How Should Harvard transform Higher Ed to meet the 21st Century?
Anne Pratt sits with Prof. Brian Rosenberg to discuss how he is developing leaders for the world today as he brings higher education into the 21st century. He shares with us his journey in the world of a liberal arts college, the strategic challenges in higher ed today, and the transformational models that best serve the current demands of education.
Join Prof. Rosenberg, Harvard President-in-Residence of the Graduate School of Education, in this conversation as you learn more about disruptive opportunities for Higher Ed and what lies ahead for today’s students as they become citizens and leaders of the world tomorrow.
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21st Century Higher Ed with Harvard GSE President In Residence – Prof. Brian Rosenberg
The Disruptive Opportunities For Higher Ed Today
Our bold leader joins us from the city of Cambridge in the great state of Massachusetts across the Charles River from Boston. He is currently the President-in-Residence and visiting professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education. Previously, he spent seventeen years as a college president of Macalester College in the great lake state of Minnesota in the upper Midwestern region of the United States of America.
He’s a graduate and a scholar in Victorian literature. He has published two books and numerous articles on higher education in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the LA Times. He is also currently the Senior Advisor to the President of the African Leadership University and serves on multiple boards, including the Heart Center for Public Health at Stanford University. We warmly welcome the humble, the smart, and the compassionate President-in-Residence and Professor Brian Rosenberg. Welcome to the show.
Brian, thank you so much for joining this conversation. I‘ve been looking forward to it. Your career from student to teacher to administrator gives a very interesting perspective regarding high education and its role in developing leaders for the world. Thank you for being part of this global leadership movement for change.
It’s my pleasure.
You were born and raised in the Northeast. You had a seventeen-year wonderful career as President of Macalester College in the Midwest and Twin Cities. What took you into the administrative role heading up a liberal arts college? What motivated that move for you?
Like a lot of people, my path was not always planned out. I was a graduate student in English at Columbia University. I was an undergraduate at Cornell University. I was educated at large research universities, but you take whatever jobs you can get when you have a Ph.D. in English. You can’t afford to be choosy. The first tenure track job I got from graduate school was at Allegheny College, a small liberal arts college in Pennsylvania. When I took the job, I didn’t even know where it was.
I thought I would be there for a little while and move on. It turned out that I loved it. It suited me in so many ways. I loved the variety of teaching, the freedom to do research in various areas, and the close contact between students and faculty. I was there for fifteen years. While I was a faculty member, I became increasingly interested in how the whole college worked. I became a real fan of the liberal arts college. Unlike many faculty members, I became interested in things like admissions, finance, and student affairs. I served on a lot of committees.
After about fifteen years, I had the opportunity to become a dean of the faculty at another liberal arts college in the Midwest, Lawrence University. I didn’t think I would do it. I ended up running out of reasons not to. When I was at Lawrence, I learned even more about administration and how these institutions worked. I got to begin to learn how to be a leader. It was not something that naturally came to me. I had to learn it. After five years at Lawrence, the Macalester opportunity came up. It drew me for a few reasons. First of all, it’s a first-grade liberal arts college. Second of all, it is located in an urban area, which is not the case for most liberal arts colleges. Having grown up in New York City, I like cities.
The mission of the college is very aligned with my mission which is around internationalism, diversity, and service. That resonated with me. It was the perfect spot, and I got the job. At the end of the day, my particular skillset was reasonably well aligned with what’s required of a college president. If you had asked me a few years earlier, I never would have imagined that’s where I would have ended up. I was very fortunate to be able to follow that path.
I am curious what are the parallels of anything between Victorian literature, which is one of your passions and forte, and being a leader of a liberal arts college.
People at Macalester probably became tired of me quoting from 19th-century literature. Dickens was the particular focus of my research. My favorite poet is John Keats, one of the great romantic poets. I quote from them all the time but what I learned from Dickens, in particular, was a few things. First of all, you can’t get caught up in bureaucratic machinery because when that happens, it tends to rob you of your humanity. That is a theme in many of Dickens’ novels, which have much more social criticism than many people realize.
I always tried to keep a human face and not let myself become subsumed by my administrative role. The other thing that I always kept in mind was something Dickens wrote about in Hard Times, which is not one of my favorite novels, but this is one of my favorite points. He makes a distinction between knowledge of the head and knowledge of the heart. Certain things come to you if you’re smart or if you’re empathetic.
In my view, the best leaders try to balance those two things. I would draw upon the reading that I did and the novels that I read very often, sometimes publicly or in my mind, to remind myself what leadership is. In many ways, it means not losing your humanity and retaining many qualities that are easy to lose when you are in a leadership position. I found the background in literature extremely helpful. It helped me with my communication skills. It’s useful for a college president to be able to write and speak in public.
Given that leadership for you are not losing your heart and using your humanity, in addition to that, what is it for you?
I made two promises when I started the job at Macalester at my first faculty meeting. I tried for seventeen years to keep those promises. I said, “Probably at some point, everyone in this room will disagree with me about something. I can pretty much guarantee it, but here’s what I will promise you. I will always tell you the truth and make decisions that I genuinely believe to be in the institution’s best interest and not in my best interest.”
