Higher Education

Higher Education

Why the Leader of One Small College Is ‘Bullish’ About the Future

This article was originally published in The Chronicle of Higher Education. A video interview with Dr. Johnson is available on the linked provided above.

After Sweet Briar College, in Virginia, announced this year it would close, small colleges across the country came under scrutiny. Had they lost their appeal? Are their finances sound? Robert E. Johnson, president of Becker College, largely waves away such concerns about his institution. Becker, he says, is well prepared “to thrive in a very volatile time.”

Since Mr. Johnson took over the Massachusetts college, in 2010, its enrollment has grown 16 percent, to 2,021, the largest in the college’s history. Becker has also created new academic programs and degrees. In a conversation with The Chronicle, Mr. Johnson attributed the success to building an "entrepreneurial and innovative” mind-set among faculty members and students.


IAN WILHELM: I'm here today with President Robert Johnson of Becker College, in central Massachusetts. President Johnson, thanks for being here today.


IAN WILHELM: As you know, the challenges facing small colleges have been very much in the news lately. The closure, or the decision to close, Sweet Briar College, in Virginia, this summer has raised a lot of questions about whether the finances for small colleges are viable and whether they really are hitting their enrollment numbers.


IAN WILHELM: That said, it seems that, at your institution, you're quite bullish about the future.

ROBERT E. JOHNSON: I'm very bullish about the future. I think higher education has the opportunity to reinvent itself. At Becker College what we've been trying to do is create a model of being a very entrepreneurial and innovative institution. We've created a very adaptive and nimble model to manage our institution, to lead our institute. Over the last five years, since I've been there, our enrollment has gone up about 16 percent. Average GPA has gone from 2.6 to almost a 3.1. Our SAT scores have gone from about 870 to about 1026. We have great geographic diversity. We have more students from California than we have from Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont combined. So I think we've put things in place that enable us to thrive in a very volatile time.

IAN WILHELM: You've raised the enrollment, as you mentioned, I believe to the highest it's ever been in history, which is about 2,000 students —


IAN WILHELM: How did you do that? Is there any specific thing you've found that's working for you right now?

ROBERT E. JOHNSON: Well, I think the key is making sure you have a sound value proposition. And at Becker College what we've done as part of our value propositions is that when you look at our core values and you look at the things we have to offer in terms of academic programs — take a look at our digital-games program. It's ranked No. 9 in the world. We're ranked No. 1 in New England, which is really a big deal because we're there with the likes of Northeastern, MIT, Rensselaer, and a host of other institutions. Our animal-studies program — we have one of 10 private institutions in New England with an undergraduate animal-studies program. But we're the third-largest producer of vet-tech graduates in the nation. Our nursing program is ranked No. 1 in New England among private institutions with 100-percent passage rate on the NCLEX [National Council Licensure Examination] exam.

So I think creating a value proposition that adds value to the lives of students makes a huge difference: 95 percent of our students have jobs or have gone on to graduate or professional school within six months of graduation. So those are the kinds of outcomes that students look for. And that's part of what we package and what we promote to our students.

IAN WILHELM: Are you promoting those types of outcomes more in this day and age, when it seems like more parents and students are focused on what their career options are after college?

ROBERT E. JOHNSON: Absolutely. And we just don't promote that. I mean that's the academic side of the program. But what we also promote is the fact that we're preparing students for the real world. I mean, think about this. We're educating students for jobs that do not yet exist to solve problems we've yet to identify. Depending upon which body of research you look at, college graduates today will have upwards of 15 jobs by the age of 40. So we're teaching our students that their first job will be diametrically different than their fifth job. Think about this. What was a social-media manager seven, eight, nine years ago? The job didn't exist. And so that's what we're doing at Becker. We're trying to give students the skills that are necessary to thrive in that type of environment. So we've redone some things within our curriculum that will give them the skills to really promote that.

