A Vision for a New Traditional University

By Dr. Robert E. Johnson

This is the first blog in a series that I will write along with my colleagues over the next two months titled, The Academy, Leadership, and the Future is Now. This first blog is “A Vision for the New Traditional University.” It is about the market position and value proposition of Western New England University (WNE) as we prepare our students to be future leaders and we lean into “Powerful Preparation for the Future of Work” and our National University status. It is my pleasure and privilege to share my thoughts with you. First, some context:

My unyielding belief in higher education as a public good and as a path for transforming both individual lives of our students and societies has guided me throughout my career. At the institutions I have called home over the years, I have acted with the singular notion that we must prepare students to adapt and succeed in a dynamic future—one where jobs, as we know them, may no longer exist; career mobility is the norm; and individuals are responsible for continuously creating value.

I was especially attracted to Western New England, given the University had just entered its second century and has a long history of producing graduates who are leaders and innovators in their fields. They have been drivers behind incredible changes in technology, commerce, law, and business. The University is poised for the next phase of its important evolution.

As president—WNE is my third presidency—I am compelled to articulate that we are at an inflection point within the Academy. We must create our new normal in an industry that is preparing the next generation of leaders during a period of extraordinary change. What choices we make as leaders in the next few short years will determine the Academy’s form, function, and stature 25 years from now as a strong, relevant institution.

I have argued previously the case for Agile Universities, examining what it means to meet the needs of the next generation of learners who face a hyperconnected, rapidly changing economy and looming global challenges, and how institutions must change to meet those needs. The Agile University fosters learning, empowers people, and embraces change to create new value to society. It prepares graduates to thrive in a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous future. Its inherent components include agile leadership, supporting faculty creativity and innovation, the ability to create value, and risk-savvy boards.

Furthering the mission of Western New England University—a National University—is, of course, my work today, which includes communicating our market position and helping all of us understand and articulate that position, which is: as a New Traditional University, WNE prepares learners and earners for the Future of Work, equipping them to create value and thrive in a complex hyperconnected world.

We deliver on this proposition through the “three pillars” of Powerful Preparation for the Future of Work: New Traditional University, agile mind education, and personal exploration and growth.

First, as a New Traditional University, an institutional model that honors the best in traditional education and that is responsive to, and invigorated by, the challenges of the future.

Second, by providing an agile mind education that prepares students to adapt and thrive; equipping them to learn, unlearn, and relearn, which will define success in the future of work.

And third, by providing opportunity for personal exploration and growth through continuous, transformational learning so students discover their “why,” find their place in the world, and animate their unique value proposition. 

What is a New Traditional University? A New Traditional University embraces the possibilities of the future through a transformative, dynamic, and innovative institutional model that empowers agile and adaptive learners and earners, capable of navigating change, disruption, and ambiguity while achieving personal and professional success and creating value in a global society. Underpinning messages elaborate:

  • A New Traditional University embraces a distinctive and innovative institutional model by seeking new approaches and taking calculated risks to improve outcomes. WNE is unique among National universities, with the advantage of being comprehensive yet personal, private, and nimble. 
  • A New Traditional University is responsive to the future. It is defined by agility and motivation to create value, with an intentional approach in all aspects of the academic experience. It fosters personalization and empowers action to create new value in society.
  • A New Traditional University honors the best in traditional education while invigorated by the challenges of the future (anti-fragile). As a New Traditional University, WNE is a community of learners that values knowledge, the power of learning, and the strength of interdisciplinary creativity and innovation. By embracing change, selective experimentation, and action—WNE seeks always to create value as a continuous state.

The New Traditional University is an element of our “One University, One Vision” and strategic direction: “defined by our agility and motivation to create value as we seek an intentional and enriching approach in all aspects of the academic and cocurricular student experience” and embodying our drive to become an institution that is “agile, grounded in professional studies, and enhanced by the liberal arts and mentored research, that provides graduates with the skillset and mindset to continuously create value throughout their professional career and assert their humanity in contributing to a global society.”

Why do we need agile universities now, such as the New Traditional University? We need to build ‘new traditional universities’ as a model that honors the best of traditional education and that is responsive to and invigorated by the future. One that prepares students to adapt and thrive by equipping them to learn, unlearn, and relearn, and developing a mindset of continuous value-creation. To create an agile workforce, this education system must focus not on just providing a degree, but on fostering a mindset of lifelong learning. If we manage to do this, we will provide our graduates with the essential human skills that cannot be replicated by an algorithm and enhance our graduates’ ability to create value in everything they do which will be essential in the future of work.  

It is my hope that the thoughts on the New Traditional University shared here spur you to innovate and to add value in your own pursuits as we prepare our students for the future. As a lifelong learner, I value your feedback and seek to gain new insights from our future interactions.

Robert E. Johnson, PhD

Dr. Robert E. Johnson was appointed as the 6th president of Western New England University in August 2020, charged with leading the institution as it embarks on its second century.