnerships, and evolving itself into a collaborative enterprise.

Many creative examples can be found in the publication The Innovative and Entrepreneurial University. As you will read, the Entrepreneurial University takes a pro-active stance in turning knowledge and student into economic generation. Students are not only becoming the prepared professionals in  scientific disciplines, business, culture, but they are also encouraged and trained to become entrepreneurs and firm founders, contributing to economic growth and job creation.

Rather than only serving as a source of new ideas for existing firms, universities are combining their research and teaching capabilities in new formats to become a source of new business and technology development.

entrepreneurialWhile not every campus is in a position to create new enterprises, at a minimum, strengthening an campus’s innovative, entrepreneurial, and/or collaborative foundation will increase its  value proposition.

Simply, a campus that builds a culture of innovation and collaboration will, consequently, catalyze solutions to pressing contemporary–educational, economic, and societal–challenges.


UD-GE Aviation Partnership as Leadership

The formal partnership between the University of Dayton and GE Aviation is a major collaborative practice and example of visionary leadership. As a result, GE Aviation built a $54 million research-and-development center on UD’s campus, creating space and opportunity for faculty and students researchers to work together with GE Aviation scientists and engineers on developing new advanced technologies. Further, the partnership created a talent pipeline from UD directly into GE Aviation and its core industries, beginning with internships and co-ops, and, ultimately will lead to full-time employment of UD graduates. These are initial good results, yet the longterm benefits will be transformative for both entities.

Creating this particular university-industry partnership requires mature, collaborative thinking. Hence, UD’s and GE Aviation’s leadership needs to be studied deeply, as this type of higher collaboration is the future.


Synergistic Collaboration

Synergy is a key indicator for measuring effective and ineffective collaboration. This indicator emerged in my research that contributed to the scholarship on community partners. The research deepened our understanding of what community partners look for and expect in successful civic partnerships with higher education. The “effective” and “ineffective” descriptors provide helpful, measurable criteria to keep in mind when establishing, monitoring, and evaluating a collaborative partnership.


  • Acknowledges that both partners are better off working together than separately, creating a mutuality that results in higher productivity and progress toward desired outcomes
  • Recognizes the community partner adds value to student education by providing practical experience and that students receive real-world lessons in servant leadership
  • Demonstrates that faculty gain more experience in the areas of practice and direct service
  • Creates feeling of pleasure from collaboration
  • Produces happiness with results of the partnership
  • Believes parties’ constituencies mutually benefit from the relationship


  • Permits patronizing attitude toward community partner on the part of faculty and administrators
  • Exhibits academic arrogance on part of tenured faculty who are disconnected from direct-service providers
  • Views practice as inferior to theory
  • Places students in the awkward situation of brokering the relationship between faculty and community partner, making them the glue that holds the partnership together

Many other descriptors could be added to this initial list, but it does give us a place to start when entering into collaboration. The full list of indicators can be found at Community Partners Indicators of Engagement: An Action Research Study on Campus-Community Partnership.

Increase your Erdős number

Paul Erdős provided us with a formula for determining “collaborative distance.” If you think about it in other terms, he gave us a mathematical road for collaborative closeness. Since it through collaboration that people are brought together to work on challenges, explore opportunities, seek solutions, and, ultimately, create collective impact, as we pursue collaborative work, our potential for success increases exponentially as we increase our Erdős number. k + 1 = collaborative closeness.

Tongue and Cheek Collaboration

TEDxDayton 2014 had many rich talks throughout the day. This tongue and cheek talk on collaboration by Stephen and Joel Levinson gives us a personal look into collaboration and not-collaboration. Keeping the content lighthearted and, as a result, definitely engaging, the Levinson brothers share good tips we can employ when we are in the messiness of our collaborative work.