Solutions for Higher Education

Episode 42: Innovation: What Can Higher Education Learn from Entrepreneurs?


The current series of podcasts is focused on innovation, and we’re excited to showcase ideas from various industries and people worldwide. In episode 42, President Scott L Wyatt and Professor Steve Meredith invite serial entrepreneurs Rich Christensen and Alan Hall to discuss how the strategies they use to start businesses are similar to strategies higher education administrators use to grow university programs and resources.



Full Transcript

Steve Meredith: Hi again everyone, and welcome to Solutions for Higher Education, a podcast featuring Scott L Wyatt, the president of Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah. I’m your host, Steve Meredith, and with me, as he is always, is President Wyatt. Hi, Scott.

Scott Wyatt: Hello, Steve, it’s a great day.

Meredith: You and I have, during this particular group of podcasts, been focusing on innovation, and we talk about it all of the time. We talk about it in our cabinet meetings and one of the things that we have discovered as we talk about it is that maybe we should look elsewhere for ideas about innovation because in their natural habitat, maybe government agencies are not the most innovative groups. [Both laugh] So we are looking around at people who are in our field, but also people who are a little bit out of our field looking for ideas and things that have led to change in their industry and ways that they’ve adapted or led that change. Anyway, we have two great examples who also happen to be great friends to our university. Why don’t you introduce them?

Wyatt: Yes, thank you Steve. So, in finding two individuals from outside-but-inside, we’ve got two phenomenal multi-serial…Rich, I’m not sure how that’s supposed to be said. Serial million entrepreneurs…serial entrepreneurs? [All laugh]

Meredith: Guys who like to start businesses.

Wyatt: And do a lot of them. So, we’re joined today with Rich Christensen. Hello, Rich, how are you?

Rich Christensen: Wonderful, Scott. Thank you for having me.

 

Wyatt: And also, Alan Hall. Alan, welcome.

Alan Hall: Gentlemen, thank you. I’m pleased to be with you today.

Wyatt: So, the two of you have a couple of things in common. One, you’re both serial entrepreneurs who have been exceptionally successful in building new businesses and being creative, and you’re also both experienced as trustees, members of the Board of Trustees for two universities. Rich, you with Southern Utah University, and Alan, you with Weber State University. So, we think that you know something about us, but your life business has been outside of higher ed. So, thanks for joining us.

Hall: You’re more than welcome, we’re excited to talk with you today.

Christensen: We are, and we’re looking forward to the…maybe a little crazy dialogue here. [All laugh]

Wyatt: Well, so, be a little gentle with us. We realize that we’re such a different culture, but tell us why or what we should learn, perhaps that’s the best way to answer the question. What does higher education…what do the colleges and universities in our state and country need to learn from successful entrepreneurs?

Hall: Well, Rich, why don’t you go ahead first, and I’ll follow up with you on a comment?

Christensen: Well, I have three really quick thoughts. As I had stated as we were starting this, one of my favorite statements in life came from a mentor that I had—Alan and I both know this individual really well, it’s Ray Noorda—and he used to always make the statement, “Resist change and die, adapt to change and survive, and create change and thrive.” And from my experience as an entrepreneur and business creator is when I get too complacent and don’t push the change a little bit and actually go to where the value is to delivered and actually what the market’s really needing and wanting, then I get myself in trouble. And I think that there’s times that I’ve noticed as universities, maybe we hold on a little bit too long to mechanisms and systems and even a curriculum that maybe is a little bit outdated. And sometimes maybe pushing the uncomfort button just a little bit isn’t a bad thing. And then the second thing would just be, look for ways to deliver real value. True, meaningful, impactful value. Not only to the students but then also to the marketplace. And anyone that does that is bound to succeed. Those would be my two comments, Alan.

