by Tim Goral

Posted on August 29, 2017

Remember the days when higher education was about, well, education? It still is, of course, but it's so much more. For today's college presidents, it's about endless fundraising. It's about research. It's about social issues. It's about technology. It's about innovation. It's about change.

The President to President series offers insights from leaders of institutions that are driving—and thriving from—these changes. Sponsored by Sodexo and produced under the guidance of editors Marylouise Fennell and Scott Miller, the series is more than a collection of essays. It's straight-talk conversation from presidents to their peers and advice from people who have met a challenge and want to share what they have learned.

It's about making education more accessible and affordable. It's about becoming active participants in shaping the policies and regulations that govern our institutions. It's about respecting the past while building for tomorrow. It's about social justice on campus and in the community. Above all, it's about gaining optimism for the future.

Think about this. Your institution is one of nearly 4,000 other institutions that are basically "selling the same thing." To compete and succeed, you need to look inward—you need to have an identity. You need to go beyond empty slogans like "we educate the leaders of tomorrow." You need to identify what is different about your institution. What drives its mission?

Over the course of the series, you'll read about 10 institutions that have discovered what sets them apart, how they carved out their identities, and how they overcame hurdles along the way.

For example, you'll read about the lessons learned by a small New England college as it reinvented itself into an online powerhouse. It was an evolution prompted by a weak economy and declining enrollment, but it occurred when emerging technologies and cultural changes enabled it to make the new world of online learning a powerful part of its identity and brand.

Another college created an innovative program to help ease the student-loan debt. It's no secret that student debt is out of control. Americans carry a staggering $1.4 trillion in student loan debt, spread among about 44 million borrowers. That's more than the total credit card debt owed by American consumers. Unchecked, it can and will ruin many lives. The plan may seem like a gamble, but the payoff—students whose post-college lives no longer have to be put on hold while they pay off debt—is worth the risk.

Since the 1960s colleges have been petri dishes for social and cultural change. Once-radical ideas have become commonplace, and higher education institutions are leading the way in such areas as sustainability, globalization, public policy, and urban studies. The last 10 years have seen a remarkable shift in public perceptions and attitudes toward race, religion, and gender issues. The college campus is an ever-churning melting pot, where different cultures and different ideas can find acceptance and understanding. Maintaining that inclusive identity is a challenge for presidents, especially at a time when many of the hard-won battles for acceptance are once again threatened. In this volume, you'll read how some presidents face that challenge.

Though they may be steeped in history and tradition, our colleges are hardly staid institutions living in the past. They continue to grow and influence the cities around them. Colleges are the lifeblood of many communities, providing arts and entertainment, sports, and education, not just for students but for the public. They play a role in creating a healthy, vibrant place where people want to live and participate in the opportunities afforded them. Read how some colleges are working to preserve the past even as they build for the future.

And, as I said at the outset, higher education is still about education. But that education may look different than it did when you were in school. Today, it means going beyond the classroom and the textbook. New ideas about collaboration and experiential learning are creating not only "the leaders of tomorrow," but more importantly, the leaders of today—ready to step in as productive members of society.

Read the following chapters with an open mind. These are strategies and best practices that have helped the authors—your peers—guide their institutions through challenges that you may face yourself one day. You will, no doubt, find areas of agreement, but you may also find ideas with which you disagree. That's okay, too. Reading about opposing views will only strengthen and crystalize your own ideas and values. These stories may not seem to address issues on your campus, but look again. You may just see something that inspires and informs you.