This is The EdUp Experience President Series Episode #35 - In this episode of The EdUp Experience, we talk with Steven Weiner, President of Menlo College. Steven talks to us about how collaborative decision-making is critical. He also talks about decision making risk factors in the age of Covid, his college's switch to 100% online for the fall term, and the need for college preparedness - writing, math, critical thinking skills - at the high school level. Steven believes social awareness and equity will continue to be THE big critical issue for the future and that the residential experience is important and not going away - it has value and institutions will continue to meet the need. Finally, he talks about how institutions are navigating difficult financial challenges, including lay-offs, now and in the future.
Steven Weiner has been with Menlo College since 2013, first as Executive Vice President, and as of January 2018, as President. He obtained his MBA from the University of Chicago and subsequently launched his career there. He worked for the University of Chicago for 16 years, the last eight of which were in the role of Associate Dean and Principal Business Officer of the Pritzker School of Medicine. He left Chicago to assume the management of a consulting practice in the Bay Area. He continued in that capacity for ten years, first as Vice President and Division Manager for SAIC, and then in a similar role for First Consulting Group. In 2006, he became a co-founder of an open-source medical software start-up company, which was sold just prior to his return to higher education at Menlo College.
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The pandemic may have changed the ways in which institutions run, but at the end of the day, they still need to serve their students. Now more than ever, students are looking for help identifying the right skills to learn and stay relevant in an evolving workforce. In this interview, Joe Sallustio and Elizabeth Leiba speak with Steven Weiner to discuss how the pandemic has changed the decision-making process at Menlo College, how to encourage the hybrid environment among students and how to prepare students for the workforce during these unprecedented times.
Steven Weiner (SW): I’ve always enjoyed the opportunity to engage in a collaborative leadership style at Menlo College, but that’s been amped up to a significant degree. It’s vitally important that people are engaged across the institution, but at a cabinet-level. That a small group of people have a good handle on the science, on the challenges our community faces, the limitations that we face, and that the decisions we make take all of that into account.
We found that we need to constantly reevaluate what we’re doing, how we’re approaching it, and adjust as the landscape changes. It’s worked well for us, and it’s been a key part of what has protected our community. Where it’s changed is in not having one person make these big decisions—it’s been a much more collaborative approach.
SW: We started the fall semester with a statewide prohibition against all but a very limited subset of in-person classes. Our school doesn’t have medical sciences as an area of study, so we went 100% online from the get-go. The state has a tiered system dictating the extent to which different counties can open up activities. At this point, San Mateo County has progressed marginally. It’s gone from widespread to substantial.
When you’re at substantial, you’re allowed to open up classroom activity to 25% occupancy. We had the possibility of inviting students to have the in-person experience. But because of the uncertainty around staying substantial, we maintained our online education format for the fall semester. The hope is to have hybrid classes by spring.
The residential college experience is one of our strong points. We now have to consistently engage with students through the digital world to give them at least a second-best experience. Once we’re able to safely bring our community back together while delivering programming at our standard, then we’ll do it.
SW: It’s difficult and there are so many complicated aspects to the conversation. First of all, there’s the notion of using this time to pursue a gap year. When I was a student, gap years were used to enrich your life through employment, volunteering or traveling. But in an era of COVID-19, gap years tend to have a different definition. They’re more likely a pause than they are the opportunity that they should be. I’m hoping that one day we’ll be able to go back to the idea of expanding your horizons and complementing your education with some life experience.
We’ve actively discouraged gap years at this time. Instead, we encourage our students to take the gap year when there are greater opportunities to make that year a fulfilling life experience. The conundrum is that we’re unable to offer the residential experience that enriches people’s lives.
I feel sorry for the staff and parents going through this, but I’m most sorry for the students missing out on that experience. They’re missing out on the life-shaping experiences that we as a society owe them. And that pains me, but we will get through this.
We’re at a point when the trade-offs are more extreme. Life is always a series of compromises to some extent, but with COVID-19 hanging over our heads, the compromises are more significant. What’s important is finding ways to grow and to take advantage of any opportunities that may exist to expand your horizon.
Unfortunately, online education can’t fulfill all of those needs, but what this pandemic has provided is an accelerated conversation around the future of online education. Embracing technologies in smart ways, including distance learning, is so important as the higher education landscape continues to evolve.
SW: There have been fairly seismic shifts in colleges and universities across the board, even ones with incredibly deep pockets. Stanford University is just down the road from us, and not many would think of them facing financial challenges. But they too have undertaken significant layoffs and program reductions as a result of the pandemic.