There are a lot of ways to think about leadership. There are a lot of people who write books on leadership. I don’t pretend to be an expert, but for me, two of the key qualities were honesty and not making it about yourself. When you are trained as an academic, you come through the school and go into the classroom as a teacher. You are trained to demonstrate that you are the smartest person in the room. A good leader makes other people feel like they’re the smartest people in the room. Those qualities of not making it about your ego are important in a leader.A good leader makes other people feel like they're the smartest people in the room. Click To Tweet
From Macalester, you went to Harvard to become President-in-Residence at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. You’re also a visiting professor, so you teach several classes. Within your role as President-in-Residence, I know that part of that role is helping education grad school students think about leadership and the challenges in higher ed. As we both know, Harvard is an Ivy League school. It receives top rankings and has done for several decades. What in your mind are some of the big strategic challenges that face higher ed, not only in the USA but internationally?
I’m glad you mentioned that Harvard was not typical. It’s easy for those who spend their careers in a rarefied world of higher education to forget what most of it is like. Unlike a small group of highly selective institutions, the vast majority of colleges and universities in the United States, and I suspect around the world, face some pretty daunting challenges. Underlying it all, certainly in the United States, is an unsustainable financial model.
For decades now, the cost of higher education has been rising much more rapidly than the ability of people to pay for it unless they are quite wealthy or get a substantial financial aid subsidy from an institution. For many people, college is unaffordable in private colleges or even public flagship universities. When you have a model where the costs are growing more rapidly than the ability of people to pay them, that is almost the definition of unsustainable.The cost of higher education has been rising much more rapidly than the ability of people to pay for it. Click To Tweet
Figuring out a way to deliver high-quality education at a more affordable price is probably challenge number one for higher education. Higher education continues to be extraordinarily unevenly distributed. A group of students has access in the United States to the best education in the world. There’s a large group of students, many of them from underserved communities and first-generation, who never get to think about college at all. If they do, they end up in two-year community colleges or public institutions with very low completion rates. Those students don’t get either the personal or the economic benefits of higher education.
The third thing I’ll mention is the fact that higher education, in my view, has not adapted its pedagogy to the current moment. The pedagogy used in higher education has not changed dramatically for decades or even hundreds of years but arguably for more than 1,000 years. When universities were formed in Europe as early as 1050 and through the Middle Ages, the model was the same as the one we have now.
To learn, students had to go to a physical place with buildings and a library with those rare things called books and a group of experts who would fill them with knowledge despite all of the changes in technology and how students access information. I can get more information now on my cell phone than students could get from the Harvard Library years ago. Despite all of that, higher education continues to operate more or less in the same way.
We know from a lot of research that way is not the way that students learn best. Students learn the best when the learning is much more active and experiential than when they’re simply sitting and listening. Higher education changes at a glacial pace, and it’s slowly beginning to adapt to some of these things. For the most part, the methods in higher education for all the good they do could be so much better if the sector were more open to innovation.
That’s such a good point. You wrote an article called Is Harvard Complacent? and some of the issues around these very successful, top–end, highly–branded, and high–reputation institutions. If you were the next President of Harvard, what three things would you consider affecting so that the transformation needed would meet this moment?
Let me begin by saying that I don’t pretend to have the secret recipe. I was a college president for seventeen years. I would like to think I was reasonably good at it, but I failed to bring about transformational change in how Macalester College operated. Honestly, at institutions like Harvard, it is about as hard as it gets to do that.
I don’t want to suggest that I could easily do things that previous presidents have not done. At this institution, in particular, one thing I would try to change and is probably changeable with the right energy on the part of leadership would be to make it less siloed. Harvard is an incredibly siloed place. People around here like to say, “Every tub on its own bottom.” People say it with pride, but I don’t think it’s a good thing.
One of the things I noticed was that students who were enrolled in the education school could also take classes in the business school or the Kennedy School. The rules in each school were different. Even the rules in how they dealt with the pandemic were different. The procedures for enrolling in classes were different. It made students’ lives enormously more difficult than they needed to be.
It’s working to create more consistency across the institution. If I were to recognize the difficulty of moving from a place like this to someplace different, many universities and even small colleges would suffer from this siloed structure. That’s one thing that I would try to change. I would probably give more encouragement. There are some people here who are doing amazing things with pedagogy.
Jim Honan in the ed school is doing some amazing things with executive education online. Eric Mazur, who’s a physicist and has a connection with Balkanski, has been arguing for decades that science faculties should stop lecturing. They should design exercises where students in Science classes are engaged. There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that students in the STEM disciplines learn more when they are engaged in active activities rather than sitting in a lecture. I would try to lift those people and maybe give them the same recognition that research universities tend to give people whose focus is more on research and less on teaching.
Do you have an example of what Jim Honan does at the Grad School of Education?
