CBE Prepares Students for an AI-Driven Future – Paul LeBlanc

Erin and Teresa welcome SNHU President Paul LeBlanc to discuss AI, competency-based education and preparing students for a changing workscape.

72 minutes
By: Trusted Voices

Erin Hennessy and Teresa Valerio Parrot welcome Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University, as he highlights the need for trust, relationships and community building in education. LeBlanc suggests that AI will shift the focus from knowledge-based education to developing higher-order skills such as judgment, wisdom, and empathy. 

LeBlanc advocates for a proactive approach to policy development and the integration of AI into curriculum and assessment. During his time at SNHU, he has shown the value of competency-based education (CBE) in preparing students for an AI-driven future and the importance of teaching digital scholarship and providing students with the newest tools to succeed.

Read the full transcript here

Teresa Valerio Parrot:

Hello and welcome to the Trusted Voices Podcast. I’m Teresa Valerio Parrot alongside Erin Hennessy and in each episode we discuss the latest news and biggest issues facing higher ed leaders through a communications lens. For these conversations, we’ll be joined by a guest who will share their own experiences and perspectives. 

Okay, our listeners know we normally start with what are we watching in the news? And we’re gonna consolidate this for two reasons. One is we have a fantastic guest and I don’t want to cut the time that we’re going to give to him to talk about what’s going on on campuses and the benefits, implications and scalability of AI. But there’s a topic that I think that we would just be missing the moment if we didn’t give just a couple of words to. And that is…

Erin Hennessy:

Is it the Grammys?

Teresa Valerio Parrot:

It is about the new Taylor Swift release.

Erin Hennessy:

Is it about how Beyonce has never won Album of the Year?

Teresa Valerio Parrot:

You know I love Beyonce, and I cried when I saw her. I call her Beyoncé because I feel like she’s that fancy. 

Erin Hennessy:

I know. You put the French, you put the French on that.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:

I cried when I saw her in concert, and I will say that’s not the topic, neither of those topics. 

Erin Hennessy:

Fine, be that way.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:

But here’s what I think we need to talk about because it is the reality of where higher education is right now, and that is we have so many tuition dependent institutions, public and private, who are fighting for their lives and fighting for their campus’ survival. And this ongoing delay of transfer of data for the FAFSA is really wrecking havoc for our institutions. So in our show notes, we’ll have pieces both to what this delay is and what it means, but also some of the implications associated with this for campuses. Everything from how quickly they’re going to have to turn to package financial aid to the fact that they may not be able to do this in a way that still preserves that May 1 traditional deadline for student choice of where they’re gonna enroll and what that means. And I’m already starting to see institutions, we’ll have a link to this as well, that are moving their decision date from May 1 to June 1. 

Erin Hennessy:

The only responsible thing to do.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:

Right!

Erin Hennessy:

I can’t believe there haven’t been more.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:

I think it’s coming, and I think it’s because institutions are processing, and for so many of them, that’s when they really start to make the tough decisions about what happens this fall. What they’re offering, for some of them how deeply they might have to trim some programs and they may have already missed some of the official notifications for some of their contract faculty from what they’re going to do this fall. There are so many implications beyond how many students are going to come to our campuses. For some of our institutions the conversations that they’ve been having with their boards are gonna have to be put off even longer.

Erin Hennessy:

Yep. And to take a page from what I know is at the heart of the leadership philosophy of our guest today, Paul LeBlanc, the student impact when we are at a point where we are already talking about disappearing Black students, disappearing male students, where we are seeing continued questions about the value and the usefulness of higher education, where we are continuing to see ongoing, very real and very reasonable questions about why we cost what we cost. We are, I think, post pandemic, you know, we went through this, what, three years ago, four years ago, we are at the danger of losing another generation of students because we, broadly, federal government and institutions, are not going to be able to make this as seamless and easy as possible for students and their families to figure out if they can and how they can afford to pay for a post-secondary education.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:

And we’ve talked about this on multiple episodes because I know I started to kind of be a Chicken Little in the fall and have continued through recent episodes, just with the timeline and how we had systems in place to encourage applications. So I’ll also add to the show notes, if I can, a LinkedIn post from my colleague Kent Barnds, B-A-R-N-D-S, that I’ve worked with him for about 18 years now. He’s at Augustana College and I adore the institution.

He had a fantastic post talking about what this means for their institution and what this means within their state because the number of students thus far at the major high schools in his state that have filled out the FAFSA is a portion of what it’s been before. And so how do we capture those students and present the opportunities that we have? And if we’re not packaging until April, right? And March or April, we’re missing some of the windows where we could reach back out to students who now know that they can get federal financial aid, but now they will have missed a number of the windows to apply. So there’s always the list of which institutions are still accepting applications after May 1st, and I think, not only is May 1st going to shift that decision date, but the number of institutions on that list has to increase and we have to find a way to drive students to apply for their FAFSA and for our institutions. And that’s a lot to ask as they’re getting ready to graduate and move to the next steps of their lives.

There are publics and privates as we know that have a longer term rolling admissions. And that list of institutions, I think this year is going to dip into institutions that have never been on that list before.

Erin Hennessy:

Yeah, you and I just are back from spending a couple of days in DC, lurking in the hallways of the NAICU annual meeting. And if this was certainly a large topic of conversation on their agenda, what surprised me and granted we weren’t in these rooms for these conversations, but the general feel, you know, I’m not saying I expected to hear shouting and hollering in the hallway when the Secretary of Education spoke to the membership, but it didn’t seem as, I don’t know, on edge, fraught, panicky, as I sort of expected. And I would be interested to reach out to the financial aid directors and enrollment management leaders of those institutions and say, tell me about your emotional state right now, because this has to be…

Teresa Valerio Parrot:

I have a theory.

Erin Hennessy:

Uh-oh, this has to be, you know, this is panic time. I think the department tried to tell everybody, don’t worry, don’t worry, don’t worry. And at the end of the year, oh, don’t worry. It’s open and 24 hour access. And then the next shoe dropped. So…woof.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:

Here’s my theory, Erin. I think it goes back to the old phrase that you never want a competitor to see you sweat. So I think that they were panicking. It’s that inside panic that you don’t want to show on the outside because they don’t want for other presidents and their colleagues to see how vulnerable their institution might be or what the devastation could be from the outcomes of this. 

Erin Hennessy:

Yeah, but when you’re all in the sauna together, everybody’s sweating, you know? Everybody’s sweating.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:

Oh, ah, but I think you don’t, you never wanna let them see you sweat, right? Let’s go back to that. But I think that’s the case is that they’re trying to preserve the image and reputation of their own institution and you wanna make sure that you’re doing that in a metered way. But we talked about this on our last episode. This was one of the topics that I raised. And then we talked about, I think in December as well. We’ve been talking about this. Reach out to your financial aid colleagues, give them a hug, ask how they’re doing, check in on them, because the other worry I have is, I think they and our marketing and communications colleagues are going to get the brunt of the fallout from this for something that was put into motion by the Department of Education. And I also think that their jobs are going to be so much harder and for some of them, nearly impossible in what was already a difficult season and is now being made that much more stressful.

