4. Higher Education and the Public Good, Engines for Community and Economic Development

July 27, 2020 Solutions in the Learning Universe Season 1 Episode 3
4. Higher Education and the Public Good, Engines for Community and Economic Development
More Info
4. Higher Education and the Public Good, Engines for Community and Economic Development
Jul 27, 2020 Season 1 Episode 3
Solutions in the Learning Universe

GUEST: JIM WOODELL, PHD, CONSULTANT. Higher education institutions contribute to community and economic development through a wide array of activities—talent and workforce development, innovation and entrepreneurship, and through social and cultural assets. So how do institutions evaluate, support and catalyze these contributions? How do they become economic and community development engines? Join Amy as she talks to consultant Jim Woodell about higher education and societal impact.

Show Notes Transcript

GUEST: JIM WOODELL, PHD, CONSULTANT. Higher education institutions contribute to community and economic development through a wide array of activities—talent and workforce development, innovation and entrepreneurship, and through social and cultural assets. So how do institutions evaluate, support and catalyze these contributions? How do they become economic and community development engines? Join Amy as she talks to consultant Jim Woodell about higher education and societal impact.

Amy Baron [00:00:06] Hey, everybody. I'm Amy Baron, and this is upskilled solutions in the Learning Universe, where I talk with professionals and education and workforce development about practices and perspectives that catalyzed positive change. Just a note that this conversation was recorded back in February, 20-20, before the Covid 19 crisis, really took hold in the U.S.. So please take that into account as you listen. I am very excited about my guests today. 


Amy Baron [00:00:43] We will be talking to Jim Woodell. Jim was formerly the vice president for economic development and community engagement at APLU. Which is the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities. He now leads a consulting practice. Jim Wood Allen Co. focused on helping higher ed institutions achieve their goals for community, economic and societal impact. Welcome, Jim. Thanks, Samia's. Great to be with you. So glad to have you. So, Jim, tell us a little bit about what you do first. 


Jim Woodell [00:01:16] So what I do is I help institutions of higher education sort of better define what their goals are when it comes to having an impact in the economy or in communities. All institutions of higher education say that this is a major part of their mission to have that kind of impact. But they don't always necessarily have a great definition of it. They don't know how to implement programs around those kinds of goals, and they don't know how to measure whether they've been successful. So that's what I help them do. I help them get better definitions. And they hope is is that through those better definitions, we can be strategic about the ways in which they go, about trying to have that impact. 


Jim Woodell [00:01:54] They can measure their impact and they can get better at having it. 


Amy Baron [00:01:59] And how does it differ between a, let's say, a large public institution and a smaller do you do you have much interaction with smaller colleges and universities? Are most of your engagements with with larger institutions? 


Jim Woodell [00:02:18] The things that I do and I'm interested in are of interest and a priority for all types of higher education institutions. They do look at it differently. They tend to look at it differently. So, you know, community colleges really see their sweet spot is in talent development, really being a player in the workforce development space. 


Jim Woodell [00:02:38] So they might see their economic engagement or even sometimes their community engagement really revolving around helping people prepare for jobs. A big research university might look at a big part of their contribution through technology transfer, an innovation because they're doing a lot of research, they're inventing things. So that might be how they see their primary contribution. 


Jim Woodell [00:03:02] Other like regional comprehensive institutions, they might see their role more focused in developing the region around them as a great place to work and live. They're very connected to that place and they become a really significant asset in in terms of the social and cultural quality of the place. Now, those are generalizations. Of course, all institutions have all kinds of interests in their sort of community and economic outcomes that they generate. But, yeah, there are some generalizations across different types of institutions. 


Amy Baron [00:03:37] What are some of the trends now in terms of what institutions are are looking to do? I've worked a lot. Now I you know, through my work at APL, you and with, you know, research universities across the U.S. looking at how do these institutions play a role in regional economic development and and community development. 


