Education’s Many Stakeholders

Education’s Many Stakeholders

Karen Gross 26/02/2019 6

In 2005, we published an article in University Business on the importance of educational institutions recognizing, listening to and considering the influence and voices of these stakeholders in the academic enterprise: students, parents, communities and employers.

We used an approach then common in business—stakeholder analysis—and suggested that our colleges and universities could learn from business strategies and thereby expand the perspectives that inform educational institutions and their approaches and offerings.

Stakeholder analysis remains au courant in business and has played a key role in business approach to successful project development. To be sure, when there are many stakeholders, one needs to prioritize among them and how they become involved in decision-making (directly or indirectly) must be carefully considered.

One added note now needed with a new approach to hiring within higher education: there is a big difference between applying business principles and approaches to an educational setting and hiring a non-academic leader for an educational institution. The latter, which has become increasingly commonplace, is by far riskier (although there are benefits to be sure). Business practices are transportable in ways leaders may not be, given human nature and the felt obligations individuals may feel to equity holders in the private sector (a board in the education arena), but that is an article for another day.

We revisit the original article as University Business celebrates the launch of its new website. Five observations stand out brightly as we reconsider the stakeholder question in 2019, as compared to 2005:

  1. Many of the observations about the key role of employer partnering with colleges and universities have gotten traction, and increasingly, we are no longer convinced that workforce development is antithetic to higher education. That’s a good thing;

  2. Identifying parents as a stakeholder is now something of a misnomer. While there are some students of traditional age with two parents living under the same roof, the demographics of college students have changed dramatically as have family structures and cultural norms. This means that the stakeholder interest now extends well beyond “parents” and we need to address how to give that observation meaning in practice, not just words;

  3. There are stakeholders not referenced in any detail in the earlier article now with profound influence on and interest in educational institutions. These include alumni/ae, donors, foundations, banks (and other lenders) and governments (local, state and federal) as well as interest groups that appear on and influence campuses and campus life, including but not limited to the “MeToo” movement; and

  4. While not a traditional “stakeholder,” the growth of social media has changed how campuses and their leaders operate, both internally and with the larger world. As and when incidents occur on campus like sexual assault, harassment and racial discrimination, these are no longer private events. When leaders on campus say or do something offensive or misguided, it is no longer just a “campus” issue; it is a larger issue with many folks feeling free to chime in and express their views, often loudly and widely; and

  5. With the growth of traumatic events of a wide ranging sort and traumatic symptomology in college students of all ages, a new stakeholder is early childhood students and their teachers; these are individuals who can both influence and effect the higher education outcomes depending on their trauma sensitive responses and the willingness of higher education faculty and staff to listen to the voices “downstream” and understand more fully the students they serve.

It is worth taking these five identified observations—reflective of the intervening almost 15 years since the original article—and developing and expanding on them. If nothing else, these observations show us that while we may criticize higher education as moving slowing toward change and favoring a deeply entrenched set of traditions within the academy, change is happening whether we want it or seek it or embrace it. And, higher education is being forced to change; one has to hope that change is, at the end of the day, for the better for the students it serves and the larger society in which our institutions operate.

Point One: Employers

Much has been written on the role of workforce development in the context of higher education. And, despite the cry that the liberal arts is dying and we are only focused on the trades, there are many who do not see any inconsistency between the needed workforce skills and the efforts of liberal arts colleges to graduate students who can think and problem solve and ferret out truth and work together and communicate. Indeed, most recently, creativity has been lauded as a key skill for future employees.

In a speech at the Annapolis group, a bastion of elite/quasi elite liberal arts colleges, Martha Kanter, then the undersecretary of education, noted that we are burying the liberal arts too soon and increasingly, campuses are focused on project based learning—which is hardly antithetic to the liberal arts. Neither quality internships with mentoring nor class group projects are antithetic to the liberal arts (we can stop using the word “apprenticeships”). And, hyperbole aside, we are seeing that the value of an education does not end at graduation; it continues forward as a graduate moves into the workforce, engages in community activities and develops relationships and families.