Erin Hennessy:

Agreed and I think, you know, coming back to where we started, this is an opportunity for institutions to really set aside the way we’ve always done things. This is what our policy says. This is the flow chart we go through and the steps we go through. And really try and find some creative ways to stay in contact with your students, to reassure your students, because this also impacts your returning students as well. So this is the time to really start thinking creatively and we’ve seen some institutions do it about ways that you can allay their concerns, but also be creative about the ways in which if you have the resources and capacities to do it, the ways in which you can upend the system and maybe put students back at the center of it rather than the process, the forms, the data, the…, I’m not suggesting we violate federal regulations, let me be clear. But to the extent that we can be creative, this is the time to do it.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:

Agreed. And I love that you talked about retention because it’s not just first year students that fill out the FAFSA. It’s any student. And that’s the key is that retention is going to be that much more important. And those students who are used to getting packaged right now because they’ve been with you are also feeling vulnerable. So more to come on that. We have an episode scheduled for later this spring that we’ll really dive into this as well.

But know that we’ve been talking about this. We will continue to talk about this. And we are sending TLC and hugs from afar for those who are in the thick of it as well.

Erin Hennessy:

Yep. Well, let’s get to our conversation with SNHU President Paul LeBlanc.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:

Let’s do it.

Guest Interview

Erin Hennessy:

We are absolutely thrilled to have with us today Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University, affectionately known as SNHU. Paul is a highly visible and vocal advocate for the power of innovation in higher education and the ways in which it can extend the reach and impact of post-secondary credentials. Since 2003, under Paul’s leadership, SNHU has grown from 2,800 students to over 160,000 learners – that number is probably already out of date – and the university is the largest nonprofit provider of online higher education in the country. Paul immigrated to the United States as a child and was the first person in his extended family to attend college. And in December of 2023, Paul announced that he will step down from the presidency in June of this year and take a sabbatical year to focus on the topic of our conversation today, AI and its impact on higher education.

We’ll include a link to Paul’s full bio in the show notes. And because we value transparency, I do want to note that Southern New Hampshire University is a TVP Communications client. Paul, welcome to Trusted Voices.

Paul LeBlanc:

It’s great to be with you. This is fun. And we have an update. It’s 250,000 students now, Erin.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:

Holy moly.

Erin Hennessy:

We’ll get that changed on the web.

Paul LeBlanc:

No worries.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:

That’s phenomenal. Congratulations to you. And Paul, I’m so excited. I get to ask the first question. And I’d love for you to walk me through what some people may view as a paradox, but I think you probably have an answer for. And that’s that you’ve noted, and Erin just mentioned, that you’re going to be working on AI in higher education and you’re going to be writing a book about it as well. And in your most recent book, “Broken: How Our Societal Systems are Failing Us and How We Can Fix Them,” you really talk about putting people at the center of our work. Are these two ideas in conflict or are they complementary? And how are you thinking about them right now?

Paul LeBlanc:

Yeah, not only do I think they’re not in conflict, but I think they’re actually necessary that we hold both of these things in hand together. I think for so many people, the prospect of AI is scary because it feels like it’s gonna displace us. People will only half joke about, when our AI overlords wipe us all out and decide they don’t need us, they’ll save the electricians, but everyone else isn’t. But more generally, people are really fearful, like, what does this mean for my job, my livelihood, my ability to take care of my family?

And they’re not wrong to worry about that because I do think AI is going to dramatically impact our workforce and we can talk about that if you like, but I’m in the camp that thinks everything changed on November 30, 2022. I think the world is now fundamentally different. And to the extent that universities are knowledge factories within a knowledge economy, and we are no longer the most powerful entity on the planet in terms of declarative knowledge, I think we better start asking some big questions. And the big question for us is, you know, if you think about the college major as fundamentally, I’m going to strip this way down, but answering the question, what do I need to know to be an X? What do I need to know to be a lawyer? What do I need to know to be a nurse? What do I need to know to be an accountant? Fill in the blank in any way you like. When everything you need to know is sort of a prompt away, maybe we have to start thinking differently about what are universities for. And George Siemens, who joined us, and George is, I think, one of the top three people in the world when it comes to AI and education, George has argued that the fundamental shift we will see in the future is a movement away from the epistemological questions, what is knowledge, what do you need to know, et cetera, to more ontological questions, how do you need to be as a human being? 

Higher Ed says it addresses those. But it’s a pretty haphazard approach if they do it at all. Like, oh, we’re going to put you in an intentional community. And if you take your humanities courses, you’ll be a better human being. And if you get involved in social events and service learning and study abroad, all of that will help you grow up to be a better human being. We don’t know. We don’t measure it. We don’t have any real sense. And we don’t have a lot of intentionality around it. It’s more of a, hey, here’s a smorgasbord. Knock yourself out. We may have to start thinking now about what are these questions of being, you know, these fundamentally human things that AI won’t displace? So if you think about, we do so much knowledge training around what Chris Dede at Harvard calls reckoning, the ability to understand and predict. If computers are much better at that than us, what we have to be really good at is a higher order skill, which we value greatly, called judgment.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:

Right.

Paul LeBlanc:

Judgment is a different order. It’s wisdom, it’s nuance, it’s where creativity and meaning making, it’s empathy, it’s all these things that are almost impossible to program into an AI. You can create illusions of empathy, you can create illusions of humanity. But look at if at some point we have AI systems, and I believe this will be the case, it’s already the case in some areas, if we have a future in which AI is better than a physician at diagnosis, and God forbid you get a terrible end-of-life sort of diagnosis. It is not AI which will then sit down with you and have these very distinctly human conversations about let’s talk about quality of life. Let’s talk about how you want this time to be. Let’s talk about how you’re going to go home from this appointment and talk to your family about this. Let’s talk about your resource. Tell me about your faith. Tell me about your support systems. Tell me about how you walk through the world. Like that’s a fundamentally different thing. That’s where humans excel.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:

So I have a follow-up question to that. And that’s that as you’re talking about this, you’re talking about empathy. Layered in there is humanity. That builds towards relationships, and that leads to trust. And I think there is a bridge to be built because as people are thinking about AI, so many of them are thinking where you started your answer, which is about how does this impact me in the workforce? But where you’re ending your answer is how do we relate to each other? How do we build that bridge, and what makes up that?

Paul LeBlanc:

Yeah, that bridge is a little frayed, as you might have noted if you read the newspaper any day for the last five years or longer. Yeah, so I think if the trust is the question about how do we build trust between human beings again, and what we’re building, and I know we’ll talk about this at some point in this new model that George and I are working on with others, is really like how do we now integrate and embed things like community. And I don’t mean community as a, hey tell us about your context, but actually, how do you leverage and create and find space for community in the learning? So much of what we do removes people from their worlds. Like you go off to a campus to study, you log on and you’re in this box. But what if we can embed learning back into your context so that we can contextualize learning for starters? We don’t have a one size fits all. So I think that’s one piece. And I argue in the book, “Broken,” that there are actually tons of jobs that need these skills. We just don’t as a society tend to value them. Like we need to flood our K-12 schools, our great teachers, counselors, social workers, coaches, et cetera. We need to rebuild the mental health care system that’s just been decimated, right? Clinicians and others. We need to rebuild our criminal justice system which has failed and we need jail, right? So AI will not do any of those things. 

We will have to grapple with as a society what happens when knowledge jobs don’t get paid very well because AI does it better? And how do we start to shift our resources and our support through these other works? And that would be a good thing, Teresa. Like part of us breaking down in our society is that those systems are failing us. And if we can revitalize them, I have some hope and optimism about what America looks like in 20, 30 years. I went through this period of, in this last year of trying to think about how to make people feel reassured that AI wasn’t going to shake their world up. And after this revelation, I was like, I don’t know, it needs some shaking up. Like what’s working well for us right now? Like what part of this, what part of this milieu is working for you, right?

