Beyond the Survival Mind-Set

Christophe Vorlet for The Chronicle

April 11, 2017

At a recent retreat for senior administrators of the college where I am president, I decided to conduct a new exercise that I called "Surviving and Thriving." It was an idea that came to me one day on a plane, and I was curious to see where it would lead.

In advance of the retreat, I asked each of our campus leaders to answer three questions:

  • What do we need to do to survive?
  • What do we need to do to thrive?
  • How can your department contribute to both?

The intent was for everyone to view the college through a broad lens and gain a deeper appreciation of how each department and office contributes to the whole. We cannot survive without everyone’s top effort and likewise we cannot thrive without the same commitment. I hoped that the exercise would demonstrate how important it is for everyone to be on the same page.

As it turned out, this line of questioning revealed more than I had anticipated. It became apparent that, while most people understood what was needed for our college to survive, we all had very different notions of what would constitute thriving.

A "survivor mind-set" is certainly understandable. We all know these are challenging times in higher education. Rising operational costs, increasing student debt, a competitive financial-aid market, political pressures, and increased regulatory compliance are some of the many factors that have fostered a campus environment geared toward survival.

Perhaps that’s why some people at the retreat viewed thriving as "surviving but better." For them, thriving was simply managing our current challenges in a more effective way such that we hardly worried about them anymore. Others took a longer-term view, seeing thriving as having the money to fulfill our mission and the vision to use that money wisely.

Surviving is inward-looking. It requires a drive toward efficiency that avoids budget deficits and keeps the doors open. Surviving has an immediacy that trumps everything, even long-term strategic goals. In contrast, thriving is forward-looking. It is driven not by efficiency but by vision.

The differences between the two mean that surviving, while a prerequisite, does not necessarily lead to thriving. Or to put it another way, the ability to survive does not assure the ability to thrive.

So how do surviving and thriving look when applied to a college’s various administrative offices?

Enrollment management. This is a top priority for most institutions. Too often, however, the conversation is about how to bring in enough students to balance the budget. The immediacy of getting students in the door often ignores issues of retention and progression.

But thriving enrollment is not about having lots of students apply. It is about having the ability to shape the class to fit the college’s academic profile, to ensure student success, and to respond to the institution’s mission and the needs of the population that it seeks to serve. A thriving institution has the analytics and knows how to use them to achieve its larger goals.

Advancement and development. Here, surviving typically centers on meeting the annual-fund goals so that operating expenses can be covered. That invariably leads to donor fatigue, for nothing is more demoralizing than having to raise money to cover a deficit or pay for some yet-to-be-determined operating expense.

Thriving, on the other hand, is about more than just surpassing your fund-raising targets. It involves raising money to support the creation of new programs and cultivating a community that is aligned with, and excited about, the academic vision and strategic direction of the institution. It is funding a vision of the future, not providing largesse for the status quo.

We took a step in that direction earlier this year on our campus when we replaced our Annual Fund with something we are calling the Innovation Fund. Instead of seeking unrestricted dollars to help fill gaps in the operating budget (an idea that appeals to fewer and fewer donors), we instead announced the creation of three new initiatives, each designed to expand hands-on learning opportunities for students. Time will tell how this approach will be received by donors, but we are confident it is the right thing to do for both our students and for the long-term interests of the college. We are committed to making it work.

Academic affairs. This branch of the college is, perhaps, the one most often caught in the operational dynamics of survival. Courses must be covered and classes scheduled in the most efficient ways possible. That may require hiring more adjuncts and teaching assistants, or moving more courses online.

A thriving institution deploys its faculty in a different manner. Faculty engage students not only in the classroom, but through research, scholarship, and leadership, creating a culture of inquiry. Thriving institutions have the resources to experiment with curricular innovation. Most important, thriving institutions are not afraid to fail.

By the end of the retreat, it became apparent that the thriving conversation is really a conversation about identity.

If money was not a pressing issue, what academic programs would we enhance? What would our ideal student population look like? What does a star faculty member worthy of an endowed chair look like? Crucially, what culture would we create? All of those questions get to the essence of who we are.

Our institution was founded in 1881 as Albany College of Pharmacy, one of a handful of historic, free-standing pharmacy schools. In 2008, the institution changed its name to Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, an acknowledgment that the days of free-standing professional schools are nearing an end. Despite the name change, we are still preoccupied with how to survive as a pharmacy school. To thrive, we have to move the conversation to a vision for an integrated health-sciences college. In short, the surviving-to-thriving conversation must be transformational.

Our challenges are not unique. Any campus with a historic mission — especially one that is restricted to a certain field of study or to a specific student population — will most likely be faced with similar survival issues.

Whether or not your institution is healthy or struggling financially, there is value in this exercise because it invites bold and unconventional thinking. Defining what thriving looks like — department by department, and office by office — can open up your institution to exciting new possibilities. To move from surviving to thriving will require conversations about identity. They can be difficult and risky, but if successful, will open the way to transformation.

T. Gregory Dewey is president of the Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences.