Keynote Address: United Way of Summit County Tocqueville Society


United Way of Summit County Tocqueville Society
Keynote Address
University of Akron President Gary L. Miller
11:30 a.m., Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020 • Mandel Center, Sojourner Truth Bldg.

Thank you, Nicole.

And a special thank you to Jim Mullen, President and CEO of United Way of Summit County, for inviting me here today to share some thoughts with you.

It is a particular honor to visit with you about The University of Akron and its future.

Georgia and I wanted to come to Akron. We wanted to be part of this University.

We wanted to be here because of the history of this University, because of its historical deep relationship to this community,
and because it is a crucible for most of the major challenges facing higher education in America today.

I am not alone in this belief. We have a great Board of Trustees who understand both the historical and future significance of the university. Several of them are here today.

  • Alfred Ciraldo
  • David James
  • Tyler Bennington

And, I have had confirmed something I suspected was true: The University is endowed with an exceptional faculty and staff, extraordinary resources, and an academic portfolio well positioned to prepare learners of all types for the future.

The opportunities before us are vast.

But, of course, we face a number of significant challenges.

What I want you to know as leaders in this community is

(1) the broader context of these challenges and;
(2) what we are doing at The University of Akron to meet these

The American Higher Education Challenge

We are in the midst of a dramatic and historic transition in American higher education.

This transition has three broad intersecting dimensions, all of which affect The University of Akron and all other public and private universities in the country:

  1. Historical shift in the perception of the value of higher education.
  2. Gutenberg-scale changes in the dynamics of knowledge.
  3. Widening geographic divergence of the innovation economy.

You may have noticed I did not mention demography, which is widely cited as the primary reason for the proximate challenges universities have today with enrollment and, thus, revenue generation.

It is true we face a massive shift in demography, particularly in the Midwest, which shrinks one of our historical markets: first-time, full-time students.

We are in the midst of a decade-long stagnation in the number of U.S. high school graduates, that is expected to run through 2023.

There will be a small increase that should carry through to 2025, then an even steeper skid is expected throughout the remainder of this decade.

While the South and the Western states will see steady rates and even increases, the Northeast and the Midwest are projected to experience declining numbers of high school graduates.

In fact, it is projected that the Midwest’s share of the nation’s high school graduates will fall from 22% in 2013 to about 19% in 2030. It is also expected that the number of annual graduates in the Midwest will fall by 93,000.

These are sobering statistics indeed.

If one conceives of a university operating five years from now in the same way it operates today, these statistics are even more sobering.

There is very little we can do about these demographic trends. The way to confront the challenge of changing markets is to confront the broader higher education environment. That is, we’ve got to be a more innovative player in a significantly transformed environment.

What of the three major transitions I mentioned?

1. First, let me begin by describing the historical shift in the perception of the value of higher education.

The University of Akron is an excellent example of some features of this transition.

During the time The University of Akron was a municipal university, and after that when it became a public university in Ohio...

...there was a very, very strong feeling among Akron’s citizens and those in the surrounding area that it was a good thing to have a university in the city. Indeed, that feeling exists today.

This same attitude existed throughout America in the latter part of the 20th century, culminating in the great expansion of higher education in America in the 1960s, the time when UA transitioned into a state public university.

During this great build out, towns all across the country fought one another to obtain a university.

The University of Wisconsin-Green Bay – established in 1965 at the very end of this great expansion – was sought by the citizens of Green Bay at a time those same citizens hated what was happening on the campus at the University of Wisconsin Madison.

There were two drivers of all this enthusiasm for higher education.

People were beginning to understand the value of the college degree to a person’s lifetime success. (Today, a college degree is worth about $1.5 M lifetime income premium.)

But there was something else. People all over the country believed there was a strong commonwealth value of having a college in your town.

There was an appreciation that institutions like The University of Akron contributed significantly to the arts, music and entertainment assets of the community.

Universities also attracted smart people who usually demanded better schools and responsive government.

One of the biggest and most insidious transitions in the higher education landscape since the 1960s is the loss of this commonwealth value.

Most people in the country today do not believe there is a commonwealth value to higher education. If they believe in higher education – and increasingly, many don’t – they believe the value accrues primarily to the individual receiving the degree.

This explains the decades long slide in state funding for higher education. The thinking goes, “If the college degree primarily benefits the individual getting the degree, why should the state fund the degree.”

Ironically, this thinking is most often paired with the views that:

  1. tuition is a tax that should be regulated and;
  2. if higher education benefits mainly the individual and not society as a whole, universities should be primarily in the job training business to help individuals get good jobs.

2. The second huge transition in higher education has to do with the dynamics of knowledge itself.

Universities as we know them have been around since the medieval period. Indeed, there are many, many things we do that have not changed much since then.

Until relatively recently, the reason someone went to a university is because knowledge resided there in the form of books and people who could read and teach.

Universities now operate in a much, much different environment. Knowledge is ubiquitous and virtually universally accessible.

It is literally true in today’s world that the biggest impediment to gaining knowledge is not access to knowledge, but the lack of developmental maturity, the lack of the key skills at mining knowledge, and perhaps most egregious, the lack of an open mind.

The university professor no longer holds all the knowledge.

What this means is universities now have to operate more as navigators and guides rather than teachers. Learning happens all the time.