Teresa Valerio Parrot:

I think that’s okay. Yeah, I think that’s okay because if we aren’t reflecting where we are, how are we going to get people to buy into its potential?

Paul LeBlanc:

Yeah, and you know Aristotle, the rhetoric says you can’t have a discussion or a debate about what “should be” till you can agree on “what is.” And right now we live in a post-epistemological world. We live in a post-truth world. It’s very difficult for people to even agree on reality. So we’re going to have to have a relationship again because it’s in that. So here’s what people don’t trust. They don’t trust institutions and they don’t trust expertise. Like doctors now…

Teresa Valerio Parrot:

We’re seeing that through these surveys, whether it’s the Trust Barometer or if there’s some new Pew research that has come out, we can put links into both of those. You’re exactly right. It’s the institutions and it’s the titles and it’s the structures that are really being called to question.

Paul LeBlanc:

Absolutely. So you have doctors who are now having to put signs up that essentially say, my medical degree is a lot more valuable than your 10 minutes on WebMD. Like, right? It’s like, trust me, like, stop, right? Stop with the craziness. And, you know, we have to have people convincing parents that measles vaccines are probably a good idea. Like what happened to this country where this is an issue? And look at there are reasons for people to distrust. Right? If you remember the analysis of why was there greater resistance to the COVID vaccines among communities of color? Well, because vaccines have been used in terrible ways, right? And so I get that. But in the absence of that, then you have to think about a different way of engaging people. And I think it’s in relationship. Like I was just thinking about this in terms of university presidents, that when your title and your authority are no longer going to carry the weight.

I think we’re entering into the era of relational leadership, where it’s actually going to be people know you and say, oh, Teresa’s like, she’s like such a good person. If she says this, I really need to think hard about it. Well, maybe not.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:

But what you’re saying is, hey, but maybe yes. But what you’re saying aligns with the advice that we give. And that is, it is so hard to be seen as a person if you only represent yourself as the title of president. So you have to add some humanity. And this, I like how you’re talking about this relational approach to leadership because I think that’s going to be the key to rebuilding the trust that we talk about. And we approach in the same ways we always have, which means we aren’t listening.

Erin Hennessy:

Yeah. And, and I feel like I’m a broken record on this, I feel like there’s a parallel there to what you’re saying, Paul, to the, the old, whatever you want to call it, adage about, I hate Congress, but my guy’s okay. Because you see your Congress person in your community, in your district, you can see their impact, you met them at the fire hall, you saw them in the July 4th parade, whatever it is. And so it’s much easier to connect with them as a person while you hold this institution at a remove and with some degree of scorn. And I think for higher education, it’s the same kind of thing. Our institutions need to engage in retail, hand-to-hand politicking, small “p”, because that’s how we start to turn the tide. It isn’t an ad council campaign. It isn’t a Super Bowl spot. It is the institution in my backyard, understanding who I am, what my community needs, and helping to provide it.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:

And I’m gonna just say though, I think, Erin, to that point, I think you’re right. But I think for, there is a generation that analogy isn’t going to connect with them because for younger, for Gen Z, for a number of millennials, their member of Congress hasn’t been meeting with them, hasn’t been at the local parade. And as positions, going back to Paul talking about positions that are losing trust, there hasn’t been that connection because we don’t gather in those ways and those who are leaders in our community aren’t convening us in those ways. So I think maybe this is a call to community.

Paul LeBlanc:

Yep, I think that’s exactly the case. And I think it’s a call for leaders to demonstrate your humanity. I was thinking back to the 2004 election when arguably John Kerry was infinitely more qualified than George Bush, was more accomplished. I think he’s sort of a smarter person, et cetera, et cetera. But George Bush was the person people said he’d be like a nice guy to have a beer with. And I know we simplified that and said, oh, what a bunch of yahoos that thought that was a criteria for president but what they were really saying is he seems like a nice guy, like he seemed like a human being I would like. We want to like our leaders and so I think when you think about leadership and its challenges today which are incredibly hard, we’re in a hard place for presidential leadership and I think about the hearings you know and when you’re asked is genocide is a call for genocide ever okay if you answer like a smart academic/lawyer you see what happens. If you simply say, no, never. You have lots of space and time to do the context later on. So it wasn’t that their answers were, no one thinks they’re racist, no one thinks they’re anti-Semitic, no one thinks they’re not smart women who are capable leaders. But what was called for in that moment I think was a human answer and what they got was an equalistic answer.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:

Agreed.

Erin Hennessy:

Yeah. I think you’re absolutely right. There’s another podcast episode in the conversation about how George Bush positioned himself as the average guy who wasn’t elite. And then you look at the pedigree and go, yeah, that’s, that’s a hell of a branding effort that you pulled off there, but that is not this podcast. That is another podcast. 

Paul LeBlanc:

I also think that sometimes we don’t push that question another step because I think in some ways we stop with the “you seem like somebody like me.” But actually the real, I think, next step is “I feel like I would matter to you” and I think it’s that sense. It’s the first chapter of my book Broken, it’s called “Mattering,” like I need to feel like I matter to you. And I think one of the questions I would ask, is if you sort of walk across the campus or an institution and talk to people, “do you feel like you matter to this institution? Do you feel like you matter to leadership?” A lot of people wouldn’t like the answer to that question right now.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:

Well, because again, there is a vulnerability associated with that. And over the last number of years, so many people have done everything they can to provide guardrails around themselves and their careers. And that means that we’ve lost vulnerability and authenticity.

Paul LeBlanc:

Yeah, yeah, I think that’s right. I think that’s right.

Higher Voltage Ad Read

Erin Hennessy:

Okay, well, I’m going to bring us from theoretical down to tactical. And I think this connects to our previous conversation. I think one of the things that makes people to your point earlier, Paul, so nervous about AI is just an unfamiliarity with it. They don’t think about the Alexa in their kitchen. They don’t think about the Waze in their car. They don’t think about, you know, how Spotify is figuring out who to feed them after you and I listened to all of Jason Isbell’s music, who do we get next, right? But I think there is a generation of students that will be coming to our institutions, coming to our campuses, traditional age students who are gonna be much more familiar, much more comfortable with AI. They’ve grown up with it. They are messing with it right now, creating visuals and written work. How do we think about closing the gap between our students and their comfort and familiarity and our faculty and staff? How can we shift that mindset from being anxious to being excited, or at least being more curious and less terrified of what this means for them as individuals, but for higher education as an industry as well?

Paul LeBlanc:

Yeah, so it’s multi-layered, I think, Erin. On one level, it’s encouraging people to play and giving them some support for that play. Like, okay, you tell me I should play with these tools, but which ones, and how do I use them? And there’s learning curves. So I think, finding that kind of playground that is well-supported and facilitated, encouraging people to play. Because the more familiarity, of course, right, is you’re afraid of what you don’t know, and these days are like, oh, wait a minute, this is pretty powerful, I can use these tools in different ways, et cetera, et cetera.