We, too, had to undertake some layoffs. We were fortunate to not have to cut back programs, but we went from almost 600 people living on campus, generating revenue, to 31. Our retention rates this fall are actually higher than last year, and it’s a continuing trend. I didn’t expect that. Our overall enrollment has dipped just a little bit, about 4%, but that reflects fewer entering students.
A large population of our entering students did choose to defer their admission for a year, despite all our exhortations about the challenges of using this pandemic as a gap year. Fortunately, for our continuing students, it resonated, so we’re more advantaged than many schools out there.
We were enjoying a fair amount of momentum coming into this pandemic. In the last few years, we’d hit a lot of our performance goals, both in terms of programmatic expansion, recognition for what we’re doing, and performance within our athletic programs. So, coming out on the other side of this pandemic, we realize we’ll be a different institution. We’ll hold on to the core aspects that make Menlo a special place.
However, we’ll still need to find other ways in which we can distinguish the Menlo experience from other institutions. That may be course scheduling, flexible course study, longer internships or part-time jobs—there are many aspects we’re playing around with.
SW: The largest single investment we’ve made in the time I’ve been here has been in the scaffolding that we build around every student. We’ve also had a major focus on academic preparedness. We’ve invested in programming that falls broadly under a header of academic success–everything from summer pre-enrollment, Rising Scholars initiative, to professional and peer tutoring, math center, writing center, and portfolio development.
So, it starts with the academic. Then, because so many of our students go directly into the workforce once they graduate, there’s a major emphasis on career readiness and placement, which has paid off. Another point of pride for us is our high post-graduation success rate, defined by either admission to graduate school or employment within the desired field within six months. In the last few years, that rate has been in the 90s.
The endpoints haven’t changed for us. We still need to hand a diploma to those who meet a set of learning criteria and have proven their ability to navigate through the world.
With what has happened in our country in regards to George Floyd, we recognize how imperative it is to identify our challenges and tackle them effectively. Part of that is providing another level of support, one that recognizes how difficult it may be for all of us to observe what’s happening. So, we’ve invested in our mental health services and programming that we hope will allow people from all backgrounds to have these necessary conversations.
SW: The three highest-priority institutional learning outcomes—writing, math and critical skills—are the greatest challenges that we’re seeing in terms of our entering students. With writing, it doesn’t necessarily mean essays. Email etiquette is an area in which we’ve noticed students are lacking basic awareness because they’re not receiving this knowledge in K-12.
Fortunately, there are ways in which to instill the importance of effective communication. We’re not asking people to lose their authenticity; we’re asking them to learn how to present themselves professionally and in the most positive light.
When it comes to critical thinking, writing and math, there are common themes that connect them all and we can emphasize them. Critical thinking is also an area you can hone in on with the right experiences outside the classroom, which goes back to the importance of the residential experience.
SW: Higher ed has always been a challenging enterprise. I love it because of the opportunity it has to affect change in all of us in the industry. It’s a critical part of our individual development, and the challenges will become more extreme—both with respect to affordability and other financial ramifications caused by this pandemic. The federal and state governments, to some extent, make college more affordable, but there isn’t enough to help everyone in need. What’s great about Menlo is that we attract people from all walks of life, and we will continue to maintain that level of diversity.
Another challenge will be in the workforce and the opportunities that will be available to different areas of study. We’re going to have to figure out how to navigate the pandemic while protecting people’s well-being and affording them the kind of experiences we’ve been talking about.
At its core, the best colleges and universities are educating people to think critically, to be open to new experiences, and to respond to changing demands. That will continue, but it’ll be challenging due to the financial and activity restraints this pandemic caused.
SW: I’m very proud that our athletic programs have earned two national championships. About 43% of our students are varsity athletes. It’s also very interesting to see up close and personal the opportunities that college athletics present in terms of personal development, time management, leadership skills, and self-discipline—are all front and center for a college athlete.
The internship program is another area to look at. This program gives students wishing to go directly into the workforce a leg up. Our internship program is a requirement. Over 50% of our students end their internships with a job offer post-graduation. That means they start their senior year with a job offer for the following May. That’s a huge advantage.
The final area to look at would be international students, and how we enroll them going forward. With this pandemic, it would be a huge loss for education and colleges and universities if we were unable to continue attracting these students. It’s a challenge we’ll face as we move forward, but it’s one that excites me. It’s an amazing moment to see students cross that stage, ready to contribute to the world and make themselves and their families proud, and reflect back on their experiences at Menlo College. That’s a pretty special thing.