But, here is what is troubling. The actual partnership of employers with higher education institutions has been slow in coming. We remain in our silos, forgetting that those who are employers were once students. We actually taught them what they know. We have employers continuing to complain that new employees lack many workforce skills or they cannot even find employees who meet their specific needs. And, there is a growing divide with some (not all) students believing they are quite well prepared for the workforce while employers who lament graduates’ lack of preparedness.

To be sure, community colleges have moved vastly faster than four year institutions in terms of employer-educational institution partnership. And, that too should worry us as we do not want to create an educational hierarchy in reality or perception that those who want to do real work go to community college and those who “just want and can afford to think” go to four-year colleges. Such a premise is at once wrong-headed and elitist.

We remain in our silos, forgetting that those who are employers were once students.

What stands in the way of partnerships? Well, for starters, they aren’t so easy to create. Partnerships can time and they require trust and constant communication between the educational institution and its employer partners. Jobs are changing fast; technology is advancing at a rapid rate; we are trying hard to find projects and internships that prepare students not just for today but also for tomorrow. Everyone is trying to catch up and be proactive. And, leadership changes within either or both the employer and educational institution can create new hurdles and hassles. We aren’t good at transitions. They delay things sadly.

One more thing keyed to careers and work: contrary to popular belief, we think that educational institutions and those within them make too much of majors—selecting majors and meeting the requirements of majors, determining which major produces the most revenue down the line. People pull out charts to see which majors are best. Instead, we favor majoring in thinking well, being a problem solver, team player and good learner, whatever the discipline. And, major in something you enjoy and find of interest, something that piques your curiosity and engages your mind and heart. Trust us, that will be revenue producing and productive at the end of the day.

We believe one of the real hurdles remains the more silenced but still lingering belief that there is a divide between the workforce and higher education. This divide makes no sense. What do most students do when they complete their education? Most work. Many work while in school these days. Few are trust fund babies who step into a ready-made family business where they generate revenue for little work.

More importantly, there is a sense that education ranks above the workforce—the brains are in the ivory tower so to speak. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Yes, researchers for the most part are in higher education but not all researchers (think medicine and pharmaceuticals and technology, all of which have active research agendas). Writing articles and giving speeches is more common in higher education but not absent from the private workplace.

But, ask this question: Where are innovation and creativity happening in today’s world? Some might answer the academy. Others might answer small start up companies that are filled with entrepreneurs eager to launch new ideas into space (literally and figuratively). Still others might answer that innovation and creativity occur in many settings, including in corporate America. (We assume most would agree that government has not been a hotbed of innovation and creative advancement.)

Whatever one’s answer to this question, we academics have to know that we are better working together than in our own space, isolated from the real work and each other. Surely, we have figured that much out by now.

Point Two: Parents

Our original article pointed out the importance of parents in our thinking with respect to higher education. Not only were they paying handsomely for the education their children received but also they wanted to make sure their children were in a safe and productive environments (ideally elite ones). There has also been a raging debate over the level of parental participation in the college setting, namely concerns about involved parents being “helicopter parents” or “lawn mower parents.” Many have objected to involved parenting in the context of higher education, claiming it destroys autonomy and personal growth of a student. The sadness is that some students would give anything for a parent who is engaged and cares.

Since 2005, much has happened to family structure and social norms. We are limiting ourselves if we only view parents as stakeholders in higher education. Perhaps it was even too limited a term 15 years ago. Indeed, having just spent time on an Indian Reservation, where grandparents and communities are engaged in childrearing and often parents are missing, we have missed the proverbial boat in terms of sharing educational options for decades.

So, to be more au courant, many students are not raised by parents and/or parents are not paying for the proffered education. Some parents may even be upset their student is leaving home to attend a residential college. An increasing number of students are raised by grandparents or other relatives or couples with two mothers or two fathers. Some students have no home and live in foster homes or shelter facilities. And, when we talk about “parents” night, we exclude explicitly grandparents, siblings, relatives, guardians and others who may be a student’s primary caregiver/adult presence. Indeed, many students are working to pay their own way to college—themselves.

