Instruction, Not Construction

My university is embarking on a large construction project for a new residence hall. That’s so 20th century…

“Starting this month, the University will be initiating the construction of a new residence hall. This will be the largest, single residence hall in the [state university] system and the largest project in the history of [our campus]. Its addition to our campus is critical to the University’s short and long term plans…” (e-mail dated 2 January 2014)

The university’s plans appear to be “me” focused, not student focused. I wonder if a private developer of apartment properties would view the new dormitory as a smart investment at this time (perhaps it would, if the eventual plan is hoteling).

Anyway, the lead-time to develop the plan, conduct reviews, gain approvals, and obtain funding is many years in duration. So, now that the project is approved and funded, there is no turning back. Too bad, because students are increasingly interested in hybrid and online courses as face-to-face instruction continues to fall below expectations (in general). It will be interesting to see if a large residence hall at a (mostly) commuter school can be filled with undergraduate students, many of whom work part-time to pay for tuition.

If the dorm cannot be filled, then dormitory revenues will not meet projections and top managers will do what they always do: cut costs, usually starting with the value-creating part of the business: operations (instruction). Full-time teaching jobs will be cut, new faculty positions will be suspended, wages frozen, class sizes increased, etc.

Lean leaders would be much more aware of market conditions and the desires of students (customers). One of their desires is for higher ed to cost less – tuition, fees, books, meal plan, residence hall, etc. Living in a dorm on campus costs a lot of money. The Lean leader would quickly cancel the residence hall construction project are re-direct the money towards improving instruction and the learning environment (and perhaps building another parking garage). Improving the quality and value of teaching and learning is seen as the mark of achievement, not new buildings.

For example, most classrooms still have 30 year-old tablet chairs and should be replaced with tables with outlets for laptop computers, new comfortable chairs, wireless technology, videoconferencing capability in classrooms, etc. All paper-based forms put online, and information technology investments should benefit students first. Classrooms should be re-decorated and painted warmer tones instead of institutional green, tan, or white. Etc.

The Lean leader would lead an effort to modify gen ed requirements to be a better balance of humanities and technology. To that end they would hire a few more faculty in critically important technology areas so that all graduates would possess the knowledge and skills necessary to contribute to an increasingly technologically-oriented society.

The Lean university leader would also use some of the money to fund kaizen. They would do lots of kaizen in both academic and administrative processes to reduce costs, improve service, and expand the value proposition for students, payers, employers, and other key stakeholders.

That’s the difference between a conventional leader and a Lean leader. The former takes to backwards while the latter moves you forward.

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