Peeking Over the Horizon

by Rick Bailey
March 2019

In the first chapter of Steven Brint's new book, Two Cheers for Higher Education (Princeton, 2018), there's a sweet little sentence tucked into a paragraph about the purpose of higher education: “Universities have always been about peeking over the horizon.” I love that. Indeed, the work of colleges and universities in leading cultures, societies, industries and governments toward imaginings of progress and better futures has motivated us to engage with hundreds of institutions helping them advance their important missions.

“Peeking over the horizon” suggests to me a glorious capacity, that of leveraging the tools of knowledge and intellectual resources to see what may lie ahead. Higher education certainly provides a different vantage point, buoyed by scholars (both faculty and students) energized by curiosity and the winds of discovery. A higher perspective may offer the vantage point to see “over” the horizon.” And, while we sometimes think of institutions as large ships incapable of much speed or a tight turning radius, their value of steady sailing forward carries us all, perhaps less fearlessly, into the future. Of course, the ability to look back at history to measure progress has also characterized the work and mission of higher education. Historical perspective has value and should not be ignored. However, the projections we're seeing for a steeply declining college-bound audience in the coming ten to twenty years (take a gander at Nathan Grawe's demographic charts to keep you awake at night) may suggest that solutions will not be discovered by looking backward so much as forging ahead into unknown waters. Perhaps a good stare into the future will better suited than a peek over the horizon.

John Lawlor and I have been friends for more than 35 years. I met him first when I was working at Spring Arbor University in Michigan. He was a young (though older than me, I must add) marketer working with Stamats at the time and I benefitted from his intelligence and experience. It never occurred to me as we conversed in my office that we would become lifetime friends and colleagues. Our life paths in some ways are mirrors; we both elected to start marketing and communications firms to serve higher education. John opened The Lawlor Group in 1989. My wife Tammy and I launched RHB in 1991. Naturally, our paths crossed many times at professional meetings and, once in a great while, in the waiting room of a prospective client we were both pitching.

The more we learned about one another, the more I respected John for his perspectives, deep thinking, industry leadership and commitment to a strong set of values. I enjoyed every occasion we had to share notes, ideate about a better way forward for higher ed and occasionally to commiserate as business owners and entrepreneurs. After focusing our careers on a shared passion to advance higher ed, we've had occasions to reflect on what we've learned from our experiences and practices. A couple of years ago, we talked about how we might collaborate more. We put our heads and resources together to generate a deep study of private college presidents and their perspectives on the marketing of their institutions. We followed that research with a study of Catholic college presidents and marketing. The more we worked together, the more we had to talk about. And the more we talked, the more the idea of a co-authored book surfaced.

Our ideas and musings about content have run the gamut. We've asked each other important questions like, “What do we really know after all these years?” and “Who cares?” and “Who would read this?” and “How will the world be better because of this book?” and “Are we sure we really want to do this?” The answers to these questions change every time we meet to make progress, of course. A good non-fiction book begins this way. We're still in the process of answering those questions.

A few months ago, while eating lunch together during the CIC Presidents' Institute, we noted that our thoughts and notes handsomely fit under headings that all began with the letter C.

  • Commitment
  • Courage
  • Creativity
  • Confidence
  • Competence
  • Capability and Capacity
  • Culture
  • Conclusions

I have no idea if that will have any bearing about the table of contents or the book's title, but there is your first hint about topics we plan to address. We're enjoying the process of writing and whittling with the intent of publishing a helpful tome derived from our experiences with more than 300 colleges and universities. Though we'll undoubtedly borrow from the knowledge we've acquired, we intend to make the book celebratory of the advancement of higher ed. We'll also endeavor to give a good, long look over the horizon to help you face the future of higher ed more confidently.

We'll reserve revealing a title until we've completed the content. We have decided, however, that “Two More Old White Guys Trying to Solve Higher Ed's Problems” probably won't land in anyone's Amazon cart. We've ruled that one out. We'll keep you posted.

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