Mastering mission creep in higher ed: How to avoid losing sight of institutional strengths and values

by Tim Goral | University Business

There are times when we could all use a fresh start. Scott Cowen was given that opportunity in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, as the then-president of Tulane University in New Orleans.

The tragedy led to an institutional soul-searching that would result in a “rebirth” of the university with a new focus on its core mission and strengths.

Using that experience as the launching point, Cowen’s book, Winnebagos on Wednesday: How Visionary Leadership Can Transform Higher Education (Princeton University Press, 2018), profiles college and university leaders from around the country who have faced their own transformative moments.
In chapters that focus on athletics, medical schools, diversity, innovation and leadership, Cowen shows how today’s university is evolving, and with it, the talents and character of the people in charge.

After Katrina, had you thought of making dramatic changes at Tulane, or were you just trying to reopen the campus?

Right after the storm, I was thinking about just getting up and running again and not about renewal or re-imagining the institution.
But as we saw the extent of the devastation of New Orleans and Tulane University, the reality set in that we could not just reopen the way we were before. We had done projections that showed if we reopened as we were prior to Katrina, we were likely to realize deficits of close to $100 million per year. We had to really rethink the entire institution. What could we look like in the future?

But you still wanted to maintain the Tulane heritage.

Yes. What we had to do was understand the core of the institution. What was our strength and what was our identity?
If some things we did didn’t match both core and strength, why were we doing them? In essence, we became a much more focused institution. We really tried to stay with those things that we either had excellence in or we could develop excellence in. That led to us eliminating a number of departments, reorganizing schools and putting in the next part of our core curriculum—community service. All these ideas came out of thinking about who we are as an institution, what we stand for, what’s important and what’s not important. One of the biggest lessons I learned from Katrina, quite honestly, is that universities are doing too many things. There’s been mission creep over time. We’re expected to do just about everything—academics, sports and, in our case, medicine. Instead, we have to get back to defining our core mission and our core identity.

You say many schools don’t do that.

A lot of institutions have to do some soul-searching now about who they are. They have to demonstrate: “We know who we are, and we’re a special institution, and if you want to come here for that reason, you should.” That works. What doesn’t work is paying $30,000 to an institution, but not quite knowing what you’re going to get out of that. What’s the value? And not just financial value, I’m talking about holistic value—“What is my life going to be like?” and “What will I get out of that institution?”

One area in which you didn’t achieve what you wanted was diversity. Can you elaborate?

I’m a strong proponent of diversity at the institution. I don’t do it because it’s politically correct. I just think there’s a body of research that indicates that the more diverse a population is, the more people learn—if the diverse groups get integrated with one another. That’s important because diversity without integration doesn’t get learning. All that approach gets is separate groups working in their own silos. But, like other institutions, we got caught up in trying to have a class profile where the SAT scores were higher than they were before, or the high schools that students had attended were better than before. We did begin to break the cycle, but very slowly. We got involved with groups such as the Posse Foundation and College Tracks, so we made some progress. But the numbers didn’t change dramatically, and that’s what I was somewhat disappointed about. Part of that was a function of not having the resources that many of our competitors had to give more aid, because when you’re focused on socio-economic diversity, you have to have the resources.

You are very critical of the admissions process.

Oh, we definitely have to rethink admissions. In most institutions, it is still based on SAT scores and where you went to high school. We’ve got to break that mold because it favors the wealthier students, frankly, and the parents who have the money to send them to the right schools or to live in the right neighborhoods, and who can get them SAT tutors and create networks that help them get into college. I like the Posse Foundation model where they evaluate students’ capabilities based on their demonstrated leadership skills rather than on the input metrics of tests. The downside to that model, of course, is when you get 30,000 applications per year, it’s hard to do. But we need a better way, and that’s where institutions must think more creatively. We have to get away from things such as ACTs and SATs as mandatory parts of coming to college.

You write about some new higher ed leaders coming from the corporate world rather than from academia. Does one have any advantage over the other?

No, it’s all about fit and the demand of the institution they’re going to. I see a guy like Mitch Daniels, who obviously was a politician and then went to Purdue, and he is doing a terrific job. Michael Sorrell at Paul Quinn College in Dallas was a lawyer before he got into this. The old model of a university president is changing and we may see more people like them. The nontraditional will increasingly become more traditional because leaders have to deal with a different world. We’ve always lived in a fishbowl, but now, with technology and social media—and society in general—it has become very difficult. I recently read a quote from Teresa Sullivan, the former president of the University of Virginia. She said, “I don’t think there’s a formula anymore to be university president. There might have been when I was a young faculty member and provosts became presidents, but that’s not true anymore.” And she’s right. It used to be that you’d come up through the ranks and jump into that job, but now it’s different.

You thought you knew the answers, but they’ve changed the questions.

Exactly. And as you know the average tenure of university presidents is about six years now, and in higher education it’s hard to affect significant change that quickly—unless, of course, you have a bona fide crisis, like a Katrina or a financial crisis or something. Even then, you can hardly do it in six years. It really does take time. We need people who have the talent, the expertise and fit, so they can stay on at least a decade. After a decade I’m not sure you should be still be at one institution, but that’s another story for another day.

Your book is very matter-of-fact. You acknowledge your successes, but you also don’t excuse failure.

There is a lot of criticism of higher education, and some of the criticism is appropriate, so I don’t want to deny it. But what has also gotten lost is the fact that, even today, going to college has tremendous value for people who graduate; not just financial value, but wellness, community engagement and citizenship.
The benefits to going to college today are still profound versus the cost. That seems to have gotten lost in the narrative, and everybody’s focusing on the negative, and I understand that.
The negative is more jazzy. Look at all the books that sell—Higher Education is in the Toilet or whatever it might be. These books sell because people love those things.
What I tried to do in the book is to say, yes, we do have problems, but they are being solved. Maybe not in scale yet, but they are being solved because we have no other choice over time.