Then there’s another level, so that’s the very organic and sort of, you know, grassroots approach to that question. On another level, I think you do need some top-down guidance and guardrails, like, guys, I wanna think about these things. Here’s what’s good, what’s possible and not possible, what we’ll do and what we won’t do, et cetera, et cetera. And then I think in the middle ground, I think you need to bring, and this is always the case with, I think all change management in the end. You have to start creating a vision for what’s possible because it’s very hard for people, for the trapeze artists to let go of the one they’re holding onto if they can’t see the one that’s coming towards them. Right, that looks like I might fall to the floor here if I don’t catch that one. I don’t even know what that is, right? So I think for leadership, and I fear that we don’t have enough people with clarity of vision in a particular institution to say, here are things we can do. But if you’re a faculty or staff member in a small private non-selective institution that’s really struggling financially, you might say, look, there’s a lot of power in AI for us. Like there are ways that this will help us thrive or at least survive and then thrive. 

So we’ve got to start articulating that for people. And how that happens, I think we’re very early. It’s  very early in the process. But there’s a great book called “Power and Prediction” by three economists from University of Toronto. And they talk about the way that institutions, organizations will deploy AI as point solutions. And I see that at SNHU sort of across the board: HR, curriculum development, creative, etc., etc. That’s happening everywhere, I think, in higher ed right now. And then, and you’ll get all kinds of productivity gains, like good things will happen from that. And you’ll get facile with the tools. Separately, they argue you need a clean sheet of paper system redesign. And that’s a different body of work. Your question is rooted in the first, which is how do we play by the rules of the game, but use these AI tools to be better at it? The second task, a system redesign, is more of that Clay Christensen disruptive approach, which is how do we use AI to change the rules of the game? Like we don’t wanna talk about playing by the rules of the game, we wanna change the rules of the game.

Erin Hennessy:

I was with a president, God, time’s a flat circle, let’s call it last week. And he was speaking to a group of senior student life, residence life, student housing professionals. And he said, everyone on every one of your campuses should have access to the paid version of chat GPT. So I guess that would be four at this point. And sitting in the back of the room, I thought, that’s great.

Number two, have you done it yet on your campus? But also number three, I’m terrified because we don’t have those guardrails yet. We don’t have policies yet. We can see, I don’t know, fill in the blank, some really well-intentioned, big-hearted member of the administration creating a Taylor Swift deep fake video to invite people to midnight study hall during finals. And then we’re off to the races when somebody spoofs the director of public safety who says, “Hey, I lifted the keg ban for the weekend,” you know? I applaud the willingness to push the envelope, but I wonder how we start to think about policies that are sort of to your point, more systemic and not this went sideways so we need a policy here and this went sideways, you know, a more proactive…

Teresa Valerio Parrot:

It can’t be reactive. Yeah, it can’t be reactive.

Erin Hennessy:

Yeah, a more proactive policy approach. And, um, you know, I got my first email address in college and at that point, I wasn’t thinking about policies at all, but I sort of wonder, because you’ve done research and work in this area previously in your dissertation, how did we do well and how did we drop the ball in creating that policy framework around introducing the internet itself to our campuses and institutions?

Paul LeBlanc:

Yeah, I know it’s interesting. We did pretty well in introducing PCs. And before we had the internet, we had local area and wide area networks. And that’s where I began my study. So, you know, when I was studying the Model T, but that’s what I was, you know, and I said, you asked my doctor work and where we were then. So in that area, we dropped the ball, because that’s a hardware question, and it certainly unlocked opportunity. But it’s really, actually, when the internet comes along and now offers us lots of interconnectivity, where I would say we drop the ball terribly, and most vividly so when it came to social media, where I think we have paid a terrible, terrible price, particularly our children. We basically did a national experiment without their permission on their brains. That’s a great example of not thinking through the policy implications. And as you know, there is a fine line here at calibration because we can’t predict everything. And if we over, over-regulate in the front end, then, right, so there’s an old axiom, right, that the best policy follows practice. So you do a thing for a while, but you’re attentive to it. And what we did with social media, I think, and the globe did, but the US is prone to this, which is a kind of laissez faire “let’s kind of see how it works out.” 

So I know George is often saying about AI, you know, in China, the approach is, let’s use AI for the sake of the state. Let’s use AI for the good of the whole. And in that case, we’re like, oh, holy cow, what they really mean here is state surveillance and control, not great. Europe has taken a kind of classically European middle ground, so you have to say things like, anytime there’s an image that’s generated by AI, you have to label it so.

Wherever you use AI in content creation, you have to label it. It’s like, these are certain steps, they say, okay, there’s a transparency there that’s very helpful. And then as George said, the US is the wild west. The US is like, let’s see what happens and this will be fun.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:

But can we go back a click though? Yeah. But think about how we just came full circle because we were talking about how we can’t just be reactive about this but then the approach that we’re taking and using your words, Paul, because I think they’re right is, let’s just see how this works out and if we take that approach you’re going to end up with a reactive response. 

Paul LeBlanc:

 Yeah, or no response.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:

So even thinking about how we’re framing this – exactly – how do we even start to set that up from the so that we are more strategic, so that we are forward thinking, so that the ways in which we approach this don’t end up being CYA, but instead they end up being fundamentally ingrained and important and thoughtful for where we go next.

Erin Hennessy:

Yeah, so in 25 years, we’re not talking to Paul LeBlanc Jr., who’s saying, man, we dropped the ball on integrating AI.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:

No, Paul LeBlanc Jr. would say, Paul dropped the ball, right? Because we’ll be looking back.

Erin Hennessy:

Damn him.

Paul LeBlanc:

Hey, hey, let’s not go down that road. So this is where I think, and I’ve made this argument in other venues, which is, we have a desperate need for philosophers and ethicists and people who are not much in the AI conversation right now…

Teresa Valerio Parrot:

Oh wait, those in the humanities? Is that what you’re saying, Paul?

Paul LeBlanc: 

Exactly, exactly. And we need those voices in the conversation to think through these questions. And then I think, we need to be really clear, and any provider with whom we work needs to be very clear. We need to demand a kind of transparency about first principles. So in the work that we’re doing, in this other thing that I’m doing post-SNHU, called Human Systems, is the name of the company with George and others. Now, our first principles are radical student agency. So students get to control what data gets accessed. The second is you can always interrogate the underlying data models. Like what do you think you know about me? Like that’s really powerful. Like you can’t do that with the algorithms that drive your presence in Amazon, for example. They have constructed a model of you. So the second is absolute 100% student ownership of their data.

So they get to consent or not consent, sign off, sign on. And you can’t use kind of administrative burden to obfuscate that. So you can’t make it up. So everyone who’s ever read a licensing agreement, like you just scroll to the bottom because you’re impatient and you can’t agree. Like you gotta make a really, really clear act of consent. So I think there are first principles in design that we can demand of those with whom we work. And part of what we’re trying to do right now, and we get some support from the Gates Foundation on this, is to build a global data consortium. We have lots of providers putting their hands up to say we want in. And part of that would be the kinds of rules of the road that you’re talking about, Teresa. So we would use that data consortium to say, all of us in higher ed who are contributing our data, here’s our agreements and how to use that data ethically, how we think about AI in this contest, et cetera. So we don’t have the answer today, but we have the basis for the conversation that needs to happen.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:

I’m going to have us do a little bit of a hard pivot because I want to piggyback on something that you’re talking about. If we’re thinking about AI and where it is in our lives, if we’re thinking about how prevalent it has been, if we’re thinking of how to talk about what it is and its impact, I think that you are uniquely qualified to share with all of us how AI has been used and has been scaled for impact. And specifically what I’m thinking about is the ways in which Southern New Hampshire really has been an innovator in its adoption and the advancement of competency-based education. And I raised that, I’ve worked on CBE communications for years. But I’d love to hear from you, how you’ve advocated for competency-based education’s value. Because I think that there are words and approaches that we can learn as we talk about AI and its use in higher education so that it is more understandable and relatable and we’re talking about outcomes.

