Skip to main content
Episode 41

transformed: Leveraging the University Platform to Transform Communities

In this episode, Dr. Keith Whitfield – President of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas – describes how UNLV is transforming the communities that surround and define it.

Joe Gottlieb: (00:00)

Welcome to transformed a Higher Digital podcast focused on the new why’s, the new what’s, and the new how’s in higher ed. In each episode, you will experience hosts and guests pulling for the resurgence of higher ed, while identifying and discussing the best practices needed to accomplish that resurgence. Culture, strategy, and tactics, planning and execution, people, process, and technology. It’s all on the menu because that’s what’s required to truly transform. 


Joe Gottlieb: (00:33)

Hello, welcome and thanks for joining us for this special presidential series episode of Transformed. My name is Joe Gottlieb, President, and CTO of Higher Digital, and today I’m joined by Dr. Keith Whitfield, President of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. President Whitfield, welcome to Transformed


President Whitfield: (00:52)

Well, thanks, Joe. It’s happy to be here. Um, so what do you wanna talk about? 


Joe Gottlieb: (00:57)

Well, really glad you asked. While we normally talk about how institutions are transforming themselves, and we often get into the technology aspects of that, I want to talk to you about how you’re leveraging the U N L V platform to transform your community. But before we get into that, tell me a bit about your personal journey and how it has shaped your perspective and passion for the work that you’re doing. 


President Whitfield: (01:23)

Well, I have a different sort of background. I started my professional career at a small regional university. Went back into the post, got some great training, uh, was able to go to Penn State University giant, uh, public institution. Um, then got a position at Duke University, a smaller elite private university. And I tell you from those two experiences, uh, something that was developed in me was the idea of student success. I saw how, um, people and opportunities changed my life, my career, my trajectory, and I wanted to do the same. And so from there, I went in, actually went into administration at Duke, um, but, uh, made the big leap and became the provost at Wayne State University in Detroit. Some people asked, Well, why in the world did you go from, you know, Duke to Wayne State? And I said, Well, you know, both are, both are good schools for very different reasons. Um, Wayne State, particularly the president there, Emory Wilson, was laser focused on student success, and that’s what he wanted, a provost. And I was like, Hey, I really wanna do that. Um, and it fed the fuel and, and the fire that I had around student success, around universities being connected to their communities. And, uh, then, uh, during the pandemic of all times, um, the opportunity came to be able to run for president of, uh, U N L V, and I got the position. And so I’m been off and running since, uh, August of 2020. 


Joe Gottlieb: (02:54)

Fantastic. Well, that’s a, that’s a great, great background from which to, to tackle this. And so I know you and I have chatted a little bit about this before, but the notion of thinking about a 360 degree view on your community, that exists around a platform like U N L V, we can think of upstream elements, we can think of downstream elements, and maybe even SIDESTREAM elements. So let, help me paint this picture here of how you see U N L V from the role that you have. Not that it’s the center of the community necessarily, but from your vantage, you’re looking outward across, you know, upstream, downstream, and sidestream. What are some of the things that are active in that 360 degree view? 


President Whitfield: (03:37)

Boy, those are streams that run pretty quick. They run pretty fast. They run deep. Um, you know, when I think of the upstream, when you’re talking about that, I was thinking of the K through 12 space downstream, maybe employers, you know, where our students actually go to to get jobs. And then, um, side streams are the things that intersect with, uh, the students that we have. You know, U N L V, Wayne State was the same way, but U N L V is an urban public research institution. So we’re right in the heart of Las Vegas. And so, um, you know, people, uh, maybe 70% of our students actually come from Las Vegas. And so, uh, they’re part of the community. We are part of the community. And so the community is kind of the sidestream piece of it. Um, but that also intersects with, you know, local legislators with, uh, we have a, a state board. Um, all of those things are then intertwined within that, uh, the set of partnerships that has to be, um, cultivated, managed, um, addressed, uh, to be able to move the university forward, to be able to move the opportunities for students forward. 


Joe Gottlieb: (04:40)

Fantastic. So let’s go deeper on each of those. And, and I wanna start with, with upstream. Um, there’s been a lot of talk about increasing the level of engagement, uh, from the higher ed, uh, zone into K through 12 and other, other sources of students. So tell me a bit about some of the things you’re doing there, because this feels like a really, really important connection. 