Hall: Yeah, terrific. I think, because of my years of being affiliated with higher ed, I have begun to recognize that we—higher ed—really is a different business enterprise. The way we’re structured in higher ed, universities and colleges, the history of how these universities came about, is far different. It didn’t come with a profit motive. It was based upon educating people and taking them to the next level of knowledge. Whereas business people, we do focus on making money to pay bills, keep our shareholders happy, pay back bank loans and whatnot. So, we are two different creatures. But, I think what I find, Rich and President, is that we live in a world where we both need to focus on what our customers want us to deliver to them. And in this case, I think the businesses or the institutions out there that hire our students, we want to be talking to them because they want us to bring that student to them with the knowledge they want. And then likewise, we need to make sure we understand the needs of the students and deliver them. So, I think that there’s a common thread thinking about, if you will, the monetary side of things and profit. Clearly, we ought to be thinking about, “What does our customer want and how can we best deliver it to them?”

Wyatt: Yeah, and Alan, who do you define as our customer?

Hall: You know, as I go out and visit with not-for-profits, which in many ways is a university, I find that the not-for-profits miss who the costumer is. They’ll think of who they serve, but at the end of the day, let me put it in this form, who pays the bills? That, for me, is the customer. Who buys your product? Well, in the business world, Rich and I have a customer who will buy our product and we know very well that’s our customer because we’ve approached them, made an offer, and they buy it. In the university setting, who’s the customer? Who pays your bills? Well, for the most part, it’s the legislature who have expectations of delivery. It’s the student and perhaps their parents. There may be donors a little bit in that mix. But, if you think about it in a university setting, those are your customers. How do you take care of a legislature who gives you money? And the same thing with students and parents.

Wyatt: Yeah. And it’s interesting, because sometimes when we talk about these groups such as legislators and students in higher education, we have a tendency to say, “But we know this business better than they do and we know the right way to do it.” And we want them to send us their money, but we don’t really want them to follow up. [Laughs]

Hall: You know, and as we know, it can get institutions of higher education in trouble too. Where, to your point, I think I’ll go back to a tax payer because I’m a customer too in that I give the legislature money and I had expectations that my children, my grandchildren, my neighbors, my friends all get the right education from the money I send to the legislature. So, there’s actually a fairly complex set of customers that you have, and I wonder how often universities, drilling it down even to the faculty themselves, think to talk to the population out there about what we want. I think we all believe that the faculty have the wherewithal skills and abilities to deliver. I don’t think we want to come in and tell any teacher how to teach, but we certainly want them teaching what is appropriate for that student at that particular point in time.

Meredith: Yeah, I often think that one of the places that we as faculty run into difficulty is it’s one thing to be a content area expert and even to be an expert pedagogue and understand that this is not a knowledge supermarket. You just can’t come in and pick things off shelves because learning is more brick-upon-brick than that. You have to have a certain amount of foundational knowledge to understand what comes next. But what we often aren’t great at is staying abreast of changes, either economical or social, that make it so that we need to actually change what we are teaching. Not necessarily change the way we deliver it, but either look at new programs or be more responsive, as you suggest, to the needs of customers and of the workplace. And it’s very easy for us, between going to class and doing…grading papers and doing research, to become fairly insular and not understand that the world is changing round us very quickly. I see that in my field, and I’m certain that it’s a problem elsewhere. And we’re resistant to that change because we feel like we’re the content experts, but maybe the content has changed while we weren’t looking. And certainly, the delivery method may have changed, and certainly the way we offer the programs may have changed.

Hall: Yeah, I really like the discussion of where the value is delivered. I love the focus on the deliverables, but I think you’ve got to go one layer further down the value chain. And that is it’s not just the graduation rate, but actually, what’s getting jobs is their success after that fact. And I think too frequently, sometimes, we even just focus on the students, when maybe the influence for—and actually true customer in many instances is actually the parent, the one that’s helping pay the tuition—that’s looking for an entirely different set of objectives sometimes than even the student. And sometimes there’s a little tension in that. So, if you go all the way down to, “Are they getting jobs? Are the sustaining their lives after the fact? Are they able to repay their student loans? Do they have the education to actually then advance in the jobs?” I think that’s three steps down the value chain from, “Are they just graduating and getting a degree?”

