Episode 11

A Brightspot for Higher Education

Colleges and universities face unprecedented social, demographic, and technological shifts. Change is constant: how students learn and access services, how faculty teach and conduct research, how staff work. Lower engagement and satisfaction scores are also present in education today. Listen to Elliot Felix share how brightspot strategy helps institutions meet these challenges with innovative tools, a proven process, and a talented team.

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Our process has really evolved in response to what we found is the best way to facilitate organizational change, which is to have people have a hand in shaping their own future. Our theory of change is that it has to be participatory, that it has to be agile with lots of testing and experimenting and prototyping, and that it has to be both visionary and practical. That really resonates with higher ed. Elliot Felix, Founder and CEO of brightspot strategy


CCB (One Workplace): [00:00:00] Welcome to another episode of The ONEder podcast. This is CCB, your host, broadcasting from some room and some shelter in place environment here during our adventures with COVID-19. And I don't mean to make light of it, but we all know that we're someplace that we maybe don't work on a regular basis. I'm delighted to introduce our guest for today who we found through connected channels and. Elliot Felix spends a lot of time developing strategy for higher education, and that's going to be a very, very broad scope of strategy that he's going to spend an enormous amount of time sharing with us. Elliot, welcome. And tell us a little bit about your career path in design, if you would.

Elliot Felix (brightspot strategies): [00:01:00] Well, thanks for inviting me. And good to be here. And I'm also someplace where I'm not working normally and feeling incredibly lucky to have family and friends safe and healthy and be in a setting where, you know, where we can have this have this conversation. In terms of how we got here, you know, in some ways it's a function of I guess two realizations... epiphanies is probably too strong a word, but I started out as an architect and I really enjoyed architectural education. It helped me think in terms of systems and holistically and present ideas and come up with ideas and be a better communicator and be kind of a curious, lifelong learner and lateral thinker. So that was all great. And then I worked for I worked for four or five years, and that was great too, except I felt like a lot of the times we as architects were doing a great job solving the wrong problem because it hadn't been very well defined there. There wasn't a good brief. And so I went back to grad school with the hope of trying to close that gap of understanding and landed at a company called DEGW because Frank Duffy--the D in DEGW--was teaching at M.I.T. at the time. And what we did is write design briefs. So we did the you know, did the research, looked at the competitive landscape, talked to people, surveyed people, observed spaces, ran the numbers. And we framed the problem to be solved. And so that was that was a great way of kind of acting on that first realization of like, are we solving the right problem? And then after four or five years at DEGW, what I realized is that it's really hard and probably a bad idea to change just your space. It might even be impossible. And so the clients that I was working with seemed to realize that, too. And so they just didn't they didn't want just a strategy for changing their space. They wanted a strategy for changing their services and their staffing as well. And so I founded brightspot nine years ago with that idea of this integrated transformation of spaces, services and staffing, because that's really what you need to change if you want to make people's experience better.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:04:03] Elliot, that's so fascinating. And I'm going to step back for a minute and say, you know, I did, I had a little interaction with DEGW myself when I worked with Accenture and understood the importance of not only the space, but how the people functioned in it. And then what all the resources were that were attached to the space so that we had concierge systems and reservation systems set up to help our people move in and out. And that was through the collection of information from DEGW. For Bright Spot, you started it with that, but did you start with the workplace world as customers?

Elliot Felix (brightspot strategies): [00:04:42] Well, when I was at DEGW, I spent half my time... I was very lucky to work with on amazing projects, with terrific clients and an awesome team... And I spent half my time working with tech companies that of course you can't say their name, but they're, you know, they were great to help them think about their global portfolio and their work, the experience of their people and the role of space and attraction/retention. And then the other half of my time, I spent in higher education co-leading that sector and doing a lot of work, transforming libraries, for instance. And when I started brightspot, you know, I think we started off with roughly that that same breakdown. And I think when we when we started, we talked about it as. I think we said we were. Our tagline was smart strategy for brighter work and learning environments. Something to that effect. You know, we've been pretty agile, listening to the market and updating how we describe ourselves based on what's resonating with people and what people need and value. I think that's like three taglines ago or four. But yeah, we started with that work and learning focus. And then we did you know, we did a variety of different projects. You know, we also within learning we did a lot of interesting work with cultural institutions, including the SFMOMA strategic plan for their transformation. You know, as part of the expansion. And I think over the years we felt like, you know, higher ed grew to be a larger and larger part of our business. And maybe three years ago, we decided to focus exclusively in higher education because we felt like that was really the best fit for our values, because we're all really driven by learning. And we wanted to be a learning organization, helping institutions of learning. And it was also the best fit for our process because, you know, our process has really evolved in response to what we found is the best way to facilitate organizational change, which is to have people have a hand in shaping their own future. And that theory of change, you know, that it has to be participatory, that it has to be agile with lots of testing and experimenting and prototyping, and that it has to be both kind of visionary and practical. That really resonates with higher ed. So we found, you know, the best process and values fit. And that's also where we had the best reputation. And now after nine years, we've worked for 91 institutions and helped, you know, improve the experience for millions of students. So it feels pretty good.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:08:01] I bet it does. I'm going to ask a couple of questions, and I know that if you can use a couple of your project as examples to answer these questions, one will be how many people work for the firm? Two will be an example of the process. And three will be, what types of deliverables do you turn over to your clients? So if you take those three questions and talk about UC Berkeley's Academic Innovation Studio, could you explain how that works?

