Why AI? The Perspective I Bring to Higher Education

by Daniel Fusch, Director of Research and Publications, Academic Impressions

I've been with Academic Impressions for over eight years -- a pretty significant portion of my life. In this article, as I look toward the new year, I reflect back on my career with AI, how I came here, what it has meant to me, and why I'm excited about the way we're having an impact on higher education.

- Daniel Fusch

Falling Out of Love, Falling In Love

I love higher education.

At one time, I dreamed of a tenured faculty position. I pursued (and achieved) my Ph.D in English and wrote my dissertation without thinking too much about the job market. But back in 2004-06, a funny thing happened on the way to commencement. I fell more and more in love with higher education, and fell out of love with the idea of a faculty research position. We talk about the triad of faculty commitments -- teaching, research, and service -- and increasingly, service was calling to me:

  • I sat on a curriculum redesign committee as a graduate student representative, and later as an adjunct faculty representative.
  • I co-directed an interdisciplinary conference hosted at our institution.
  • With several fellow doctoral students, I ran a bit of a "covert op" and we successfully bargained for health insurance for graduate teaching assistants.
  • I was part of the first cohort of faculty to lead a new service learning initiative embedded in the first-year curriculum.

I brought a rare perspective; where many of my fellow students (and many of the faculty) had spent their adult lives inside of the academic community, I had returned for my graduate degrees after time in the corporate world. I was in love with the liberal arts education, with the egalitarian ideals of higher education, with the idea of shared governance. But I also brought some values with me from the for-profit world: efficiency, prioritizing where to put your resources, focusing on outcomes.

I had a hunger to change things -- and on a much bigger scale. I wanted to find more people like me, who recognized both the opportunity of higher education (who believed as deeply in it as I did) and saw the very real challenges to higher-ed's sustainability. I wanted to find people who had the same drive to help colleges change the way they operate.

Standing on the Past, Looking at the Future

I'm the type of person who embraces change and is ready to rethink long-held assumptions when needed, while also wanting to honor the strengths of our traditions, the things that have made us who we are.

I am a history buff with a fascination for religious studies, wanting to know how our ancestors have shaped us and prepared us (for better or ill) for the world we live in, and I'm a science and technology enthusiast, always wanting to know what we'll be able to do tomorrow that we can't do today. At home I have a number of rare and beautifully made books, and I can be found most evenings catching a few minutes to read on my kindle or writing ebooks under my pen name Stant Litore after my daughters are in bed.

I want my feet firmly planted on the soil of our past, but with my face turned toward the future. I want to remember the why while reconsidering the how. This is the perspective I bring to most things in life, and it is the perspective I bring to higher education.

It's also AI's perspective. That's why we are such a great match.

Looking Back at Day One: My First Encounter with AI

Reading Les Miserables a few weeks ago, I found a faded taxi receipt stuck between the pages as a makeshift bookmark from the last time I read that thick but battered paperback -- about eight years ago. The front of the receipt, with its record of a now-expired credit card number and an exorbitant fare, could no longer be read, but I found that I had inked darkly on the back:

720.488.6800. Conversation with Patricia.
Academic Impressions. Focus on changes within high-ed's control.
Wow. Good fit?

I remember vividly my first interview at the Academic Impressions office. Patricia Sandler, a kindly and wise woman who served then as our instructional designer, sat to one side listening in an active, humble, vigorous way that I have never seen in anyone else -- as though every conversation was worth her full attention and might yield unforeseen opportunities. JB DeVries, one of AI's cofounders, sat against one wall, barefoot, looking thoughtful. Amit Mrig, our president, well-dressed, young, enthusiastic, articulate, and charismatic, spoke with passion and intelligence about the challenges colleges would face in the next twenty years. "A lot of leaders are caught up waiting for changes in policy or for a return to previous levels of state and federal funding," he said. "We're not here to lobby for policy changes. We believe that colleges have large communities of intelligent people and a desire to learn and improve; we need to focus on those problems that are within our control, those opportunities that we might otherwise miss."

I remember my tour of the company: industrious, highly educated conference directors who were on the phones talking with college leaders across the country, one who was already packing to travel out to an intensive course he had designed for faculty and faculty developers, for sharing high-impact practices in online and blended learning. I was struck by the degree of passion that was palpable here -- these were people who cared deeply about higher education, as I did. Some had worked at EDUCAUSE; some had worked in administration; some were pursuing a doctorate in education; some came from a nonprofit fundraising background and were now in earnest conversation with higher-ed fundraising experts like Jim Langley, George Nehme, and Elise Betz.

I was struck by the sense of drive and efficiency  that you could almost breathe in as you walked through the office, something integral to AI as a for-profit organization. Second, I was struck by the intense love of learning. I saw desks with printouts of recent College Board reports and NCES data. I saw colleagues on the phone, stepping past the published research and talking with professionals who are in the trenches. Finally, I was struck by the collegiality, the way these colleagues shared information with each other, brainstormed together, worked together to identify steps in addressing complex problems in higher education. Eight years later, one of my colleagues said during a recent meeting that there was no one here with whom she wouldn't have a beer. I agree.

"This is a unique place," I told Amit at the end of the interview cycle. "It's as though you've brought together the best of higher education and the best of the corporate world, in one place, to see real change. When do I start?"

An Unexpected Career

It has been an exciting run.

In my third year at AI, I transitioned from leading conferences to developing our daily news feed of curated, hand-selected stories into a much more ambitious publication, one aimed at identifying the new research findings that matter and the are having an impact and share their stories and lessons learned to help readers make an impact, too.

HEI Executive: Driving Decisions for Advancement Leaders.

I will never forget our series of rapid data mining and discussion meetings and a week of late nights in July, where my colleagues and I pivoted Excel tables, writing down and testing findings in a flurry of printer paper and ink. I think I imbibed an unprecedented amount of coffee. It was the single most grueling professional activity I had undertaken since my dissertation eight years before, and was arguably also one of the most rewarding.

At the end of it, I could say confidently that my colleagues and I and our advisory board had reviewed a statistically significant and representative sample of the chief advancement officers in higher education and had a groundbreaking report on how they were allocating resources across their shops and where they were seeing return.

That is a report that can help chief advancement officers make an impact. It is an example of what I came here to do.

Looking Forward: Finding Success Stories

Eight years in.

This is why I'm still here:

Every day at AI, I get to talk with extraordinary people doing extraordinary things at extraordinary colleges and universities.  I now publish articles by many of the leading innovators in higher education, people like fundraisers Jim Langley and Lynne Wester, strategic-planning consultant Pat Sanaghan, past Mercy College president Lucie Lapovsky, and admissions guru W. Kent Barnds. And every day, I am on the phone searching for new innovators, learning more about new initiatives.

We hear success stories every day, and those are the stories I want to identify, write about, and share with my colleagues across the higher-ed industry. That's why I love my work.
That's why I'm here.
That's why I believe we're going to leave a mark on higher education.

WHERE ARE YOU INNOVATING?

Do you have a story of successful innovation you'd like to share? Contact me at daniel@academicimpressions.com.