What Can Higher Ed Learn from Detroit?

Detroit’s historic bankruptcy filing this week gives us all pause for thought.  The blogosphere has no shortage of opinions on why the city had to resort to such a drastic action.  People blame unions, auto manufacturers, the one or two percent of highest earners, even the federal government.

Most who have had responsibility for an organization or two recognize that the blame falls squarely on management.  One could argue that the voters who put management in place shoulder a good deal of the blame but there is little evidence that choosing one way or another at the voting booth would have altered this outcome materially.

Here’s a chart that symbolizes the challenges of managing Detroit.  Detroit population  It is based on US Census Data and is in a PowerPoint format.  The first half of the 20th century saw a meteoric rise in its population, first with the growth of the auto industry and then in the 1940s when the needs of the war department commandeered all of that industrial capacity.  The fifties and sixties were prosperous in the region but those who could afford to relocated to the burgeoning suburbs.  Twin energy crises of the 1970s leveled a major blow to the auto industry, shrinking population all the more, with another bout of that same malady occurring between 2000 and 2010.

The decline that began in the 1950s became a rout.  Government was always a step behind.

What can we learn from this when it comes to managing higher education?  I believe plenty.  We have already seen how an economic downturn affects the family’s willingness and ability to pay.  Increasing levels of debt are an uncomfortable truth that haunts the industry.  And the modern day equivalent to the flight to the suburbs could be the growth of non-traditional programs, online offerings, community colleges and the MOOC.

The question I wish could be asked of those who were in charge of Detroit in the 1950s is whether they understood why the city was beginning its decline.  I do not have an exhaustive set of data on this but it would seem that the 20 year period from 1950 to 1970 should have been instructive to city planners.  Perhaps they thought that industrial expansion would save the city, relying on tax receipts from growing businesses while the residential population declined.  Maybe they were too consumed with trying to take care of what appears to be a decline in economic prosperity of residents during that time.  The state or federal government may have been a source of greater support to stem the tide of a declining tax base.

By the end of the 1960s the decline in population had become a race for the exit.  Riots in the later 1960s followed by the lost decade of the 1970s had to be too much for the city to bear.  And so it went.

Am I suggesting that higher ed is in the equivalent of Detroit in the 1950s?  I don’t see this as universally true but, in some quarters or segments, it could be.  As a group, smaller, private institutions are struggling to contend with declines in traditional enrollments.  Larger institutions, offering greater amenities and program breadth, are hard to compete with, particularly when higher prices seem to correlate with a more significant campus.  Then, even if the net price is higher for the larger institution, the amount of grant money, given in the form of flattery, becomes very attractive to the incoming student and his or her proud parents.

And healthier institutions are not sitting still.

I attended a church strategic planning session this past week and found the ending comment by the facilitator to be spot on.  A church begins with a vision, followed by enthusiastic growth, meeting of people’s spiritual, physical and social needs, the addition of ministry-related programs and, finally, a more significant organizational structure – and a building.  It declines in much the same way when vision goes away and the support for each component erodes.  A dying church only has its structure – or a building – to represent what it once was.

The challenge for churches that are in the last days of their existence is to avoid the desire to return to the past.  That is, rather than attempting to go backward by re-adding formerly robust programs and then attempting to meet people’s needs, the rebirth of a church requires beginning with a new vision.  The Bible says that without a vision, the people perish.  An interpretation of that is that a visionless institution leads to anarchy.  Not a pretty picture and certainly an unsustainable approach to growth.

I thus conclude this with the encouragement for a higher ed institution to honestly assess its current performance within the context of the market.  Are you growing?  If so, the vision should reflect that and identify strategies that fill in the created gaps created by growth.  Have you struggled?  Don’t feel compelled to create a vision that is unattainable or overly optimistic.

Establish a realistic, measurable vision that allows for reasonable goal-setting.  Supporting strategies should accommodate the emerging trends of higher education, including adult learners, online course offerings, accelerated calendars for traditional students, the institution of popular programs and the physical needs of the institution.  And don’t forget to invest in the people who will be carrying out this process.  They need support and development to achieve even the most reasonable goals.  Program review is also needed so that those programs that are lagging are either adjusted or jettisoned to make room for more defensible ones.  Set milestone goals to be achieved each year and hold yourself to them by making people accountable for their piece of the plan.  This is hard work and may not look as wonderful as what has been prepared in the past. It’s not about egos.

In the end, we don’t want others to look back at this time in our institutional history and conclude that this or that obvious trend was obviously ignored.  It is a time for a new vision, for bold strategies, for accountability and for results.