Christensen: Yeah, good point. Let me talk a little bit to the subject on your competition for a minute, OK? As to content? I live in a world in the business side where content has become free to me. I can get it anytime and anywhere I want and for the most part, I don’t pay for it. And when you think about universities being content-laden and driven, you have to think yourself, “Is there a time in the future where people will get that content without having to come to class?” So, let me give you one example. I speak five languages—English I am working on and I’ve been learning the romance languages. So, I’m taking French right now online with a little app called Duolingo and I’m about to hit my 100th day of an hour each day learning French. And right now, it’s free. Obviously, the app wants me to step up and get their premium and start to pay for it, but I’m studying it at my own rate, I’m getting, if you will, grades and learning and getting it all down as…to my desired level and competency. So, think in the future that an employer or student might not have to have a diploma from an institution that is certified that has been approved by some entity out there that this is a legitimate grade. What should happen down the road when all of the sudden, the things that matter in higher education are totally removed one night where a student gets an education without ever having to go to a campus?

Wyatt: Yeah, it changes the way we see things, doesn’t it?

Hall: Yeah. And you never know how the world can spin and change and it can be a tsunami effect that all of the sudden just washes over. And should institutions of higher learning be looking to say, “Maybe the model needs to change, not only for survival, but that we’re better at what we’re doing because the world is changing, and we can’t stay the same and continue to flourish. As a matter of fact, we might be gone if we’re not careful.”

Christensen: Alan, we saw this exact transformation take place in media back in the early 2000s. We called it the democratization of media. And the result was that you had three or four large, huge networks where everyone got their information and content from a fragmented now series of very niche little specialties of information. And my perception is that the opportunity then…there’s still tons of opportunity, it just changes dramatically because then you have to go and deliver the value in the niches rather than necessarily in big, big broad strokes like we’ve been doing.

Hall: Yeah. I recognize the fact that I’ve got to take a chemistry class, that’s something I can do off of the campus or online. It’s something that needs to be done. But how about, Steve, about taking music classes. Is there something you would look ahead and say, “There’s a better way to teach music? Is there a better way to train the next teachers in the high schools?” What would you look at see as a vision for the future?

Meredith: Well, that’s an interesting question and we actually had a podcast about this. I run a master’s degree here in Music Technology, and I’ll start by saying because it’s music technology, of course, it is geared toward an understanding of technology. But one of the questions during the approval process that all programs go through in the state of Utah that I kept waiting for somebody to ask me and nobody ever did ask me, was essentially, Alan, your question, which is, “Where is the value added? If every company makes their own set of tutorial videos, what are you guys brining to the table? Why would I pay you X number of thousands of dollars for a master’s degree even though the cost is low, and it’s delivered online and it’s very convenient, what are you brining to this learning experience?” And we really were very careful about that. So, part of it in my line of work is curating what’s out there. I think teachers, professors, generally become curators of the other information because there’s so much of it available. So, let’s pick the very best of that and then let’s create our own, and then we can deliver a class that is sort of a hybrid of what is readily available along with things that you couldn’t get on YouTube no matter how much you search, which are things like, “Hey, we’re both working in class on a common project. I’m not just watching somebody build a fence, I’m actually building a fence with them at the same time and we’re working on a fence that the whole rest of the world is going to look at.” So, if a teacher, for example in our program, is working on a film score, he or she is able to share that with the students in the class and say, “This is what we’re working on right now and let’s take little sections of it and let’s talk about how it was recorded and why don’t you make some changes…” and so those are things that we can add an expertise, a closeness, a connection, that they can’t get all one-direction from a YouTube video or an app. But, to me, that feels like that has to be the future of every type of education. It becomes difficult, as you suggest, if the material is free and of higher quality every year and remains free, it becomes very difficult for universities to say, “You have to come here because this is where the knowledge lives” and students can say, “Uh-uh, that’s not where the knowledge lives.”

Hall: So, you know, that was one point I have that I fear is accreditation is sort of keeps you in the ball game, right? Keeps university where you have value because a diploma, a certificate, from your institution has that value because I can take that to my employer and say, “Look, I graduated from SUU, I have a bachelor’s degree.” What would happen if somebody decided to kill accreditation so that the universities no longer have that? Now where would you see yourself? What do you do next?

Wyatt: Well, if accreditation was gone, then it would be the reputation of the school.

Hall: Hmm.

Wyatt: Like any other business.

Hall: Yeah.

Wyatt: It would be our reputation…

Hall: Yeah.