There are over 2 trillion google searches issued every day. Each one of these searches represents someone asking a question. Our job is to shape that learning.

And, of course, this raises the question: What is the monetary value of that shaping process?

What, exactly, are we selling and how much is it worth?

Today, successful universities are the ones that are aggressively responding to this new challenge.

  • They are meeting learners where they are (“open for business.”)
  • They are increasingly looking at a student’s past experience – experience in anything – to determine where that student’s higher education learning should begin (competency-based learning).
  • And, they are looking beyond their own walls for models of learning.

Universities falling behind in this environment have not adjusted to the realities of our time.

3. Finally, I want to mention just one transition that is particularly important to Akron: Geographic shifts in the innovation economy.

It is well known that technology will automate many of the most popular jobs now available to undergraduate students. (For example, accounting).

It is also well known that operating in the job world today and the near future means having portable skills to move often from one job to another and continuous learning.

We know that a third or more of the jobs of the near future have not been invented yet. Georgia and I have one child and a son-in-law working in jobs that essentially did not exist when they were in school.

So, the future economy is an innovation economy, one driven by individual initiative, flexibility, team work and continuous learning.

The challenge for Akron and other legacy cities in America is that there has been a geographic discontinuity created in the innovation economy.

Let me say what I mean by a “geographic discontinuity.”

90% of the innovation economy is now centralized in five locations in the country: Boston, San Francisco, San Jose, Seattle and San Diego.

This aggregation is continuing because of an interesting difference in the way the innovation economy works.

There is a premium set on aggregation of similar companies. Tech companies gain a competitive advantage when they locate close together.

For middle America, like Akron, this will require considerable creativity and planning. It will also require a different relationship between universities and their communities.

It is fair to say that with few exceptions American higher education has been slow to respond to these dramatic transitions.

  • We have still not figured out how to price our product. Increasingly we are out of bounds for many families.
  • We continue to struggle with accessibility.
  • And, perhaps most disappointing of all, as an enterprise we only finish about 42% of those who begin with us.

There are many reasons for this but one of the most important is the way universities are designed.

We are designed to be deeply reflective. Good scholarship operates that way: questions are carefully studied, tested by experiment and deep reading, and subjected to a rigorous evaluation by other scholars.

This is the feature of higher education that gives it its most important social value: the ability to think and operate on a rational and organized way. It is the hallmark of the American college degree and is what makes American college graduates so good.

Unfortunately, this way of operating comes with high risk-aversion and a strong tendency to resist change.

Balancing the great power of traditional higher education with the imperatives of our new environment represent the major goal of all university presidents.

I believe it is possible to meet this challenge for two reasons:

  • We must meet it to survive.
  • And, most importantly, one of the other features of higher education is it is a giant reservoir of innovation and creativity. Within our walls are the new ideas and the new approaches we will need for the future.

How is The University of Akron responding to these broad challenges?

We are undertaking discussions and actions in four broad areas:

  • We are changing the culture of the campus to one of shared accountability and shared benefits. Our goal is to find and apply the innovations necessary to meet our challenges.
  • We are aligning our enrollment philosophy with the obligations of an urban research university. This means we are putting ourselves in the position to provide opportunities – not just admissions — to more learners of all ages.
  • We are working to be open for business. We know traditional markets are shrinking. But the need to learn is growing. We’ve got to get better at meeting learners where they need to learn.
  • We are developing new financial models that reward innovation and control costs in a transparent way.

In about two hours I will participate in a campus-wide meeting to discuss our progress in developing a new strategic plan for our institution.

At 3 p.m. today, you’ll be able to go to our website and see that progress for yourself.

A working group comprised of 16 faculty members, administrators and staff have facilitated this faculty-led, campus-wide effort to review data from recent self-studies...

...and to come up with four general recommendations that will help set the direction our University should take over the next three to five years.

Those recommendations are:

  1. Expand on-line offerings through a uniquely branded comprehensive Akron Virtual Campus.
  2. Direct available resources to high demand degree areas related to business, engineering, technology, and health professions.
  3. Develop increased flexibility with more pathways for student success.
  4. Capitalize on potential opportunities to generate income through external partnerships with regional businesses.

I cannot help but observe that what we are doing parallels the strategic repositioning of the United Way of Summit County, when it changed its function from a pass-through community chest model to adopting actionable four Bold Goals as a guide toward future success.

The list of recommendations the University community will discuss at today’s meeting is not a final document, nor is it even a first draft of a strategic plan. What it is, is the conclusion to the 1st phase of this process, and the beginning of a second.

In that next phase, all members of our campus community will be able to comment on these recommendations.

A second working group will consider that feedback as they begin drafting the strategic plan. That document will go through several iterations before it’s finally ready to present to our Board of Trustees for consideration at their June meeting.

I see a few friends here who work in the corporate world shaking their heads.

Believe me, for higher education, this is lightning fast.

Let me conclude by thanking the United Way of Summit County for all it does for this community. We share your vision as outlined in the four Bold Goals.

I also want to thank those of you here today who invest so significantly in the United Way. We at The University of Akron are deeply grateful for your commitment to this community.

Thank you very much for your kind attention. I would be happy to answer any questions.

More about President Gary L. Miller