I got the opportunity to get a tour of his studios. He has an amazing ability with technology that he’s provided to create a Zoom class that has the intimacy of an in-person class. He has one of those touch screens that they sometimes use on CNN. He can create an immersive and engaging multimedia experience that has the advantage of being able to connect students from all over the world.
You don’t have to be in Cambridge, Massachusetts, physically. You could be anywhere and have this experience. To be fair, it’s very expensive, at least right now. Most institutions could not afford to provide what Harvard provides to Jim. They’re used chiefly in continuing executive education but also have enormous potential for undergraduate education. Like many developments, that might start expensive, but eventually, people find ways to make them less expensive.
That’s an interesting example. Jim is a fantastic teacher. He’s very dynamic, having had the benefit of some of his classes as well. Coming back to the purpose of higher ed, and if we think about leadership in the world in this current moment, you’ve also written quite a lot about things like the fragility of truth and some of the issues we are facing as a broader society. If we think about the mission of higher education, you alluded to Macalester. We know part of Harvard’s mission is to develop citizens and citizen leaders worldwide. In your opinion, what is the current call to action regarding high educational institutions and their role in shaping and molding the future leaders of tomorrow?
On one level, the mission has been pretty consistent since the founding of the United States. On another level, the mission has become particularly important. The first two public universities in the United States were created by Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, the schools that went on to become the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Virginia.
Both Franklin and Jefferson were very explicit about the fact that democracies could not possibly survive without educated citizens. For citizens to manage the responsibilities of democracy, they needed to be educated. Education prepares you for work and vocation but is also a prerequisite for democracy. What we’re seeing, in my view, is about as serious a threat to democracy in the United States as we have seen.Democracies could not possibly survive without educated citizens. For citizens to manage the responsibilities of democracy essentially, they needed to be educated. Click To Tweet
Colleges in this environment have a particular responsibility not just to prepare students for jobs but to prepare them to be engaged citizens in collective life. Part of that is teaching them the right history so that they understand the country that they’re living in. Part of that is teaching them the right skillsets and mindsets. Honestly, part of it is universities and colleges modeling the behavior they want to see in their students. I don’t think higher education has been good at that.
Higher education is, in general, a cautious industry. There are a lot of different constituencies to please. There are a lot of different viewpoints within those constituencies. By and large, colleges and college presidents have been quiet. Even though many things have happened, they pose fundamental challenges to their work. I don’t think that has served the sector well.
If you had to give us an example of the behaviors that you think colleges, universities, and presidents of those universities should be exhibiting as examples of what they want their students to become, what are some of those behaviors? Is it about speaking out? What is it?
To give credit to Harvard and its soon-to-be outgoing President Larry Bacow, I could give two examples he has demonstrated. One is on the question of immigration. The Trump administration enacted some very restrictive immigration policies, some of which were struck down and some of which were upheld. When the administration tried to keep international students out of the country during the pandemic, Harvard challenged that in court and got that decision overturned because it was essential to the mission of American higher education to have these students and, honestly, basic humanity.
Harvard has also been fighting to defend affirmative action, whose future I am not optimistic about with the current Supreme Court, but Harvard has tried. Taking both of those issues, one could describe our current moment as divisive, immigration and affirmative action, but simply because an issue is divisive doesn’t mean a college should necessarily remain silent on it if the issue touches upon the fundamental mission of the institution.Just because an issue is divisive doesn't mean a college should necessarily remain silent on it, especially if it touches upon the institution's fundamental mission. Click To Tweet
Far too many universities and colleges and their leaders, out of a sense of caution, have been very quiet on controversial issues that they should be speaking about, even an issue as fundamental as the fidelity to truth and the fact that there’s a difference between evidence and opinion. Those are the things we teach our students in the classrooms every single day. If the students don’t see the institutions modeling that behavior, what message is that delivering to them?
If a student were to hand in a research paper that had no evidence supporting it or the evidence was deliberately distorted, they would probably get a bad grade. We see that happening in public and institutions, for the most part, of silence. There are notable exceptions. There are some college and university presidents for whom I have enormous admiration. Patricia McGuire is the President of a small college in Washington, DC, and Michael Roth is the President of Wesleyan University. They have been quite outspoken, but they’re the exceptions. They’re not the rule.
I‘m with you. What struck me about some of the classes you’re teaching at the Grad School of Education is one on ethics and the other on transformational models. Is there a particular point in the ethics and higher ed class that, for you, is a critical issue around ethics and higher ed? Can you share what that is and perhaps an example of where you have seen that enacted in higher ed institutions?
There are a lot. We take up, in that class, virtually all of the challenging subjects that are vexing higher education. As an aside, I wish those people who thought that higher education could not engage in spirited debate with all points of view could sit in on my classes and see how terrifically these students with a variety of points of view engage in civil debate.
Very few places in our society exist where those sorts of things occur. The couple that comes to mind for me is our discussions about whether higher education is a right or a privilege, which goes right to the heart of how it is funded in a society. In the United States, at least, the assumption is that K-12 education is a right. Everyone has legally an opportunity to obtain it, whereas we treat higher education as a privilege.