Jim Woodell [00:03:59] And, you know, the phrase the word ecosystem is used a lot and the phrase it takes in ecosystem issues, a lot to talk sort of, you know, convey that it's not one type of institution. It's not a single entrepreneur. It's not a single policy. It's it takes all these players and all kinds of different things in order to have a Silicon Valley or in order to have a research triangle or any of these places that we might point to and say, look at how they've they've grown Boston and the sort of life sciences industry in Boston. So any of these things, they take multiple players and they take a tenant of dense attentiveness to many stakeholders and their needs and importantly, their assets. 


Amy Baron [00:04:46] You've been in this field a long time. And I know, you know, in terms of what I've been seeing a lot, is this move toward career development, career training, skills for the workforce. And it seems to me that there's been a much greater emphasis placed on that today at in the university environment. Is that something you've seen? What kind of evolution have you seen? 


Jim Woodell [00:05:14] In the last just few years, really... There has been an intensive focus on talent and workforce development at all levels of higher education at all different types of institutions. So even big research universities who don't normally think of themselves as workforce development entities have been increasingly thinking that they need to play a role in this broader thing called workforce development. And IT size actually caused some tension, as you might imagine. I mean, for a community college to say we're playing a workforce development role, well, they've done that all along. They've said that all along. And we think of the kinds of technical training that at that community colleges do, certainly as being squarely in workforce development. But as bigger institutions and those focused really on research start to talk about that, well, then it becomes kind of a really interesting conversation beyond just sort of technical jobs. Right. Then we start to think more broadly about. 


Jim Woodell [00:06:16] What is the workforce? Why do people go to college in the first place? And what is our role as higher ed institutions, not just to make sure that people are educated broadly in the broad sort of liberal sense of an education, but also prepared for the working world? 


Jim Woodell [00:06:34] So this is not a new kind of question, but whenever you bring it up, people are you know, you might find that people want to take a side. Well, no. Higher education is for preparing people for the life of the mind, you know, or being able to be critical thinkers and and be good citizens and other people saying, no, no, no, it's really about preparing people for work. My response to that is, isn't it really about both? 


Jim Woodell [00:07:01] Shouldn't it be about both? It's a it's a it's a false argument, really. It's. 


Jim Woodell [00:07:05] There is no there really is not a dichotomy here. You need to prepare people to be good thinkers, to prepare them for work. And you need to prepare them for work to be good thinkers. 


Jim Woodell [00:07:16] So it I think institutions of higher education and in particular institutions that are not used to thinking of themselves as players and workforce development we've seen over the last few years them kind of grappling with that and trying to figure out how do we play a role in that. And what is our purpose when it comes to really thinking about the working world. 


Amy Baron [00:07:38] From your perspective, how much of this is a class issue? 


Jim Woodell [00:07:43] I guess class is part of a broader demographic shift over the last 50 years even, and certainly even more so in the last, you know, 20 years. 


Jim Woodell [00:07:53] Different types of people have been going to college then who went to college before that? 


Amy Baron [00:07:57] And that's, you know, people of different colors, people from different places in the world, people of different socioeconomic backgrounds, certainly. So, yeah, I think that's definitely playing a role here. And as people who have come from a family, first generation college students who come from a family that was not a college going family until they came along, they certainly have much more practical ideas about what their education is for. So, yes, it's driven, I think, in part by that. But it's part of a much broader demographic shift. 


Jim Woodell [00:08:33] And I think institutions of higher education, first and foremost, ought to be thinking about how can we be most responsive to the desires and needs of our students. Right. So, yes, we all have our idea about what higher education should be. But so do those students who came through the door and their desires and their needs ought to be the thing that we make a priority in talking about how we're going to serve them and what kinds of curriculum we're going to provide. 


Amy Baron [00:09:03] So you bring up a really good point, which is this idea of student centricity and the idea that the institution should be should be organized around the student need. 


Amy Baron [00:09:16] What kinds of things are you seeing out there now in terms of student engagement, student centricity? You know what's happening out there now? 


