Leadership & Governance

Video: Leader of U. of Phoenix Says It’s ‘Heads-Down Focused’ on Improvements for Students

March 07, 2016

Produced by Carmen Mendoza

Since becoming president of the University of Phoenix, in June 2014, Timothy P. Slottow has helped the institution restore its standing with its accreditor, overturn a suspension by the U.S. Department of Defense, and respond to a continuing Federal Trade Commission inquiry over marketing and recruiting practices.

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The university also faces declining enrollment, but Mr. Slottow says the institution will remain a relevant and valuable option for students. "We are head-down focused on continuous improvement" for our students, he said during a video interview in The Chronicle's newsroom.

Mr. Slottow, a former top administrator at the University of Michigan, also discussed how his institution has been using data to improve the first-year experience, with more involvement of full-time faculty members, and the future of its sponsorship deal for the University of Phoenix Stadium. And he explained the thinking behind the university's new "More Than Brains" television commercials, which feature images of students to the music of "If I Only Had a Brain," with lyrics that describe challenges students overcome to attend the institution. Said Mr. Slottow, "It's really important to get back to what our students are experiencing and who they are."

TRANSCRIPT

GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: Hi. I'm Goldie Blumenstyk, and I'm here today with Tim Slottow, President of the University of Phoenix, the seventh president of the University of Phoenix. Welcome.

TIMOTHY SLOTTOW: Thank you. It's an honor to be here, Goldie.

GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: So let's get right into this. It's 2016. There's a lot of universities out there that are offering online education and offering a lot of kind of even career-focused education. Why should somebody, in 2016, go to the University of Phoenix?

TIMOTHY SLOTTOW: Great question. Thanks for asking. Look, the University of Phoenix has been around for about 40 years, right. In fact, we're celebrating our 40th year, this year. And one thing I can say is our founder, John Sperling, had a couple epiphanies. One of them was that working adults didn't have a university that was designed for them, that actually met their needs -- whether you're a policeman trying to finish your college degree, or you're a teacher wanting to get a graduate degree. And so he kind of invented this flexible, one-class-at-a-time ability for working adults to go back to school.

And also, the other epiphany he had was that working adults learn differently than 18-year-olds. And so we are a university that was designed originally to meet the needs of diverse, working adults in this country. And we are still focused on diverse, working adults, helping them achieve their academic and career goals in a way that meets their needs, and now, more importantly, focused on the way that meets employer needs in this country.

GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: And you think it does so in a way that's better than other universities that are also organized now around the schedules of working adults and sort of the needs of working adults?

TIMOTHY SLOTTOW: Absolutely. So you know, what I will say is I came to the University of Phoenix because I was I was excited about the mission, which is to really improve outcomes of diverse, working adults, where we know there is a demand. There's no question that there is a demand to meet the needs of working adults who deserve quality education that's career relevant that also is affordable, right?

And so, we have a number of a number of pieces that make our ecosystem and what we offer especially salient and effective for diverse, working adults. And if you talk to our graduates, our alums, you will hear, over and over again, a number of things that the University of Phoenix does to help ensure that they are successful with their academic goals and also with what they're trying to achieve in their career aspirations.

And so I think the proof is in the results of what our what our alumni and students are experiencing, and all the things that we have done in the past, but that we are building to innovate and change going forward.

GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: You've been there only about 18 months, if I did my math right. And it's been a pretty interesting 18 months. You've had to deal with accreditation issues with the with your accreditor. You've had an investigation ongoing still with the Federal Trade Commission. What's that been like, coming in? What have you done to sort of, you know, help the university kind of manage these challenges that it faces?

TIMOTHY SLOTTOW: Well, it's been fascinating. So one of the things that we did early on -- well, first of all, we identified a number of foundational priorities that we just needed to get right and to get focused again on student outcomes. It's all about student outcomes. If we get it right in the classroom to support a phenomenal student experience in the classroom and surrounding the student experience, everything else gets easier.

So we really refocused, which is why, early on, I created, and we developed, with a senior team, a vision for the university, which is to be the most trusted provider of career-relevant higher education for working adults. So that is the vision.

GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: I have to say that, sort of, sounds more like -- no offense -- a slogan than a plan, though.

TIMOTHY SLOTTOW: It's not a plan. It is aspirational. It's because we need to get back to trust, and we need to get back to student outcomes. Fair enough, right. So how do we do that, right? That's the question, right. And of course, accreditation is one of the most important things. You mentioned that. When I came in, we were actually on notice by the Higher Learning Commission for a number of -- they identified ...

GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: Meaning you were at risk of losing your accreditation?

TIMOTHY SLOTTOW: They had identified three or four issues that they said, you are not out of compliance now with our criteria, but if you continue in this trajectory, over time, you will be, so we have put you on notice -- not on probation, it wasn't that severe. And so we worked hard with the Higher Learning Commission in my first six months. And it was really gratifying, because they have very clear criteria. Their observations of us were clear.

