Leading Changes in Higher Education for a Bright Future

Rob Westervelt, Vice President, Strategy & Innovation, Lindenwood University

Rob Westervelt, Vice President, Strategy & Innovation, Lindenwood University

Rob Westervelt’s primary objective is to create brighter futures faster for organizations and the people they serve. He currently serves as the Vice President for Strategy and Innovation at Lindenwood University. With 23 years of diverse leadership in higher education, Westervelt has been responsible for various departments, including innovation, marketing, data analytics, IT, HR, PR, communications, enrollment (registrar), admissions, financial aid, fundraising, institutional research, and legal affairs. Westervelt has successfully rebranded organizations, led turnarounds, developed and implemented strategic plans, and generated additional net revenues in these leadership roles. In addition, he holds a deep interest in the future of work, disruptive innovations in higher education, design thinking, jobs theory, ed-tech, high-performance leadership, brand strategy, and corporate culture.

The education sector has already been in a highly disruptive state. If we add the pandemic on top of that, we will see that it has highlighted the fragmentary nature of higher education, particularly from a technological standpoint. COVID-19 has further driven the EdTech space to address the transactional nature of higher education and its associated pedagogical changes. 

Our strategy is to build a system that anticipates lifelong learning

Many college systems are a jumble of people and technology. Given the high-friction nature of both the student and employee transactional experience,universities have had to develop more and more interdependencies (meetings, check-ins, etc.) resulting in an increased workload. So, when the pandemic hit, colleges had to figure out how to carry out their operations through additional systems, like Zoom and other software. This only added to the workload.

" Please talk about how the ongoing pandemic is disrupting the education industry "

However, it’s true that not all institutions have struggled due to COVID-19. Those schools that did well have been developing seamless systems for years and made the transition to online much easier and even grew during the lockdowns.

Please tell our readers about the key challenges of today’s education sector.

In my opinion, most organizations — like K-12 schools and universities — that don’t have a robust structure and system built from the ground up are coming up short on meeting people’s expectations. Often, educational institutions patch modern technology with their antiquated organizational processes, which are ultimately putting them at a disadvantage. Instead, institutions focused on building their systems for the customer from the ground up are doing much better in today’s competitive environment.

How do you identify the right partnerships or choose suitable solutions that meet an organization’s needs?

People tend to buy solutions without understanding what their issues are. They invest in what they believe is a universal solution and then try to locate problems that the solution is supposed to solve. This is where people get into trouble. Apart from that, there are companies that offer one-size-fits-all tools to their clients, but in reality, these solutions do not yield their desired outcomes.

The best partnerships are ones where the provider and the customer understand the problems that need to be addressed and approach those problems with an innovative mindset. So, whenever you look for partnerships, you will want to collaborate with companies that have a track record of working with customers to define and solve problems that meet their specific needs.

Would you please shed some light on the projects and initiatives that you’re currently undertaking?

Our economy is changing at a rapid pace, and with it, technologies and workforces are transforming too. It’s also fueling changes in employers’ expectations. However, the traditional education market can’t move quickly enough to cope with these changes. It still takes years for a new program to go from a concept to actual delivery, and that’s too slow. So, one of the projects that I’ve been working on is developing on-demand skills at scale to reduce the frictions happening in the education sector. I’m also working on establishing a seamless collaboration between academia and technology to co-create workforce and education solutions.

What kind of leadership strategy do you foster among your team members? Also, what is that one piece of advice you’d like to give your peers who are looking to embark on a similar venture as yours?

We’re looking at education from a lifelong perspective. Our strategic approach is threefold – adapt, build and engage. We’re going to adapt to meet learner needs and expectations, build what’s missing, and engage students hearts to strengthen our relationships. So, our strategy is to build a system that anticipates lifelong learning. The learner is at the center of what we do and is the reason why we exist. So, we’re working hard to provide a brighter future for our end-users.

I want to encourage my peers to continually empathize with their learners and those who serve them. Personally speaking, I’ve taken the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Program offered by Stanford to learn how to develop an innovative mindset, understand who my end-user is and use design thinking to meet their needs. Design thinking is an important skill because when the past is not an indicator of the future,  the only way forward is to design your way forward.

But today, what’s missing in higher education is that we tend to go directly from idea to execution, only to find out later that we don’t have the problem clearly defined. Design thinking helps you first empathize with your end user, then define the problem. This is followed by brainstorming and prototyping. In higher education, we tend to start with brainstorming and jump to implementation.

Where do you think the higher education industry is moving towards in the upcoming years?

We’re already witnessing massive technological disruptions happening on multiple fronts. On the educational side, various K-12 systems are creeping into the higher education sector with their newly formed two-year degrees and colleges. From the corporate side, many companies are starting their own colleges, such as Kaiser and Providence. And then there is the growing EdTech space. So, we’re seeing a lot of new competitors getting into the higher education space.

I believe that the higher education industry will adapt to the changing landscape but many won’t adapt quickly enough. More colleges are getting the corporate training space. We’ll see more universities create subsidiary business to produce non-tuition revenue in order to supplement their missional pursuits. So, a lot of innovation will happen for the foreseeable future.  Competition will also continue to heat up, and many of these competitors will be veiled and come from unexpected parts of the economy. We have to remember that people from different sectors are innovating and extending their footprint into the industry. Khan Academy, Coursera, Udemy, and Udacity are only the beginning. We still haven’t seen the Apples, Googles and Amazons of the world fully step in. They are definitely coming.

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