President John D. Simon ’P19 delivered a State of the University address to faculty at the April 23 meeting of the Faculty Senate, outlining a number of challenges across the higher education landscape and encouraging faculty to consider how Lehigh can be best prepared to confront them.
Quoting novelist John Irving, who said that “imagining something is better than remembering something,” Simon said he decided to focus his talk not on past accomplishments or a status update on current projects, but on the challenges, opportunities and responsibilities ahead.
“We all chose to work in higher education for our own reasons ... I think it’s fair to say that we were each, in our own way, attracted to the mission and ideals of higher education,” he said. “We have a heritage and values, yet we can’t always be looking inward and mustn’t be looking backward.”
Simon’s address incorporated insights gleaned from a number of recent experiences, including a Higher Education Summit at Yale, an international panel at Nottingham, and a U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee briefing on security issues related to colleges and universities. He also cited research that indicates an alarming decline in how higher ed is perceived by the public, with this marked drop in confidence taking place just within the last few years.
“Public confidence in institutions of higher ed dropped from 57 percent to only 48 percent–so we’ve fallen below 50 percent for the first time in the history of the poll,” he said.
A 2019 quarterly Higher Education: Directions and Disruption Survey also indicated that a majority of Americans (55 percent) now feel that graduating from college is not necessary to get ahead in life. College affordability was cited by 63 percent of respondents as one of the most significant issues facing the country (ahead of gun violence, racism, climate change and illegal immigration). This shift in opinion comes at a time when higher ed institutions are facing more pressure to measure outcomes, potentially by standards set by others outside of academia.
“How do these measures relate to our understanding of what society needs?” Simon asked. “The national discussion reflects anxieties over global change, partisan positioning and substantial confusion. Amidst all of this, we are supposed to be the keen observers, capable sense-makers and, of course, educators in the room.”
With an eye toward identifying Lehigh’s long-term strategic needs and constructively navigating these issues, Simon said he is focused on three trends that could spur generative thinking on campus: The Great Decline, The Great Unknowing and The Great Unbundling.
The decline, he said, refers, in part, to significant changes on the horizon regarding international students. “The pipeline of American students in these areas is quite limited,” said Simon, who cited increasing political tensions with China and research-related funding and policy changes as contributing factors. And at the undergraduate level, Lehigh faces challenging headwinds, such as anticipated demographic shifts that could dramatically reduce both the number of students and faculty at institutions around the country.
“The top schools are growing, and they see themselves as best positioned to cultivate leaders of the next generation,” Simon said. “We need to be in that demographic category. If we are to emerge stronger moving into the 2030s, we must change how we approach student recruitment. This is why we have become relentless in the search for talented students. We know how important it is to be at the top—in academic excellence and reputation, job placement, programs that are forward-looking, internships, experiential learning opportunities, research facilities and more. Without these, we won’t draw students from around the nation. We must also establish an increased support infrastructure to assure student success once they arrive at Lehigh. We cannot wait until the crisis is upon us to address this.”
The “great unknowing” refers to changes between generations both on how education is viewed and how learning takes place. With today’s iGen students, Simon noted that common characteristics include being more cautious and risk-averse, less interested in reading (books, magazines, newspapers) and more comfortable learning by doing and by using digital learning tools. By relegating most of their social interaction to digital contact, Simon said today’s students often “think they know each other because they have checked out each other’s social media, but now they have to unknow each other, to put the social media aside, to really get to know each other.”
Simon said he’s personally witnessed this interaction between students in several experiential learning settings, such as international trips, capstone projects, Mountaintop and Nasdaq Center programs. “Such situations,” he said, “force them to confront the disconnect between their social media identity and who they really are. This is a good thing and all of us should try and make this happen every opportunity we have.”
Also unknown to contemporary students: the demands their evolving careers will place on them, what city or even what country they will make their lives in due to increasing global opportunities, how they will navigate a “lifelong learning landscape” and how the delivery of education is likely to change due to the evolution of Artificial Intelligence and its profound impact on science, innovation, education and society.
“As part of this change,” he said, “I think we have a core responsibility here to teach what it means to be human. This is not all about technology. Students will need to be able to draw across the disciplines to be creative, to understand and respect different cultures, to be ethical, to cooperate and work with others and to understand ways in which our problems are new and ways in which they are a thousand years old.”
The “great unbundling” trend began with the MOOC movement and scalable education platforms, and continues with the proliferation of certificate programs and other unbundled educational degrees. Simon traces the pressure to offer these to millennial parents of college students, who value lifelong learning and the acquisition of knowledge from different fields over the course of their lives.
“For them,” he said, “lifelong learning is a given. Their reasonable goal will be to equip their children—in a cost-effective fashion—to gain a foothold in a career and thereafter not to be overcome by precarity. By this time, the Millennials will have risen into leadership positions in industry and their hiring practices may be very different. I venture that we are not prepared for such an environment, and that we have not done a great job convincing the Millennials of the value of a residential educational experience.”
It is, he said, a precarious time in the history of higher education. Among the challenges are rising costs, increased questions from the public and politicians about the value of college, increased globalization of research and education—at a time when international collaboration is being scrutinized—greater need for student financial aid, changing patterns in research funding, keener competition for faculty and students, changing methods of teaching and learning, heightened expectations by students and families for personal service and co-curricular programs and more.
“Ultimately,” he said, “it is the excellence, dedication, curiosity and creativity of our faculty that will address many of these issues—not as challenges, but as opportunities. That distinction is important. We owe it to the next generation of students, and to your next generation of colleagues as well, that their thriving isn’t constrained by defense of old habits.”
Simon said that Lehigh has just begun to plant the seeds of change by renovating campus facilities to more flexibly accommodate a changing portfolio of faculty and student endeavors, finding footholds for engagement in other parts of the country and the world, creating new academic programs and encouraging and empowering faculty to imagine their research futures across traditional boundaries.
“This is just the beginning,” he said. “As change occurs around us, the imperatives for change in how we go about our work will grow. If we’re paying attention, the opportunities for working in new ways and in new venues will keep coming. Our priority, right alongside doing the best by our students and stretching ourselves in our scholarship, should be on becoming a university that is intent on owning our future.”