If you can afford it or get sufficient financial aid, you can go, but if you can’t, you’re out of luck. The question is a practical and also ethical one. Is higher education the same privilege in our society as a K-12 education? If not, why not? Like many of these ethical questions, I don’t pretend there’s an easy answer, but it’s a fundamental question.
That is one of our political dividing lines. Even within the Democratic Party, it’s a dividing line. You have some people like Bernie Sanders or, to some extent, Elizabeth Warren, who think that higher education should be free or close to free. Others think, “The public shouldn’t be subsidizing that. That’s a personal benefit. It’s not something that the public should pay for.”
The other one that is vexing but that we had great discussions on is the whole notion of trying to balance free speech or academic freedom on the one hand and an environment where all students have an equal opportunity to learn on the other hand. What obligation does a university have to host a speaker, for instance, whose views will be deeply offensive to a significant group of students? It’s easy to say, “Colleges should be open to all points of view,” but that is an oversimplification.
Virtually everyone would agree that there’s a line. I don’t think any college would host a Nazi or a White supremacist to come and give a speech on campus. Public institutions have different rules. In some states, they have to allow space to anyone who wants to speak. If you grant that there is a line, it’s too simple to say that you’re open to everything. The question is, “Where do you draw the line?”
I was curious about that. In these debates and kinds of conversations, can you share with us some of the thinking about where current students believe the line ought to be?
My students are graduate students. They’re a little older. Many of them have already had experience working in higher education. My students tended to lean toward the side of more openness to uncomfortable speakers, not speakers who posed a threat or were deeply hurtful to members of the community but to speakers whose views made some students uncomfortable. The majority of my students, at least, were open. If you talk about undergraduates, they’re a little different.
We have something of a problem, at least at some colleges, because students don’t want to be made uncomfortable at all. There, you’re beginning to undermine the purpose of a college or a university. Being made uncomfortable is part of being educated. Being threatened and hurt is not, but discomfort. In my view, hearing ideas that you disagree with and might even find deeply objectionable is not enough to keep somebody off campus. It should not be.Being made uncomfortable is part of being educated. Click To Tweet
I wish I could tell you that it was a bright line that never moved. For me, most of these questions are careful balancing acts and depend very much on particular circumstances. I always asked myself, “Am I providing every student on campus with an equal opportunity to learn and thrive?” If some action, policy, or speaker were creating an unequal playing field for students, it would give me pause, and I would ask myself, “Is that worth it?”
An openly homophobic speaker who wanted to come to campus and talk about the fact that LGBTQ students shouldn’t be allowed at the college is not something I would have permitted because it would have created an environment in which it would have been difficult for those students to learn. My view is pretty expansive, but I always try to think about what the impact on students will be. If it’s just discomfort, that’s the way it is. If it’s an impediment to learning, that’s more serious.
There are a lot of gray areas. It’s not a black-and-white question or answer.
There’s also the notion of speakers who do and do not pay attention to evidence and truth. You won’t find a biology department that feels it is their obligation to bring to campus someone who is defending creationism because they’re arguing against the existence of gravity or that the world is flat. The evidence contradicts you, and you have no evidence to support your view.
There are now more people expressing views about more things for which there’s no supporting evidence. That’s another criterion that I would use. Even though this viewpoint might be open to interpretation, is it a reasonable interpretation of the available evidence? If it is, then come on in. If it’s not, you have to ask whether that is part of the mission of a university to give a platform for that kind of speech.
That’s fair. Let’s consider the role of academic institutions and the research component to provide substantive evidence and research-based examples to support an opinion or review. That’s a pretty fair criterion to establish.
People make the mistake of thinking that what goes on at a university is free speech. Some public universities in the United States are subject to laws that require a certain amount of free speech but universities curate and make selective judgments about speech every day in every class. Students will be told by a faculty member, “That is wrong.” If we do that, curate speech, and make qualitative decisions about speech every day, that should apply not just to the students on our campuses but to the speakers we invite as well.
That’s fair. What has been a defining or transformational moment for you? Is there a particular event that comes to mind that helped shape who you are now?
I did not have a James Joyce type of epiphany where suddenly, the direction of my life became crystal clear. When I arrived at college at Cornell, my intention was to major in Biology, be a pre-medical student, go on, and be a physician. The freshman seminar I enrolled in was a Comparative European Literature class. The very first book on the syllabus was a translation of Dante‘s Inferno, which I had never read and thought about. I started reading it, and I couldn’t stop.
I remember, as a brand new college student, I’m lying on a couch in the student union and starting to read this thing. I read it all the way through to the end, and it got dark around me. I was captivated by this hundreds-of-years-old Italian epic poem. There was no turning back from that. By the end of that course, I knew I wanted to major in English and be a professor. It’s reading the works that I read in that class. I always liked to read but never thought being a teacher would be my vocation. That class turned me in a different direction.
That’s so interesting. What was it in Dante‘s Inferno that was the striking message for you?
