Are university leaders well-equipped to handle the changing university model? | The Triangle

Are university leaders well-equipped to handle the changing university model?

Photo by Dylan Elwell | The Triangle

There is no question that the university model is in crisis. Lingering financial stress due to the pandemic, unpopular tuition hikes and a dwindling pool of applicants have been putting the pressure on colleges and universities to adapt to the fact that many students are losing faith in the worth of a college degree. 

Unfortunately, in response to the adversities, institution closures and mergers are becoming a trend, with the biggest impacts being seen in New York, Massachusetts, Illinois and California

This trend is present here in Pennsylvania, too; we have seen a complete shutdown at Cabrini University, shocking students with the announcement that it would be closing its doors in 2024, while big universities are absorbing smaller ones, as our neighbors at the University of the Sciences join St. Joseph’s University and Salus University in Elkins Park prepares to merge with Drexel sometime next year. 

The exact value of a college degree is debatable in the modern age, but it is clearly still a favorable path for many young adults. Thus, the question remains — how prepared are university leaders for the major challenges of commanding an institution of higher learning and how can they keep their schools immune to the resulting damages?

Drexel’s Pennoni Honors College’s Pennoni Panels are known for their open discussions regarding topics of concern in all sectors of modern discourse. Their ongoing interview show, “Civil Discourse,” recently had Honors College Dean Paula Morantz Cohen sit down with three college presidents for a discussion on the threats faced by the modern university. “Civil Discourse,” according to Cohen, aims to discuss “important, often controversial topics with candor and good will.” 

The Future of the University Panel featured Nora Demleitner, president of St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, Dr. Jonathan Holloway, president of Rutgers University in New Jersey and our own president, John Fry. 

A large problem that the presidents cited they face is popularity among their student bodies. 

“If you want to be loved, get a dog,” quipped Dr. Holloway. “No matter what type of university you helm, if a problem comes to your attention, it means that it hasn’t been solved by really smart people on at least two or three different attempts. So by the time it lands on your plate… …any decision I make, I’ll personalize it, [so] I’m automatically making somebody else unhappy. That will have a permanent effect on how your presidency is understood.”

A large part of the issue with popularity and a major frustration among students everywhere is transparency, or a lack of it, between the student body and the administration. Students of The College of Saint Rose in New York, which announced its forthcoming closure on Dec. 1 2023, are outraged at the sudden and unexpected news. Students now have less than a year to figure out what they are going to do next, with little to no previous warning from the college, whose board had been discussing the possibility of closure for some time before making the final decision Nov. 30 2023. 

When asked how to balance demands from pressure groups such as the student body and the board of trustees, President Fry said, “Every year has been my hardest year. I think what I’ve discovered is that the important thing is to keep a network within [and outside] the institution… …so you’re not backed up against the wall when a decision will be made, [which] is going to be unpopular one way or the other.”

Fry continued to talk about his position in handling the student protests to Drexel’s involvement in the affordable housing crisis last year. Though it was not an easy discussion to have, Fry believes the dialogue between himself and the students was productive and respectful. 

All three presidents discussed at some point in the panel the value of making college accessible, citing the percentages of their student bodies that are Pell Eligible or First Generation. President Demleitner also praises St. John’s unique model as a reason why their institution stands out, with every class being held seminar-style. Fry spoke similarly of Drexel’s cooperative education model. 

Dean Cohen and the presidents also discussed free speech, campus safety, mental health and the recent Supreme Court proceedings on Affirmative Action.

“Presidents have to walk the fine line where we are lowering the temperature in terms of speech so that people can hear each other, while preserving campus safety,” said Dr. Holloway of free speech at Rutgers. 

Regarding Affirmative Action, Fry said that though the institution must comply to the proceedings, it will not change its internal value set. This was echoed by the other panelists. 

“We can’t turn our back on who we are, why we were founded, and who we are today… …we will continue to seek out the kind of rich diversity that characterizes our university,” Fry added.

The problems faced by universities through their selectiveness and inclusivity are important discussions to have, but the biggest threat to the university model is the belief that it is becoming obsolete. 

“I do think we are living in a moment where people are reducing higher education to this transactional value,” said Dr. Holloway. “How much does it cost per class, or whatever metric you’re going to use to measure it… and that statistic is usually wrong …and that is higher ed’s fault for not telling the story accurately …and what am I going to get in return transactionally?”

Dr. Holloway went on to say that, although it is true that colleges must prepare students for a career in their field of study, and the return on investment should be lucrative, college also serves as a time to teach “a heightened sense of social skills, like understanding an apparatus of how to operate in the world do that when they’re on the job market, they can thrive.”

President Demleitner believes the university model survives and prevails because of “the power of curriculum,” which gives students the opportunity to engage in complex and deeply personal discourse founded on their unique backgrounds and identities. 

Dean Cohen asked of President Fry his thoughts on the corporatization of the university model, to which Fry replied, given the number of professional employees and students, the University is bound to “use those investments from our students and families wisely, and to steer the university in the right direction, in the right way.” Fry continued, “[We have to] protect the dollars that we have so that we can invest them directly into academics… …if that’s corporatization, then I’m all for it.”

“We organize ourselves around our own convenience, the convenience of our administration [and faculty], and the students are the ones that have to navigate this. Guilty as charged on the bureaucracy question,” joked Fry, “What we’re working on right now is, how do we simplify our systems so it is possible for students to really have a much more bespoke experience.”

The panel wrapped up on the topic of rankings, such as the ones done by the U.S. News & World Report, where Drexel has recently ascended into the top 100 universities list. Completely arbitrary and “troubling in every way,”  though the rankings are, as stated by Dr. Holloway, the panelists agreed that although there are too many other factors at play, and the rankings made by these large news companies cannot be standardized to all students, it is still evidently important to incoming students and must be considered.

With limited time to address an endless list of issues faced by modern universities, it was inevitable that the panel would only scratch the surface. It is clearly true that these presidents, and most college presidents, are intelligent, well-educated and well-equipped to manage their schools. But in the face of adversity, which model prevails? A large, publicly funded state university like Rutgers, a slightly smaller, private, research-focused university like Drexel, or a small liberal arts college focused on discourse and community like St. John’s?

The current trends of university closures make it hard to tell right now, but it is undeniable that all of the panelists’ institutions have merit in their current operations and diverse student bodies. The question of which model will prevail, which will survive the current hardships and move on to face the next set of challenges, is one that must be left to time.