Elliot Felix (brightspot strategies): [00:08:47] Yes. So Berkeley has been a great client for us. We have a 12 person core team and then we work with a network of other folks to expand our capabilities and our capacity, depending on the assignment and the workload. But there's a core group of twelve of us. So we're very much a hands on kind of boutique. And then we also work with, you know, a variety of partners, whether they're digital agencies or architecture firms or engineering firms or, you know, everything in between. And that team--generally, we have kind of a mix of three different backgrounds, you know: architecture, social science, and business strategy. And some people have one or two of those or three. And I've just found... I'm trained as an architect and I've just tried to make it a point to hire smart people that know things that I don't. And so I think we've developed a pretty good breadth of expertise and backgrounds. But, you know, it can always be better. And the way we apply that to projects typically is a three person team: a director, a senior strategist and a strategist. You know, probably with a different mix of skills and backgrounds that complement each other. And the academic innovation studio is an interesting example, because it's an example of the convergence of online and on campus education or learning, I guess, more aptly, which is one of the big things we see. We wrote a white paper not too long ago about what we think higher ed looks like after COVID peaks. And I think that, you know, the thesis of that is that this is accelerating a lot of, you know, a lot of the changes that were already happening just at a, you know, an order of magnitude faster. So it's like 10 or I guess maybe more than one order of magnitude. It's maybe 10 years of change experienced in about 10 days as courses moved online, services moved online, people moved to remote work. But one of the clear trends is the convergence of on campus and online. And that was already happening. Two thirds of students who are fully online enroll within 50 miles of home. Two thirds of students visit campus. You know, two thirds of online students visit campus at least once. Most online programs start with a in-person immersion so that you build relationships in person that then continue online. Of course, there's always exceptions to the rule. But. But on campus and online, they used to be pretty separate. They used to be done by different people, you know, enrolled different sorts of students. And that's all blending together. And the Academic Innovation Studio at Berkeley is one of those points of intersection because it's the place where faculty come to redesign an assignment or a class or a or a degree program for online or hybrid or or blended learning. And so it's a place... It's a space that's also a service. And that service is is about teaching and learning innovation. And so you might meet with an instructional designer to rethink an assignment, you might meet with a media developer to think about how you record a video or an editor. You might meet with an analyst to understand how you're going to assess your course and your students’ learning. And so it's a place where all these services come together. And our role was to help accelerate that upfront thinking around what's the kind of experience we're trying to create for faculty who can then in turn help their students? What are the services that we need to provide? What's the best space to accommodate those activities that create that experience and deliver those services?

CCB (One Workplace): [00:13:46] So... I use the word "so" more often than I should... However, the service component of higher ed. It increases as the changes are taking place within the learning environment. And I think it's important to note that your work embraces that knowledge and understanding, that exploration. And I thought about it relative to another project of yours, which was the University of Michigan Library strategy and the change that's taking place within service delivery in libraries up to today and then what might be moving forward after as we live with COVID-19. So I wonder if you could talk about that project specifically related to that service component.