Wyatt:…Is why people come and its why people would hire the graduates. And that may actually be the driving force anyway. But your pointing out something really interesting, Alan, and that is that in the same way the libraries used to be the source all information and now you can get it online, universities used to be the source of information and now you can get it in lots of places. As the two of you were talking, it occurred to me that I’ve been to Gettysburg a number of times, and the first time I went, I read the books and I had my little self-guided tour and I would get from A to B and read everything. But, when I went back and hired a guide that was trained and certified and knew how to tell the story, my motivation in seeing all the places went way up and I learned more, and it was fun and there was a social aspect to it that was much bigger. Usually when we're doing a big project, it seems that if we make it social, we have other people to motivate us and keep us going. That’s one of the things that happens in a classroom.

Meredith: Even online.

Wyatt: And even online.

Meredith: Yep.

Hall: Yeah…

Christensen: I…oh, go ahead Alan. Well, I was just going to also make the comment, I think there’s two main parts of learning that takes place here. I’m going to now jump to the other side of the equation and actually argue in behalf of the university, because I think indeed, there’s intellectual capital. The “getting smart” part of the equation is vital and critical, but we all know that there’s an element that I would argue is even more valuable, and that is the relationship capital that is developed in the university. And so, I think that there’s going to fundamentally going to need be a place or a venue that promotes and allows individuals not only to work together, but to also build your network out so that you can actually succeed in whatever career field you’re in. I know in the instance of my degree, my intellectual knowledge was actually learning value, but far more impactful for me was my relationship capital that was gained along the way. And so, I think that we need to keep that in perspective also from the university that there is an element and a need on some level, but I think, going forward, have campuses and a venue that individuals can gather together and build those bonded relationships that simply can’t happen online.

Hall: Rich, what you’re talking about is we are establishing a brand at the university of what we will deliver to a customer, right? We’re going to bring you the high value, intrinsic information and relationships that you can’t get anywhere else. It’s who we are, it’s what we do. Yes, it’s going to cost you more than Alan getting that free Duolingo French lesson, but at the university, you’re going to have all of these other wonderful assets that we’ll to provide to you. And do universities now look to the future about they’re not a commodity anymore, they are now a very valuable, value added place to learn, to grow, to develop, and will universities then see themselves in a different light than they have where they just deliver, let’s say, just directly content? I’d love your thoughts on that.

Wyatt: Yeah. Let me take that a step sideways, perhaps. This is one of the—and I’m not sure if I’m answering your question or asking another question, Alan. But if the content itself is available for free and that’s what we’re delivering, and we’re also delivering a set of softs kills—the ability to work as a team and all those kinds of things—and we’re also delivering mentors…so, maybe there’s content, which is hard skills, and then maybe there’s soft skills, the ability to work with others, and then there’s mentors and relationships and all this capital that you talked about, Rich. The more content becomes free, the more we, in higher education perhaps, have to really focus on this other two things, which are the soft skills and the mentorship and the relationship.

Christensen: And I think if you take that…that’s really a good point, President. I think that if you also take a very specific niche and concrete examples…nursing, for example, I’m not sure that I would want a nurse ever just going and learning online and then firing it up in the hospital.

Wyatt: [Laughs]

Christensen: So, there has to be a level of, you know, how about the airplane mechanic school, President, at your university? I’m not sure that the content alone is ever enough of that. I kind of want someone watching over a shoulder. Watching and ensuring that that’s taking place properly. So, you know, as I talked about the democratization of media, I think that there will be a level of democratization of higher education that occurs, and the result was is the value is still there and the opportunities for higher education institution, it will just be more in the niches, exactly like it has become in media. Alan, what are your thoughts on that?

Hall: Well, you know, I’m just thinking about I’ve been teaching as an adjunct professor of classes in sales and entrepreneurship and I actually found that students ignored the way I brought them the content, but they could have read all of the content, if you think, online. There’s so much out there on entrepreneurship that certainly a university’s got no handle on that, doesn’t own that, but what I found was back to I then mentored the students, I worked with them, I helped them put their plans together, I was critical of things, I helped them with things, I took my assignment to a higher level than just delivering plain content. And I think, President, that’s sort of where your mind went. It’s some of the soft things, it’s some of the things you can’t get. It’s human interaction at the highest level to help a student get the information they need in a way that’s not just looking at it online, and if universities go that way then they’re going to be around forever. If they just want to stay and compete on content, that’s a slippery slope.