And we have made enormous progress my first six months, and we continue to make enormous progress. And they came in and lifted the covers and worked through all the issues that they identified, and they had a peer-review team come in and take a look. And at the end of that process, which was, again, clear criteria, clear roles and responsibilities, clear kind of due diligence, they actually took us off notice and said, you guys are in good shape, albeit, we're going to come back in a year or two.

And I welcome them back in 2017 to do another full comprehensive review and show them all the progress that we've made. Because at the end of the day, what's happening with the students in the classroom is key. And that's part of what they were looking at was how are you assessing the success in the classroom, and whether you're actually getting those student learning goals to be to be achieved.

GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: What about the Federal Trade Commission, which seems not so much focused on the classroom, but the way you recruit students. I remember visiting the University of Phoenix five years ago, and I was able to see some of the recruiting floor -- wasn't given unfettered access to it -- but you know, you spend a lot of energy on recruiting students.

TIMOTHY SLOTTOW: So the Federal Trade Commission is an information request, right? And with all accreditors and regulators and any federal agency, I am 100 percent committed to compliance, collaboration, cooperation, transparency, showing that everything -- you know, everything that we're doing to make sure that we're being as good as we can be in supporting student rights, student understanding of what they're getting into, making sure that we're helping the student fully understand, you know, the programs that they're interested in, and our ability to actually meet their academic and career aspirations.

So you know, we're working really hard to be better every time. Are we perfect? Absolutely not. But are we getting better, and, is our review with the HLC showing that? We had a complete program review with the Department of Education last year, the VA did one of the biggest audits they've ever done and finished that a couple of months ago, without any systematic errors or problems.

But we need to continuously improve. And so we are, you know, heads-down, focused on continuous improvement for both our students on all ends, not just the front end of helping students understand what the programs are we offer, and how it might meet their needs, but also through the entire process, through graduation, and once they become alumni.

GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: One of the things that University of Phoenix is somewhat famous for is like its use of data, or it claims to be using a lot of data to sort of improve the process, that you have. You know, I've been there. I remember being shown all these books of data and all these statistics and everything. Can you cite one example recently where the university used the data it collects to make an educational improvement?

TIMOTHY SLOTTOW: Well, so we have an enormous amount of data, just because of the sheer number of students we have. We have a fairly standardized curriculum, right? And all of our students are actually learning online, either via an online program, or actually in the classroom. That also is kind of a hybrid approach, right, because they're doing their homework and whatnot online. So we're regularly using the data from our learning management system to actually help the student and their counselor and the faculty member see how they're doing.

GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: Yeah. I hear that, but can you give me an example of one, something that really has happened, where you've used the data to make a change?

TIMOTHY SLOTTOW: Well, so I'll give you an example. We are continuously looking at the first-year experience, right. So the data shows us that the students need to get through their first, second, third, fourth class to really get to understand how to successfully navigate being back in school after not being in school for 10 years, right. So remember who our students are, right.

You may or may not know -- I think you probably do. But our students generally are, you know, older -- 30 to 35 years old. They are working. They have dependents at home. Sixty percent are first generation college students, right. So what we have tried to redesign, in a sense, is really our first year, our first introductory course sequence, so that it's not just one class at a time, but so that they're connected.

We've introduced full-time faculty into that, which we traditionally have not used -- full-time faculty. We've introduced gamification into that and a number of tools in those early courses to help ensure that a student can continue to progress and retain. Because at the end of the day, it's all about a student progressing and retaining through to a career-relevant certificate or a degree. Because if we don't do that, we are not succeeding in what we need to accomplish.

GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: So I watch a lot of television. And because I watch a lot of television, I see a lot of University of Phoenix commercials, and I've seen a lot of them over the years. I remember the one where you use the Red Sox thing to sort of promote the career connections between University of Phoenix alumni. You're wearing your University of Phoenix tie today.

TIMOTHY SLOTTOW: I am

GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: I see that. I remember the one where Phylicia Rashad was the narrator. And I guess the ones I'm seeing lately talk a little bit about -- show a lot of scenes of students. And they use the song "If I Only Had a Brain" behind it. You put new lyrics to that song. What's the thinking behind that commercial? Because I think some people might think that's a funny choice for a commercial -- for a song for a university.

TIMOTHY SLOTTOW: So I haven't studied all the old commercials as you have, so I apologize.

GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: I'm a student on these commercials.

TIMOTHY SLOTTOW: I don't have the same perspective that you do. But you know, what I can tell you is that in our messaging to our students and our alumni, it's really important to get back to what our students are experiencing and who they are. I just mentioned to you earlier who are students actually are. A lot of people don't understand that -- that our students are older, that they're working, that they have dependents at home, that they're often first generation, or they're going back and getting their graduate degree after many years off.

And what most people don't really realize is that the University of Phoenix programs are rigorous. They're hard work. They're not easy. I mean, if I read all of the things that have been written in Chronicle of Higher Education, and many of the other, there's only been one article -- one article that I've seen in the number of years in my review -- where actually somebody went and took a class at the University of Phoenix and wrote about it. And what they wrote was, it was hard, it was challenging, the students were committed.

