Higher Education

By Robert F. Darden

Darden’s research aims to re-envision colleges for leading in the 21st century

Mary Landon Darden, Ed.D., has always had a heart for colleges and college students. She founded HEI LLC. — Higher Education Innovation — to assist the many struggling colleges and universities in America. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and the number of schools closing or merging accelerated. Darden drew on her long experience in higher education and wrote “Entrepreneuring the Future of Higher Education: Radical Transformation in Times of Profound Change,” which is set to be released in February. Wacoan writer Robert Darden sat down with Mary Darden, his wife, to discuss the state of higher education in our nation and what she’s doing to try to shape the future of American colleges and universities. If you care about your alma mater, then you’ll want to spend some time with someone who passionately cares about the future of the world’s greatest system of higher education — and believes it is facing the most perilous time in its long history.

WACOAN: One of your first jobs was at McLennan Community College, where you quickly created one of the largest continuing education programs in the nation. What did you learn from that experience?

Darden: What I learned about myself was that our main limits are the ones we place on ourself. Sure, there are constant challenges, but the sky is the limit.

That was a wonderful first experience for me in higher ed because I had the opportunity to be creative and do new things in new ways. We were blessed to have a hugely growing and diverse program. My final year, we had nearly 6,000 enrollments, which we took care of with about 500 adjunct faculty. These were all personal enrichment, community education types of courses. It was where I first realized that my best fit would be in the nontraditional areas of the traditional higher education spectrum.

WACOAN: After MCC, you began your doctorate at Baylor University with one of your main mentors, Dr. Robert C. Cloud. What was special about Dr. Cloud, and what did he teach you through the years?

Darden: I originally went into this program because I really believed that I could eventually become a college president. Robert Cloud had been a long-time college president, and he knew the ropes.

He has extremely high integrity. He taught us that you have to give immensely, do your very best, be ‘squeaky clean’ in all endeavors, and be willing to walk away from a situation that is not ethical or not a good fit. He taught us to be brave, to excel and to speak the truth to power.

WACOAN: Cloud is one of the handful of experts on higher education law in the United States.

Darden: Colleges and universities across the U.S. have lost billions of dollars in the courtroom in the past decade, and the bewildering thing about it is that most of that could have been avoided without great effort. It’s a matter of doing the right things at the right time. Cloud’s focus in our training was in mitigating liability.

WACOAN: What did you learn from your dissertation, ‘Women Presidents in American Four-Year Colleges and Universities: An Analysis of Reported Changeable Attributes Contributing to Their Success’?

Darden: I chose my dissertation topic, again, because I thought I was going to be a president. I knew at the time that only about 20% of all college presidents were women. So, it was clearly a difficult challenge to get to the top.

I studied presidents who were successful. Among the things I learned was that you have to be able to take risks. You have to step out and be a bold leader, but you also have to be smart and careful, because women presidents are seldom forgiven mistakes.

WACOAN: After graduation, you became a center dean at Concordia University Texas in San Antonio where you essentially served as a small college president. The community partnerships you started there eventually became models across the system.

Darden: I could see so much potential — these were are all nontraditional students. It was a new model, and it drew me to this campus, since I knew the future was nontraditional student education.

Non-trad students are older than the traditional college student age of 18 to 22 or 24. They often have full-time jobs and families. That is the student of today. People don’t realize this, but non-trad makes up about 85% of the current student market, where only 15% is traditional, and that percentage is shrinking.

Knowing this, I knew we needed to go to them. If they have families, if they have full-time jobs, obviously they’re likely to have challenges with time and money, especially if they want to go to school on top of all of that. We need to make it easy and doable and help them navigate.

One way to do that was with a partnership we created with Goodwill Industries in downtown San Antonio. A lot of people in administration thought, ‘Oh, that’s never going to work. Faculty will not drive downtown to teach these classes.’ In fact, faculty were more than willing to go. We selected a bachelor’s degree program that fit what Goodwill needed for their leadership. We offered it onsite at their headquarters downtown once a week on Monday nights for four hours, and we set up a program that in four years they could go from day one to graduation.

We started a first cohort, and that filled so we added second cohort shortly thereafter.

WACOAN: You often refer to your first college, Sweet Briar College in Virginia. What’s so special about that? For people who don’t know, Sweet Briar is perched up there in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Darden: Sweet Briar College is a very tiny women’s college. When I attended, there were 750 women there. It was predominantly liberal arts, although they have one of the top-ranked engineering programs for all women’s colleges in the nation now, and they have always been strong in the sciences program and creative programs.
It was my most beloved experience in higher education. Sweet Briar helped me become who I was meant to be. Being in an all-women’s environment was very empowering. There was no discrimination. My voice was always heard. I was never shy, but I was never intimidated or talked over. It was a place where I felt safe, where I felt supported and secure, and the academic aspect of it was extraordinary.

I feel like I became more of the leader that I was supposed to become. It gave me the strength and foundation to stand up for myself and speak my voice, to speak truth to power.