Paul LeBlanc:

Yeah, and I think one of the things, and I will stay with your question, but we should also talk about the ways in which I think AI will actually fuel the movement towards CBE.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:

I agree, I agree.

Paul LeBlanc:

Because if competency-based education is about what you can do with what you know, that’s gonna be the critical question in an age of AI, because you can know everything. But what can you do with it?

Teresa Valerio Parrot:

All of this is about personalization, and to your point, meeting people where they are and expanding what they can know. And if that’s the case, that’s why I think the competency-based education discussion is so important because we have been there, we have done it, and you have led the institution that has been most successful in it.

Paul LeBlanc:

Yeah, WG might disagree and say they’ve been more successful, but I think… 

Erin Hennessy:

Well, they’re not on the call, so… 

Paul LeBlanc:

There you go. Take that, Scott Pulsipher.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:

Uh, yeah, go ahead and contact us, Western Governors, we would love to chat with you. 

Erin Hennessy:

Teresa’s cell phone number is…

Teresa Valerio Parrot:

Exactly. And while we’re at it, Michael Crow, if you have some time, give us a call. But I think that there is going back to the numbers that you were talking about at the beginning of this episode, at the very least Paul, the case can be made.

Paul LeBlanc:

Yeah, no no, and thank you for saying that. I think when I’ve talked about CBE in the past, what, you know, and like all of us who are out there making the case, you test language, you test framing, you test narratives. And I will tell you what has resonated most deeply over years now, of kind of making this case, which is to simplify what feels very complex to people and say, it really boils down to two questions.

What are the claims you are making for what students can do with what they’ve learned? Like, that’s a straight…what can your students do? Hey, you know, computer science department, what will your students be able to do with what they’ve learned in their time with you? Now, where it gets really interesting is when you ask that question to the philosophy department. Hey, philosophy department, what will your students be able to do with what they’ve learned in their time with you? And I always make the case to the humanities like you should welcome this question. There is a reason why McKinsey recruits philosophy majors, the graduates, because you have real competencies that are super valuable. Critical thinking skills, communication skills, skills with language, mental models, right? Like all of these things are very powerful. So that’s the first question. Second question is, how do you know? What’s your form of assessment? And really with CBE, as you know, you’re talking about performance-based assessments. What are the ways that your students demonstrate that they can do this thing? You’re talking about “do” statements. So when you bring it down to these two things, now those, like, you can spend a lot of time unpacking both of them, but now people start to get a mental model for what we’re talking about. And when you’re talking about that to the folks who sometimes feel most threatened, in this case, for example, the humanities like, no no no, this strengthens your case. Like, this is a good thing, right? They struggle with that, but I think that’s been really, really important. And I think also…

Teresa Valerio Parrot:

So, yeah, I have a question about that, because if I were to boil that down to two words, what you just said, you’re suggesting that people lead with the outcomes and they support that with evidence. And I think that’s such a basic way of making a case, but sometimes we make this too hard.

Paul LeBlanc:

Yes, it is. And there’s a lot of higher ed that doesn’t want to do that. That’s a kind of accountability, right? There’s a kind of accountability in saying, here are the claims. If I’m wishy-washy about what my students know, I won’t even know how to assess. What do you mean, how do I know? So I do think that it actually, so this is the second piece that this leads us to, which is, this is a more rigorous model of learning. We’ve been sliding by too easily.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:

Yes.

Paul LeBlanc:

We’re graduating too many people who can’t do the things they’re supposed to be able to do. This will be harder on us. So the camp that thinks CBE is a lesser than, you’re flipping it and saying, ah, actually it’s a higher standard. Like, let’s talk about that. So there are ways you can start to sort of reframe the conversation, I think. And then the last one, of course, that you always hear is that, well, it’s good for vocational stuff. Like, oh, I get it. Like, yeah, I’m a huge supporter. Like, great. Like, I want my electricians to know how to wire my house.

So you have to sort of, again, reframe. I use my philosophy example all the time, because it lifts you out of the working with my hands, like working with your brain. And that usually resonates.

But you know, it’s a case we’re still trying to make.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:

I think we are still trying to make it. And I still, even it’s interesting, as I mentioned that CBE is AI, sometimes people have to stop and then like, oh, it is. And when I talk about CBE and the quality of what you can get in learning outcomes, I think there’s still such a distrust. So I think it’s a model for us to think about how you have approached it, and then for us to expand on as we think about AI and its communications.

Paul LeBlanc: 

Yeah. Yeah, so let me give you one example, and it’s actually borrowed from CBE, and I use it all the time in talking about AI, which is AI will take out, will displace lower and middle level knowledge work, which means that our education has to raise the bar, not lower the bar. It’s not like we will be displaced, like our cognitive demands are now higher. And the example I was having a conversation with writing faculty, and I was a writing teacher in my past, and they were saying, we should ban the use of Chat GPT in writing classes. And I said, really? Because I would sort of do just the opposite. I would almost demand that my students use it. But then it’s not their writing. I said, well, let’s talk about what I would also demand. What I’d also demand would be I want appendix A to be all the prompts you used to both generate and improve the writing. The second appendix, appendix B, will be “show me all the ways that you improve the, generally speaking, kind of middle level, mediocre writing that AI produces.” How did you put in your own voice, for example? How did you adjust for this particular audience? How did it make it sound like you? And then the third appendix, basically would be, tell me how you verified all of the factual information that was produced by the AI, for us. But to do those three things, you actually have to operate at a higher level.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:

I agree. And we’re hearing that from faculty, that those who are embedding AI into their curriculum are finding that the art of asking the question that gives you the outcomes that you need means that you need to engage with the content at a deeper level. So as they’re helping students refine, how do you ask a question to get to where you really need to be? It’s making them add in not just details, but sophistication and processing and sense-making and all of those things into how they develop their questions. And they are saying that students are getting to a deeper place with the content, but also stronger writing because they’re having to build that on the front end. And then to your point, adjust it on the back end.

Erin Hennessy:

You know, on one hand, it’s just another form of writing. We teach them to write cover letters. We teach them to write, you know, research-based sort of academic prose. We teach them all of that. I would think it’s at the core of the mission of higher education and of our institutions to teach our students how to responsibly use tools. We take them in their first semester to the library and introduce them to the research librarian and teach them about, I’m going to date myself, how to use the microfiche and the microfilm. Do those, do we still have those in libraries?

Paul LeBlanc:

You’d be surprised.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:

I mean, I think they’re still there, but I think that now it’s all digital. So really you get on a Zoom and you meet with a librarian and they walk you through how to do a scholarship online.

Erin Hennessy:

Exactly, exactly. Yeah. But I mean, it would just be a dereliction of duty if we didn’t teach them how to use the newest tools to do the work. And I teach graduate students  and I can’t release them as PR practitioners into this world without giving them every possible tool that they can use to do their job better. I just look at it as the same sort of thing.

