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Higher Education at a Crossroads

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This week, I had the opportunity to attend the American Council on Education’s (ACE) annual meeting in Washington, DC.  The theme of this year’s conference was Reaching Higher, but the underlying theme seemed to be “the winds of change are upon us.”

Sunday’s session for presidents and chancellors had the following topics:  Vision and Change at BYU-Idaho: A Model for America’s Colleges and Universities, Information Technology:  Seize the Day, and a luncheon at which Terry Hartle, SVP of Government and Public Affairs of ACE spoke about the pending Department of Education regulations regarding Credit Hours, State Regulation, Gainful Employment, Accreditation, and Misrepresentation.  Later in the day, Yale’s President Richard Levin spoke about “Why Colleges and Universities Matter.”  I also attended a session hosted by Stan Ikenberry, former president of the University of Illinois and ACE, and George Kuh, Professor Emeritus of Higher Education at Indiana University Bloomington and the founding director of the Center for Postsecondary Research and the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), regarding assessment and ways in which institutions implement it.

Having the conference in Washington provided some benefits.  Eduardo Ochoa, Assistant Secretary of Postsecondary Education at the U.S. Department of Education was an unscheduled speaker at the luncheon and provided a few comments regarding the administration’s position regarding higher education and reminded the group that he had served as a provost at Sonoma State University.  He also stated that he was unable to provide a statement about three of the issues because of a lawsuit against the Department.  Terry Hartle’s major points were that the industry can regulate itself and does not need increased federal regulation at a time when there are many changes occurring as well as innovations required in order to remain competitive.

Rick Levin’s lecture provided three main points:  (1) the basic research principle of our universities is a driver of our nation’s growth and healthcare improvements, (2) the diverse array of higher education institutions provides an education to a broad workforce, and (3) our colleges are the principal avenue of upward mobility for our citizens.  President Levin is an economist and unabashedly stated that his lecture had an economic focus although his sincere comment that “the most profound consequence of higher education is that it improves the soul” was not economically based.

As one of a number of presidents invited to attend the session on assessment, I was pleasantly surprised about the depth of discussion.  Our comments were recorded by a researcher for a project sponsored by the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA) and all of us participating received the prerequisite Institutional Review Board (IRB) disclosure.  Assessment has been an interest of the accrediting bodies for the last ten years or so, but usually is not a topic about which college and university presidents are conversant.  The group representing a variety of institutions ranging from public research universities to private liberal arts colleges to an online university.  All the presidents in attendance were focused on the measurement of learning outcomes at their institution.

Many years ago I took a course in oral history at Duke.  Interviewing people who participated in a historical event years after the event took place gave me an appreciation for the fact that reporters write about an event from their perspective which may not be the perspective of the participants.  While some of the lectures and panels at this year’s annual meeting have been discussed in articles published by The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed, those articles are related to specific topics.  As a somewhat regular attendee of ACE’s annual meetings, I observed a difference through the statements of the speakers, the questions of the participants, and the general tone of the conversations at the social events.  Usually, the major determinants of change in any sector are the market or the government or both.   This year may be the year where a need for change is finally recognized by the entire sector.

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Wally Boston Dr. Wallace E. Boston was appointed President and Chief Executive Officer of American Public University System (APUS) and its parent company, American Public Education, Inc. (APEI) in July 2004. He joined APUS as its Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer in 2002. In July 2016, he retired as APUS president and continued as CEO of APEI. In September 2017, he was reappointed APUS president after the resignation of Dr. Karan Powell. In September 2019, Angela Selden was named CEO of APEI, succeeding Dr. Boston who will remain APUS president until his planned retirement in June 2020. Dr. Boston guided APUS through its successful initial accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association in 2006 and ten-year reaccreditation in 2011. In November 2007, he led APEI to an initial public offering on the NASDAQ Exchange. During his tenure, APUS grew to over 100,000 students, 200 degree and certificate programs, and approximately 90,000 alumni. In addition to his service as a board member of APUS and APEI, Dr. Boston is a member of the Board of Advisors of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA), a member of the Board of Overseers of the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, a board member of the Presidents’ Forum, and a board member of Hondros College of Nursing and Fidelis, Inc. He has authored and co-authored papers on the topic of online post-secondary student retention, and is a frequent speaker on the impact of technology on higher education. Dr. Boston is a past Treasurer of the Board of Trustees of the McDonogh School, a private K-12 school in Baltimore. In his career prior to APEI and APUS, Dr. Boston served as either CFO, COO, or CEO of Meridian Healthcare, Manor Healthcare, Neighborcare Pharmacies, and Sun Healthcare Group. Dr. Boston is a Certified Public Accountant, Certified Management Accountant, and Chartered Global Management Accountant. He earned an A.B. degree in History from Duke University, an MBA in Marketing and Accounting from Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business Administration, and a Doctorate in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. In 2008, the Board of Trustees of APUS awarded him a Doctorate in Business Administration, honoris causa, and, in April 2017, also bestowed him with the title President Emeritus. Dr. Boston lives in Owings Mills, MD with his wife Sharon and their two daughters.

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