Innovating the Way to Student Success: Higher Ed Leaders from Hofstra, UK, and Muhlenberg Discuss Strategic Planning at Huron Panel

While in business, the end game of strategic planning is often dollars and cents, when it comes to education, the goal is student success.

According to Rose Martinelli, Senior Director at Huron, “Student success is really thinking about a student’s progression from the point of thinking about college all the way through graduation and engagement as an alumni.”

In her role at Huron, a global professional services firm that provides guidance to universities, Martinelli helps schools to ensure student success through carefully laid strategic plans.

“Whether it’s retention, graduation rates, employment outcomes, employability… what we’re trying to do is help institutions understand: Who do they serve? How do they serve? And how do they align their resources to do so more effectively? So it’s thinking about aligning mission, vision, with student outcomes in a way that really preserves the mission of the institution.”

This year at ACE 2017 in Washington, D.C., Huron hosted a panel addressing how schools can do just that. The panel featured three higher ed administrators and Huron consultants, as they discussed what it takes to develop an effective, sustainable—and adaptive—strategic plan.

The panelists came from three very different schools, and three very different backgrounds: Herman A. Berliner, former Provost and current dean at Hofstra University, Timothy S. Tracy, Provost and Chief Academic Officer of the University of Kentucky, and John Williams, the President of Muhlenberg College.

Of the panelists, Herman A. Berliner has served the longest at a single university: 47 years, to be exact. Berliner has also had the unique experience of serving as the dean of Hofstra University’s business school twice—25 years apart.

According to Berliner, “It’s actually a tougher position [today], because higher ed has become that much more competitive.”

While the Long Island-based Hofstra has always taken pride in its business school, Berliner explains, the globalization of education and introduction of online MBA programs upped the ante for business schools across the country.

“We’re a good business school…We do a terrific job teaching — we do. We know our field backwards and forwards and we’re current in our field. We have a good number of students. Why should we change?”

“Because the competition really is that tough today that you have to change,” says Berliner. “We’re not only competing with the good schools that are in New York.”

In order to revamp the business program for a more competitive market, Berliner enlisted Huron to help.

As a result of Huron’s strategic guidance, a number of faculty meetings, and much research, Hofstra was able to improve its viability in an increasingly competitive field. This included adding a required entrepreneurship course for undergraduates, making space for a 5,000-square-foot incubator, and creating the “most sophisticated behavioral science lab of any college or university around.”

“It’s not enough to be a vanilla business school. It’s not enough to be terrific teachers who really know their subject matter well,” says Berliner.

Instead, Berliner says, the school must focus on questions like, “‘Why should a student come to Hofstra?’ ‘What do we offer that they’re not likely to find elsewhere?’”

Interview with Herman A. Berliner, Dean of the Frank G. Zarb School of Business at Hofstra University

Currently in the middle of his first strategic planning process as president, John Williams shared how he uses his previous business experience to strengthen Muhlenberg College‘s competitive advantage.

“In higher ed, oftentimes the word ‘strategic’ is used as a synonym for ‘important’ or something that’s larger than my budget,” says Williams. “Whereas, in the business world, ‘strategic’ really is focused on competitive advantage.”

Yet in the current higher ed market, it seems that the business approach is not only more effective for the school’s success, but results in a higher return on investment for students, as well, who are met with an increasingly competitive workforce that is rapidly changing.

“There’s never been a better time than now to have a liberal arts education because the future, especially in terms of career opportunities, has never been more uncertain,” said Williams.

And what are those employers looking for, one might ask? Williams went on to list critical thinking, communication, data analysis, and intercultural awareness as just a few skills that are increasingly in demand in today’s workforce.

“These are all things that come from a broadly-based liberal arts background.”

Williams believes the skills a liberal arts degree provides have not only propelled leaders of the past and present to success, but are crucial to “prepare the leaders of the future.”

Interview with John Williams, president of Muhlenberg College

Timothy S. Tracy, provost and Chief Academic Officer of the University of Kentucky, easily represented the largest school at the event. A public, land-grant institution with about 20,000 undergraduate students and 10,000 graduate and professional students, the University of Kentucky certainly needs to cover a lot of ground.

While many of the same issues concern U.K. as the other schools represented—retention, diversity, financial aid—the larger state school has some unique concerns.

For one, while the two cities of Lexington and Louisville are relatively populous, much of the state is still rural. Eastern Kentucky is part of the Appalachian region, which is home to some of the most impoverished groups in the United States.

According to Tracy, 30% of University of Kentucky students are first generation, and 28% receive Pell Grants.

“Our median income is about $10,000 less than the national average,” said Tracy. “And…we lead the nation in deaths due to several preventable diseases.”

In order to really plan around what the community needs, it’s important to understand these weaknesses.

“So you can begin to align your plan around addressing those areas of educational attainment, economic development, and health and well-being of our citizens.”

For Tracy, strategic planning is more than just improving a school’s outcomes and endowments, but improving the economy and quality of life in rural Kentucky.

“Those are the areas for which education has the greatest impact, because it changes the people and their lives in those areas,” said Tracy, “But as we watch the student body change, what we’re seeing is a greater increase in unmet financial need.”

To help solve this problem, the University started the UK LEADS scholarship program, to focus on need-based financial aid. Currently, it’s about 90% merit-based, but the goal is to shift to almost ⅔ need-based aid.

“We know from our data that with our students, [that unmet financial need] is a substantial factor in retention and graduation.”

Interview with Timothy S. Tracy, provost and Chief Academic Officer of the University of Kentucky

One of the strongest takeaways from these higher ed leaders was that schools today must adapt to a more competitive landscape. It’s simply not enough to have a good education — students have to be prepared for a successful career as well.

“We think of what happened after 2008 — after the great recession — there was a huge shift in desire for degrees that had a career outcome.” says Rose Martinelli.

“It’s a much bigger focus today on retention, graduation rates, and student outcomes in order to say ‘If you come to my institution, I’m going to add value to you.’”

For schools, this means more demonstrable return on investment, and much more adaptive planning cycles.

“[Strategic planning] needs to be in a much shorter cycle than it once was,” says Martinelli.

While many of the panelists at the event listed their top priorities and goals for the next five years, time will only tell what new goals might arise. Fortunately, with their previous experience and guidance from Huron, they have learned to adapt.

Interview with Rose Martinelli, Senior Director of Strategy and Operations at Huron

This story is sponsored by Huron.

Huron is a global professional services firm that partners with universities and other organizations, providing guidance for adapting to industry changes and developing strategies for the future.

Visit to learn more.

Hannah Nyren

Hannah Nyren

Hannah Nyren is the General Manager of EdTech Times. A Texan by birth but a Bostonian at heart, Hannah is an educational writer, AmeriCorps alum, and one-time StartupWeekend EDU (SWEDU) winning team member. She started her career at a Pearson-incubated edtech startup, but has since covered travel, food & culture, and even stonemasonry in addition to education.