President Whitfield: (05:05)

Well, you know, something connects to this, which, you know, I’m surprised I didn’t brag about it because it is one of our bragging points here at U N L V. We are an msi, a minority serving institution. We’re an hsi Hispanic serving institution, and, uh, and an AEI Alaskan Native Pacific Islander institution. So we are an extremely diverse university, maybe tied for second in the country, uh, for diversity. And so that layers into then who comes to our university, uh, about who we are and what we do. Um, and in, you know, as you can imagine being that diverse, that means that they’re coming from the K through 12 space. When we have a, a large proportion of our students coming from the local community, um, one of the things that we have been trying to do is to really put a stake in the ground and say, Hey, UN N L V is your urban public research university. 


President Whitfield: (05:55)

We’re right here. We are not some ivory tower that sits up on the hill. We are a part of you all. And, uh, our K through 12 space needs improvement like many others do. And we are trying to make sure that we appropriately, um, set ourselves up to be a partner. Um, I think sometimes if, you know, it’s funny, teachers get their degrees from universities, but once they’re in the K12 system, they don’t wanna be told what to do. Like they don’t know, they know their students. They know what’s going on. So we have to approach it as being a partner and to think about, um, the students that they have, the kind of students that they have, where they come from, um, do they come from underserved backgrounds? Do they come from disadvantaged backgrounds? Do they come from low economics? Do they come from, um, opportunities, uh, rich places? 


President Whitfield: (06:42)

We have a number of, you know, some of the best schools in the country, um, that are private schools or charter schools. Um, how can we then, in that very complicated space, be something that promotes more college attendance across all of the students? And so, um, that’s one piece of it. But in our community is in lots of other communities, partly because the downturn, even still feeling the effects of the, uh, uh, uh, the, the, the, the recession in 2008, that what you’re seeing is a lot of nontraditional age students needing to come back because they need to be retrained or up trained or up-skilled, however you wanna call that. Um, we wanna be a piece, we are positioning ourselves and our position very well to be a piece that helps to, to allow people to achieve those educational opportunities, to be able to achieve those educational successes so that they can then go out and into the workforce and be successful. 


Joe Gottlieb: (07:42)

Well, that by covering both of those angles, I’m glad you mentioned non-traditional age, because not only is it a really important theme in how higher ed is working hard to help our society, like you said, upskill, reskill, what have you. Um, it, it, it really doubles down on the synergy in your local community, right? So it’s like, wow, now we’re addressing even a larger part of our community population. Maybe there’s a role for us in that. And being, being proactive and, and, uh, and leaning into that feels like, um, feels just smart and, and, and, and developmental. 


President Whitfield: (08:22)

Well, and, and I love the developmental piece of it, but I’ll tell you the other, let’s, let’s be real. Um, as universities, if we’re graduating, let’s say 50% of our students, that means 50% aren’t graduating. And they may not be graduating in the four years or in the six years where we’re measuring it, but we want them to graduate. We want ’em to have that opportunity. And so where are the other 50%? We wanna reengage those. And sometimes they come later in their careers, they’ve pursued other opportunities, but we want to be a welcoming place to bring them back. Because what you’re seeing in the world today is that more education does provide more opportunities. I mean, it is, the credo I think we’ve had in this country for many years is that education provides opportunities. It is true. And we wanna make sure that those people who it might not have been right for them at younger ages, if they decide to come back, they can come back and get the kind of support, encouragement, and opportunities that they need. 


Joe Gottlieb: (09:18)

Makes a lot of sense. So let’s now go to the other side more downstream. And, um, you know, there’s a lot of talk about employer partnerships. It’s certainly a hot trend, like non-traditional aged students. It’s, uh, easier to say than to do. Um, so what are some of the unique things that you’re doing in this downstream mode of, um, of working with employers? 


President Whitfield: (09:41)

Well, you’re spot on about, it’s easier to say than to do because, um, you know, as highly trained faculty, they have their idea of what the perfect curriculum is, and then corporate or industry folks are saying, we can see where the weaknesses are or where opportunities are to be able to provide additional supplemental or even different courses in training and higher ed’s gotta be responsive to that. It’s, it’s hard to do because you do have faculty who are these experts in their field, but we’ve gotta make it relevant. We’ve gotta make it so that it really does connect to jobs better. We don’t wanna be a completely, as a research institution for us anyway. We don’t wanna be, um, from just a technical position position, um, providing education. We want to have the kinds of things that you get from, you know, liberal arts, uh, portions of, of a, of a well-rounded education, but it’s gotta be relevant as well. 


