Q&A: Molly Broad

Marjorie Malpiede / March 13, 2017

The President of the American Council on Education reflects on the role of higher education

Interviewing Molly Broad about her perspective on American higher education is like winning a 60-minute shopping spree at a store of your choice. There’s just not enough time to get everything you want.

As President of the American Council on Education (ACE), Broad presides over the country’s largest and most comprehensive association of colleges and universities, including public, private, four-year, and two-year schools. Before coming to ACE, Broad held executive leadership positions at several institutions of higher learning, including Syracuse University, California State University, Arizona University system, and the University of North Carolina where she was president until 2006.  

Though nearing retirement, Molly Broad remains fully immersed in the current and complex dimensions of higher education policy, from petitioning Trump’s travel ban to exploring social media’s impact on student mental health. The economist turned college administrator is also proud to uphold the traditional values and virtues of “the Academy,” including access to economic opportunity, freedom of expression, and the long-held view that higher education leadership ought to be about service to the institution.  

Elegant and down-to-earth, Broad is deeply committed to ACE’s history as an innovator in credentialing non-traditional academic paths, something she believes will be key to addressing the country’s skills gap. Broad gives up her post this October as ACE begins its  100th anniversary activities, but it was clear from my “60 minutes” that Molly Broad  has a lot left to say.      

Mary Christie Quarterly: How would you describe the primary goals of ACE?

Molly Broad: We have four main components including advocacy, but one of my goals has always been to draw in the history and the DNA of ACE, for which advocacy was a late-comer. We were created in 1918 when the soldiers returned from World War I to a jobless economy and we were then called the Emergency Council on Education.  We were always linked to the military.
After World War II, many of the guys who had enlisted had dropped out of high school and couldn’t take advantage of the GI bill, so we were called on to create alternative credentials. Since 1941, we have owned and operated the GED.

This has been a very important part of our work and by extension we have developed a deep registry of academic faculty members that can make assessments of the academic quality of these alternative ways of learning just like we did when we evaluated military courses to determine if they were worthy of credits.

MCQ: Is this kind of work still relevant today?

MB: Yes, more than ever. We have a huge skills gap in this country. We’re way behind on increasing the number of individuals who have knowledge and skill to meet the economic needs of today and tomorrow. For the president to talk about closing the borders at this time is very disturbing. I also think there’s going to be a huge backlash when the reality sets in that you can’t turn on a dime and restore traditional manufacturing jobs no matter how many borders you close.

We hope to soon launch an effort to identify individuals whose skills or knowledge can help them advance in their jobs. It will be our job to certify all of that.

MCQ: What are some of your other priorities?

MB: There are six major university organizations, which include the research-intensive universities, the publics, the privates, the two-years. We are commonly referred to as “the six,” and I chair that. We meet on a regular basis on all major policy issues. Our position is that since we don’t have financial resources, our most effective way of influencing public policy is to speak with one voice, despite the richness of the diversity of our institutions. We invest a lot of time in reaching a consensus.

We also play a big role in leadership development. We’re in the 52nd year of something called “ACE Fellows.” These are individuals who are faculty members or department chairs who are interested in taking a larger administration role, and we connect them to one or more universities. They get to sit next to the presidents and see them sweat while not having the responsibility for the decisions that are made.

MCQ: Talk a bit about the role of college presidents.  How have you seen this position change over the years?

MB: I think the conditions of higher education have changed so dramatically over the years, and that has made the office of the president very difficult. There’s so much complexity within all of the dynamics. The president’s job is mostly external. They’re fundraising, calling on alumni, going to the government to defend their funding. When the 2008 recession hit like a bomb, legislatures saw their tax revenues nose dive. The largest discretionary source in state budgets is higher education, and that is where they went. We are still, in real terms, below the pre student funding that we were in 2008.

MCQ: What about student affairs issues, from mental health to sexual assault: What changes has you seen, and how are presidents reacting?

MB: I think there’s so much more that we know about today regarding how young people develop. Frances Jensen (in “The Teenage Brain”) talks about how incomplete college student’s brains are when they come to us and how different the pace of development is between males and females. I do think there are a lot of things going on here that we don’t fully understand.    

As far as the presidents’ reaction to all this, I think they feel enormous pressure from all constituencies. I think presidents feel far more at-risk. I see presidents who have five declarative statements, and they never change them because of self-protection. They say,  “I’m just going to stick to my script.”

I understand why presidents don’t want to take risks, but this is not how higher education is meant to unfold. The more experienced presidents understand this, and we have seen great examples of leadership in this area.

MCQ: You are retiring in October. What are some of the things you’d like to see happen or continue at ACE?

MB: There is so much opportunity to improve higher education, and technology is going to play a huge role in that. I don’t think we’re that far away from where you could be online or on a campus with a thousand students taking the same course at the same time and we’d be able to track each student to see where they are having trouble. The artificial intelligence and cognitive sciences are going to enrich the high ed experience and our ability to reach more people.

We’re also working on learning more about social media’s impact on issues like student health and wellness.  

This enormous tool has so much power and has, to a large extent, caused so much distress.  How can we use that in a positive way to counter the negative impact it has had on the emotional and psychological health of students?

MCQ: What are you most looking forward to in retirement?

MB: I will remain active in American Higher Education, but am ready to return home to Chapel Hill and to spend time with my loving family.