Jim Woodell [00:09:27] I would say the number one thing that's happening is a recognition for more the need for more experience, for learning and to understand that a students experience in college should not be so separate from their experience in the working world. So finding more opportunities, you know, internships and co-ops are what we're used to. But rethinking those models even because if you look at a lot of internship and co-op programs, they're really about just sending the student off to somebody else for a little while. And then the student comes back and we may not even check in with them. Like, what did you learn? How does that connect to what we've been talking about here? How will you that shape the next two years of your college experience? That rarely happens. So rethinking how we do co-ops and internships and inventing entirely new forms of experience while learning or work in learn kinds of opportunities and in general trying to make that boundary between learning life and working life more porous. There's this phrase that's thrown around a lot in this sort of debate about whether institutions are doing their job. Institutions of higher education are doing their job. And the phrases, the skills gap. And we talk a lot about the skills gap and that this is essentially what's needed in the working world vs. what students walk out of college with, right? 


Jim Woodell [00:10:50] But when you start to really pick that phrase apart and read all of the things that people write about the skills gap, you find that it, first of all, isn't not even certain to. It's not even clear to me that there is a skills gap. But if there is, it's definitely not clear to me what's in that skills gap. What kinds of skills are are in that gap? Right. So it might be and I think most institutions of higher education feel a little threatened because they feel like what employers are saying is that students do not have the specific skills they need to come and work at my company. But in fact, that's not what employers mostly are saying. I think some employers even think that that's what they want. But then when you sit down and you talk to an employer, a hiring manager, you find out that what they're lacking in the candidates that are coming through the door are things like problem solving, critical thinking, being able to communicate, work in a team, all of the things that a good, solid, broad and liberal education provides a student. Right. So really, that kind of closes the or shuts down that argument right there, that there's this that there has to be this distinction between preparing students broadly and also help giving them readiness for for jobs and careers. But I think rather than talk about the skills gap, I think what we should be focusing on is a real gap in engagement. So there is an engagement gap that we should look at when it comes to talent development. And that gap is really it's simply the fact that employers and institutions of higher education don't talk to one another, or when they do, they quickly get frustrated because they feel like they're talking. You know, industry is from Mars, universities are from Venus kind of thing. You know, they're totally different on different planes and don't have the same language to talk about things. And it's true, they're on different timelines. They have different motivations. There's different outcomes. So, yes, it is a difficult discussion to have, but that's the conversation that needs to be had in order to be successful, in order for institutions to do a better job addressing the skills gap or helping students be ready for jobs and careers or thinking about how that kind of readiness folds into or becomes part of a broader education. 


Jim Woodell [00:13:10] The only way that's gonna happen is if there's more, more and better, closer, better connected conversation between employers and institutions of higher ed. 


Jim Woodell [00:13:25] And one more important way, I think, to think about this is, again, this is a research university example. But if you look at the way the world of work is changing, you know, people talk about the future of work or talk about robots and how robotics is going to radically change the workforce and what it looks like. Well, who's inventing all the technology that is making those changes happen? A lot more happening. A lot of that invention is happening at research universities. So if research universities are inventing the technologies that are literally totally changing the. It's of the working world, then those universities ought to think about how can they take a role in making sure that we have a workforce that's ready for that working world, even if it's a technical workforce that we're talking about, even if it's students who will never step foot into our university? What role do we have in making sure that they can take on the job of using the technologies that our institution is inventing? Taking some responsibility and interest in the conversation. You know, that it's not just about the technology. That technology is going to have an effect on how people work and live. So how do we make sure that we play a role in both of those things? But anyway, the bottom line of all of that is, is just more and better engagement between universities, employers, between community colleges, employers, between all types of higher education institutions and those stakeholders that are going to be the recipients of the sort of outcomes that we achieve with with the students coming through our institutions. 


Amy Baron [00:15:10] Very wise words. I think we should all be thinking about moving in that direction. Jim Woodell, Dr. Jim Woodell, thank you so much for for coming and talking to us today. 


Jim Woodell [00:15:23] Thanks so much, Amy. Thanks for having me.