President Whitfield: (10:35)

And so we’ve had a, a summit here actually not too long ago, and we are still digesting all the things we heard about the different kinds of opportunities like reversing, um, career days rather than having, you know, students come to the, the, the hall and, and, and talk to people. We’ll take the people, we’ll take those employers and take ’em to the classroom so that you place them where their natural setting is and talk about opportunities, um, to have even frank conversations because these are people that have lots of experience navigating, uh, whatever industry, corporate, you know, job, career sector that they’re talking about. And we need to have that there. So, you know, that was one of the things that we heard from, you know, in incredible, uh, corporate and industry and, and actually government, uh, involved people as well. It was, it was enlightening to understand their perspective of what they wanna see from college graduates. 


Joe Gottlieb: (11:34)

I’m so glad you mentioned the tension with, with faculty and their expertise and, and the quote, you termed it technical, right? That the, this, this theoretical and, and even apply to research, right? But the fact is, is different than just unavoidably what employers are putting to use. And it reminds me of this trend in, in the industry, at least in the, on the technical side, whereby some of these massive digital employers, whether it be Microsoft or others, are getting into the business of the digital trades and accelerating the delivery of education for the roles they need to run their businesses. And so that is on one level, um, it’s an indication of what’s needed if they’re gonna go to that trouble, right? It’s not because they wanna be in the business of education necessarily. And so it’s, I think it’s a signal, it’s an opportunity for us to understand what we could do to evolve the supply side of that labor machinery, right? Uh, and clearly institutions are in a position to be in that role, but you’re right, they have to, they have to find ways to adapt. They have to find ways to make it a more win-win partnership where the employer employer’s saying what’s needed isn’t offensive or, uh, uh, or confrontational with the, the, the intellect that we have in our faculty. 


President Whitfield: (13:00)

Yeah, you’re spot on, Joe. You know, the other piece of it, you know, I’ve had conversations with the Microsofts and the Amazons, uh, and the Googles, and one of the things they’ll say is that, you know, majors are important, but boy, in addition to that, so in addition to, yeah, some technical skills, whatever we want ’em to have, we traditionally call ’em soft skills. I like to call it emotional intelligence. We wanna see people who can work in small groups. We wanna see people who can show leadership. We want people that can be able to manage up and manage down all of those sorts of things because they, they want to have that before they get to their company because they don’t want just the experience of being in their company, hopefully to learn that. They want to see those in them in their perspective, employees. 


President Whitfield: (13:46)

So that’s another area that is outside of that traditional, you know, reading, writing, arithmetic kind of thing. Yeah. That, um, universities like ours are, are focusing on finding ways to make kind of certificates or, or even just badges so that they can get this other piece of it and maybe take some of that and practice it in classroom activities and, and experiential learning, which I’m a big fan of, is to, to take that knowledge and put it to practice, because that’s the other thing that industry wants to see. They wanna see examples that you know how to do something, not just that you have a major in English, or that you’ve got a major, you know, got an engineering degree, what have you actually done? And then we can see how well that fit is to the kinds of things that we want to have done, uh, in the positions that we’re hiring for. 


Joe Gottlieb: (14:33)

Makes a lot of sense. And it, it reflects a lot of shift in the apparatus, but it really feels like a, um, the, just the, the sensibilities around it are, are, are pretty clear, right? And as we can get more of our, of this machinery moving in that direction, it feels, feels very, very powerful and doesn’t take anything away from the expertise we have, in fact, we should be proud of, of, of our, the applied expertise that then has visibility into this demand, right? And, and, and therefore, um, an opportunity to feed, uh, feed industry. Like, like we’ve seen more patterned in prior eras, right? Whether it was the industrial evolution or other revolutions. Right. Okay. So I wanna shift gears again, and let’s talk a little bit about this side stream aspect. We talked about upstream, we talked about downstream along the way. There’s a lot of other things that, you know, forces and, and players and actors that are active in the community that you’re transforming as you go. So let’s talk a bit about that. Um, the side stream aspect. 


President Whitfield: (15:44)

Well, you know, the, the side stream aspect of that. I think they’re touching on the idea of economic diversity as well, of that, you know, we can train people for things, but what is it that we really need to be training them for? And one of the things, um, you know, I’m here in the incredible city of Las Vegas, Nevada, uh, entertainment capital of the world, um, trying to compete to be one of the sports capitals of the world. Uh, but one of the things that we learned from the, uh, pandemic was that being a one trick pony does not work. It, it, it’s harder to recover that way, even though numbers just came out and people are gambling more than ever. So we’ve, you know, it’s, again, we’ve got this big monstrous single, um, entity and, and we had a similar situation in Detroit because of the car industry. 


