Back to school for academic administrators

Learning, we are constantly told, is a lifelong process. Working professionals who want to climb the corporate ladder have gotten used to going back to school to acquire the knowledge and skills necessary for advancement.

We can now add college and university executives to the list of lifelong learners. Penn’s Graduate School of Education found that out when it created its Executive Doctorate Program three years ago.

The program arose from brainstorming sessions among a team of Penn administrators and GSE faculty, including Carruth Family Professor of Education Marvin Lazerson, former Associate Vice President for Campus Services Larry Moneta, Adjunct Associate Professor of Education Ursula Wagener and Professor of Education Robert Zemsky. “We concluded that a major change had occurred in the governance of colleges and universities. What we called non-academic administrators had assumed more and more influence over many of the most important decisions,” Lazerson said.

This led the team to explore the need for a new kind of educational program aimed at institutional managers in higher education. The upper ranks of higher education institutions were filling with people unfamiliar with the industry they were running. And, Lazerson said, “Except for a few continuing education programs, no one seemed to be paying much attention to what we had concluded.”

So they took their own advice and set up the two-year, part-time Executive Doctorate Program, which leads to the doctor of education degree. The first class enrolled in the fall of 2001.

“We were overwhelmed by the response,” Lazerson said. “Every one of the 18 students we admitted to the first cohort enrolled—almost all were vice-presidents or senior level administrators. They came from all over the U.S. and from almost every kind of institution, from a community college in Florida to Stanford.”

One member of that first class is the program’s co-director, Larry Schall. He also wears a second hat—vice president for administration at Swarthmore College.

“I’ve been doing this stuff [academic administration] for 12 to 13 years, and I’m involved in policymaking beyond what my title would suggest,” he said. “In a classroom setting, I can explore the full breadth of what is involved in running a college.”

Schall attributes the program’s appeal to its tightly knit structure, which takes its cue from MBA programs that group students into cohorts to provide mutual support. Students meet on campus for monthly three-day classroom sessions during the academic year, plus a weeklong session in midsummer.

“A number of applicants are people who have fairly recently come into higher education from the business sector,” Lazerson said. “They’ve discovered that a lot of the issues that mainstream higher education is facing are also happening in corporations. We’re not surprised at that, but our students are.

“They also fall in love with higher education issues—especially all of the e-learning stuff that’s going on. They are quite interested in a whole set of issues around student life. They are very much interested in how you measure outcomes in higher education, and they are very interested in the extent to which colleges and universities have taken on corporate identities,” said Lazerson, who noted that Penn’s own branding strategy has been used as an example in the program.

Despite the high demand for admissions—the program gets about 65 applicants for the 18 seats in each year’s cohort—it has no plans to expand the size of the class. “What we want is to try to develop a number of continuing education professional development programs,” said Lazerson. “If you want to give students the attention they deserve, you can’t just keep adding students.”

Originally published on March 18, 2004