Wyatt: Yeah. It’s interesting that our accreditors, Northwest, doesn’t even ask us if students are getting jobs.

Meredith: Yeah, they’re considering that right now as they change their policy going forward. “Should we ask a question about that?” And, of course, the answer is, “Yes.”

Wyatt: We’re tracking it. It’s terribly important.

Christensen: That’s actually a little concerning.

Meredith: Well, we track it. We do track it, but we’re not required to report it.

Christensen: Yeah. Could I just take one little step sideways on this conversation I think is actually relevant? And I think President kind of addressed it when Alan hit that first question, and that was one of reputation. But I think that there’s two parts of decision making. There’s left hemisphere brain thinking and then there’s right hemisphere brain thinking and although we logically back up a lot of our left hemisphere brain thinking in the form of “Am I learning? Did I get the material?” There’s also a huge element of driving of right hemisphere which is the community, wanting to belong. The visceral response that you give to someone when you say, “I graduated from this university.” That community element is also, I think, a factor and force of higher education. You look at the identity that individuals belong and pick your school and being part of that university, and that’s something that actually is tangible and real and should be considered in the discussion. Because that need…as humans, as we kind of fragment into society, we’re going to need to have that sense of community, and universities are one of the strongest allying points that that occurs.

Hall: Let me talk about one other topic that’s always been on my mind and it has to do with the cost and the speed of getting an education. Clearly in our world, we want to get through our education as quickly as we can and get that job, you know, be out there teaching music…we want to get through the coursework as quickly as we can, as inexpensively as we can. What, President, would be your thinking around changes that might accelerate and be less expensive?

Wyatt: So, we’re in the middle of a project on this right now, Alan, and we’ll see how it goes. But the first part of this answer is that we’re trying to turn our school into a three-year bachelor’s program.

Hall: Yeah, wonderful.

Wyatt: Which requires students and faculty and staff to see the world a little differently that what they’ve known it their whole lives, which is, if you take the last year, which is two semesters, and if the student would take those two semesters one after the freshman year and one after the sophomore year, you get the same amount of instruction…

Meredith: You’re talking about the summer semesters.

Wyatt: Summers, yep. So, you’d just do three semesters for three years and…well, three semesters the first and second year and then two and you end up with your eight semesters. And actually, it’s probably even better than just being a year faster because there is a loss that students experience during the four-month summer break. That they go back a little bit and they have to catch back up to where they were.

Hall: Oh. Wow, yeah.

Wyatt: So, we’re trying to make a three-year bachelor’s degree available. That’s one. The other one, of course, is online. And we have a partnership with Southwest Tech and they start school every Monday. So, students can come in and start when they want and finish when they want. And we haven’t figured out how we could take a semester and speed a semester up unless it’s online.

Meredith: Yeah.

Wyatt: The in-class is a challenge. But these are the kinds of things that we should be focusing on is, “How do we fundamentally step up what we’re doing?”

Meredith: And a great example of holding on to something that is time-honored tradition clear back to when we were a largely agrarian society—everybody needed summer off to grow the crops and get them in—but nobody…I mean, there are places in the world where that’s still a thing, but everybody else in the world works 12 months a year.

Hall: Yeah.

Meredith: So, we are following a very antiquated model necessarily by just having the traditional school year. It isn’t that it doesn’t have some advantages—there are great things to having the summer off—but students do tend to slide backwards a little bit academically.

Hall: Well, my compliments to you, President. It’s wonderful that you’re where you’re headed with that. If I weigh in with my grandchildren who are graduating from high school and they do concurrent enrollment, it seems like they are almost sophomores by the time they get to university.

Wyatt: Yeah, that’s right.

Hall: Which, again, is a way for them to save time and money as well, isn’t it?

Wyatt: Yes, most of our students show up as a first semester’s freshman with already having taken a number of credits.

Hall: Yeah.

Wyatt: One of our biggest struggles though, frankly, in helping students graduate quickly is the large percentage of them not knowing what their major is to be.

