Q&A with Jon McGee

Q&A with Jon McGee

In his book, "Breakpoint," Jon McGee argues that higher education is in the midst of an extraordinary moment of demographic, economic, and cultural transition—one that has significant implications for how colleges understand their mission, market, and management. As VP for Planning and Public Affairs at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University in Minnesota, his management division includes marketing, institutional research, planning and state and federal government relations.

What are the biggest challenges facing colleges and universities today?
Demographic, economic, and cultural forces converged about a decade ago to reshape the marketplace. No institution is immune from its individual or collective effect, though different institutions experience them differently.

We can define the market pressure points for most colleges along four lines:

  • Accessibility: Who will have access to what kind of college experience?
  • Affordability: How will they pay for it?
  • Accountability: What kinds of outcomes should students, parents, and society expect of higher education?
  • Sustainability: What resources will institutions have to continuously improve quality and maintain accessibility?

Can administrators ever embrace the notion that they are “large-scale business enterprises”?
It’s not that hard. Whether we like the phrase or not, it reflects who we are and how we operate today. We often enroll thousands of students, employ scores of faculty and staff, and provide an array of services that equal or exceed those available in small- or even medium-sized cities. The days of informal structures and casual leadership are gone (and may have been more nostalgic myth than reality in any case). Scale and complexity are not synonymous with soullessness, however.

Will it ever happen?
The acknowledgement that colleges must serve many constituent groups with numerous and sometimes competing interests does not require we sell out our values. High-functioning institutions hew to their mission, values, and founding purposes. At the same time, the scale and complexity of operations at most institutions today demand greater emphasis on strong decision-making and leadership skills.

The speed of change has accelerated, the needs and expectations of our students have grown, and the pressure to satisfy a remarkable array of interests has increased. As a result, we must be more attentive to how we make decisions and the trade-offs they demand. That doesn’t require we become linear command-and-control enterprises. That hasn’t proven to work. But it demands we adapt our shared governance and decision-making practices to different conditions to insure we continue to advance our values and serve students and a common good.

Is there a “one-size fits all” solution?
Emphatically, no. I began and ended “Breakpoint” with the admonition to “know thyself.” Context is everything, shaping both challenge and opportunity. No two institutions are, or should be, alike. Terms like “best practice” can be deceiving, sometimes suggesting we can replicate what others have done to similar effect. We can learn from other’s experiences and practices, but we cannot replicate. I don’t believe universal solutions exist.

In “Breakpoint,” I offered a series of questions to frame issues around difference and distinction, market position, pricing, and spending. Thought and reflection must precede action. Ready, fire, aim never works. I think it’s important to understand the difference between admiration and aspiration. It’s easy to look at us as institutions and admire all we do and have done—and simply call it good.

In a changing marketplace, why is it important to keep looking forward?
As marketplace pressure continues—and it shows no signs of abating—we won’t have the luxury of luck. Institutional strategy must be built on a three-part platform: It must be relevant (meet some need or interest), it must be resonant (be valued by someone), and it must be real (authentically represent an institution’s values and experience).

Minimally, colleges must address six key questions: What are our primary sources of distinction and comparative advantage today versus our key competitors? What opportunities do we have to create distinction? How does our mission remain relevant? Are we prepared to meet the needs of students new to our campus and campus culture? Do we have a compelling narrative linking price to value? Is what we do financially sustainable in the context of changing student needs and our revenue model? These questions require research, judgment, and conversation. They also involve an assessment of risk.

The future belongs to the smart, not the lucky. We have a tremendous and perhaps historic opportunity to lead. With a better understanding of the forces at play around us and a more complete understanding of our own place, we can make choices that better serve our students and advance a common good for generations to come.