IAN WILHELM: You mention some specific degrees — I know you've offered new undergraduate degrees. Is there one specific one you've found that has really changed the conversation or at least has had broad appeal you've found in the last couple of years?

ROBERT E. JOHNSON: Oh, I think the biggest one that's had the broadest appeal is our interactive-media program with digital games. And understand, digital games is not just about games for entertainment.


ROBERT E. JOHNSON: We had a team of students who put together a game in conjunction with the University of Massachusetts Medical School named On Call. This is a game that you can use on your iPad to triage patients in an emergency room. Students have put together a game to help students who are autistic. But one of the things that has spun out of our digital-games program is our Massachusetts Digital Games Institute — we call it MassDiGi — which has really given students the opportunity to get real-life experiences in developing games.

So, for example, this summer we just started a week or so ago opening up the third year of our Summer Innovation Program where we bring students from literally all over the country and actually all over the world. I think we have a couple of students from Ireland this year. And for 12 weeks they work on developing the concept of a game from beginning to end. And last year the students who participated in that game — we had four teams of students — they produced four games. And you can now find those games out on the App Store.

So it's real-world, real-life experiences. But most important, through MassDiGi we have students this year enrolled in the program from Northeastern, USC, University of North Carolina, of course Becker College, Worcester Polytech, and a host of other institutions from all over the country. We have two students from Ireland this year who are participating as well, which adds to the broader appeal of getting real hands-on experience in developing the types of things that you enjoy doing in the digital-games environment.

IAN WILHELM: So given the news about Sweet Briar — your institution has a very different profile. You're not a rural college, you're not an all-women's college.


IAN WILHELM: But did the news catch you in a way? Did it make you think about anything differently about how you are looking at the future?

ROBERT E. JOHNSON: Not really, because when I became president five years ago, we adopted a very innovative and entrepreneurial way of going about getting business done. One of the things that I told the faculty and staff in being entrepreneurial and innovative is that we wanted to have a disruptive model. I want you to fail early and fail often. I want you to come up with that next idea that will put us out of business, and then let's make that our business model.

So it didn't surprise me about an institution like Sweet Briar because I think a lot of institutions tend to take a bunker mentality, if you will, when the economy is struggling and what have you. And we didn't take a bunker mentality. We created institutes across the campus as experiments that were disruptive in nature. So may be the Massachusetts Digital Games institute — MassDiGi. We created a program in global citizenship. We have the only undergraduate degree in global citizenship in the United States.

Just last week we signed an agreement with Dr. Muhammad Yunus to establish the first Yunus Social Business Center in the United States at Becker College. We're spinning off from MassDiGi a new venture center. This new venture center, which will open in September of 2016, will be a place where students can go to think about starting up businesses while they're in college.

We've built five courses into our core curriculum in what we call the agile mind-set. And the agile mind-set values learning over knowing. The first four courses — the first course teaches empathy. Empathy is the hallmark of innovation in creativity. The second course teaches divergent thinking. How do you take the Legos and throw them across the table and create something out of nothing? The third course teaches social and emotional intelligence. How do we work collaboratively in a team and get along with others? And then the fourth course is an entrepreneurial outlook. And that's not to teach students how to become entrepreneurs, but to really give them an entrepreneurial mind-set and to understand how they add value to whatever organization they may be working within.

And then the fifth class is a capstone where they have to identify real-world problems and come up with real-world solutions applying those four competencies in what we call the agile mind-set. And I think that's part of what sets Becker apart. I think a lot of institutions talk about the liberal-arts education. I think there's value in the liberal-arts education. But that, in and of itself, I don't think it's sufficient. So the agile mind-set gives students the skill set to work in the world of work. And we're preparing them, again, for jobs that do not yet exist to solve problems we have yet to identify. And that's part of the entrepreneurial, innovative model that we've put in place at Becker College.

IAN WILHELM: President Johnson, thanks very much for being here today.


Robert Johnson