Hall: Yeah, yeah.

Wyatt: They haven’t made a decision yet. That’s the hardest thing.

Hall: Right.

Wyatt: And then we as humans like to change our minds from time to time.

Hall: Well, I started out as a dentist and it didn’t last I think a couple of hours, so, I moved on quickly. [All laugh]

Wyatt: What do you two see being in the private sector but also being connected to universities as trustee members? If the world was perfect and you could, you know, throw your want in a direction, what would you have us do? What do you think we should be looking at?

Christensen: Good questions.

Hall: You know, I’ll take a stab at it because, obviously, we’re not in that perfect world but I’ll start with a thought about the role of the president as a visionary as a CEO of an entity that might be out of business in the future and that president is looking ahead talking to potential customers, customers, like, “What do we need to be doing to keep you happy in the years to come?” I think, President, for me, it would be a fun exercise for faculty to do as well would be to get out a white board and go through and look at all of the fundamentals that make up an academic environment, from the staff, the support, all of the things that come into play with the faculty, the regents, everybody who has certain things…and take each one and say, “What could we instrumentally do to make this better, faster, and cheaper and to keep our customers happy?” What would that look like if we did that across all these sections? Of course, many of them have to combine, they do have to integrate as well so you have to think broadly, but I would think that it would be a fun and exciting thing to do. “We’re going to be different ten years from now and here’s what we’re going to look like.”

Wyatt: In some ways, it would be fun to get three or five or six or eight entrepreneurs like the two of you to come down and just rebuild us.

Hall: Yeah.

Wyatt: It would make everybody terrified.

Meredith: Oh, yeah.

Wyatt: It would make everyone terrified.

Meredith: It would scare everybody to death, but…

Christensen: But, President, in many regards, you’ve already been doing that. You asked that question and I came up with three thoughts and the first you’ve already started to do, and that’s removing barriers. Some of the Holy Grail barriers need to be broken down, so it becomes delivering value to the students. This merger that you did with Southwest Tech, I mean, it was unheard of that you could pull that off. But yet, look at…why was that done? It was the right thing to do for the students. So, I think that removing those barriers in many regards from what I’ve seen, you’ve already begun to do that. My second item is just simply, deliver value. If you focus on really, truly delivering value, whatever that end user is, I would argue that it’s actually equally the parents as the students would be my second. And I think the third is as an employer. And I know that this may not be the ultimate customer, but in some ways, it is. I would love to see real life projects taking place in the classroom rather than just all of the theoretical. So, actually integrating employers and businesses earlier into the classroom so that students are coming out a little more well-honed to start the job quicker. There always seems to be a pretty long lag of reeducating my employees when then come in. Those would be my three. Break down the barriers, add more value and more integrated learning.

Wyatt: We’ve spent the last several years working on project-based learning and it’s not easy. Interestingly enough, and this is one of those real challenges that we have, is that students arrive at our universities having never really done anything except respond. You know, the teacher says, “Read this, memorize that, respond to that, finish these problems” but students haven’t really been tasked with going out on their own and just being creative and then having somebody help them. And we have this project-based requirement at SUU and it’s a struggle for students to do it.

Meredith: Yeah, for the first time they have to propose what they will do instead of just responding.

Wyatt: Yeah. But I think, Rich, you’re going a level deeper than this because I think what you’re saying is that it needs to be more part of the whole university. That there should be more of this in every class.

Christensen: Well, I actually think it enhances multiple aspects, President. The first is you’re getting…I mean, I’ve been invited down several times to teach several classes and I get in and I see who’s performing and they help me solve a little problem—a real problem, not a theoretical problem—and guess who I’m instantly hiring? Guess who I’m interested in? [All laugh] So it actually that, as I pointed out earlier, I always look at the value chain. “How could I go deeper to add real value?” And it just jumpstarts that process. So, I think that more integration into real-life world experiences and even brining more working professionals in as part of that. And I’m not proposing that it’s just working professionals because the academics, they know how to teach and instruct their learning far better than us lay individuals, but I think there’s an element that I think engaging real world sooner in the process could be of tremendous value to a university.