President Whitfield: (16:27)

Yep. And what, both, in both places, what I see, what I hear from industry, what I hear from our chambers, what I hear from lots of folks, our governor, um, is the idea that we need to diversify our economy. And so people say that, but how do you actually diversify the economy? And so we’ve done it through a couple of ways. I mean, research universities have this capacity. Um, and that is, is that we have made sure that out at our Harry Reid research and Technology park, um, we went from, uh, a great foundation that started with about five companies, but believe it or not, during the pandemic. And it’s because I have an outstanding VP for economic development named Bo Bernhardt. We grew up to 105 companies. And so those opportunities are out there. I mean, there’s a lot in shifting and trying to understand all of that landscape, um, because some of it involves trying to figure out, um, are you going to have a corporate office or are you going to have these satellite? There’s lots of things like that. But we’ve seen that this incredible opportunity in a city that’s known for one thing, actually, uh, has attractions for lots of other things because of things going on in California because of things going on in Texas that, um, we can diversify. And that as a university, we can be a hub, a host, a place for that diversification to actually happen. 


Joe Gottlieb: (17:47)

Uh, so it’s so critical as we think about this, this 360 view on the community. What, what, what about community colleges, other schools? Uh, how are you guys looking at, at those relationships in, in this context? 


President Whitfield: (17:59)

Boy, I tell you, um, I, I had that situation at Wayne State and, and where you’ve developed that relationship here that there needs to be connectivity. I think a lot of times people have thought of them, students think about them, and even I think the leaders have thought about themselves as separate entities, that we are the community college and you are the four year university, or you’re the research university. Um, but more and more students, uh, there’s more students that are starting at community colleges and flowing into four year colleges for some of them, I mean, it’s just, we, we’ve really gotta start focusing on more pathways. Um, it it’s, it’s kind of like the pathway too can be virtually endless. I, I’m a big believer in lifelong learning, so it’s like, it’s never really gonna end. So let’s make sure no matter where you start, if you, if you start, uh, at a community college and you get the bug, but you want to get a, an engineering degree, a four year engineering degree, that there should be a clear pathway for you to go from that community college on to the four year university. 


President Whitfield: (19:01)

Um, I’m seeing more and more of students, uh, taking advantage of either dual enrollment. It’s a big issue here in Nevada. Um, or they’ve got advanced placement credits at Wayne State. We had one program that had these superstar high school students that would come in with 60 credits of advanced placement. Well, in a normal 120 degree program, basically you’ve done two years and you’ve done it while you were in high school. So they come and they’ll, so they’re on a different pathway, as it were. And then there’s ones who we want to encourage as it actually, as soon as they come to the university, have them thinking, given what you’re interested in understands, you might need to do a master’s degree, or you might go on to do a PhD to get them positioned so that that’s the pathway that they’re on, because that matches with what they interest is, um, in terms of, of what they wanna achieve academically. 


President Whitfield: (19:52)

So, um, community colleges are, they’re an essential piece in this interesting kind of, uh, interconnected, uh, community of education that needs to exist. Um, and it seems like those kinds of, of of environments do much better, um, when they’re not working as separate pieces. I mean, the, the, the, we call it nci, Nevada System of Higher Education actually really tries to promote that. It’s a, it’s a system wide board, but it’s, there’s eight universities or eight institutions, and they’re all slightly different mm-hmm. . But we’re trying to make sure that we focus and think about the pathways that go there. And for U N L V in particular, we’re reaching out to our close, uh, neighbors here. It’s the College of Southern Nevada and saying, Hey, you know, let’s make sure that, um, the advisors that are advising the students that are coming to your institution are clear about what they need. If that student wants to come to our institution, or if they’re in a community college and they’re like, Hey, I actually really am good at this stuff. I don’t wanna just get a certificate. I wanna go on for a degree. That, that advisors who are in our world are more important than they have ever been because they hold conversations about creating these pathways. We’ve gotta make sure that they’re all informed about all the possibilities so that they can best be able to guide our students. 


Joe Gottlieb: (21:21)

I think that’s a really key point of emphasis, right? Where right now, advisors are the glue holding together an imperfect system where the flow of information and the emphasis on strategy is not always apparent to the student. And so that feels like a really, really important thing to, uh, keep activating more effectively. I, I want to try to connect two things. Now you’ve said, and you tell me if they’re connectable or not. And that is, you talk about pathways being more evident, and maybe right now the advisor is really, really a critical delivery point for that. And we’ll get better at supplying the information so that they’re, they can just be that more, much more effective at that role. Um, but I’m wondering also this whole concept of if you were, if you had an interest that you’d probably have to acknowledge, or you’d want to know if a master’s degree is gonna be required for real employability, and now we’re drawing upon these employer partnerships, right? The more of that exposure we have, the more realistic we might be about one interest versus another, probably is a double edged sword, because you might be discouraging some things, but if we’re gonna be net more practical, um, I’m wondering if that’s an opportunity to start to help people see, okay, interest level, great employability, great. And then feasibility in terms of duration of commitment or profile of commitment in terms of time, will it be interruptable or not? Is that something that you see emerging in the future? 


