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The future of higher education is bright, despite the upheavals


Three local university presidents discussed how the industry is recovering from years of pandemic.

From left: Aisha Francis, president and CEO of the Benjamin Franklin Cummings Institute of Technology; Paula A. Johnson, president of Wellesley College; and Suffolk University President Marisa Kelly with Boston Globe Media CEO Linda Henry, far right. Jonathan Wiggs/Globe team

What does the future of higher education look like? That’s the question Boston Globe Media CEO Linda Henry asked three Massachusetts college and university presidents Tuesday morning, asking them to predict the industry’s response to political upheaval and changing student expectations as we emerge from the pandemic era.

The panel kicked off the third annual Globe Summit, a public forum hosted by The Boston Globe bringing together industry and thought leaders from Boston and New England, on topics ranging from AI to urban development to youth leadership.

Aisha Francis, president and CEO of the Benjamin Franklin Cummings Institute of Technology, Paula Johnson, president of Wellesley College, and Marisa Kelly, president of Suffolk University, lead very different institutions. Franklin Cummings Tech is a two-year technical and business college; Wellesley is a highly selective liberal arts college; and Suffolk is a mid-sized research university. But all three presidents found common ground on many of the trends shaping higher education today. Here are four takeaways from their conversation.

Campuses are coming back to life.

Francis, Johnson and Kelly agreed that there is a renewed energy on their campuses this fall.

“Our campus is alive like it hasn’t been in a long time,” Johnson said. “Last year we were kind of coming out of the pandemic, and this year it really feels like we’re back.

“We’re so excited to be back,” Kelly agreed.

This is not to say that the return to fully in-person teaching and programming has been without challenges.

“There was a mental health crisis [exacerbated by] the pandemic,” Johnson acknowledged. “Students have lost some of their crucial years of social development. » Wellesley is committed to supporting students’ development outside of the classroom, she said, knowing their education has been disrupted for years by COVID-19.

Colleges and universities think carefully about how they present themselves to students.

As colleges and universities emerge from the shadow of the pandemic, they recognize that expectations of higher education have evolved.

Students are “more interested in flexibility than ever,” Francis said. This means new course modalities and “shorter periods of higher education” in the form of certificate programs and accelerated courses.

Prospective students want to know that a Franklin Cummings Tech education will create tangible value in their lives, Francis said.

“It’s really important for us to make sure people know that we are training today’s workforce,” she said. “Inclusiveness, belonging and relevance… are what’s important to us. »

Wellesley also reminds students and community members of the practical value its liberal arts degrees provide.

“We are an important economic engine for this state,” Johnson said, both as a job creator for thousands of faculty and staff, and for the 70 percent of graduates who choose to live and working in Massachusetts after leaving Wellesley.

SCOTUS’ affirmative action ruling could have implications for higher education institutions of all types.

But higher education institutions don’t just create jobs. They train students to engage in their communities, explore their passions, and connect across differences. But the Supreme Court’s recent decision to ban consideration of race in college admissions will threaten some schools’ ability to do so, panelists said.

Wellesley will likely feel the impact of the SCOTUS decision the most, Johnson said, because it is a highly selective school that previously used affirmative action to diversify its student body.

“Our commitment to maintaining the diversity that we have is significant,” Johnson said. “We’ve invested more in admissions, there’s more work on the ground to continue to build relationships with high schools and community organizations.

Suffolk considers itself an “institution of access and opportunity,” Kelly said, which has been able to attract a diverse student body without considering race in admissions. But that doesn’t mean the university will be spared from future racial battles in higher education.

“What’s the next shoe to drop?” » Kelly wondered out loud. If lawmakers prohibit universities from tracking the race of students once they are enrolled, for example, Suffolk would struggle to monitor the post-graduation outcomes of its students of color, hampering its equity initiatives. career.

The students are as curious and engaged as ever.

Despite the recent upheavals on the ground, the three educators remain optimistic about their work.

Francis admires how “our hyper-focused students” – many of whom hail from Boston’s Dorchester, Roxbury, Mattapan and Hyde Park neighborhoods – “are focused on their neighborhoods and local communities.”

“Overall, higher education is a hopeful place,” Johnson agreed. “[Students’] the excitement about coming to college, learning, gaining skills, thinking about the big issues in the world that they want to be a part of – it’s real and tangible. And that’s our job, to keep that fire going. »


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