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In the Nation's Interest

Spotlight on Scott D. Pulsipher

by CED November 22, 2017

Scott D. Pulsipher is the President of Western Governors University. You can view his bio here.

What sparked your interest in higher education leadership?

I was drawn to the role at WGU because it represents the intersection of purpose and technology-powered innovation. I believe that education remains the single biggest catalyst for individuals to change their lives, and that belief is at the core of WGU’s foundation. It is a wonderful thing to have one’s professional and leadership pursuits so well aligned with the potential for having a meaningful impact on the lives of others. That purpose becomes even more exciting when one considers the massive innovation, even disruption, that needs to take place within the sector overall. The challenges are significant – demand/supply mismatch, graduate readiness gaps, declining affordability, ballooning student debt, credential disruption, etc. – and much of the needed innovation will be driven by massive technological advancements. I have a long history with leveraging technology to transform sector dynamics, and I’m looking forward to how rapid advancement of technology can do the same for higher education.
What aspect of WGU’s culture has made the biggest contribution to its success?

More than anything, WGU’s culture is defined by our obsession with student success. Our mission – expand access, improve quality, optimize student success – cannot be fulfilled without obsessing over whether what we do improves the value for students. That value proposition is quite simple – a) high quality credential, b) outstanding student experience, c) low cost, and d) clear link to opportunity. I’ve never known a student to say, “I want a credential with less regard, with less potential for opportunity, for which I want to pay more while tolerating a non-personalized experience.” These domains are where we focus our innovation. And, our student obsession requires us to envision and experience everything from the student’s perspective. And, we realize students are humans, whose expectations are being shaped by rapidly advancing technological sophistication in often, unrelated consumer domains. This student obsession is the fuel for our urgent innovation, and our love affair with data. It’s not enough to invent new practices, teaching paradigms, personalized learning models, etc., if we cannot prove that they are improving the value for students and increasing their potential of success.
Are there any innovations in the higher education landscape that you see coming down the road?

I think there are dramatic advancements coming in learning and student experience. There are several angles to this. First, leveraging technological inventions in personalization, learning (or teaching) will be increasingly customized to the unique needs of every learner, which in turn increases the probability of progress and attainment for every individual. These advancements are based in the simple belief that everyone can learn, though each starts from different places, progresses through different paths and at different paces. Technology enables institutions and teachers to meet the learner where s/he is, improving outcomes in both progress and attainment. Second, technology will augment teaching and teachers well beyond ‘flipped classrooms’ – virtual and augment reality will dramatically expand the instructor’s resources, bringing immersive experiences to the teaching canvas, and dramatically enriching the student experience and enhancing cognitive development. Lastly, I anticipate that technology-powered innovation will lead to greater links between learning outcomes and workforce readiness. There is growing data identifying the needed skills and competencies for success in every type of professional environment. These insights will begin to re-design of the post-secondary credential, likely unbundling the bachelor’s degree, leading to micro-credentials aligned closely with opportunity. These micro-credentials will likely still scaffold into a traditional degree, but the duration and journey might forever alter the notion of a college student. It will be an exciting time in higher education, something not seen since the rise of the modern baccalaureate in the early 1800s.
What advice do you have for those who aspire to careers in leadership, or have just started to serve in a leadership capacity?

I suppose that first, and foremost, I would encourage one to focus on the people that you are leading. The hard work, dedication, and contributions they deliver every day are the primary ingredients to bringing about great things and grand visions. It might be too easy to think too highly of one’s own contributions, and a focus on and gratitude for the contributions of every individual can allow a leader to see one’s role with proper perspective.
Additionally, regardless of level, scope, or function, I believe a leader has to bring purpose to the work that one does as well as the work one’s team does every day. For some, it might be defining and pursuing a mission. For others, it might be about realizing a vision about a future state. And, for others, it might be about turning around or transforming an organization for the betterment of individual lives. More than anything, I believe it is the primary role of a leader to motivate and inspire others to do great things. And, that requires having a clear sense of direction and purpose.