President Whitfield: (22:53)

, it’s, it’s, it’s like, you read my mind, or, or you’re gonna say what I’m gonna say. I mean, that’s, that’s exactly right. And, and one of the pieces that you said, which is critical, and this is, um, one of the heavy lifts that our advisors, um, do for us is to make sure that students are encouraged. It’s not to encourage them blindly, but is to make sure that they feel encouraged. Because you can step back for a second and look and say, Oh my gosh, you know, you mean that I’m supposed to be in school for, you know, five or six or seven years? And it’s like, well, but think about what you wanna do and that you should be fully engaged in what it takes to do that. And that, yes, this is how people develop, and maybe you’ll stop for a little while, but you need to be focused on coming back. 


President Whitfield: (23:31)

This is also the reason why we have to be connected to industry so that industry understands those things. And actually, we’ve got a couple of programs. One of them was with mgm, and it is to, it’s both for, in terms of some of their career, uh, advice that gets given out. We participate and are connected with them that way. And also that they’ve got a couple of different programs, some through our whole system and some through our university that are ones where people can be working at MGM and still be pursuing and be supported to pursue that. So, um, it’s one of the very interesting things that go on right now. And this is tough to say because so much of higher education is funded, um, based on the idea of a six year graduation rate, but that may not be the best marker of success of a university. 


President Whitfield: (24:20)

Um, it needs to be that, that there’s a little bit of fluidity written into their design because people are making different sorts of decisions or there’s different opportunities. And you know, what’s in the background of all of this is, is financial. Um, you know, we at, uh, uh, in this state, um, I don’t think they believe it, but I believe it. Cause I’ve been other places, we’ve got a pretty affordable way to get college. But that affordable doesn’t mean that it’s cheap, affordable doesn’t mean that it’s not a still a heavy lift financially. And so people balance those things out when they make these decisions. And the more information we can give them about how they make those decisions, and that we encourage them to stay connected. We talked a little bit about the adult, uh, education piece of it. Um, I try to, whenever I speak to, you know, some of our more adult learners, it’s to just say, you know, I, I talked one right before we were talking and you know, he’s, he’s 40 and he’s like, You know, I’m so old to be going back to school. 


President Whitfield: (25:18)

I said, No, you’re not. You know, and if you’re pursuing and you’re on a pathway, hopefully that pathway is clear because you don’t wanna have wasted time and wasted classes and wasted whatever, pick a pathway if it’s clear and be able to pursue that pathway. And it, it’s not so much about how long it takes you to get there, it’s that you get there. Um, because behind everything we’re talking about today, Joe, is the idea that, you know, a job is not going to make you happy necessarily. But being able to pursue what your interests are and to do the things that, you know, I, I gotta just take a little license here. I’ve always been able to pursue research. That was my passion. So it didn’t seem like work. Now it still work, and I knew what fun was, but boy, it’s so rewarding when you can be able to get and pursue the kinds of things that you’re passionate about and that you love. That’s what we want to have education providing for our students. 


Joe Gottlieb: (26:12)

Absolutely. All right, now I’m gonna turn the conversation a little darker. That felt good. I want to tackle the really tough topic of, of mental illness. There’s been a, um, there’s been a heightened awareness about, um, mental illness affecting in particular students, but not limited to students. And there’s been, uh, I think a, a need to respond to that, heightened awareness and heightened incidents. So I think the incidents is both higher because our awareness is higher, our sensors are better. And I think Covid also produced some, some stressors on the overall health and wellbeing of everyone and students, uh, not to be accepted from that. So, knowing that you have this community mindset, uh, President Whitfield, how are you guys grappling with this, with this, um, this unfortunate fact? 


President Whitfield: (27:04)

Um, yeah. It, it is an unfortunate fact. It is a reality. Um, so funny, I mean, my background’s in psychology, but you sound like your background is too. Um, but, but you’ve hit on one of the pieces that has absolutely, you know, it’s thank God, which is, is that people have understood, reduced the stigma a little bit and said, Hey, mental health is real. Mental, mental lack of wellbeing is real. And so, um, what we’ve done here is, is recognize that, make sure that we are trying to do everything that we can as an institution, be able to connect people with services, opportunities, and people, um, the help that might be needed. Um, I do like to cite all the time that, um, and it’s not limited to this, but there’s, there’s four biggies. It’s stress, anxiety, depression, and loneliness and isolation. Those are things that are driving, uh, our lack of wellness, um, mental wellness that we have in this country. 