The language and storytelling were part of it, even in translation. Inferno, in particular, is a great story of being led down all these circles of hell. Even though I’m not a particularly religious person, part of it was the constant ethical dimension of the text, what kinds of behaviors were good and what kinds of behaviors were very bad. Wrapped into one package are a lot of the things that I’ve paid attention to in literature for the rest of my life.
As you correctly alluded to earlier, having great linguistic skills and a command of the pen and the language is also an important leadership competence.
I like to think so. It’s not necessarily one that all of our leaders possess, but to me, it’s an important one.
You are also a Senior Advisor to the President of African Leadership University in a different role. In your transformational models, you’ve quoted ALU, as it’s called, as an example of how to upend and transform education. Could you share with us, firstly, what is the focus of what you teach in terms of transformational models at Harvard Grad School of Education? Secondly, can you take us to African Leadership University? What about that new high education model that you believe truly rises to the call for action in higher ed now?
I tried in that class not to focus on models like Minerva, which gets a lot of attention but which is very hard to scale. It’s an extraordinarily expensive model. Minerva makes a big deal of the fact that they’re more selective than Harvard. To be honest, I have little interest in that. The last thing we need is another small and highly selective university, even if its pedagogy is different. I’m most interested in disruptive but also replicable and scalable models.
We spend a fair amount of time on ALU, which I’ll get to, but now, I’m fascinated by a little school called Sterling College in Vermont, one of the smallest colleges in the country. What’s interesting about it is a couple of things. First of all, unlike most colleges, it knows what it wants to be and what it’s not. The college is built entirely around the commitment to the environment. That’s what they do. If you want to study Physics, that’s not the place to go.
More colleges need to do that and not try to be with very limited resources for all things to all people. It’s also a highly experiential college. Students work on farms, and they work with animals. They don’t just learn about the natural world. They get immersed in it. They’re also trying to set up satellite campuses around the country and potentially worldwide and then connect the students using technology.
It’s this interesting combination of instruction, experiential learning, and online learning that is in a very clear focus that I wish more colleges would try. It is risky, but I wish more colleges would have the courage to say, “We’re not going to offer 40 majors to 1,000 students. We’re going to do these things, and we’re going to do them well. If you are interested in these things, this is your place.” It’s schools like that.
I also looked at traditional colleges that are trying to do more than cosmetic transformation. I know pretty well the President of Sarah Lawrence College. She is genuinely trying to shift the focus of Sarah Lawrence from being a very traditional affluent New York liberal arts college to one with stronger connections to community colleges and more pre-professional programs in certain areas that do more continuing education for people. That’s what colleges will need to do, as the demographics in the United States do not favor traditional higher education.
We spent time on Sarah Lawrence but the African Leadership University (ALU), to me, is the most interesting and exciting attempted transformation I know of. We devoted two of our classes. We brought many people from ALU in virtually to talk to the students. As I may have mentioned to you before, it’s the most interesting thing I’ve ever worked on in my career and potentially the most impactful.
Can you share a few statistics around ALU to give us some numbers to understand?
Let me begin with some statistics about Africa because you can’t understand ALU without understanding the needs of that continent. Africa has the youngest population in the world. The average age in Africa is nineteen. The average age in a place like Germany is 47. It is an extraordinary young continent. It is the place in the world that is least served by higher education.
Something like 8% or 9% of high school graduates in the content of Africa go on to college or university. A lot of that has to do with the absence of available spots. There aren’t nearly enough colleges and universities to serve the students. Within a couple of decades, Africa will have the largest workforce in the world, larger than China and India. This is an area that is young and underserved by higher education. The world needs to get economically more self-sufficient because it is such a big part of the world.
In that context, ALU has been created. ALU is created in the context of constraint. In Africa, most students, even students who are part of a relatively small middle class, can’t afford to pay more than maybe $2,000 a year for a college or university, which is a tiny fraction of what most US colleges would cost. These colleges don’t have the money to build elaborate campuses. There is a shortage of professors with PhDs. In that situation of constraint, you have to provide an education that is high quality but much less expensive and dependent upon campuses and professors.Provide an education that is high quality but much less expensive and much less dependent upon campuses and professors. Click To Tweet
ALU, like a lot of experiments, started very small. There are about 1,500 students on two campuses, one in Rwanda and one in Mauritius. For the first few years of its life it was founded in 2015, and it has been a residential college. Students spend three-year Bachelor’s degrees. They spend all three years on one of those campuses, but that model is not scalable. Serving 1,500 students at a time will not make the impact we want and need to make in Africa.
The goal over the next five years is to get dramatically larger. By 2026, we want to have 20,000 students to lower the cost of education. By doing that, it means less reliance on physical campuses and on traditional faculty members. To take what we know about the case, we have lowered the tuition now to $3,000. The goal is to lower it further so that with scholarships, the average cost of attendance is $2,000, $2,500, or even $1,500 per student.
It is still the case that almost all students at ALU are on scholarships. Most of those are full scholarships provided by generous grant funding, but that is not a long-term sustainable financial model. We have to set a price point that the middle class in Africa can afford and then provide scholarships to the students who cannot afford even that. We have to lower the costs.