There is another sense in which the reference to parents is all wrong. Demographically, many students today are not “traditional” age – namely 18 –24. Many students are “non-trads” (now actually becoming “trads”), individuals who are returning to school. This includes parents and Veterans. So, the parents are not the stakeholders in the traditional sense; the parents are the students and the students’ spouse, partner, children and family are the stakeholders.

These observations mean we need to re-think events that have happened for decades on campuses. Parents Week-end? No go. Parent’s Night: No go. (Check the language on forms that are handed out too: Do they say “mother’s name” and “father’s name?”).

It is vastly more inclusive to refer to events with these kinds of labels: Family Week-ends or Homecoming. But this is about way more than nomenclature. We need to design events that will engage and interest a different set of stakeholders, events that make them understand the experience their mother or father or relative is having and to feel more comfortable on a campus or in a library or understanding assignments and out of class activities. We are only limited by our imagination (and pocketbook) in planning these activities.

Consider whether the stakeholders are in school (high school or elementary school or are working and whether they can get away for a weekend to a campus, whether it is near or far. And consider whether the families/relatives will be comfortable in an academic setting and are keen on their “student” coming to school and getting a degree. We need to park our assumptions and listen to the voices of these real on the ground stakeholders.

Point Three: New Stakeholders

The intervening 15 years has raised the profile of a wide range of stakeholders, although the group is varied and the responses and approaches to them are different.

Start with money (or the lack thereof). It should come as no shock that as the finances of educational institutions are increasingly stretched thin, especially for small colleges, there are added constituencies that have an interest in a college/university. And, they are interested in two ways: some are owed money and some are thinking of donating money.

Banks who have lent money to colleges/universities or governmental entities that have provided or guaranteed bond financing care about an institution’s well being and how they are doing specifically with respect to loan repayments but also more generally. If a lender has a security interest in an institution, they care about upkeep of the buildings and land that securitizes their debt. Some banks want to monitor the colleges/universities although there is a risk with respect to over-involvement especially if they become board members, a major issue in the corporate sector too.

Message: More attention now needs to be paid to nervous lenders—and the care and feeding of lenders when millions of dollars are at stake is no small issue. Get them in your court before you need them in your court should be the reigning motto.

Alumni giving has always been important but more recently, some donors are creating a host of stipulations within their gifts. And, if the college/university does not comply with these requirements, the gift is put at risk. Professors worry about over-involvement by donors, including in selecting new faculty or new center directors. In addition, inversely, if a donor has become a bad actor, the institution needs a way to give back the gift or remove a name from a building or space, lest the taint of the donor extend to the institution. Think Cosby.

Even alums who are not large donors are speaking up and out about their institutions, especially to their trustees. In some instances, alumni have acted in ways that have helping insure an institution’s future by bailing it out. In other instances, a lack of alumni support has driven institutions to change or reconsider or reflect decisions including those related to removal of statues on campus or keeping or removing current leaders. We cannot underestimate the power of alumni groups on topics such as athletic scandals and sexual assaults by professors.

The growth of social media and the inability of institutions to “hide” transgressions have profoundly impacted institutions of higher education.

Then, there are new stakeholders than have been emboldened—something akin to unions, namely individuals and more formal groups that have a national presence that see their roles as prominent on some campuses. Some are politically motivated; others are supportive of a cause; still others are protective of First Amendment rights. All of these groups have been perhaps unwanted stakeholders but given their loud voices and organizational capacity, they are playing a larger and larger role in institutional operations. One ignores them at one’s peril.

Point Four: Social Media

The growth of social media and the inability of institutions to “hide” transgressions have profoundly impacted institutions of higher education. Any one or more students can take a campus event and send it out through social media, making what would have been a private happening, a public spectacle. Students, faculty and leaders can all use social media in ways that are positive and negative, causing events to rise to the national level.

