By Jeff Keeling
Brian Noland wants you.
East Tennessee State University’s peripatetic president has preached the gospel of community partnerships since he set foot on campus four years ago. For most of that time, the youthful leader has been weaving a subtext into that gospel: public higher education is changing, radically, and institutions and their surrounding communities must change with it or risk stagnation or decline.
With state support making up an ever-smaller share of their budgets, Noland has said, public universities must become more like private ones in how they recruit students, procure private support and focus on measurables like graduation rates and preparing students for successful careers.
Now, the state’s higher education bureaucracy appears on the cusp of changes that could further unleash the transitions Noland’s been talking about – and wouldn’t you know, he’s playing an important role in the process. Noland is the only president of a Tennessee Board of Regents school serving on a working group charged with hammering out details of the Focus 2016 Act, which, if passed, will remove ETSU and the other non UT-system universities from under TBR oversight and devolve significant decision-making power to regional boards.
It’s similar to processes that have occurred or are in motion in many states, including West Virginia, a state where Noland served as chancellor for higher education prior to his current job. The act provides an opportunity for which Noland has been preparing ETSU for several years now – greater regional autonomy.
“Campuses want the autonomy and the flexibility to manage their operations, states want to ensure that those campuses are held accountable to meeting big statewide goals,” Noland said in late January. Campuses appear about to get what they want, and Noland is bullish on the possibilities for ETSU and the region. He said the chance to create a regional governing board from whole cloth, combined with significantly more decision-making autonomy, “is empowering.” Under the current bureaucracy, issues as small as parking fee policies are made off-campus.
“What the change does to provide local governance is that it ensures that campuses are in line with the business and industry needs of their regions,” Noland said. “The primary purpose of ETSU is to improve the quality of life of the people in this region. And the presence of a local board, I think, further strengthens that mission.”
Philosophically, Noland doesn’t care for the erosion of state support for higher education, as he said in no uncertain terms in a wide-ranging June 2014 interview.
“I think it’s beyond unfortunate, it’s downright sad that we no longer view higher education as a public benefit,” he said. “Higher education has increasingly been viewed as a private good.”
Then as now, though, Noland was a realist, and he has been hard at the groundwork to position ETSU to thrive under the continued changes. That work has included partnering with regional communities on everything from football and the performing arts to museums and facilities usage. It’s all aimed at backfilling the void left by dwindling state funding at the same time the university is remade into the kind of “destination campus” that can attract promising students from across Tennessee and the Southeast.
“We have to differentiate ourselves in the marketplace,” Noland said in the 2014 interview. “If the only reason students are coming to your institution is because it’s close and cheap, sooner or later there’s going to be something closer and there’s going to be something cheaper.”
Students come because of experience, quality of faculty and return on investment, Noland said. ETSU has to offer all three at a level of excellence that is recognized and draws students there instead of to competitor schools.
“The question we’re facing is, ‘how do we as an institution strategically align our resources so that we grow our programs, we invest in our faculty, and we continue to demonstrate to students the return on their investment of an ETSU degree?’”
The intervening 18 months have only served to underscore Noland’s points. He has spent those months continuing to push the envelope on local partnerships, while preaching that they’ll benefit both ETSU and the region. Tennessee Promise has drained some students from ETSU’s traditional pool. The university has picked up students from out of state, and seen the average ACT scores of its incoming freshmen rise.
So if you’re a regional business leader, expect to see more of Brian Noland in the coming months. Prepare to be tapped (or know someone who is) for a regional board that will be instrumental in the outcome of the greater risk/reward opportunities the new paradigm brings.
“Change is perilous,” Noland said in January, “and there is a lot of change that’s all occurring simultaneously, but if this is managed well … we really have a chance to do something special.”