WACOAN: You speak about Sweet Briar in the same way proponents of historically black colleges and universities talk about their schools. Why are these two different models so special?

Darden: Just as women’s colleges are free from gender discrimination, HBCUs are free from racial discrimination. That is huge. Women’s colleges don’t see gender. They’re a place where you can be safe without that being a vulnerability. These are places where gender and/or race are not vulnerabilities, and it makes you stronger, rather than breaking you down. I love the historically black colleges.

WACOAN: And yet, a few years ago, Sweet Briar — along with many other colleges — nearly closed for financial reasons. You joined a group of alumni who worked to resurrect it.

Darden: The alumni stepped forward and within weeks raised the money necessary to keep the college open. It’s still going today. But here was a well-established, hundred-year-old college, and I would have never dreamed it could have gone under. And it is not out of the woods quite yet.

WACOAN: So was that a catalyst moment for you?

Darden: Oh, certainly. I saw that if Sweet Briar can close, anybody could close. We need our colleges, and if we’re going to remain the No. 1 system of higher education in the world — and the people of the United States are going to continue to thrive the way they have in the past — we all need a great higher education system.

WACOAN: Are the small liberal arts colleges and private HBCUs the canary in the mine for the future of higher education?

Darden: Yes. They are most vulnerable. Most are tuition-dependent and don’t have an endowment like Harvard. Harvard doesn’t ever have to worry; they have so many billions of dollars. But these small schools have likewise small endowments, and they’re at higher risk.

WACOAN: Your first book, ‘Beyond 2020: Envisioning the Future of Universities in America,’ was written about that same time in your life. What did you hope to accomplish? I know it is still in print and being used as a textbook at Harvard and a couple of other institutions.

Darden: Yes. I originally envisioned writing that book once I’d retired from being a college president, but it just kind of emerged. I thought that what administrators really needed was a handbook, one of those foundational books you can put in your hip pocket and you can refer to on just about any of the 18 areas of higher education administration. I picked the brains of top experts all over the country on what is going to happen in the future. I asked, ‘What exists now and where are we going?’

WACOAN: From that, you founded Higher Education Innovation, HEI. What was the catalyst for the founding of HEI, and what did you initially perceive as the role of this new business?

Darden: Even as I was a finalist for several presidencies and vice presidencies, I was really feeling a call to get back into what I had been studying all along — what’s working in higher education and what’s not.

The problem with being a college president is that — although you know a whole lot and have a lot of insight — you’re working 24/7, and you don’t have time to do in-depth research or spend a lot of time reflecting on what might work or what might not work. It occurred to me that it would be helpful if somebody could take that time for them. I was called to do that, to study and go in and do research at institutions to reflect on what I had learned, what I was continuing to learn, and try to find solutions.

WACOAN: The late Harvard University professor Dr. Clayton Christensen said that within a decade, half of the colleges in America would close. They’ve modified that statement since then, but the bottom line is most colleges are now struggling.

Darden: Of course, I didn’t know at the time that the COVID-19 pandemic would escalate this process. Our goal at HEI is to help these colleges and universities to make critical pivots to develop what they need to be successful, to pull themselves out of trouble and build a successful model. So that’s what I felt called to do, and that’s what I’ve been doing.

WACOAN: Not every college that brings you in to consult actually wants to be helped, it seems.

Darden: Just as business has learned over the years, you would think that higher education would learn to be more user-friendly and more welcoming. I have conducted research at institutions where their student welcome letter was reported by parents, students and faculty to sound more like a rejection letter. Or potential students were not welcomed warmly and had to stand in long lines for many hours just to be frustrated and sent somewhere else. This tended to repeat over and over again. We need to remove barriers for students. We need to build bridges for them to be successful.

WACOAN: Was it through your travels that you became alarmed about the future of higher education?

Darden: Absolutely. The students need and want to go to college. Higher education is extremely complex. Navigating higher education, especially for a student whose parents didn’t go to college, which we have a whole lot of in Texas, is particularly challenging. They have no clue and receive little help on how to approach and navigate this convoluted system.

It is essential to learn how to do this, otherwise you end up paying too much and/or enrolling or majoring in things that are not going to serve you well once you graduate. And with the continuing rise in the cost of higher education, most students can’t afford those kinds of mistakes. You have to learn this very difficult system. Even with a doctorate in this area, there’s so much I don’t know about higher ed. I just don’t know how students do it sometimes. That concerned me greatly.

WACOAN: Ultimately, in 2020, you felt compelled to write another book.

Darden: Over the 25 years of higher ed leadership, I built a library of information in my brain. When I talked to college presidents, some got it. They understood what needed to be done. However, even many of those presidents who did understand couldn’t make the essential pivots or changes. It is risky and difficult. It takes a lot of boldness. But there were also people within institutions who had no clue what they needed to be doing. I thought if I can just put all of this into a book, maybe it will help.

For most top administrators, all you have as a reference is your own institution and the way they’ve been doing things. It’s impossible to get the experience of 6,000 institutions, much less the best practices from your own personal experience. It takes a lot of exposure and a lot of research to start forming a framework and a picture of what works and what doesn’t. I felt like if I could put some of that information in a book, it would save so much time. I could help people to move in the right direction and hopefully they could create their own success.