Just think back to the incidents at Yale following a pre-Halloween email that led to a renowned professor and his wife being raked across the coals for being insensitive and discriminatory (although there has been some redemption for the professor and the students); the videos of confrontations went viral. There, on camera, was the distant and defensive professor (Christakis although his wife was “missing”) and the agitated and upset student facing off in a campus quadrangle. Yes, there were different interpretations of the incident and the videos and a plethora of articles but bottom line, the local event took on national dimensions. One of us saw the incident as sufficiently important to address it in her book, Breakaway Learners.

Notice the scope of social media. In addition to blogs and photos, there are tweets and videos. These do not get erased and they are not hidden. Google, among other sites, has made access something positive or negative almost permanent; even deleted items have an afterlife as there are sites one can use to recover them. From an institutional perspective, the goal might be to lower visibility by playing with the Google algorithm so every prospective student and every existing alum is not seeing this or any other problematic story each time they search Yale University (or any other institution).

Leaders are particularly vulnerable, although professors are at risk too. This means that the campus communications team needs to be monitoring all forms of social media 24/7 to catch stories they know about and those that only come to their attention when they see a tweet or Facebook or Instagram entry. And, then, there is a need to find the truth and ferret out the facts.

It is easy for social media to make an institution reactive rather than proactive and the cost of address social media issues has risen to the point that this “stakeholder” not only cannot be ignored, the media need to be addressed and monitored and nurtured and cultivated like a fine flowering plant.

There are firms, including the one with which one of us serves as Senior Counsel, that advise colleges and universities on how to use social media positively and then how to use social media in the context of a crisis. This is not easy work and requires both time and money and education to get it right.

Consider the huge social media frenzy that surrounded Chancellor Gow’s choice of speaker on his University of LaCrosse campus — a well-known porn star named Nina Hartley (who had spoken on a series of other campuses and is a registered nurse). The media barrage started, apparently, post-speech with an article in a local newspaper. Not only was the decision the subject of social media attention but the institutional response was too, including the denial of a raise for the chancellor and disclosure of his deciding to pay for the speaker out of his own pocket voluntarily as opposed to using university funds. Bottom line, a decade or two ago, none of this would have been so public. And, the Chancellor’s academic expertise was communications and he was trying to encourage Free Speech.

Think about this advice: everything you do can be a public headline. As a leader, that will certainly make you pause as you make decisions, write emails, issue letters and speak publicly. Nothing is secret anymore and that makes the social media a “stakeholder” in higher education in every sense of the word.

Point Five: Early Education and Trauma

We know, sadly, that natural and human made disasters are not going away. Just reflect on the number of fires, floods, hurricanes and shootings that have occurred since the original University Business article was published in 2005. We also know that family abuse, sexual harassment and addictions are not vanishing. This accounts for why a growing number of children within our educational system are showing traumatic symptomology. And, we have been slow to respond to and address the needs of all of our kids, to use Robert Putnam’s phraseology, which is also the title of his book. We don’t even have educators on disaster relief teams.

The trauma sensitive school movement is gaining traction within the lower grades but in part because education is so siloed, the approaches and advances for curbing trauma in students has not carried up into higher education. Indeed, we often operate off assumptions as to why college students behave as they do when they fail to turn in assignments or sit and sleep in the back of the class or do not participate in class discussion; we say this about our students: they are disrespectful; they were out partying; they don’t care about academics; they are unprepared.

But, what we are often seeing but do not recognize is trauma responses that we fail to recognize.

One key realization, vis a vis stakeholder analysis, is that trauma travels in the sense that a person who has been traumatized carries that trauma with them, even if there have been interventions. And, new traumas can cause new responses and activate previous responses. So, as one proceeds into higher education, students who have been traumatized do not park their trauma at the college’s entrance. It accompanies them.

But, that proverbial but, those within higher education are not learning from early childhood educators how to respond to trauma evidenced in students. Higher education and those within its walls would be well served if they looked at the activities and insights in early childhood education and elementary schools.