Hall: Let me add to what’s been going on. This has been an exciting conversation for me and I’m grateful for the opportunity to participate. I think that we cannot forget what public education should be thinking about in this regard as well. Those students that come to SUU come out of the local school districts through the high schools all the way down to the elementary schools. And having some sort of a cohesive plan from preschool all the way through graduation where all of it is lined up in a very cohesive way, everybody understands the goals and objectives that are set for the faculty and the students so by the time a student graduates from the local high school and come to SUU, they’ve learned to be creative, they’ve learned to be problem solvers, they’ve learned to tackle difficulties. We bring them along beyond just rote memorization. We’ve got them thinking and the schools obviously in elementary, junior high and high school, they have challenges with discipline and other things to help students learn, but you’d think that the universities and the districts could be a little tighter on how they work together.  

Wyatt: Yeah, this goes back to the breaking down barriers that you mentioned as well, Rich.

Christensen: Yeah.

Wyatt: We’ve created these alliances where we meet, but there is a governing body and an organization for public ed up through 12th grade, and then there’s an organization and governing bodies for the technical schools completely separate and then there’s the higher ed for the colleges and universities, completely separate. So, in Utah, we have three different systems and they naturally aren’t in the same room. We have to work hard to collaborate fully and I think that in a lot of ways, we’re doing a terrific job. But it’s not completely natural.

Christensen: Well, you had made the comment earlier that you aren’t natural entrepreneurs and I would actually disagree with that in many regards. As I have observed many of the things that you’re doing at Southern Utah University, I would argue that it’s entrepreneurship at its finest. You have this little project called the Shark Tank where you run ten little initiatives and fund them and guardrail them. That’s hard-core entrepreneurship which you’ve done with the business programs. The creativity that’s taken place in the aviation programs—so much entrepreneurship there. And I realize that maybe it’s just pockets of it, but I actually think that there is an opportunity, and you’re doing a pretty darn good job of pushing these boundaries and adding value and creating these entrepreneurial efforts, President. I’m delighted to be part of the university.

Wyatt: Well, that’s nice of you to say. We’re about out of time and I have a question for both of you. And that is, “If you could change one thing, what would it be? About higher education?” As entrepreneurs, is there something that you would change?

Meredith: And don’t be afraid to say whatever you think it is.

Wyatt: Yeah, you won’t hurt our feelings.

Christensen: Are you going first, Alan, or am I?

Hall: Well, Rich, if it’s on the tip of your tongue, go for it.

Christensen: For me, and again, I say this delicately because I realize the need for structure and stability, but for me, it honestly would be tenure. I expect as a business owner and whatever to show up every day and add, really contribute value and be sharp and I don’t expect to actually hold my position long term as a CEO or even as a business owner if I’m not really sharp and aware. And so, to me, the concept of tenure, although I understand institutionally where it came from, I struggle a little bit with the concept of sometimes maybe deaccelerating production and performance.

Wyatt: So, this is one of those things that we often hear from people in the private sector, that tenure is a problem. And we could probably argue that both ways. Seeing the strong tradition and how that helps us and also seeing some of the weaknesses. But the reality is is that as long as all of the good universities have tenure, we have to have tenure in order to recruit great faculty. That’s one of our…one of just the absolute obvious pieces of this.

Meredith: Right, right.

Wyatt: You just don’t get around it. So, we don’t ever think about doing away with tenure because to the extent that it helps us be a better school just because of what that means for faculty is one thing, but for the other thing, we can’t attract good faculty without it.

Hall: Rich, you’re spot on relative to workers in any institutions, they have to perform. And maybe there’s a different wrinkle around tenure that might be considered, so we always have the best teachers, the best faculty, the best staff. We want to make sure that we’re…we’ve got the best people on our bus, right? I’d look at it this way, President, in that you have a desire to look ahead and I would just say, “Continue with it.” I would encourage you to do the things you’re doing—to reach out, to gather as much information and counsel as you can, because clearly, SUU is a magnificent institution, its doing remarkable things and it gets incrementally better. Can it compete in the big world out there? It sure can. So, I would look to you to just continue to drive forward looking to see the things that you can do to make the place even better. That would be my final thought.

