Expert advice on preparing for change
In late October, I convened a group of business executives, most of whom were CEOs, to discuss a single question: From your vantage point, what megatrends do you see unfolding over the course of the next decade, and how should Elon University prepare for the changes ahead?
The executives were alumni, parents and trustees — people who know Elon well, but spend most of their time outside of the academy. They were interested in engaging in a serious conversation about positioning the University for continued success in a world that simultaneously grows smaller and spins faster. The forum was chaired by Allen Gant, CEO of Glen Raven, Inc. and chairman of the Elon University Board of Trustees, who asked all participants to advise me with their utmost candor. Our meeting was expertly facilitated by David Noer, the Frank S. Holt, Jr. Professor of Business Leadership. The following is a composite sketch of our two-day conversation, highlighting the major themes, compiled with the assistance of my own notes from the forum and that of faculty and deans who served as recorders and discussion leaders.
Pursue internationalization aggressively
Although Elon has won national awards and #1 rankings for its international study programs, business leaders cautioned us not to rest on our laurels. As one participant succinctly put it, “The business community is the world. Shanghai is just down the street.” Another forthrightly suggested that “if all Elon students have ever seen is the United States, they are going to be seriously challenged in life.”
Business executives supported the University’s pursuit of internationalization of every dimension of the campus. While we can be proud of a 73 percent participation rate in study abroad, they argued that international study should be required for all students. Executives urged the University to create study abroad experiences that extend beyond shortterm cross-cultural connections (although these can be good first steps) and to take students outside their comfort zones in terms of languages and cultures. They stressed the value of international internships and service experiences to develop students’ intercultural understanding and also challenged Elon to increase the number of international students and faculty so that campus life is truly as international as possible.
And while international experience is invaluable and irreplaceable in a university education, many of our discussants also said students must learn to make connections across a diversity of cultures and socioeconomic classes within the United States as well.
Have a foundation of knowledge and skills for lifelong learning
The visiting business executives underscored the enduring importance of a liberal arts education. They stressed that anyone venturing into the world without an understanding of comparative religions, economics, foreign languages and cultures, and basic sciences would be seriously underprepared to compete on the world stage. One group member noted how unsettling it is that many young Americans are unfamiliar with the government and policies of the United States, which are the focal point of so much of the world’s attention.
Our visiting business leaders further suggested that a university education must help students develop extraordinary communication skills across all communications forms and media as essential tools for success — with demonstrated competency in writing, public speaking and understanding cross-cultural nuances.
Present students with ill-structured problems
This group of leaders further suggested that the junior and senior years in all academic majors should provide students with the opportunity to grapple with ill-structured problems and experience the kind of complexity and ambiguity that they will encounter in life on a daily basis. This could include working in teams, demonstrating leadership and followership in group projects, defining and solving messy problems with less-than perfect solutions, and even experiencing failure.
On learning from failure
Indeed, the topic of failure received considerable attention in our group discussions. One executive recounted the story of an Elon graduate whom he had hired who lost a major client early in her business career and took the loss very hard. The executive wondered if this young person, despite an impressive résumé filled with academic, leadership and international accomplishments, had ever experienced a major setback or failure in her entire life and whether she had developed sufficient resiliency. Forum participants noted time and again how important it is for Elon to prepare resilient students — young people who do not shrink from challenges, who recover from setbacks, who do not fear failure. An ideal university education will offer real challenges and the mentoring students require to learn to negotiate ethically a demanding world that will inevitably offer some disappointments.
The executives urged Elon to teach the tools of entrepreneurship, and I am pleased that the recent major gift from parents Ed and Joan Doherty to found the Doherty Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership will help us to do just that, not only in the Martha and Spencer Love School of Business, but across the University. Executives noted that Elon students must be “flexible, nimble, agile, resilient, and willing to take risks” in order to succeed in a globally competitive world where the pace of change is extraordinarily fast. Elon graduates must have the entrepreneurial knowledge and skills to turn solid ideas into sustainable ventures.
Model civility and values at Elon for students to take into the world
The executive discussants lamented that today’s generation of university students have been raised in a toxic environment — culturally and politically — and exposed to precious few examples of courageous leadership. Participants noted that the quality of civil discourse in America has eroded and that a partisan sound-bite culture has replaced serious debate about the central issues of our times. Today’s students have grown up in an age when media shamelessly promote outrageous celebrity behavior, religious institutions have been scandalized, materialism has been celebrated above spiritual grounding, and national leaders have demonstrated flaws of character that have caused a generation to question, “Who is deserving of my trust?”
What did our executives suggest Elon University might do to counteract such powerful cultural forces? Simply, to live our core values each day, expressed through Elon’s mission statement and the Honor Code. An Elon education is rooted in the historic tradition of the United Church of Christ and based on ideals of global citizenship, service to others, personal integrity, the exercise of freedom of thought and liberty of conscience, and concern for the common good. The visiting executives reminded me that our greatest contribution as a University community is launching more than 1,000 graduates into the world each year to live out these values.
I wish that each of you could have been an observer of our invigorating and thoughtful CEO Forum discussion. You would have been impressed, as was I, with the quality of minds present. Many who participated travel the globe regularly and brought insightful international perspectives to bear on this discussion; all recognize what a special university Elon is and want to see it remain innovative, ever-evolving and responsive to a changing world. For me personally, such a stock-taking exercise was a tonic, an opportunity to see Elon afresh through the experienced and wise eyes of those who lead other complex organizations. I am most humbly grateful to all who joined this extraordinary two-day conversation.