WACOAN: You chose to write this book while you’re still in the throes of traveling and building HEI.

Darden: I had it all in my head. When I sat down to write, it just came spilling out, which affirmed to me that this was what I was supposed to be doing. I finished the book in three months. Of course, you have to make time to do that, and I had to still run the company. It was cathartic getting that all out. I hope that this is the tool for each college to entrepreneur its own success, which will be unique from anyone else’s.

WACOAN: You chose the title ‘Entrepreneuring the Future of Higher Education: Radical Transformation and Times of Profound Change.’ What does ‘entrepreneuring’ mean?

Darden: I wanted to use a verb, so I just pushed ‘entrepreneur’ into a verb and made it ‘entrepreneuring.’ College presidents need to be entrepreneurs. Higher education is changing so rapidly and so radically that we just can’t tweak and make small adjustments on the fly. We have to find a way to change as rapidly and radically as the environment around us. We have to find a way to do what meets the needs of our communities.

Being innovative is great, but we have to be more than that. In higher education, we must entrepreneur, boldly step out and reform, re-envision, rebuild what we are. My definition for entrepreneuring is being relevant, holistic, systematic, mission-based, creative and very, very bold. It involves working together, and it’s not just something a president does. It’s something the culture has to do. The institutional culture has to buy into this, and the champions need to lead the way. We must re-envision and reform our institutions into what they need to be, to be the agent of change for the future of both the community and the nation.

WACOAN: Has it been helpful being just outside academia to be able to write plainly — and honestly?

Darden: Absolutely. I believe that it was essential for me to be deeply immersed in academia to be able to understand and have the inside perspective. But by stepping outside of academia, it gave me a complete carte blanche to say whatever needed to be said. I may tick some people off, but that is not my intention. I did not write this to make anybody angry. I hope that this book inspires people, gives them hope and the tools to make needed changes.

WACOAN: Why would some in academia find this book controversial?

Darden: It’s very direct. I felt like this was the time for direct talk and speaking truth to power. We don’t have time to beat around the bush. We’ve got to get this business done now or we’re going down.

WACOAN: Why has higher education always been so reluctant to change?

Darden: Change wasn’t part of the culture for higher education for hundreds of years, and then, all of a sudden, we get into the 20th century and things start changing and people start kicking and screaming. It’s painful. You’re asking people to suddenly make radical changes in what they’re doing, which means they’re going to have to stretch. It’s a culture that has become embedded over centuries and changing a culture is one of the hardest things to do.

WACOAN: Then the COVID-19 pandemic changes everything.

Darden: It impacted the book by the fact that it impacted institutions. I watched this happen in real time and continued interviewing people at the same time. The pandemic has consumed everybody’s time. There was no entrepreneuring to be done outside of: ‘What are we going to do with this pandemic? And how are we going to keep from going under?’ Those are real questions because so many of these institutions were already dancing in the dragon’s jaws.

Many colleges were already at 85% tuition dependent, and then all of a sudden a pandemic hits and enrollment drops by 10 or 20%. Then you’re really in trouble. Colleges went from being at risk to being in crisis. It took everything — with all hands on deck — and all the presidents were spending all their time trying to deal with it.

WACOAN: Will we now lose additional colleges beyond the original projections?

Darden: I think that — in many cases — this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The pandemic is going to be what breaks a lot of these institutions or brings them to their knees to where they will fold or merge.

WACOAN: What are your goals and dreams for HEI?

Darden: I hope that HEI can be a catalyst for helping to re-envision and reshape the future of higher education. I know that’s ambitious. I know we can’t do it all, but I’m hoping we can do some of it and we can help start the movement that will catch on and empower institutions to take those steps.

We train college leaders, presidents and top administrators to make the necessary entrepreneurial changes that they need to make. I’m hoping we can lead the way and that others will follow and eventually there may even be other organizations that do this. There are 6,000-ish institutions of higher education in the United States, so obviously it’s far beyond what one company can do. But I’m hoping that we can make a dent, maybe even set a precedent, and perhaps lead the way into what is the most effective way of reshaping higher education.

WACOAN: That’s pretty much the same goals you had for ‘Entrepreneuring.’

Darden: Yes, it is, and thus the book. The book represents a lot of what we do when we serve institutions. It includes many of the tools that we use.

WACOAN: After all this, how do you hope Dr. Mary Landon Darden is remembered?

Darden: The older you get, the more you think about what you have contributed and if the impact that you have had was important.

I hope that I will have a positive impact from the work I’ve done on higher education and especially helping it to move into a better place for the future. It may be a small amount, it may be a bigger amount, but as long as I did my best to do everything I could, to serve, to help and make as much of a difference as I could, I will be happy with that.

Even more than that, I would like to be remembered as somebody who cared — cared about my students, cared about my family and grandchildren, and tried to give as much as I could to ensure the future and success of others.