And I've talked to hundreds and hundreds of students and met them and heard their stories. And when you hear their stories -- or I ask you to also go on our Facebook page or YouTube and read what they're writing about it. What they will tell you is it's rigorous, it's relevant, it's applied, the faculty are supportive. They're working in the industry, so it feels like they're bringing real-world experience to the classroom. And these things keep our students going, right, and the advisers are supporting them.

And so what's really important in our marketing and messaging is that we're trying to just tell the students and tell our story through our students' eyes and through our alumni's eyes, because that's really what is the testament to the success of a University of Phoenix degree or certificate or experience. It's the students. It's not about the university. It's about the student. Does that make sense?

GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: It makes sense. I do wonder about the song though. So I was one of those people who did take a course at University of Phoenix years ago.

TIMOTHY SLOTTOW: Good for you, and thank you for doing that, because not many people can actually say that. You know I often ask do you have a family member or friend that's gotten a degree. Have you taken a course? Because when you do that, you get a different perspective. You understand what it takes. You know, our students that succeed have grit. They have perseverance, they have character, they have tenacity. They're coming at it with a different perspective than an 18-year-old is starting for the first time. And for them to get through, it generates an enormous amount of confidence, right-- confidence to go on and apply for that next job, and a sense that -- and often they'll say -- you know I don't know if you talked to students, but when I ask students why did you come back to school? What they'll tell you, Goldie, is they'll say yes, I did it -- often -- for it to improve my career aspirations and goals. But they'll also say, it's to actually prove to my kids and my family how important education is. And I want them to know that I'm expecting they're going to go to school and the next generation and the next generation after that. And it's really impressive.

GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: We hear that from people who go to all kinds of colleges, actually.

TIMOTHY SLOTTOW: Absolutely. And so I think the challenge is all of our challenge, collectively, to make sure that especially these students that are coming in with, you know, a different set of life challenges, that we make sure that we can succeed. And it's not easy. I'm not saying that this is a slam dunk. It's complex. It's a big challenge, and it's not just ours to solve. Collectively, we need to solve it.

GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: One thing I've always wondered about -- and every time I mention the University of Phoenix to people, the main thing that they know about is the football stadium, the NFL stadium that has the Phoenix name on it. Do you guys plan to keep that sponsorship?

TIMOTHY SLOTTOW: I wasn't part of the part of that decision. I have reviewed the contract. If I think about our messaging and the important relationship that we have with our students, our prospective students, the most important thing is that we're connecting with them and making sure that they understand who we are, what degrees and program certificates we can offer them. And that's really where we're going to spend our effort, which is helping not just prospective students, but existing students, to remind them what we're doing.

GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: Sort of sounds like a no.

TIMOTHY SLOTTOW: Well, what I'm saying is that it's an important sponsorship that my predecessors defined as something. I don't see it as the thrust of us going forward to do additional things like that, for sure. It's really more important for us to actually be able to describe for them who we are, what we're doing that meets their needs, why are our programs are career-relevant and meet their needs, and also working with employers to do the same thing.

GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: Some of our listeners may know that you came to Phoenix from the University of Michigan, where you were more in the administration side. And obviously, when you were at Michigan, I know you had some encounters with the faculty-governance system there. You proposed some administrative changes there that did draw some contentious reactions from faculty members.

Now that you're at the University of Phoenix, I'm wondering if you can just talk a little bit about the difference in what you see in terms of -- you know, you're at a university where the shared governance system is a little bit different. Can you talk a little bit about what you're seeing now at Phoenix, and how that model is different from what you experienced before?

TIMOTHY SLOTTOW: So we have a Provost, chief academic officer, and she is responsible for the academic mission and curriculum. And the deans of the colleges report to her. So that in that sense, it's very similar.

GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: But do the faculty have a say?

TIMOTHY SLOTTOW: Absolutely. We have faculty governance and faculty policies. What we don't have is tenure. We don't have tenured full-time faculty, and our model, as I think you know, is primarily using part-time faculty that are working in the fields where our students aspire to have their career.

So our faculty, right, have this -- and this was one of John Sperling's epiphanies, right -- bring the applied experience, you know, real-life experience into the classroom. They have generally about 20 years of experience in the particular area of domain expertise that they're teaching. And they come with an enormous amount of passion.

You know, one of the differences that I'll say, over and over, that I observed when I came here to the University Phoenix is it's not just that the students are different, as I mentioned, than a typical cohort, but the faculty love teaching -- to a person. This is generally not their full-time, you know, avocation. So they're doing it because they love it, and they love teaching adults, who come with life experience. So it's really gratifying to see and feel and hear the faculty stories, as well as the student stories.

GOLDIE BLUMENSTYK: Great. Tim, thanks so much for coming by.

TIMOTHY SLOTTOW: Yeah. You bet.