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From: Goldie Blumenstyk
Subject: The Edge: A Policy Wonk’s Turn as President
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A policy wonk in the president’s chair.
Two months into an interim presidency at his alma mater, Adams State University, in southern Colorado, David Tandberg has already become well versed in the pleasures and pitfalls of leading a small, public regional college at this moment.
“For all of higher ed, it’s been a rough several years,” Tandberg noted. And for the 3,200-student institution, which has been further buffeted by two decades of short-term presidencies and more recently, drops in enrollment, it’s been especially challenging. “Bringing a sense of empathy and optimism to campus is really important,” he told me this week.
My conversation with Tandberg was the first of several I plan to hold with him over the next year, because I’m curious to see how a policy wonk fares when facing the hard practicalities of running a college. Tandberg is serving as interim president on a one-year sabbatical from his regular gig as senior vice president for policy research and strategic initiatives at the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, known as Sheeo.
Judging by his Twitter feed — which has featured pictures of him scootering through a hallway to his next meeting, reconnecting with his former professors, and thanking the college community for welcoming him and his family — Tandberg is clearly finding the joy in the experience, though he told me if he were anywhere else, “the trappings of the position” wouldn’t make up for the difficulties. I wonder if his opinion will change over time, and that’s one thing I’ll be sure to check in on.
One of Tandberg’s first priorities — and apparent successes — is shoring up enrollment. Sheeo, of course, is widely known for its projections of changing student demographics and the related challenges for many colleges, especially in certain regions.
“We put student recruitment into overdrive,” Tandberg told me, hiring more staff members, better deploying social media, following up with students who had expressed casual interest, and beefing up outreach to high schools, including personal visits with principals by the president himself. The upshot: Enrollment still isn’t where he’d like it to be, but those efforts helped cut the decline to 6 percent, from a projected 15 percent. “It tells me that if we keep this up,” Tandberg said, bringing undergraduate enrollment back up to 2,500, from the current 1,700, in five years isn’t far-fetched. It helps that Adams State has historically served Hispanic, low-income, and rural students who still populate the surrounding San Luis Valley.
The enrollment success, however, also came with a lesson for Tandberg, a former professor at Florida State University and strong believer, he said, in shared governance and “the centrality of the faculty.” Communication is key, he learned, even when the news is positive. He told me that over the summer, he failed to keep faculty members informed about the university’s student-recruitment efforts, and many felt out of the loop when they got back to campus, even though the situation was fortunately less dire than they expected it to be. “Good and bad news — both are important” to share regularly, Tandberg said.
Given his interim status, I wondered how actively he plans to push for changes. He has no intention of being a “placeholder” president, he said, but is also mindful of the risks of innovation fatigue. “We’re trying not to pile on new things for the sake of new things,” he said. The focus will be on proven, bread-and-butter strategies to increase enrollment and retention, such as improving developmental education, forging more transfer and articulation agreements, and creating “some really cool pathways” to Adams State from local two-year colleges.
At Sheeo, Tandberg wrote often about accountability, but he’s never been all that enamored of the calls to measure college value based on what students earn after they graduate, he said. Now that he’s at the helm of what he calls “a valley-serving institution” dedicated to producing the teachers, nurses, and public-health officials the region needs, he’s more convinced than ever that discussions over ROI need to be a lot more nuanced. For Adams State, he said, ROI means building connections to the community.
Two months in the presidency have also started Tandberg thinking about projects he might work on back at Sheeo. One of them involves developing ways for state higher-education leaders to more intentionally tap into “the collective wisdom of the presidents.”
Updates on regional economies and income-share agreements.
- A year ago, I told you about a proposal from two Brookings economists for new federal investments in regional public colleges to stimulate economic development. While still far from reality, that idea may have moved a step closer with the introduction of new bipartisan legislation.
- A few months ago, I described some of the controversies surrounding income-share agreements. New legislation applying consumer-protections laws to ISAs doesn’t address bigger-picture questions about who’s using them or why, but some observers say it could bring “thoughtful, and much-needed regulations” to govern them. ISA critics aren’t sold.
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Goldie’s Weekly Picks
ResearchIn a move hailed by open-access advocates, the White House released guidance dictating that taxpayer-supported research be made freely and immediately available to the public.
Surveillance & PrivacyThe ruling, which found a Fourth Amendment violation, should prompt colleges to review their proctoring policies, legal experts said.