Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Ten Musings from My Time at Houghton

Many will know that today is my last day at Houghton College. I'm going to work for Campus EDU and will still interact with the college (for example, I speak in chapel later this month). But I'm jumping to the other side of the fence. More on that tomorrow.

When I came to Houghton, I did a post titled, "The Top Ten Things I Didn't Know about Houghton."  I thought I would close out my time with "Ten Musings from My Time at Houghton." Not all lessons because, in some cases, I'm still pondering and waiting.

Top Ten Musings
10. You can't do anything you put your mind to.
I've worked really hard these last two years at innovation--REALLY hard. I think some really creative and interesting options emerged--online auditing, "super-auditing" for ordination and certificates, opportunities for high school coding... Maybe I'll post some of those sometime. We tried to implement in-church online cohorts. Houghton did a massive pricing reset. There were some wins, but nothing on the level we were looking for. You can make really clever plans. "God giveth the increase." 

9. You don't know what will go viral.
The death of George Floyd created a tidal wave of interest in the issue of race. We seized the moment and opened a seminar on Race and American Christianity. Some 1700 people signed up. It launched a webinar series that I think was very successful in most respects. We also got some backlash. But you can't really predict these things entirely. You just have to have your surfboard ready for when the wave comes.

8. "All press is good press" -- in skillful hands.
OK, I don't believe it either. But one lesson I took away from the Trump presidency is that there are people who have a knack at turning almost any "bad" publicity around to their advantage. I don't know how many times during the Trump presidency certain cable newsgroups thought he was now "done." Almost every time he was able to turn it around. Better to have good publicity, of course! But I've taken note that there is a skill set that can actually gain rather than lose ground in turmoil.

7. Know thyself.
It is not uncommon for a higher ed institution to agonize over who it is. "What makes us distinctive?" "Who needs us?" "What 'job' are they hiring us for?" In the past, Houghton strived for what was called the "courageous middle." This is the idea of not going to either extreme but moderating between opposing sides. It was the true "liberal" ideal of being a place where all sides could live together and talk together. Let's just say it hasn't sold very well. It often alienates "both sides" because that's how we humans work. We're herd animals and feelers more than thinkers. 

Ambiguous identity is a killer. Have one. It can be as simple as, "We're the Christian school in this area" or "Our General Superintendent wears funny socks." Ok, maybe not that last one, but people and personalities can be the identity.

6. Price, price, price
Sometimes you will hear someone say, "It's ok for us to cost more because people will pay for quality." There may be some circumstances where that's true but probably not if you're aren't an Ivy League school. As long as the school meets some modest level of quality (which the buyer can't always judge), price is often first or second in driving the decision. Houghton cut all its major tuition prices this last year. Some tweaking is still needed, but it was a good move... although it has yet to move the needle.

5. Accessibility
If it's not easy to apply, if it's not easy to find on the website, they're gone. There are too many other options to hang out on a website that doesn't tell you what you want to know and get you where you want to go. I might also throw in here that you need to be visible. I have beamed out all sorts of stuff on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to the world, but I'm not sure that the right people saw any of it. Or maybe it needed more time to percolate. That could be on this list too. 

I've seen several different angles on marketing while I've been here. The first was content marketing. Write articles, blog stuff. Put it where the right people will find it on the web. Drive them to your website. Another is the good old, "outsource it." Hire firms to get names and then blast them with emails and texts. Then there is the realization that most clientele is regional, a somber fact for a college in the middle of the woods. One realization for Houghton, I think, is that Buffalo should be its first port of call as a market.

4. Continuity is important.
I think there have been something like 8 people over enrollment and marketing at Houghton in the last 10 years. An INCREDIBLE amount of turnover here. Frankly, you could have the best school in the world, and I don't see how it could do well with that much turnover. Thankfully their new chief officer over enrollment and marketing seems to be here for the long haul, and he is excellent. I suspect an average person with consistency is better than a string of 1 or 2-year superstars.

3. Good operations makes for good success.
Don't get me wrong. I believe in good, strategic thinking. You need the whole package, the whole team. But a mediocre product with exceptional operations might be enough, while a great product with horrible operations will probably fail. Houghton has some incredibly gifted operations people right now. I'm not sure that alone is enough for it to thrive, but it might be. Innovators and strategic thinkers must never take for granted the people who make the magic happen.

2. Kill the hedgehog
OK, I don't really mean it, but I am not fond of how Jim Collins tends to play out in higher education. He is used as an excuse not to try new things. "We are this. This is our hedgehog" comes to mean, "Let's not offer many options to students." Or, "Let's double down on this thing that isn't working." 

This is one I continue to muse over. I am a "let's have lots of options" person. Collins tends to drive the academy to "let's do one thing and let's do it really well." I don't like it. Not at all. And it's not like the institutions that do this are thriving either. We'll see. 

There is a cycle of attrition, of managed decline. Enrollment issues. End a major. Now we're getting to our hedgehog. Bigger enrollment problems. End a department. Now we're finding our hedgehog. Even bigger enrollment problems. Close a school. At some point, you have to grow some stuff.

1. "Fail often, fail quickly, fail forward."
Since you can't know what will go viral, you have to experiment. You can do all the market research in the world, and it won't predict what will work for your situation. Houghton has done market research on all its new programs, but it has not predicted success. Sometimes the right people are in the right place at the right time. Sometimes the right people are in the wrong place at the right time. [1]

Those are some of my thoughts, lessons in progress. Houghton has hired a really strong and smart new President, Dr. Wayne Lewis. He is wise. He has a lot of experience and insight. I look forward to learning from him from the other side of the fence. My musings are a work in progress.

[1] Let's play it out. Sometimes the wrong people are in the right place at the right time. Sometimes the right people are in the right place at the wrong time.