Institutional Survival in the 21st Century
Q&A with Richard A. Demillo
Richard A. Demillo is distinguished professor of computing and professor of management, former John P. Imley Dean of Computing and director of the Center for 21st Century Universities at Georgia Institute of Technology. He previously
directed the Computer and Computation Research Division of
the National Science Foundation and was Hewlett-Packard’s first
chief technology officer. In his new book, Abelard to Apple: the
Fate of American Colleges and Universities (The MIT Press,
2011), Demillo argues that those higher education institutions in
the middle—reputable but not considered equal to the elite and
entrenched upper echelon of the Ivy League and other prestigious
schools—must stop ignoring the social, economic, and historical
forces at work in today’s world if they want to survive.
What makes senior student affairs officers (SSAOs) critical partners in adding value at their institutions?
At Georgia Tech, the dean of student auxiliary services and
student affairs professionals represent a group of people who
think hard about current and future student communities.
They are the individuals, more than any others on campus,
who have a real telescope to peer back into where our students
came from and what experience led them to Georgia Tech.
From student affairs staff members and student groups, I hear
that today’s students had a different kind of social and learning
network before they arrived at college than any other generation of students. They want to incorporate those networks in
their college experiences.
Students want to create their own digital identities and
extend those identities beyond their time on campus. Student
affairs professionals understand that more readily than those
on the academic side. The more interaction you have with
students, the more sensitive you are to how sophisticated
students’ digital life has become.
SSAOs are much more aware of the changing demographics of students. The completion rate discussion is always tied
to four-year completion rates, which may or may not be what
today’s students are looking for. Students that enter four-year
institutions, acquire a skill, and leave often appear as negative checks on the completion balance sheet. However, a late
on-ramp to higher education and early off-ramp may serve
How do you instill a student-centric approach in
Student-centrism at many institutions is a complete sham; it
is a set of marketing phrases that are purchased by the dozen.
Every institution wants to be empowering and inclusive, yet
that says nothing at all about what the university offers. My
advice is to chuck the marketing phrases and concentrate on
what it means to be a student-centered university. Do you
make things relevant to your students?
For SSAOs aspiring to positions of leadership, what
does it take to be a successful president?
You must focus on value. If you can’t articulate why a student
should spend $20,000, $30,000, or $40,000 a year to attend
your institution, you will eventually lose that student.
Be bold. Don’t be afraid to experiment. People are tied
to the concept of the university administration as curators,
almost like museum curators. You must be prepared to take
action, even if you are unsure how the action you take today
will affect students tomorrow.
Treat your job as a CEO. This is the single hardest discussion I have with my academic colleagues. When I say a university president should act like a CEO, they hear me comparing
the university to a large business organization. They don’t like
that comparison. I understand higher education is different.
But at the end of the day, if you can’t keep your ship afloat,
it will sink. The only way to keep the ship afloat is to be on a
firm business foundation. The finances must be transparent,
and they must make sense. You can’t raid the academic cookie
jar because you like collegiate athletics or you want to launch
a technology commercialization program. Ultimately, students
will look back and decide if your institution provided value.
What are key take-aways for SSAOs from your book?
If you are waiting for a big fix, you are going to be waiting for
a long time. I don’t think state legislators will suddenly buck
up and increase university budgets by 100 percent, which is
what it would take about now to get back to early 2000 levels.
I don’t think there will suddenly be a set of policy initiatives
coming from Washington that will make life easier. I don’t
think that there is any great technological innovation on the
horizon that will solve everyone’s problem. If that is what you
are waiting for, you will lose out to an institution that has conducted an experiment, done something innovative, or focused
on their original mission more than you have.
When I talk to leadership groups, I love to give them this
exercise: I ask them to print a copy of their institution’s strategic plan. Then I compare it with strategic plans of peer institutions to see if they can tell them apart. Nine times out of ten,
they cannot. The things that they are promising to do are
exactly the same types of things that a steward promises to do
to keep things moving in the same direction, it says nothing at
all about the intrinsic value of the institution. LE