Wyatt: We’re going to have…we think we’re going to have some leadership from the Utah Legislature on soon and ask them kind of similar questions, but one of them that undoubtedly will come up during that conversation is performance-based funding. And performance-based funding is good and bad. It terrifies us in some ways and it excites us in other ways because we can’t always control the kind of students that come in and if we get rewarded based on graduation rates then there’s a tendency to think, “Well, we only want to bring people into the university that are likely to finish” and one of our values is is to be open for everyone to come in and to take chances on people. To give students an opportunity to come and fail. But aside from the little difficulties, this is kind of, sort of like the profit motive that you face every day if we’re funded based on outcomes. Are those things that you think we should be looking at seriously?

Hall: You know, I’ll give you an observation. The Legislature likes that because, again, they’ve got pressure and they’re exerting that back onto the schools. I look at it an, let’s say, President, as you’ve described, we’re not really hand-picking these students and bringing them in, the doors are open, anybody can come. And it means to me that there are going to be exceptional students in front of a bell-curve. You’re going to have some bright ones, you’re going to have some that really aren’t all together yet, and part of that is for those that need help mentoring, tutoring, you may need to ask for money and say, “Well, if you’re going to expect these things of us, we probably need some money to help those underperforming students” or “We see what you’re trying to accomplish, but there needs to be some recourses that support your objective and we would like to be very clearly on ‘We can hit these’ but we also need other resources as well.”

Wyatt: Yeah. It’s almost like…

Christensen: I’d like to see…oh, go ahead.

Wyatt: No, go ahead.

Christensen: No, no, please go ahead. Finish that thread.

Wyatt: So, it’s almost as if you could say…I don’t know that this would ever be possible, but you say, “OK, this is the category of students and they happen to be 50% of our students who are coming in and they’re totally prepared and so, fund us based on their performance. But then here’s the other half of the students and those students are unprepared, but because of the social value, we want to bring them in and give them a chance and the performance-based funding for them might should be different that for the other group.” So as not to give us a disincentive.

Christensen: Yeah.

Wyatt: And this is really an interesting topic. I think we could talk about that for an hour.

Christensen: If I could make one comment here. As entrepreneurs and I think as business owners, our natural reaction is always going to be, “Yes” to that question. “Yes, you should be compensated or funded based on performance.” But there are really at least two major differences between what Alan and I do and what you do. First of all is we get to decide the employees that we get and screen and vet them out and so, although we’re ultimately accountable and we live or die on a daily basis, we eat or starve to death on a daily basis, we at least get to kind of pick and have more control. Even to the point we can fire people and you can’t do that with many, you know, if an underperforming tenured faculty is in place or even students. So, that’s one. And then second of all is just a layer of buffering of the political moving mechanism. President, I believe you made the comment that everybody thinks that they get to ultimately make the decision. And so, ultimately, Alan and I can operate a little more lean and quickly and execute judgment. So, I think that those two disparities to alter the framework and maybe desirability of it all ultimately being performance-based.

Wyatt: Well, we’re about out of time.

Meredith: We are.

Wyatt: Any closing comments about this? This has been a lot of fun, we’ve talked about focusing on costumers and content and what we’re adding in addition to content and perhaps we need to focus increasingly more on that since content is available for free in a lot of places. So, the mentoring and internships and social soft skills, all those kinds of things. We’ve talked about breaking down barriers, better, faster, cheaper, adding value, doing more projects to help people be more prepared for the workforce. And then into some of these uniquely entrepreneurial business kinds of ideas that, as you’ve indicated, are a little bit in disharmony with regular government secure employment. And then also funding from the Legislature based on outcomes. Everyone one of these could make an interesting hour discussion. Any closing thoughts?

Hall: I just thank you for the opportunity to weigh in and your openness and desire to do great things. So, thank you for the invitation to participate.

Christensen: Yes, thank you so much.

Meredith: You’ve been listening to Solutions for Higher Education, a podcast featuring Scott Wyatt, the president of Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah. We’ve had as our guests today, joining us via phone, Rich Christensen and Alan Hall, two very successful entrepreneurs who are also great friends to the academy, and we thank them for their kind participation today and we than you, our listeners, for tuning in. We’ll be back again soon. Thanks, bye bye.