Elliot Felix (brightspot strategies): [00:14:53] Yeah, I'd be happy to and I think the services that support faculty and students are a critical part of the experience on campus and online. And they are ripe for reinvention, because I think what's happened is a lot of these services have grown by accretion as the students have changed and as their needs have changed. You know, the business of being a student has gotten more complex, more stressful, harder to navigate. And so, in effect, what you do is you end up with a bunch of very well-meaning, dedicated, hardworking expert professionals that are scattered around digitally and physically. And then that leaves a very sort of frustrating and fragmented student experience. And on most campuses, there is a moniker for this, you know, they call it the shuffle or the runaround or whatever with the university's name and then the shuffle and the runaround. I'm not going to name names, but, you know, almost all of them have this have this kind of thing. And so what we've tried to do more broadly, particularly in libraries, is reimagine libraries as student service hubs or as student success hubs so that libraries can be the central place to bring together a variety of different services that are more efficient and effective to deliver because cost is definitely an issue. The cost of student services is up 22 percent, I think, over the last 10 years conservatively. But at the same time, not only is it more efficient, it's much more effective for the student. And so, you know, imagine going to a library. And not only can you get help on the sources for your paper, but you can also get help on the data analysis and visualization in that paper. And you can also get help sharpening your thesis sentence, your thesis statement, and the writing and the structure from the writing center. And oh, by the way, since you're writing fewer and fewer papers and you're doing more and more projects so that you can get a real-world learning experience and solve projects that make an impact. You can also get help writing the script or shooting the video or editing the video or promoting it or posting it. Publishing it. All these things. So the work we did at Michigan was very much about continuing that trajectory and trying to think about trying to work backwards from the student experience and think about the suite of services they need and then better communicate, better organize, and better deliver those services.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:18:19] We just finished a project last year for Santa Clara University School of Law. And it was the library which sat on top of a massive amount of more social services, more student common services, which I thought was pretty interesting. And I wondered if that was also a part of it.

Elliot Felix (brightspot strategies): [00:18:41] Yeah, I mean, I think part of the logic of the library as student service hub is to meet students where they are. Digitally and physically. And I think the fundamental issue with student services at most institutions is they're based on two quite flawed assumptions. One is that students know what help is available and the other is that they're able to and comfortable asking for it. And we tell people, if you're waiting for students to ask all the questions they have or ask for all the help they need, you're gonna be there for an awfully long time. And so what you have to do is kind of flip the model. And instead of saying, this is where you go to get help and this is where you go to study or to work on a project or work on an assignment, you want to actually overlap the two so that you remove the stigma against getting help. You know, there's nothing wrong with going for tutoring or talking to a mentor or getting help on that data analysis or sharpening your thesis in your paper. So you want to, like, make it accessible. You want to remove the stigma. And you want to be more, much more, proactive and do more outreach. And a big part of that is meeting people where they are. I think that's a strategy we use in really all our projects. One of the perhaps most successful, we did a project at University of Virginia where they had a new.... They had a desire to take a much more holistic approach to advising. And so we created a space actually within their library that as part of that space brings together 24 different academic service providers, everybody from counselling and psychological services to their contemplative sciences center, to career services, to academic advising, student financial services, to get that more integrated support and to blend study and support in one place. And that's why we think about space services and staffing together, because you can't create this advising center where 24 different partners are going to share space and share ideas and share services. But you also have to think about what that shared service model is. And you have to think about the staffing model of who's working there, playing what roles and how they're all going to work together.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:21:40] So you introduced the lightning rod of cost in that last conversation, the cost of services. And you and I had that brief conversation earlier, but having watched Scott Galloway from NYU Stern School of Business go on his rant at with Anderson Cooper and Sanjay Gupta was extremely explicit in calling out the challenge to all higher ed, given the cost of services and that return on investment. So do you want to give me your perspective on that?