We are doing that, and we have now launched a new model so that students will spend only a term on one of the campuses, not three years. During that term, they will study in person, get to know one another, and become immersed in the ALU culture. Still, for the rest of their education, they have the option of being near one of the two campuses or working at one of the hubs we’re establishing throughout the African continent.
We have already opened one in Kampala and one in Kigali. We hope to have 2 or 3 more opened by the end of 2022. They could even go home if financially that’s what they need to do and connect with ALU using various online platforms. We think of it as an experiential university. There’s a lot of learning by doing. It is an education built around the student, not around the faculty.
It tries to take advantage of what we believe is the innate human capacity to learn. No one teaches human beings. You don’t take a class on how to walk and talk. You learn those things. You go into a classroom when you start kindergarten and get acculturated into being a dependent learner. We’re trying to get back to the notion that human beings are natural learners and build an education around that.
The other thing that struck me about the work you and Fred Swaniker are doing at African Leadership University is the shift in defining the higher-ed model’s goals. Perhaps you could share a little more with us about that. What are the ultimate goals? What are the measurements of success and efficacy?
There are two things that I’ll talk about. One is the mission of ALU, which is to educate what we describe as ethical and entrepreneurial leaders for Africa. It has the word leadership in its name. It is Fred’s belief that goes back to the work he did as an undergraduate. Strong leadership is necessary for Africa to take the next step in its evolution. That is the component that has been missing.
One of ALU’s goals is to educate the next generation of leaders who will be ethical and entrepreneurial. They will do the right thing and create things, businesses, and opportunities for others. If they go into the government, they will create more equitable structures. The other goal, honestly, is to enable people to get jobs. You cannot overstate how important it is to enable people to find economic security in that context. It’s not something you can take for granted.
The overall African Leadership Group goal, which ALU is a part of, is to create 3 million jobs in Africa over the next 10 or 15 years. That has the potential to have an enormous impact on the economic development of the continent and the quality of lives that people lead. One of the things that we are most proud of at ALU is that since our first graduating class, students have gotten jobs very quickly and much more rapidly than the graduates of most universities in Africa. Some of them have also created businesses that have provided jobs for others. We can never forget about the economic component of what we’re doing.
That’s relevant. One of the other statistics around Africa is the very high unemployment rates compared to varying employment rates in different countries. As we know, Africa comprises 54 countries, but there’s much higher unemployment on average than in other parts of the world. There’s also the mix of employment. It’s not only corporate employment. It‘s developing entrepreneurs who become the creators of employment for other people. It’s also specific to the continent and empowering in terms of developing entrepreneurs. Rather than seeking employment, it’s creating jobs.
That’s why entrepreneurship is so central to the educational model. Creating things is very difficult. Most startups fail, and that’s okay. We want to give students practice at failing. First of all, that builds resilience. It is through making mistakes that you learn how not to make mistakes. By giving students the opportunity as students to try to create things even if, more often than not, they’re not successful, they will have learned a lot. At some point, they will create things that don’t fail and do succeed. 1 or 2 people can impact thousands if they create the right things, as we have seen.
Shifting to somebody that’s an African son of the soil, Nelson Mandela, who I know also impacted Fred and his life, I was curious to hear from your perspective. To what extent has Mandela been somebody who has shaped, influenced, or inspired your view of the leadership of the world? Is there a particular moment that comes to mind for you?
I never had the privilege of meeting or knowing him but what always impressed me was that he accomplished so much. He was never driven by anger. He was always driven by hope. He always seemed to believe in drawing out the best in people as possible. It goes back to that issue of knowledge of the heart again. It’s the closest I ever came to seeing that. I did have the opportunity to get to know Kofi Annan quite well. Kofi Annan graduated from Macalester in 1961. I got to know him.
A handful of people you meet in your life have almost an aura about them. He was one of those people. It’s the same thing. He always had hope. Given what he observed in his life, he had every reason to despair about humanity, but he didn’t. Particularly, he had a lot of hope in what he always called the young people and their ability to make the world a better place. To me, that was powerfully influential and inspirational.
You’re alluding to Mandela and Kofi Annan.
Both of them. The fact that I had an opportunity to get to know Kofi and spend time with him was one of the great privileges of my life. He had an impact.
Do you think that has relevance now in terms of Mandela’s life and leadership example? If so, why?
It’s rare, but the ability to go through awful things and emerge from that is not driven by a quest for vengeance but a belief that the best way to heal is through honesty and forgiveness. Virtually, most of our public life appears driven by anger and an inability to listen to and connect with people we disagree with. He embodied the opposite of that. Those people are rare, but I keep waiting for someone like that to come along in the United States who can begin to heal some of the rifts that are frankly tearing this country apart.There is value in the ability to go through awful things and emerge from that, not driven by a quest for vengeance but a belief that the best way to heal is through honesty and forgiveness. Click To Tweet
To what extent do you think those kinds of leadership competencies could or should be integrated into leadership development? To what extent do you think they could or would be integrated with the African Leadership University?