President Whitfield: (27:58)

And we’re definitely seeing at the university level. Uh, actually, one of the things that we’re trying to do as, again, being a servant, uh, not only, um, to our students, but to our community, is trying to connect with K through 12 space, because guess what? Those kids, you know, next year or two might be coming to us. And so if they’ve been experiencing this, if you think about it, let’s just take the period point in time now, the kids that were sophomores and juniors, they went through this incredible time. We’re gonna see them in the very near future. What’s going on for them? Um, we’ve responded to this by, um, doing something, you know, basic, we’re doing lots of other things, but the basic piece was to increase our counselor staff, uh, by about 65%. Our goal is to increase it by a hundred percent. 


President Whitfield: (28:40)

We wanna double the number. And I can tell you just with the 65%, those people are fully subscribed. They don’t have extra time because there’s plenty going on, which is good and bad at the same time. Yep. It’s good because it means that we’re connecting, um, resources to people. It’s bad because what you’re seeing is that the pandemic did have an impact on our wellbeing. The other thing that we’re doing little, I don’t know, some people think it’s cheesy. Um, I created, um, with the help of an incredible group, They’re called the AI Media Lab. We created a digital president. Now, it wasn’t because I’m so cute, I needed to be, uh, you know, in on everybody’s screen what I wanted to do. We have over 30,000 students. I came in in August of 2020 and I said, Well, I wanna meet all of them. 


President Whitfield: (29:28)

And my staff, of course said I was crazy. And I said, Haha, I’ll figure out a way. So what we do is to offer the digital present, be able to have a connecting piece to our university that talks to you and interacts with you. You know, it’s not the same as a person, but it’s awfully close . And one of the things that we’ve done for mental health is to create a mental health module that really focuses on that. It talks about, um, issues that I’ve experienced when I felt stressed, when I felt anxious, when I felt depressed, um, and talks about it’s okay. And that you can actually use a lot of the resources that we have at our university to be able to talk to somebody and address those problems. And so we are using it as a technological advantage to be able to support our students as much as we can. 


Joe Gottlieb: (30:15)

Wow. That, that’s, um, I don’t call that cheesy at all. That, that seems like, uh, some level five leadership to me, and not to blow smoke, but, um, to, to be, to be, to help all those students see that here’s the president acknowledging some weakness and, and the need for assistance is, uh, fantastic. 


President Whitfield: (30:34)

Um, well, you know, what’s tough is, is that it’s, I wish it had 30,000 hits so that every student saw it, but different things are gonna be for different people and in the moments that they’re in and the time that we’re in. But we know that people are more digitally connected. So we figured out a digital solution for trying to improve that connectivity with wellbeing services, 


Joe Gottlieb: (30:58)

Multiple channels required. Yeah, no, that’s a great point. Okay, so let’s segue on this topic of technology. Um, how do you see the role of technology changing at U N L V? I mean, we’ve talked about a lot of scope here, um, and it, and it’s great, but how can technology assist? How does that change for starters? And then we’ll dive into some, maybe some trickier derivative topics on that point. But how do you, how do you see technology in all this? 


President Whitfield: (31:26)

Yeah, you’re not, you’re not asking, uh, an easy question. Um, because, uh, I, I don’t have a crystal ball. I don’t know all the things coming down. Um, but that’s one of the things that makes being at a university so exciting is that it’s a vibrant place. It’s, it, it’s people asking interesting questions and, and toe dipping in this area or that area, and seeing what goes on. Um, so we have to be able to embrace technology, um, but not let it control us. And I think that, uh, that is a, that’s a thin line. It can be a thin line. Um, but it’s one of those things where I, I think in some ways it matches with our perspective of how we were treating decision making during the pandemic, which is people first. That is, if we can find a technology that we think are gonna, is gonna help people, let’s, let’s take a look at the technology. 


President Whitfield: (32:19)

Let’s see if we can, you know, take it out for a test drive and kick the tires and let’s talk to the folks that we would use for its benefit and make sure that they think that that’s gonna happen. Um, so there’s, there’s like a full set of, uh, uh, steps that one goes through to try to be able to figure out, because the other thing is, is that there’s a lot of, of growing technology there. There’s a lot of emerging technology. And so trying to figure out the one that fits for our university, uh, is something that, it’s just a constant iterative process of making sure that we see these things, we pay attention to ’em, my leadership group, you know, will share, Oh, I saw this, and hey, I tried this out at this conference that I went to and this, this was interesting. 


