Higher education may be in "a really big, bad mess," but the people of Samford University are unusually equipped to help solve the problems, Samford president Andrew Westmoreland told employees Monday, Aug. 20.
"We must recreate higher education, arriving at an intersection of high quality and a reasonable price, and focused on student learning," said Dr. Westmoreland in his annual State of the University address in Wright Center.
"It sounds so simple that you would think someone would have already cornered that market, but they haven't, and the world needs it. The irony is that right here at Samford, we're already closer on all three counts than the majority of institutions across the country," he said.
To catch the attention of the market, Samford must be different, said Westmoreland, outlining plans to engage serious discussion and planning related to online education and other significant issues.
"We must develop and implement a coherent plan for the future of online learning at Samford," said Westmoreland, noting that steps have been made in areas where interest coalesced, but not from a larger strategy that moved toward institutional goals.
The current "meandering approach" must give way to a more serious look at questions that consider which programs to offer, pricing strategy, "and the best ways to ensure that an online education from Samford carries with it the values of the institution."
Westmoreland included online education in a list of seven issues that confront higher education and Samford in particular. His observations about the current academic environment:
- Changes in technology that have provided people worldwide with quick and affordable access to learning, although appearing positive, are "at the heart of many of the stress fractures that we encounter.
- The accreditation process will continue to change in unfamiliar ways, and will likely include increased governmental involvement at the national or state level. "Either way, universities in the future will have less maneuvering room than in the past," said Westmoreland.
- The high costs of operating traditional universities have created stress for governments and families strapped for cash. Respect for higher education leaders has eroded. While scandals of the Penn State variety are cited in the media as an indication of the corruption of higher education, in households across the country our damage is often the result of a billion pinpricks, individual encounters with incompetent, uncaring administrators and faculty. "Our industry is sick. We are largely unwilling or unable to heal ourselves, and the general public would not long mourn our passing," said Westmoreland.
- For five decades, the trend of public policy has been toward a merging of standards for church-related institutions and those with no religious obligations. "There are reasons why institutions such as Samford are different, and they have to do with the practice of our faith. Coping with this environment means that we must remain alert-and wary of entangling alliances-at all times."
- While online education has received mixed reviews by government officials and higher education authorities, collectively, the for-profit concerns have used the online approach to reap billions. Traditional universities have employed online programs to subsidize the operations of their "real" campuses, and the impact of a relatively new phenomenon, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), is as yet unknown.
- The market for students is in constant change, and the external environment for Samford is affected by variables such as its religious nature, suburban location, a strong brand name in the region and among Christians, quality programs and pricing strategy. Westmoreland predicts that within a decade, fewer than 100 institutions across the country will be in serious competition for the students who fit Samford's traditional profile. "As the numbers decline and the intricacies of marketing add muscle and flesh, the competition will be costly, fierce and complex."
- Regarding Samford's fiscal health, Westmoreland said, much progress has been made, but much work remains. "Our margins are far too tight, and we are not sufficiently insulated from the downsides of a bad year, or two or three faulty decisions."
"And so it is into this storm that we guide our ship, in times confusing and potentially overwhelming. And yet, we begin this new year in ways stronger than at any time in our history," said Westmoreland.
He cited an expected record enrollment of more than 4,800 this fall, a strong incoming freshman cohort, a net operating margin of $1.5 million for the last fiscal year, an expanded international enrollment, progress with salaries and a strong pension fund for employees, and increased national and international recognition for the school's quality academic programs and people.
Prior to the President's address, Samford employees assembled for a special start-of-school worship gathering in Reid Chapel.
Ida V. Moffett School of Nursing dean Nena Sanders reminded faculty and staff that Samford has characteristics that are more like a community than an organization.
"Unity is the core to the spirit of community," said Dr. Sanders. "For a community to remain strong, it must maintain the principles of unity. No department is more or less than another. We all have an important role to play.
"Stay unified, salty and brightly lit so we can glorify our father in heaven," she said.
The program also included testimonies by Lane Smith and Azalea Hulbert. Worship leaders were pianist Kathryn Fouse, flutist Rachel Lim, organist Jamie McLemore, music director Paul Richardson and liturgist April Robinson.