Paul LeBlanc:

Yeah, I wholly agree with you, Erin. I was talking to a president who said, how should I think about, because I said in an Inside Higher Ed piece, all curricula is now out of date, like globally, it’s all out of date, right? He said, what am I supposed to do with that? I was like, honestly, I bring my deans together and say, I need you to do a methodical department-by-department, major-by-major assessment of what are the tools my graduates will need to use today, in this discipline or in this profession. And have a process for updating and sort of always returning to that. And then how will they use them? Like you need to be thinking about this. Every faculty member needs to be thinking about this. 

Teresa Valerio Parrot:

And I think what you’re talking about though is you’re talking about asking the tough questions. And what I would say is that I think that has been a through line in your leadership. And you’ve been recognized for that. So Southern New Hampshire was named number 12 on Fast Company’s list of the world’s 50 most innovative companies. And I would say, and I would argue, that it’s rare for higher education to be recognized anywhere as innovative, which means I’m interested in how you got there.

How did you balance your leadership style, which I’m hoping that our listeners are able to hear is so different, SNHU’s potential to meet its students’ needs, and we talked about competency-based education, but you’ve implemented so much more than that, and the opportunities that technology presented to reach that kind of status, and how would you have used AI had it been available to you to be even that much more innovative?

Paul LeBlanc:

Yeah, it’s such a great question. Thank you. You’re giving us probably more credit, or me more credit than I deserve, because I could recite to you all the places where innovations fell down or stumbled. 

Teresa Valerio Parrot:

And that’s part of becoming innovative, isn’t it? Taking the risks to make the change so that you are on that leading edge. I think that’s a part of that path.

Paul LeBlanc:

Yeah, I think that’s absolutely right. So I know this sounds like the thing that we’re supposed to say, but it really always starts with a mission for us and the job we’re doing for what student. And that’s a phrase for those who are familiar with it that rings, it’s a Clay Christensen phrase and Clay was a friend of 40 years and was on my board. And who’s to say I knew him before. We met playing basketball in gym in Cambridge before he was famous. But I think, and the reason I say mission and the job to be done is that the choices you make about innovations and what kind of innovations and how you think about those innovations really have to be rooted in a clarity of vision for who you’re serving and why. We did a sort of study, a kind of academic exercise, if you will, and the place that we looked at, we said, this is kind of where we want to emulate, like this is really good at sort of taking innovation and service of mission was Boston Children’s Hospital.

Teresa Valerio Parrot: 

Oh.

Paul LeBlanc:

And the phrase we kept coming up with is “innovation and service of humanity.” So when we talk about innovation at SNHU, it’s never for its own sake. It’s how do we innovate to make higher ed available to our population, which is the 45% of Americans who say they would struggle to come up with an unexpected money for an unexpected car repair. Like what does that look like? So our innovations tend to drive down price. Our innovations tend to recognize and go deep on, wait a minute, when we tie a low-income learner to a traditional schedule, a time and a place, that’s a structural inequity. Like, if I don’t, like for huge swaths of the economy, employees don’t know what their schedule is next week. So how do you ask them to be on campus Wednesdays at four? Like that doesn’t work. So I think there was an approach to thinking really hard about this. And then rather than innovation in a scattershot way, like let’s try a bunch of stuff, some will fail, some will succeed. It’s actually a very disciplined playbook and that playbook kind of takes innovation in three buckets. The first bucket is, how do we play by the rules of the game of higher ed, the way it looks, but do it better? And I think higher ed actually has a good story to tell, a better story than people give us credit for. I remember being at a little Marlboro college in the rural, you know, rural southern Vermont, and when we got a T1 line, that was still a thing, like a fast internet connection. All of a sudden, overnight, our students studying astronomy had a direct link to the Hubble Space Telescope and their world was changed. That’s improving quality, innovation. Second is, how do you play by the rules of the game but do it more efficiently, smarter, more agilely? And that tends to be on the administrative side. Higher ed has a mixed bag at best on that side of things. In part because the legacy systems with which we work are just not that great. And I don’t think we’ve done a particularly great job in that, we’re okay.

But the third is what I alluded to earlier in this conversation, is what about when you want to change the rules of the game so your students are better served? And that’s where I think where we’ve done our best work is when we’ve tried to think differently about the rules of the game. But for, I think this is hard because, for a lot of institutions, the rules are pretty rigid and they don’t want to play outside those rules or they struggle to do so.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:

Are the rules rigid or are the people who are following the rules making them rigid and themselves are rigid?

Paul LeBlanc: 

Yeah, it’s hard to separate out, right? And as Tolstoy said at the beginning of Anna Karenina, “all happy families are the same, but unhappy families are unhappy in their own way,” something to that effect. So every institution is different on this. I do know, I mean, I have a deep conviction, I should say, but my sense is that the more endowment you have and the longer tradition you have, the harder it is to innovate. Like, it’s just hard because, you know, places like if I take a look at the big innovative schools in the US, the ones that always come to mind, none of them were sort of well endowed and long-standing. They all were hungry to play a role.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:

But I have a theory for that. I have a theory about that. And I think it’s because, and I studied this so much in my doctoral degree, about mimicry within higher education, right? And how is it that we perform mimicry? We’re really looking at the status of other institutions that have higher rankings or image and reputation than our own institutions. But here’s why I think you’re different and maybe you’ve been more successful on that innovative path.

And that’s because you didn’t define who you were looking at to learn from as an institution of higher education based on their status. You talked about service to who they, who their audiences are and who it is that they’re focused on. And you went outside of higher education. And I think that’s something that we could learn so much from. It’s not just what are the Ivys doing or the top 25 in US News and World Report or whoever might be within our aspirational peer set. You’re saying, if we get to the core of who we serve, how are we serving them? And that, I think, is innovative right now in higher education. Shouldn’t be. It sounds so obvious and simplistic in a number of ways, but that takes leadership to have that kind of focus because you have to ask the hard questions and make the tough decisions.

Erin Hennessy:

Well, I also am guessing, I’ll crawl into Paul’s head, and I have to imagine there weren’t a lot of models to mimic anyway for what you were attempting to do when you were attempting to do it.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:

And yet we still try to apply higher ed models, even if they aren’t the right fit.

Paul LeBlanc:

Yeah, you know, and my team cringes when they hear me answer this, respond to this question. So here we go. The models we had were the for-profit online providers in the beginning. And what we wanted to do is say, what did they actually do well? There was a reason that they grew so fast and got so big. And it wasn’t all predatory admissions. In the beginning, it was because they got really, really focused on non-traditional learners and how to serve them better.

I know it’s really popular to beat up and recite all the sins of Phoenix, for example, but early Phoenix actually had a lot to teach us about, and we can’t use this phrase still, customer service. Like, do we have to make our administrative processes miserable? Do we have to have it operate the way it does if it ever comes? So those early online providers did a lot of things we could learn from, and then we looked at it and also said, how do we not commit their sins?

