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Who's on the line? Gauging the most pressing issues facing higher educationFor most executives in private industry, help is only a phone call away. Faced with decisions and needing counsel or expertise, they have but to pick up the phone and dial for direction from the host of services providing the just-in-time expertise that is now a standard feature of their industries. Their counterparts in higher education are not so lucky. There are few places campus leaders can turn to for practical help--at the very time when they need it most. As they battle increased competition, tougher markets, and less public support, where is the help they need to answer today's most pressing questions?

Before 2002, when the University of Pennsylvania launched The Learning Alliance for Higher Education, that question was difficult to answer. While, for a decade or more, a near army of private consultants and management gurus have explored the possibility of providing management expertise to academic institutions, too few have had sufficient experience with how colleges and universities are organized to provide adequate counsel. Even fewer have understood the extent to which these institutions are committed to the pursuit of public purposes. To them, it has been enough to teach higher education the art of being market smart without corresponding lessons in how to remain mission centered.

Too many experiments and hefty invoices later, institutions have been left with a nagging sense that they can't afford, either financially or politically, the help they need most. What higher education really needed was a way to strike the balance between academic pursuits and the realities of the market--in large measure by coupling the leadership skills the academy has traditionally valued with the kind of expertise that focuses on markets, technology, and management practices.

Such was the logic underlying the launching of The Learning Alliance for Higher Education as the successor to Penn's Institute for Research on Higher Education, the Pew Higher Education Roundtable, and the Knight Collaborative. Drawing on the experience garnered by those organizations over the last two decades, The Learning Alliance is becoming higher education's decisionmaking hot line for higher education executives--a number they can call to work through their most pressing problems. This issue of The Landscape draws upon the substance of those phone calls and the titles of the callers, as a gauge indicating where higher education is most likely to need help and who is most likely to ask.


Help is on the Way!

The Learning Alliance provides educational research and leadership support services to presidents of accredited, nonprofit, two- and four-year colleges and universities. The organizations that have come together to form The Alliance include higher education research centers at Stanford University, the University of Michigan, and the University of Pennsylvania; major organizations like the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (NCHEMS) and the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education; and a limited number of successful higher education consulting firms with a history of serving public institutions. All told, institutions that draw on The Alliance have access to a circle of experts and specialists that now includes just over 100 individuals.

The Alliance serves the mission of higher education institutions by providing its senior administrators with cost-effective and timely access to expertise, current research, and market data. The Alliance's assumption is that, if the expertise provided helps on the management side of the equation, the institutions and their leadership will increase both their human and financial investments in programs that pursue their academic missions and the public's purposes.

The Learning Alliance has built a network of strong personal relationships with higher education executives through frank and candid telephone conversations. When a senior leader at a subscribing institution has a problem, he or she gets on the phone and begins working with a seasoned individual skilled in the issues confronting that institution.

After providing a year and a half of service to 75 institutions, The Alliance has amassed a substantial amount of data related to current executive and administrative concerns. The phone conversations and conference calls are of sufficient range and depth to reflect emerging trends across higher education.

A New Caller Has Joined Your Party

The distribution of Learning Alliance subscribers is remarkably diverse and surprisingly representative of institutions across higher education. According to their Carnegie classification, as shown in Chart 1, 30 percent of subscribers are doctoral/research universities; 33 percent are master's level I and II institutions; 20 percent are baccalaureate (general and liberal arts) colleges; 10 percent are associate's degree granting institutions; and 7 percent are state systems.

The distribution according to control is equally balanced: 46 percent are public institutions, 43 percent are private, and 11 percent have a religious affiliation (Chart 2). The range of tuition rates charged by these institutions, shown in Chart 3, similarly reflects the representative nature of this sample. The fact that fully half of the institutions charge more than $10,000 per year demonstrates how higher tuition levels do not necessarily shield institutions from the troubles of the market.

Which staff members are really talking to The Alliance's experts? Chart 4 displays these staff members by their titles; the chart does not account for the number of calls or length of calls, and each participant is counted once. Over-whelmingly, presidents and chancellors (32 percent) use the service more heavily than other staff members, followed by their advisors and executive assistants (16 percent), who engage The Alliance more than provosts and senior vice presidents.

Given that The Alliance was distinctly designed to help serve their needs, it is not surprising that presidents tend to use the service more than any other officials in higher education administration. Yet, it is interesting to note that a range of presidents' staff uses the call service, not just presidents alone.

And what do these campus leaders want to discuss? What are the pressing issues that cause them to pick up the phone and engage The Alliance? Chart 5 depicts the topical areas reflected in subscribers' calls for assistance. More than any other, their concerns relate to the administrative issues of management, organization, and process (39 percent). Topics that were high on the priority list only five years ago--faculty/teaching (9 percent) and student issues (12 percent)--are now lower on the agenda. Surprisingly, only 10 percent of the institutions are concerned with budgetary/finance issues specifically.

A closer look at the individual topics that comprise the category of management, organization, and process reveals the concerns weighing heavily on the minds of presidents and senior faculty. Subscribers cited items such as administrative systems, the assessment and evaluation of operations, internal communications, human resources, operations, outsourcing, and response to restructuring as key items under review.

The ways in which these topics played out specifically on individual campuses fills in the detail: the pros and cons of IT (information technology) outsourcing, outcomes assessment around college rankings and student outcomes, integrated administrative management systems, gearing for change and flexibility, preemptively countering negative media, successful institutional change, removing an ineffective administrator, benchmarking and setting metrics for restructuring, and evaluation of administrative structures. While some topics were concerned with more hopeful issues, the majority of concerns related to the "3 Rs": refinement, reorganization, and reassessment.

Nothing depicts the looming concerns better than stories from The Learning Alliance experts' contact notes. For example, many colleges are challenged with aligning institutional and departmental goals across their campuses. When the president of one liberal arts college contacted The Alliance, he had been voicing concerns about the issues of faculty incentives and the deans' commitment to institutional goals. The expert assigned to his case suggested he require deans, by the end of that summer, to establish specific goals/objectives/metrics for their schools consistent with his institutional goals. This measure would enable deans to arrive at a solid understanding of the aspects of faculty performance that should be rewarded under the merit system, and would allow the president to ensure that rewards are consistent with his own goals for the institution.