President Whitfield: (33:00)

Do we think that there’s a need for that? Uh, assessing the need, trying to figure all of that out and then figuring out, because one of the things that of course, uh, is going on in higher education is that, um, you know, we don’t have as much funding as we used to have. Most universities have seen a drop in funding, particularly since the oh eight, uh, uh, financial crisis. And so what we say here is, is that, um, we’re gonna make a dollar outta 15 cents. Um, we’re, we’re not going to, you know, just roll up the carpet and, and, and say that it’s done. Um, just because we don’t have the kinds of resources we think we’d like to have to do all the things we want to do, we’re figuring out ways, particularly using technology to make ourselves more effective. Um, the digital president is kind of, sort of an example of that. 


President Whitfield: (33:48)

Mm-hmm. of that, if I could, I would put 30,000 advisors on our campus so they could be one on one with our students. Well, we’re never gonna have that, We’re never gonna have that as a resource. So trying to figure out how we can use different technologies at scale to be able to figure out how we can connect with our students, answer their questions, actually. And we say a lot about students. The other thing that makes universities magical places are the faculty and staff. And actually, even to our previous question about mental health, we’ve been working with their mental health too, because they experienced a lot of struggles as well. Yeah. And so it’s trying to be able to, because too, some of those technologies are important for the staff to be able to be able to use remote work has become an incredible, um, uh, resource and, and approach that people use for things. 


President Whitfield: (34:36)

And there’s technologies that can actually help improve how people do remote work. Um, and then for our students who are doing remote classes, online classes, in person classes, um, I believe that there’s so much value in, in person, but I’m a realist to understand that education is moving forward and, and it’s evolving. So how can we best use technologies to be able to do that? How can we use, um, uh, we’ve been working in collaborating with, uh, asu, Arizona State University and, and Michael Crow, who is, he is, he’s on a whole nother plane . Um, but talking about ways in which we can use, uh, the metaverse to be able to do learning for folks, um, there’s some really cool things that, that you can do that, again, make learning. I mean, taking it to that 21st century level of using technology to be able to use good PR practices for learning and make that a part of the classroom, make that a part of someone’s degree program so that they have all of these different experiences that they put together and be prepared to be able to be successful in the workforce. 


Joe Gottlieb: (35:46)

Uh, some great highlights there. President Whitfield, you know, I, I think going people first makes a ton of sense. Uh, asking the hard question, how is this gonna help us advance our mission within the constructs of our budget within the confines, the, the realities of what we have to work with? So I love the idea of, you know, making a dollar with 15 cents. So it’s, it’s, it sort of sets you up to say, Okay, we can’t be binary about this, but we have to roll up our sleeves and figure it out and how to make, put this to work for us. You know, that brings to my final, you know, question before we try to wrap up. And that is, how do you help your institution to prioritize? How do you, how do you grapple with progress towards your strategic vision? Things you know, you need to change in your platform to accomplish that while delivering on your operational and urgent necessities. It, um, to me it’s always been the hardest problem to solve in business. And I’m always looking for, um, the tricks of the trade that people in your position undoubtedly have had to hone. 


President Whitfield: (36:59)

Uh hmm. Trying to figure out how you answer that. And, and I guess I would answer it in saying, um, one, you have to try to promote a cultural, a culture of nimbleness of that we can’t be too wedded to one particular way or because things are just changing. And, um, at the same time we have to be embedded in, in great solid practices. But see the combination of those two things is what makes great universities. Um, I think, uh, the other thing is, is a sense of urgency when we do things. I think, uh, sometimes, uh, and particularly now, people are tired. I understand it, people are tired. Um, they, they feel exhausted over the stress and strain that has happened during the pandemic and, and all the different decisions and things that have been made. But I try to promote a sense of urgency. 


President Whitfield: (37:49)

So, um, you know, a dollar outta 15 cents is one of my little statements. The other one that I’m sure my folks are tired of is that, um, it’s from a smoking the bandit move Me. And that is, is that we got a long way to go and a short time to get there, . And so with that sense of urgency, you start trying to think about ways in which you can move the needle in secure ways. Because again, we don’t have more money floating at us, but when we see what our goal is and being very, very clear about where we want to be and that we’re not going to take 20 years to get there because we won’t have 20 years to get there, um, that we then make these, you know, don’t jump to, you know, conclusions, but we explore things. And, you know, that’s what’s, that’s at the heart of great universities anyway, is exploration, is openness to new things and then making those decisions and, and making them as a community, making them as you know, I’ve got an incredible leadership staff that we, we talk them out. 