Elliot Felix (brightspot strategies): [00:22:30] Yeah, I'd be happy to. And I think that was an enlightening interview and a lot of it didn't come as a surprise to me, at least because he'd written something similar a month or so ago, that was actually one of the things we cited in our in our white paper, because I think his main point in the in his post and in the interview is that the pandemic is accelerating things that were already here. I think the price pressure, the financial pressure, the enrollment pressure, the need to innovate, the need to partner the disruption from online education, those were all here. And we tend to agree that this crisis is going to accelerate all those things. It's going to decelerate other things like, you know, endowment gains and urbanization and travel and mass transit and study abroad and lots of other things. But by and large, it's going to accelerate things that we're disrupting higher education. So I think that's a really good point. I think the point about the cost is now unsustainable... I think it's also a really good point. I'm not sure how his 90 percent margin calculation works, and I would love to learn more about that. But I do agree that the cost is unsustainable. I mean, the published tuition has gone up 3X among public universities in 30 years and 2X among private institutions over the last 30 years. And, you know, I think one thing that got my attention on the presidential campaign, Andrew Yang was, you know, was often citing that and saying, you know, it's three times as expensive, but it's definitely not three times as good. So I think that the cost has gotten to an unsustainable level. We have $1.5 trillion student loan debt. And, by and large, the playbook from the Great Recession isn't going to work again. I think in the Great Recession, a lot of universities did two things, neither of which they can do again. One is they shifted the financial burden from states to students by raising tuition. The other is that, in doing that, they also became much more dependent on international students that generally are paying full price. Whereas on average students are paying an average of about 50 percent of the advertised price. That's the so-called discount rate. So whereas international students are paying mostly 100 percent. And so international enrollment has been declining. It's going to be even harder for people to enroll internationally in the fall. And students aren't going to be able to pay anymore. So I think there is a reckoning coming as he talks about. I think it's going to be a two-part reckoning where there are going to be.... this isn't a unique point of view, but there is going to be quite a few institutions that aren't going to make it. And they weren't going to make it before because we already had oversupply. We already had more spots at colleges and universities than we need. Just if you look at the demographics. And so there were already lots of institutions at risk. Lots of analysis has already gone into this. There's a ‘campuses at risk’ body of research. Lots of people are saying 10 to 20 percent are at risk. And, you know, in the last five years, well over 150 nonprofit institutions have closed. So the first step of the reckoning is, unfortunately, a lot of places that are anchors in their community and providing jobs for people and helping lots and lots of students learn are going to go out of business. And then the second step of the reckoning is that the remaining institutions, unless they're elite institutions that admit, you know, four percent of their applicants and have massive endowments and therefore are sort of buffeted from these trends, they're going to have to really restructure themselves to be much more focused programmatically on the things that they can do and do well. They're going to have to partner with other people. They're going to have to have a much more integrated approach to their staffing. They're going to have to curtail a lot of their facility expansion and grow in place if they can grow and use their spaces much more efficiently and effectively over a much greater period of time, both hours in the day, days of the week, weeks of the year. And so I think in large part, he's right on. I think that, you know, the idea that the big four tech firms are going to merge with universities because they have to double their market cap in five years. That's maybe a little bit a little bit out over the skis. But everything else, I think it seems pretty reasonable and certainly supported by all the data we've seen and gathered.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:28:52] Elliot, I am so happy that you are committed to lifelong learning because you've chosen a path that's going to keep you in that mode, I'm certain, for most of your career. I want to point out that you do have, and we'll include this in our in our podcast information, but there is a great white paper that you've been referencing, on higher ed after COVID-19 that's available through brightspot. I want to ask you, Elliot, is there anything that you have to share, that you have a burning need to share, that you think that there is a realization that we haven't talked about that our listeners need to know?

Elliot Felix (brightspot strategies): [00:29:43] Yeah, well, I'll end with one with one thing, and one particularly hopeful thing, because I feel like we just talked a lot of doom and gloom. And I'll say that in the last month I've talked to leaders at 61 different colleges and universities and the sense is that they just went through a lot of change in a short amount of time. And in doing so, demonstrated that higher ed can adapt. That there are very dedicated, hardworking, inventive people that are driven by the mission and dedicated to finding a solution. And I do think the vast majority of of universities are going to work through this crisis and come out the other side and there will certainly be downsides, but I think many will emerge stronger than before, because this has really forced them to question a lot of things and rethink a lot of things. And interestingly enough, one of the big things that's being rethought is the role of space, because I think people are realizing and recognizing the value of being together in a place. And I think that while they're recognizing that so much can be done online and people can learn online and they can work remotely... I think the flip side of that coin is how much space creates memorable experiences and builds relationships and builds trust. And we just did a national survey taking the pulse of students during the crisis. And the findings really just jump off the page, because the big thing they're missing is community and the campus culture. They're missing the ability to feel included in the class, to connect with mentors, to be part of activities, to have a sense of belonging. And that's actually the thing they're most critical of their institutions during a crisis. They think institutions have done a great job communicating and shifting courses and services, but not so great a job fostering community and belonging. And that is that is what campuses do. So I'm actually really hopeful that campuses and institutions can look at the data and can be guided by experts. And carefully reopen their campuses where it makes sense and really double down on the community and the culture that physical places help create.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:33:04] We could not have said that more effectively ourselves. Elliot Felix, I want to thank you so much for spending time with us this afternoon on the ONEder podcast and wish you all the very best in your pursuits moving forward in higher education.

Elliot Felix (brightspot strategies): [00:33:20] Thanks so much. It's been great. I mean, we love talking about this stuff. And I feel not only lucky to have everybody safe and healthy, but also to have a job and to run a company that every day we get up and learn stuff and help people. So happy to share what we're learning and and hope it helps your audience.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:33:43] I'm sure it will. Thanks, everyone, for listening to the ONEder podcast today. As we always do, the information will be available on the podcast. And you'll be able to find that on iTunes, on Spotify and anywhere that you listen to podcasts. Thank you and good afternoon.