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Sometime in the late 1990s, two professors from the Graduate School of Education got to talking about leaders in higher education. There were a lot of them out there, both locally and across the country, who had climbed through the ranks at their respective institutions but were still looking upward. They already held titles like chief financial officer or vice president of development or vice dean of students, yet they were aiming for even loftier positions. The GSE professors had a question: What can you offer leaders who are already at the top of their games?

“We realized that there was this cadre of upper-middle managers [in higher education] who really needed further education than a terminal degree,” says Robert Zemsky, a GSE professor who is now the chairman of the Learning Alliance for Higher Education. Working with fellow professor and former interim provost Marvin Lazerson CGS’03 (now emeritus), Zemsky developed the Executive Doctorate in Higher Education Management—a program that celebrates its 10th anniversary this year.

“We weren’t sure it was going to work until the first year we offered it,” Zemsky recalls. He encouraged the executive director at the time, J. Douglas Toma, to admit 18 people out of the 35 applicants the fledgling program had received, expecting 12 at most to accept. Instead, all 18 who were admitted enrolled. “At that moment,” Zemsky adds, “we knew there was a demand for this program.”

From the beginning, GSE’s Exec Doc centered on a cohort model—faculty members now teach half the curriculum and the cohort teach themselves the other half—and required a dissertation. As for the average student, “it’s somebody who’s probably north of 40 who has real self-discipline and a real curiosity,” Zemsky says.

One weekend each month, Exec Doc students converge on the University from across the country and as far away as Costa Rica and Kazakhstan. Apparently the long flights are worth it: The program has already helped groom 12 college presidents and numerous senior-level administrators, many of whom gathered at Penn in January for an annual conference and a 10-year anniversary celebration.

For three days, they met at the Inn at Penn, reuniting with their former classmates and discussing various innovations in education—from forming international partnerships and addressing campus concerns to reducing academic costs. (They also celebrated Zemsky, presenting him with the inaugural Robert Zemsky Medal for Innovation in Higher Education.)

At the beginning of the weekend, as some 90 Exec Doc grads arrived on campus and prepared for the coming events, 26 college and university presidents engaged in a closed, seven-hour roundtable discussion on how to “rescue” higher education. “One of the visions that I’ve heard for Exec Doc is for it to lead the national conversation about needs and issues and opportunities and innovations related to our colleges and universities,” Blake Naughton, a senior fellow and the program’s current director, told the alumni later that day. “In figuring out how we’re going to lead that conversation beyond giving people some really good degrees, we’ve decided that we need to be a convener. We need to bring people in to talk about those issues in higher education and see where we can take that conversation to the next level.”

In the opening event of the conference, four college presidents—two of them graduates of the Exec Doc program—reported back to the Exec Doc alumni on the roundtable conversation. 

Early into the aptly titled “Presidential Roundtable Report-Out,” it was clear that many higher-education leaders are worried about their schools’ curricula. Joni Finney, a GSE professor and the discussion’s moderator, said the presidents “felt that the curriculum is about what faculty want to teach, not what students need to learn. How do you change that around?” She added: “One way is looking faculty in the eye and saying, ‘This isn’t about how hard you work, this is about what you do, and we’re going to redefine what you do.’ That’s not going to be an easy agenda.” 

Marcia Welsh, a former interim president of Towson University in Maryland, said, “Right now, we have curricula in most of our colleges that have been designed over time. Courses are added according to faculty interest. We really have to go back to having a designed curriculum.” 

The president-panelists also discussed the notion of joint operations between institutions. “The partnerships theme is really important,” said Wally Boston GrEd’10, president of the for-profit, Web-based American Public University System. “It goes beyond partnerships among public and private,” he added, noting the idea of a “streamlined” path from community college to a four-year school. Perhaps, he said, two such schools could even unite to offer a three-year degree.

“Over the next 10 years, the top 75 schools won’t have to change,” Boston said. “They’re sort of isolated. But everyone else in the middle is going to be squeezed. The rest of us have to change, and I think we have to be partners about it.”

Rufus Glasper, the chancellor of 10 community colleges in Arizona, also mentioned the importance of two- and four-year schools working together in new ways. He said the presidents had discussed the notion of community colleges and universities located on the same site, offering single degrees in a shorter time frame. “We talked about regional universities where you can come off of the main campus and you can develop a university [in] partnership with a community college—public or private—that meets the community’s needs at a price point that can be 30 to 40 percent less than what you have on the main campus, and you end up with the same degree,” he added. “You’re talking about the best way to service the community and meet that social contract of change.”

In some ways, panelists said, the roundtable revolved around conversations that would not have happened in the past. “I don’t know that, 10 years ago, the need for significant change would have been as embraced and applauded and obviously thought-out,” Michele Perkins GrEd’07, president of New England College, said of the roundtable.  Finney said the wide-ranging discussion will soon become an essay. A similar roundtable is planned for June, but with public-policy leaders instead of presidents.

Glancing around at the Exec Doc alumni assembled for the Report-Out and listening to some of the complex questions they asked the panelists, it was difficult to imagine trying to teach people already so far along in their fields. Naughton admits that it’s “a whole different animal” to teach senior-level leaders. “It’s not didactic—you don’t just stand up and lecture,” he adds. “Students are invited to be active learners. The faculty members are facilitators of learning rather than conveyors of learning.”

By the same token, the students take an unusually active role in shaping the program itself—through detailed course evaluations that have been known to run as long as 20 pages, as well as what program director Ginger O’Neill characterizes as “shoot from the hip” exit interviews in which newly minted graduates weigh in on what to tweak. 

“If you were in Cohort 1,” says O’Neill, “and now you found yourself in Cohort 11, your experience would be a lot different” as a result of all that feedback.  She adds that as the curriculum has evolved—to include, for example, a module on public policy for which a need was felt—so have the cohorts themselves.  Now numbering 24 per cohort (out of upwards of 90 applicants), the students have become more diverse in their professional backgrounds.  

“Not only do we have people from for-profit colleges, community colleges, and recently an increase in people from four-year public universities,” says O’Neill, “they come from business offices, student affairs, planning, facilities management; we’ve started getting MD/PhDs who are interested in reshaping medical education … so when you sit down together to examine a case study, you get a really comprehensive view of how higher-education institutions work.”  

And, it goes without saying, how they might be made to work better.

Molly Petrilla C’06

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