President Whitfield: (38:49)

Um, I never put more than two or three things on our cabinet agenda cuz even after two hours we cannot get through all of them because we hear different perspectives from people, from very different walks, from our legal to our business, to our athletics, all of that roll together. And that’s what we hope then makes a better place for people to come from the community and, and to make sure, again, that people don’t feel that there’s an invisible wall with our university that they’re in. They kind of flow in and out of it, um, to capitalize on those opportunities and those things that we continue to build. And again, they’ve gotta be, they can’t be, you know, your grandfather’s university. It’s gotta be something new and exciting that are helping them address some of the new and exciting challenges that are out there in the world today. 


Joe Gottlieb: (39:41)

I like that. So urgency and do fewer things better, um, seems to be, uh, the, the way to summarize that. So let’s summarize this whole, some, a lot of podcasters like to say, let’s land this plane. So what are three takeaways you would offer our listeners on this? This big, big topic of leveraging the university as a platform for community transformation? 


President Whitfield: (40:04)

Well, one is that universities, and I think particularly public universities are essential. They’re essential to what is going on in the world today. If we’re going to, as a country stay competitive, if we’re going to make sure that we educate people, um, to be in a, in a world where we try to be civil, that we try to make the world a better place for everybody, that we try to create equity and appreciate diversity and make sure that we have inclusion. If we’re gonna do those things, universities have to be there and they off occupy a particular kind of space for the promotion consumption of knowledge. Um, because we live in a knowledge economy, it’s about what, you know, I mean, you can pick up your phone and think that you know everything, but you know that everything’s not on your phone. You’ve, but that’s where you start. 


President Whitfield: (40:47)

And we can, we can consume this information and that’s what puts us at economic advantages, intellectual advantages, and I think even interpersonal advantages. And so that’s one thing I think another would be, is that universities more than ever have to design themselves to be connected to communities. We cannot be the, the, the, the great White castle up on the hill. We’ve gotta actually interact and understand what our community’s needs are and how they’re shifting and what role we can actually play. Be thoughtful about ’em, don’t over promise and underdeliver, overdeliver and under promise, but that also means that you have a relationship with your community. Um, I think that you have to get people on board, you have to get the faculty on board. You know, they have been trained to be these incredible scholars, but actually showing and demonstrating the usefulness and the utility and the benefit that they have, not only to sharing their knowledge, but also just being present in their communities and contributing is very important. 


President Whitfield: (41:44)

And then third, I’d say that, you know, research universities like U N L V have to see themselves as a pipeline with many on ramps and off ramps that, you know, there’s these pathways, um, that are, that are so convoluted. It’s one of the pieces that you brought up was so important, Joe was about even some of our technology companies getting into the space of creating certificates or trying to do things. Um, you got companies like Corer, uh, that are working with universities to create these other kinds. And so there’s, there’s a very complicated landscape. And as research universities, um, one of the things that I think we have not been doing well and we need to do better, is to show what the benefit of having an education at a research university is. It’s that we are on the cusp of finding, figuring out new technologies. Um, we’ve got two of our faculty that, uh, are working on the Mars project, you know, I like to call them rock stars. Okay. . So, um, but, uh, to be at a place where you have that opportunity to do that, that’s perfect. And that starts with us cultivating better relationships and connectivity with K12 to make sure that those guys have opportunities to be ready for the next level, which is our research universities, and be able to take advantage of everything we have to offer, which is a lot at research. 


Joe Gottlieb: (43:09)

Oh, it’s fantastic stuff. President Winfield, thank you so much for joining me today. It’s been a pleasure. Well, 


President Whitfield: (43:18)

Thank you. Uh, I love to have an opportunity to talk about this stuff. I, I’ve got about six more meetings and I think, uh, everybody’s gonna get a little bit of, of Joe in their ear about how we need to continue to position ourselves, um, to, to be the transformative sorts of entities in our society that, that universities can be. 


Joe Gottlieb: (43:38)

All right. Great to be with you today and, and thanks to our guests for joining us as well. Hope you have a great day and look forward to hosting you again on the next episode of Transformed.

Back To Top

Follow Us on LinkedIn

About The Host


As president of Higher Digital, Joe supports customers with strategy development, change management, and strategic operations. He is energized by the complex challenges and profound opportunities facing higher education and is motivated to have and share discussions around these topics.

Interested in being a guest?