We understand that this is counter the current approaches where those in higher education train those who are early educators and pass things down as opposed to receiving things up. But, the trauma responsiveness that has been installed by some educators makes these people key stakeholders in higher education success.

Think about it this way. Stakeholders are those with an interest in and influence on an institution and those within it. If we want college students to retain and graduate and enter the workforce, start families and engage with their communities, we need to see the experiences and activities and actions of early educators who help their students as being “stakeholders” in higher education and we need to take their approaches and strategies and wisdom into account.

Consider this article published by the University of California at Berkeley: Five Ways to Support Students Affected by Trauma. Then ask whether the suggestions proffered are deployed in the University? Were we betting people, we’d say no. And trauma in students is “catching,” in that faculty can feel the trauma of their students, whether or not they recognize the transmission.

As one of the authors of this piece has observed in a forthcoming book titled Gen Tt Goes to School, we need to face the fact that many students show trauma symptomology and if we don’t address it, we will impede their education success and their physical and psychological health. That makes for trauma and the wisdom of early educators true “stakeholders” in higher educational outcomes.


Higher education is complex, more complex than it was in 2005. There are more stakeholders and the shape and influence of their stakeholders has changed. The business stakeholder analysis suggests that one ignores stakeholders at one’s own peril. And so it is with higher education. Colleges and universities need to not only take these new just described stakeholders into account but they need to reflect long and hard on how to do that effectively, efficiently, systemically and systematically.

Consider this. Taking new stakeholders into account does not mean they need to go on our Boards of Trustees or be invited to every decision-making table within an educational institution. But, if we don’t pay attention to these stakeholders and give voice to their views, they will push themselves into and onto an institution. We do way better in both business and education when we are proactive and consider how to “invite” stakeholders to our enterprise.

Identifying stakeholders is, then, only the first step. How we handle them is the next step and a critical one at that. Perhaps there needs to be an article that follows on to this one that addresses just those questions.

Karen Gross is the former president of Southern Vermont College, and was a senior advisor to the Department of Education during the Obama Administration. Pamela Godwin is president of Change Partners, Inc. where she works with clients regarding change and growth initiatives on both an individual (e.g. executive coaching) and an organizational level (e.g. strategy and team facilitation). 

A version of this article first appeared on University Business

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  • Kelsey Louise

    Too many students go to college with little thoughts about the field or career. They go to college simply to go to college.

  • Gary Stephenson

    Academia pushes kids to go to university. They tell very little about majors statistics and career stats.

  • Kofi Owusu

    The entertainment industry pushes college as a time to party and not a time to learn. 

  • Paul Easton

    Ironically as the price of higher education goes up, the quality of education goes down.

  • Kevin Jaramillo

    Hopefully this bubble will burst soon as it's absolutely unsustainable.

  • Ronald Harvey


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Karen Gross

Higher Education Expert

Karen is an educator and an author. Prior to becoming a college president, she was a tenured law professor for two plus decades. Her academic areas of expertise include trauma, toxic stress, consumer finance, overindebtedness and asset building in low income communities. She currently serves as Senior Counsel at Finn Partners Company. From 2011 to 2013, She served (part and full time) as Senior Policy Advisor to the US Department of Education in Washington, DC. She was the Department's representative on the interagency task force charged with redesigning the transition assistance program for returning service members and their families. From 2006 to 2014, she was President of Southern Vermont College, a small, private, affordable, four-year college located in Bennington, VT. In Spring 2016, she was a visiting faculty member at Bennington College in VT. She also teaches part-time st Molly Stark Elementary School, also in Vt. She is also an Affiliate of the Penn Center for MSIs. She is the author of adult and children’s books, the most recent of which are titled Breakaway Learners (adult) and  Lucy’s Dragon Quest. Karen holds a bachelor degree in English and Spanish from Smith College and Juris Doctor degree (JD) in Law from Temple University - James E. Beasley School of Law.

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