Like we don’t, and you know, part of that was that we were not for profit. So our world was better. That was really the only model, but we also, you know, I went and spent time at the Open University of the UK, which had been created in the 1960s. And while it did not become a massive online powerhouse, its models really deeply inform a lot of online programs. You know, so much of innovation is not out of whole cloth. Like you had a brainstorm, you know, like the Einstein thought experiment, you do the math later. It’s actually taking a lot of practices that exist in the world and then bringing them together in a new combination with a real clear focus on what you’re doing. And in some ways, you have both alluded to the fact that we’ve lived with AI for a long time, but there was a catalytic event. And that catalytic event was natural language input. So when chat GPT comes on, all of a sudden I can talk to my computer, world changes. Now I, as a lay person can control AI, not just use AI products that are embedded. So when we go back to your question, I think we looked at those models, we started thinking about what are the best practices of putting those together, we got laser focused on our students, laser focused. So I remember an exercise where we took a whiteboard, there were only 18 people working online at the time, and I said, walk me through the process where someone says I’m interested in SNHU to when they matriculate in their first class.

Like all the steps, like yay, no, go, no-go, et cetera, et cetera. And at the end, it looked like the schematic of a nuclear submarine. It’s like, it’s a wonder anyone enrolled! Like, what the hell? And then we set up to start to streamline and, ‘cause for our learners, even things like chase down your transcript, that’s hard. Like, wait a minute, what’s a bursar? Like I have to send $10 to somebody called a bursar. And then they told me to call the registrar and da-da-da. And by the way, I work till five o’clock and I pick up my kids and I get home and they’ve been closed for an hour and a half.

So we said, okay, let’s make this really easy. Just click here on the website and give us permission. We will chase down your transcript. We will pay the amount of fee. Like we just take the grit out of the gears. And still today, you know, still today there’s too much grit in the gears. And it’s a race without a finish line. So we’re always working at this. It’s funny because when I think about that innovation story, some of the least sexy parts of it had to do with under the hood rethink your systems, your business rules. Like everyone wants the breakthrough idea. It’s like, wait a minute, roll up your sleeves and look hard at your own practices.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:

You can’t have the breakthrough without the work, right? And you’re talking about doing the work.

Erin Hennessy:

Yeah, exactly. The other point in this story that I don’t want to lose is the fact that in addition to having 250,000 learners across the country, around the world, you also have a campus that serves primarily traditional age students. And you’re innovating there as well, both taking the innovations that have worked for your online students and saying, how do we apply these to brick-and-mortar residential? But you did campus reimagining, you have driven down the cost of that residential experience. And I don’t want to miss the SNHU story around innovation is not just online, big, distributed education, it’s also impacting a small residential campus. And that has so many lessons for so many institutions across the country.

Paul LeBlanc:

Yeah, and I think, thank you, it’s a talented team that’s been leading that work. And like all small residential campuses, that was a part of our budget that was operating at an operating loss, and they have brought that down dramatically. And part of that is, again, discipline and focus. Are we really, you know, higher ed’s not really good at cutting things out. Some of it was the good benefit of being able to leverage our very large online operations. So now all of a sudden, a student on campus can seamlessly integrate online courses.

That means it’s easier to work. That means I can do…, right? It’s just a lot of things open up if you allow that. We didn’t allow that for a while. It was so kludgy, this goes back to that business rules question, that if you wanted to take online courses as an SNHU campus student, you had to withdraw, literally withdraw from SNHU. Now that was a systems thing. We made it easy, but what an absurd thing, right? Like, why can’t I just integrate, right? And I do think our campuses are going to have to have, our residential campuses, an enormous amount of flexibility and fluidity in their future academic programs. Students are going to want, you know, we often use this phrase, just the right kind of learning at just the right time in just the right way. Like Erin, what do you need this semester for the things you’re trying to do with your life? And for our low income learners…

Teresa Valerio Parrot:

It’s the, what do you need, right? Because we ask these questions, but it’s a rhetorical question, and you are actually asking it and following it up on what you heard.

Paul LeBlanc:

Yeah, and you actually are pointing to probably the larger argument here, which is, I think, historically, higher education has mostly been about universities, institutions, and not about students. No matter what they say, it’s about the institution. The major is largely a one-size-fits-all experience. You are lucky to be in our community. This is what we are. Apply to us and we’ll say yay or nay to you. I think the fundamental flip that’s now happening is that students are saying, no, that doesn’t work for me. 52% of Google searches are for non-degree programs. They’re voting with their feet. We’ve seen this debate about ROI. So they’re demanding something quite different. And I think what we’re trying to work hard on, what we’ve tried to do at SNHU, is what happens when you generally put the individual student at the heart of the work.

Erin Hennessy:

Yeah. Yep. Paul, you’ve been enormously generous with your, with your time with us today. I’m going to ask you one last question, sort of step outside the AI topic for a bit. You are perhaps one of the most outspoken presidents in the country on a wide variety of topics. You are willing to say those things that a lot of presidents and senior leaders think, but don’t say out loud. And we’re in this moment right now where presidents seemingly can’t win for trying. They’re either not saying enough, they’re saying too much, they’re saying the wrong thing, they’re talking to the wrong people. I wonder how you sort of got to a point where you looked at what many would perceive as sort of a risk of being really outspoken about issues outside of higher education and how you decided to sort of be that authentic voice regardless of what that risk might be. And whether or not you feel like you’ve ever paid a price for comments about hot-button issues. You can tell that this is a communicator’s question and one that’s very front and center for all of us now trying to advise presidents on how to be their authentic selves without making themselves, their institutions vulnerable. And without you know, really getting in the way of the work. And I feel like you’ve navigated that pretty well.

Paul LeBlanc:

Yeah, I can tell you. And I know the places where I’ve got it wrong. I mean, I know, for example, that early in the Trump years, you know, I’d be on social media saying things about Trump and the GOP and his followers and upset a lot of our more conservative employees who had been Trump supporters. So realizing that, I reached out and said, have lunch with me. Like my default every time is come talk to me. When LGBTQ employees weren’t as happy with the progress we were making, policies, same thing like please let us sit down. You know, it’s always served me well to sit down with people who disagree with you. So in the case, the first case, I stopped talking about Trump supporters, but I was really being critical of his Trump, and I’m very careful to make a separation between the man who I think is a genuine threat to our democracy, and understand there are a lot of people who support him for a wide variety of complex reasons. And people I love, my brother, which we can’t talk about this, but I listen more than I did before. So I think I was reaching out. In fact, Paul Fain would tell you he did a piece in 2011 when we were really on a roll and things were happening. I was getting lots of good press clippings. And then I just had this lurking, slightly paranoid sense that there were people unhappy with me on campus. So I kind of had a sense of who they were and I sent an invitation to them saying, would you have dinner with me? Because I know you don’t like what I’m doing, you just don’t like me. Blah, blah, blah. And we close the door and for three hours I listen for 95% of the time and ask questions and just write a lot of notes.

At the end of that, what I had to acknowledge is that while I still disagreed with them on a lot of things, they were right on some things that I had to be more thoughtful about. And because I listened and changed, it changed the atmosphere. People felt heard and it mattered, and they saw some changes. You can’t just be doing the, I’m listening to you, you feel like you’re listening to me but nothing changed, but something changed, right? It was the second most shared article in The Chronicle that year, which tells you something about what higher ed was needing and feeling at the time. And that was an easier time to live inside. But a price beyond that, for me the price is always like, I’m not serving my own people well, so it was important to reconnect and adjust. After Charlottesville, I did get a lot of death threats. And so much so that the team reached out to the local US Marshals to say, what do you make of this? Now, honestly, what they made of it was like, we don’t see the things in these threats that signify a genuine threat. So I didn’t lose sleep over it, but there was a little bit of heightened campus security, scrutiny and attention.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:

But I think you just brought us full circle to where we were before, and that’s that you were talking about empathy and humanity build relationships and trust. In the processes that you just talked about and how you described your book, Broken, all of that means that you’re not just writing about it, you’re living it.