You can try. There are no guarantees. It’s much harder to teach habits of mind and character than to teach information. One of the things that ALU does that I am fascinated by is to begin by having every student study what they call ‘the leadership core.’ Every student does the same thing for the first term. The leadership core focuses on the hard skills that you would expect, like speaking, writing, and quantitative thinking. Still, it also focuses on things like empathy, self-discipline, working in teams, creativity, and resilience.It's a lot harder to teach habits of mind and character than it is just to teach information. Click To Tweet
We do at least attempt to be purposeful in talking to students and teaching students about some of the necessary personal qualities of someone who’s going to be a leader. It’s not simply about being smart. It’s also about the kind of person you are. As far as I know, there are very few universities that try to teach empathy. Universities too often assume that students will absorb it through some automatic process, but that doesn’t always happen. Even if you teach it, it doesn’t always happen, but at least you can make an effort.
There is a great opportunity. You’ve been fairly outspoken about curriculum redesign. From what you’ve done with Fred Swaniker at ALU, you’ve certainly made great headway in terms of redesigning that. On a lighter note, here are a couple of Fun Facts.
I got to know Fred as an alumnus of Macalester but not when he was a student. I have heard many stories about him as a student.
Here’s the first thing. What is one of the stories you’ve heard that struck you about him and thought, “This is a guy I need to get to know a little better.”
Not too long ago, Fred had a birthday. All of the old editions of the college newspaper are digitized and archived online. I went back and searched for Swaniker. A long piece about Fred was done when he was a senior. Two things struck me. One is that you could tell even then that he was someone with grand ambitions, but the other thing that struck me is that he was a very social guy.
Apparently, his room with his roommate was a party hub for students. He likes to have a good time as an undergraduate. He also complained interestingly that Americans worked too much, which is ironic given the fact that now, he is the hardest-working person I’ve ever met. Fred defines the workday as 24 hours. There’s something ironic about him saying as a student that people in the United States work too much. He pretty much outworks anyone I know.
You spent several years in the Midwest in the Twin Cities, Minneapolis, and St. Paul. You’re a city guy. Can you share something about the Twin Cities that is part of your happy memories of being in the Midwest?
First of all, it is a beautiful place. Minnesota is known as the Land of a Thousand Lakes. There are beautiful lakes in the Twin Cities that are great for walking, bike riding, and all kinds of other activities. The Mississippi flows right through the middle of the metro area. It’s what divides Minneapolis and St. Paul, and it’s magnificent. There are other rivers there, like the St. Croix. It’s a place of real natural beauty.
It has its problems as an urban area, particularly around areas of segregation and racial equity, but by and large, it’s a pretty kind place. People talk about Minnesota Nice. Sometimes living in places like New York or Boston can feel like there’s a hard edge to everything. That’s not the way you feel in the Twin Cities. Things move a little bit more slowly.
I remember returning to New York after living in Minnesota for quite a while. I would walk down the street, look at people, and smile. They would look at me like I was a crazy person because if you walk down the street in New York, no one makes eye contact, whereas if you walk down the street in Minnesota, people look at you and say hello. It’s okay and nice.
Here’s the third thing I was curious to know. As a college president, you went from this professor in Victorian literature to dean to president. What is one moment that was most difficult for you as president of Macalester that few people know about? What do you think was a tough call for you?
It’s not even close. The hardest moments were when we lost a student. That happened, unfortunately, more often than I would have liked. There is, in higher education, a huge mental health crisis. During my time at Macalester, we had students who took their own lives and overdosed on drugs. We even had a couple of students who were killed in car accidents. There’s nothing more difficult, particularly in a community like that, which is relatively small and close-knit.
First of all, I was the president. I felt personally responsible for every student on that campus. Still, in dealing with the grief, the family, and the struggles of other students, everything else you deal with becomes trivialized compared to those moments. People would ask me, “What keeps you up at night?” The single biggest worry you have every day is you come into work, there are these 2,000 students, and you feel like you’re responsible for every single one of them.
You’re a residential college. Their families give those students to you and expect you to care for them. It’s a hard thing to do. When you fail at it, it’s easy to take that personally. There were very few moments, honestly, where I was completely lost for words, but when I had time to speak at a memorial service for one of those students, I always felt that words were completely inadequate. Those were the hardest moments by far.
To that point, having gone through those incredibly traumatized moments and coming from somebody with your training to say that you were at a loss for words is quite a remarkable statement. What advice would you give to university and college presidents who deal with that trauma or newly appointed presidents?
When you’re a college or university president, you’re surrounded by many people who are skilled at their jobs. It’s easy in those moments to recede into the background and let other people take over and be the face of the college, but at moments like that, people expect to see the president. Whether it’s talking to the family or showing up and speaking, no matter how hard it is at the memorial service, you have to be there. There’s not a lot you can do to take away the pain.
Sometimes, when this happened, the families would not blame the college. They would say their child was happiest at Macalester. Other times, the family completely understandably was very angry at the college. That is not the time to get into an argument. That is the time to take with patience and grace whatever criticism people want to give to you.
