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Q&A: Bradley president Stephen Standifird on changing higher education trends, and how BU plans to adapt

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Bradley University
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Bradley University President Stephen Standifird says higher education is too often slow to change, and too risk-averse.

As universities eyeball a 10 to 15 percent "enrollment cliff" drop-off of new traditional undergrad students expected in 2023, Standifird says becoming more adaptable may offer an advantage to institutions like Bradley.

He spoke to Tim Shelley recently about his longer-term vision for the Hilltop.

STEPHEN STANDIFIRD: So I think one of the things that is a big challenge for higher education today is after over a century of constant growth, we are probably not as sensitive to the demands of the market as we need to be.

So one of the things we tried to be very thoughtful about is as we develop our strategy, we start thinking about what's next is to begin by having a fairly in depth conversation with our students, our prospective students as to what they're really looking for in today's higher education market. So we've done that we did that. We began our process of strategic planning, by interviewing 1600 prospective students. And it's that kind of insight that we really need to make sure we're moving in the right direction.

TIM SHELLEY: When you interview those students, where are they telling you?

SS: Yeah, so it's interesting, there's two main themes that popped out. And both of them came on pretty much equally strong. The first thing that was a universal theme, it almost didn't matter who we talked to, where they came from, their background, what today's students are telling us is they are very interested in being on a campus that is very welcoming and inclusive of everyone. So this idea of creating a welcoming, inclusive environment, is top of mind for today's students. So that's become obviously a key part of our strategy is something that we're very focused on.

The other piece that we thought was very interesting is, you know, one of the things that has become kind of the dominant theme in higher education is career preparation, are we getting you into the right jobs? Interestingly, while that's still a factor, what what today's students are really telling us is what they're looking for, is the term that we literally came up with is 'help me achieve the life I want, I want to have a life of impact, I want to have a life of meaning.' You know, career iss a part of that. But there's something much more to that as well, I want to really look at and start thinking about the world's biggest problems, how do I help be a positive influence on that?

And what that means is we have to think differently. It's not about getting you in the right major it's about helping you really identify your purpose in life, what you really want to do, and that almost by definition, becomes cross-disciplinary out the gate.

TS: And I want to touch upon both of those things a little deeper. Let's start with the inclusiveness and diversity. I know the university is in the process of trying to hire a new VP of DEI, which would hire report directly to you. How's that going? Any new developments on that front?

SS: As you appropriately mentioned, we are currently in the process of looking for a VP of diversity, equity, and inclusion. That will be a new process and will report directly to me. And really, the purpose of that of having that role is to have a thought partner, for me, for the entire university, on how we go about creating that inclusive community.

It's a new position at the university. But I think it's a very important one. We're currently in the midst of a search process. I've seen the first list of candidates. We have a strong candidate list. And, you know, one of the pieces of feedback I've gotten is there, a lot of people would like us to move faster through this process. We're working with a search firm, and they've been very thoughtful partners, and they have actually encouraged us to slow down and make sure we take the time to get the best possible candidate we can get. And I appreciate that advice.

And now based on the candidate list I've seen so far, I think we're moving in the right direction. Our hope and expectation is that will be well, we will certainly be interviewing these people throughout the beginning of the rest of this semester. And there'll be coming into place in the spring semester.

TS: So as soon as spring. So is this person you hope and just gonna jump out of the gate on day one, and really take the reins, take charge? So 'I want to do this, this, this and this?'

SS: It's a great question. I think one of the things are going to start doing is, I suspect, and I'm going to leave it to the new VP. That's why we're hiring this individual.

But I suspect she or he's gonna want to start by really trying to get a sense of the climate on campus, talking to a bunch of individuals truly trying to understand our strengths and our challenges. And we've got a mixture of both, right? So there's some really great things going on on campus, for example, our ability to attract a diverse student population. I think there are a lot of things we could do to create a more inclusive campus once they get here.

And I suspect one of the things this individual is going to want to do right out the gate is start having conversations with folks on campus, folks coming into campus, maybe some recent alarms to try to understand the climate so that we can understand. There's an old phrase; "a problem well defined is half solved." So I think part of the issue early on is going to be really understanding the landscape so that we can start making some plans accordingly.

TS: To go back to the second point there about (how) students don't just want career preparation, they want some form of meaning. We hear that a lot, especially about the the Gen Z generation that's now going through universities, that they they really are looking for something more broad than just 'I want to learn how to do this job,' and they want something that means something to them. So how do you, as a university, help them find that?

SS: It's not easy. Universities are not well designed for that, so we're gonna have to think about how we redesign the university. One piece we're looking very closely at is the advising function. Traditionally, when you do advising, it tends to be very major focused. So you came in telling us, you want to be a math major. So we're going to advise you on what that looks like.

An alternate approach, and one that we're going to be taking moving forward is, come in, let us help you discover what's right for you. And part of that will be advising part of that will be giving our students a multitude of multidisciplinary experiences.

We were big on internships, one of the great things an internship can do for you is it can also help you figure out what you don't want to do, right? A multitude of experiences will really help our students understand what matters to them what's important. We'll do that by making sure that our programs across campus are working with with each other.

But the other thing we're really exploring that I get excited about is this idea of working with community partners, so that we can create those expand experiences, both on and off campus. And the richer, the fuller, the more inclusive those experiences, the easier it's going to be for our students to really understand and identify what's right for them.

TS: So I'm going to challenge you here to pick up your crystal ball. So with all these changes, you've got, how does Bradley look different 10 years from now compared to how it does right now?

SS: In 10 years, I fully anticipate that when you look around campus, you'll see what we would identify as a handful of marquee programs. And they're marquee because everything we're going to do, we're going to do high quality, and perhaps more importantly, they really landed on something that's absolutely critical to the market, something that today's students are really interested in seeing.

And because we've got an ear to the ground all the time trying to understand that you'll be seeing a constant evolution of what I would call marquee programs throughout the university. Not only do we have these marquee programs, but they're working across colleges with each other. And they're in collaboration with community partners, folks like OSF, for example. We're in conversation with them a couple different projects.

And there's just this constant ebb and flow of new exciting programs, programs that are popping up that are quickly becoming more key. And increasingly, we're finding groups and individuals that are seeking ways to connect with us. So we become a sought-after partner because they recognize that we're being connected to and responsive to what's happening in the environment today.

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