Paul LeBlanc:

Trying, you know, we’re all flawed human beings, so you do your best you can. And I’m sympathetic to everyone who’s navigated Gaza because Gaza is an extraordinarily hard discussion to have. People are seeing it at their dinner tables, they’re seeing it with family and friends. The sides are so polarized. So part of what I’ve been trying to do, and I think what I’ve so come to adopt is, first of all, take stands on what you, talk about what you are for, not what you’re against.

And when you talk about what you’re for, you can talk about your institution, its mission, its commitment to civic dialogue and free speech. Those things have to kind of go hand-in-hand. You are for the dignity and respect of all human beings. So when you talk about, because right now when you talk about what you’re against, you’re losing stakeholders and groups and it becomes a, it’s a different argument. It’s not, that sounds very blithe, I don’t mean it to, because it’s a very hard one for I think all leaders, but…

Probably the greatest, one of the greatest moments in my professional life, I was really touched by it as someone who long had imposter syndrome, was winning the Hesburgh Award. Because there are people who have won it before me that I just idolize, like Freeman Hrabowski for example. These are the heroes. And Ted Hesburgh himself. And there’s a new documentary, if anyone has, if you haven’t seen it, on Hesburgh. And it was a good reminder that those times were tougher. I mean, no one’s blowing up and burning buildings as they did in the 60s with ROTC buildings on campus. No one, dear God, has shot students. 

Erin Hennessy:

Knock wood, Paul, knock wood.

Paul LeBlanc: 

Yeah, right knock on wood. But I mean, but that was a tough time. And it was interesting to watch how Hesburgh navigated those waters. He didn’t get it right all the time. He expelled students who were sitting in his office and at a time when that was kind of a death sentence in terms of your further education.

Now if you were expelled, you’d like to enroll somewhere else because everyone’s having enrollment issues. Back then it was a very different thing, and you know, long time friends turned against him. But I do think at some point, you also have to decide where are your lines? You know, I love Hamilton, the musical, I know it’s a little bit problematic now in retrospect, but you know, if you don’t know, if you don’t know what you’ll stand for, what will you die for, what will you fall for? I do think you have to sort of think about those lines as well. But in the middle of all that, empathy and humanity. Like talk to people.

Erin Hennessy:

I was just going to say, I think that reflects a comfort that you have with being vulnerable and being open to that kind of feedback that a lot of presidents, because they feel so under attack right now, are very reluctant to lean into. And I think that is a differentiator for you.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:

And I’m gonna take that one step further because I was on the same page. And that is, I think the other thing that you bring to this, especially for your internal communities, and I think this is where this is necessary, is you have a sense of humor. And again, that is one of those places where you are making yourself more vulnerable and you are really opening up as a person. And for that reason, we’ll add it in the show notes, I have one thing I have to say to you, Paul, and that is, peppermint, Paul?

We’ll share a link to the holiday card that SNHU sent out this year because both he and the president-elect were able to have some fun and sometimes at the end of the day we have to remember that we’re people and we’re working with people and there can be a place for humor too.

Paul LeBlanc:

Absolutely.

Erin Hennessy:

Paul, we so appreciate you making this kind of time for us. We know you have a very long to-do list over the next five months. And this conversation was just an absolute treat and it was an honor to have you. So thank you for making time for it.

Paul LeBlanc:

Thank you both, it’s always fun to spend time with you and talk about these things. Thank you so much, I’m flattered and honored that you included me.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:

Thank you.

Erin Hennessy:

Thank you, Paul.

 

Discussion

Erin Hennessy:

Well, how great was that?

Teresa Valerio Parrot:

Yeah. I think this wrap-up’s actually gonna be pretty quick for two reasons. One, we were chatty. And two, he’s just so good, we don’t have to unpack it because he said it.

Erin Hennessy:

Yeah. And I think, um, I was, I, I think most presidents we speak to five months shy of their, you know, the end of their appointment are finally starting to feel a little free to say the things that, that we don’t always hear presidents say, but Paul’s never been that guy. So, um, it’s, it’s delightful to see him,  be consistently frank and open  and be really willing to, I was, I was impressed to hear him be really open to saying, yeah, there are things that I look back and I wish I hadn’t done it or I wish I had done it differently or we could have done it better. And I know it’s easy to sort of, I don’t want to say demonize, but sort of look at SNHU and say, well, that’s not relevant to my institution, the way we approach education and to look at Paul as sort of the poster boy for that. But I just think if you sit down and talk with him, you just can’t help but really be engaged in his vision for higher education and the possibility and potentiality of how we can, to his point, move students right back to the center of what we’re doing.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:

I think there’s this reality and I’m glad that you raised that they have a physical presence in a campus, because that is the history of the institution, but it’s too easy for us to think he’s only looking at online innovation and lose track of the fact that he’s also looking at more holistic innovation for the industry. And I think that’s one of those areas that some people are choosing to bypass.

And I hope that for those of you that don’t know about their campus, that you go and investigate them and you look to see how they have kept tuition affordable and how they are messaging about what they do and going back to the way that he talked about both sharing what you do and then giving the evidence behind it. What are the outcomes? What is the evidence? It’s again such a simple concept, but he has done it brilliantly and it’s working.

Erin Hennessy:

Yeah, absolutely. You know, a 20-year tenure is just a remarkable hitch in this day and age. And to be continuing to push and push and push right up until the end of his service as president, I think it’s just, it’s interesting to watch. I also think it’s gonna be really interesting to watch the transition. I know the SNHU community is super excited about the president-elect, Lisa Marsh Ryerson, who is currently serving as the provost and previously was president of Wells College in Aurora, New York. So I think it’s just a fascinating time to be watching SNHU and taking lessons from them in terms of how we serve students, how we engage people in leadership and how we undertake a really responsible and really smooth transition as well.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:

And I would encourage boards to think about how SNHU’s board has thought about leadership continuity. So if Paul is this innovator, Lisa is an innovator, but she’s also someone who is looking to go deeper into what has already been developed. And so I do think there is this potential to think about what the sequencing of presidential skill sets should be and making decisions for your institution so that you are moving forward but you’re also moving all of your successes with you. And I give kudos to that board for how they’ve approached that decision and what comes next.

Erin Hennessy:

Yeah, it can’t always be innovation, innovation, innovation. There needs to be innovation and then time to sort of bake that into the DNA of the institution, make sure the resources are where they need to be, make sure that the, to Paul’s point, that the ability to assess what we’re doing is there. So it’s a fascinating institution and it’s an honor for us to work with them and it was an absolute thrill to spend an hour with Paul today.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:

Yes, and I love getting to that measurement. You know, the old phrase is you measure what you value. And he is measuring the outcomes and the impact and the difference that a SNHU degree makes for its graduates, and that’s where we should be.

Erin Hennessy:

Yep, that’s the perfect way to close it out. Thanks, TVP.

Teresa Valerio Parrot:

Thank you, Erin.

Trusted Voices

Trusted Voices

Podcast

Trusted Voices explores the complex intersection of leadership and communication in higher education. Each episode, hosts Teresa Valerio Parrot and Erin Hennessy chat with university presidents, industry thought leaders — and each other — about the latest news in the industry and the challenges and opportunities facing those in the most visible roles in higher ed.


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