Editorial: IU’s next president must confront coming enrollment cliff

Keywords Editorials / Opinion

Indiana University is preparing to launch a search for a new president, with the goal of having a successor in place by the time its current leader, Michael McRobbie, retires in June 2021.

Already, the IU Board of Trustees has appointed two members to oversee the search—Melanie Walker and Harry Gonso—and has hired a search firm to help.

Replacing a university president is always about so much more than simply finding a great manager or strong academic or masterful communicator. It’s about finding someone with all those qualities—or someone who can hire people with all those qualities.

But most important, it’s about finding a leader with a vision—and the ability to persuade others to buy into the vision and execute it.

In the past decade or two, the state’s universities were seeking leaders who had the vision to connect higher education with Indiana’s economic development goals, to not only produce graduates who could contribute to the economy but for the universities to do so themselves. That meant attracting significant federal grants and other resources, conducting research and development that led to valuable discoveries and patents, and commercializing those into companies that could grow in Indiana and hire Hoosiers.

Universities have made significant strides in those areas. And the next president of IU must have the drive to expand research and commercialization efforts even further. The need for Indiana to grow its own high-tech and high-growth firms that can not only provide jobs for Hoosiers but also attract top talent to the state has never been greater.

But the next IU president—and all higher education leaders across the state—are facing even bigger challenges.

The coronavirus seems like the obvious one. While we hope the worst of the pandemic will be behind us when a new IU president begins next summer, the effects are not likely to be. The financial effects of adjusting to the virus, of providing remote instruction, of putting safety measures in place for in-person classes and of dealing with requests for refunds and lawsuits over housing fees and more are yet to be determined and could be long-lasting.

But even before the pandemic interrupted the college experience, universities were already preparing for—or should have been preparing for—an enrollment cliff. Population projections indicate a substantial drop in the number of high school graduates is coming in the next few years, which means fewer incoming college freshmen to attract.

As IBJ reported last year, colleges that want to maintain their enrollments and their revenue will have to appeal to a different kind of student—and do a better job keeping the students they attract.

This is the big challenge for IU and its next leader. How can the school differentiate itself in a way that it becomes even more attractive in what will be an increasingly competitive market?

It’s an important question to the university’s financial future and as Indiana tries to attract and retain talent to fill what are expected to be tens of thousands of job openings over the next decade. And it’s a question the presidential search committee must keep front of mind.•

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