In terms of the words as somebody who’s so adept at the English language, are there any words that did fill the space?
The most honest thing I could say in those situations was that ‘words were inadequate.’ Acknowledge the inadequacy of the words. It would depend very much on how well I knew the student. If it were a student that I knew at least casually, being able to talk about some particular personal connection would be important and nice. If that connection didn’t exist, you can’t make it up. You have to acknowledge that you didn’t know the student personally but that you empathize with the pain of the friends and the family. You must mostly break through that shell of the formulaic and reveal yourself in those moments. I would get up and say, “I don’t know what to say.“
There were times I confessed to the fact that I was frightened. The inability to protect all those students, I found scary. You have to show vulnerability and be genuine. That’s what I tried to be. In addition to being a college president, I’m a parent. It’s impossible to see these things happen without thinking about your children and what it would be like for you. Being authentic in those moments and being human is the best you can do.
It talks about part of the importance in terms of developing those capabilities as a leader. In our few final moments together, are there any final thoughts you have about the future of leadership and what you believe is required for this next generation?
I’ve got to do a better job than my generation did because I don’t think my generation has done a particularly good job. It will take a lot of resilience because we are handing the next generation a boatload of challenges that can be daunting. Courage, strength, and honesty are not surprising, but they’re going to be necessary. The ability somehow to bring people together and not chase them apart will be important. Being charismatic can be exaggerated, but we need some truly inspirational people. If you look around now, there are very many. You don’t want to put all of your hope on this, but you do hope some of those people come along because it feels like we haven’t had many of those people for quite a while.
I’m truly grateful for you coming to share your innermost thoughts and coming along with an open mind and an open heart. Mandela said, “A good head and a good heart are a formidable combination.” With the work you’re doing not only at Harvard Grad School of Education but also with African Leadership University, I truly look forward to how this story and this model unfold and sharing more of the results and the beneficiaries of this new thinking or this new work in the world.
I look forward to picking up the conversation again. Thank you so much for being the kind, compassionate, and smart human being that you are.
You’re very kind. It has been my pleasure.
Talking to Brian Rosenberg makes us rethink how we bring higher ed into the 21st century to design, develop, and deliver an updated and tailored education to meet the demands of the world’s current needs. It’s pretty remarkable that in this radically changing world, teaching methods and pedagogies have remained relatively static and stuck in the Middle Ages for more than 1,000 years.
For those of us who have had the privilege of attending a higher ed institution, college, or university, we know that most of the learning and teaching takes place in a classroom or a physical space. It is bricks and mortar. It happens through boxes, libraries, and case studies with a teaching and academic expert. Yet ironically, while there is a very important place for this traditional academic rigor, academic research reveals that there is a better way.
About 10% of teaching and learning happens in a classroom. About 20% happens through our peers, mentors, and coaches. A staggering 70% of learning happens at the university of life. It is learning by doing. It is experiential learning. It happens in the real world. It’s a bit like talking and walking. It’s innate. We learn as we go along. We learn by falling, getting up, and building resilience too. Yet why wouldn’t we update and reform our current curricula to combine these three different combinations of learning in the classroom, learning from our peers, and learning at the university of life or learning by doing?
It’s also interesting for me to note that most societies in the world have regarded basic child education as a fundamental human right. We believe it’s important we teach our kids to learn how to read, write, and do arithmetic too, yet we regard higher education as a privilege for the few. Why? What was the basis for these decisions? Why wouldn’t we rethink investing in higher education as a fundamental human right to help us build and serve our economies, build the wealth of nations, and build a resource, a capacity, or a new set of skills that are demanded in this highly rapidly changing digital world we live in?
It’s time to rethink and reimagine what we would do in higher education to build and serve a world that is radically changing in this new digital age.
Until next time, remember that leading boldly is about making thoughtful care choices. It is about bigger and better thinking. Bold leadership is about taking bold action one small step at a time. It’s one small step for you but together, a giant step for humanity. Come back soon, share with your friends, and join this global leadership movement for change because the world needs you to lead boldly too. Take care and take thoughtful and bold action.
- Harvard Graduate School of Education
- African Leadership University
- Hard Times
- Is Harvard Complacent?
- African Leadership Group
- Dante‘s Inferno
About Prof. Brian Rosenberg
Brian Rosenberg is currently President in Residence and Visiting Professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. From 2003 until 2020, he served as the 16th President of Macalester College. His articles on higher education appear regularly in The Chronicle of Higher Education. They have also appeared in publications, including The New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times. He serves as Senior Advisor to the President of the African Leadership University and as a member of the boards of the Teagle Foundation, the Haas Center for Public Service at Stanford University, and Allina Health.
Rosenberg received his B.A. from Cornell University and his Ph.D. in English from Columbia University. Before arriving at Macalester, he served as Dean of the Faculty at Lawrence University and as Professor and Chair of the English Department at Allegheny College. He is the author of two books and many articles on Victorian literature.