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Leader's Edge


Leaning Into Innovation

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Embracing innovation is integral to ensuring the financial viability of our higher education institutions. From traditional educational delivery models to the services and supports we provide students, faculty, and staff, new ways of thinking and working are occurring on university campuses throughout the country. This degree of change can be intimidating. On my path to becoming executive vice chancellor of finance and administration and chief financial officer at Brandman University, Irvine, Calif., I’ve had to learn how to get comfortable with the changes inherent in the forward-thinking priorities and practices of today’s business office. Knowing these changes are core to building a better future is what sustains me through the many bumps along the way.

I came to my current position at Brandman by way of my alma mater, the University of Redlands in Redlands, Calif. I had a job in finance and project management at TRW Corp. (now Northrop Grumman Corp.) for 11 years, during which time I was also a member of the Redlands Board of Trustees. As a trustee, I participated in the school’s search for its new president, Jim Appleton, who subsequently recruited me to serve as the university’s vice president of finance and administration. I had built a deeply satisfying 23-year career at Redlands, first as CFO and then as COO. A job change would push me beyond my comfort zone.

While I was very enthusiastic when I agreed to transition from Redlands to Brandman in 2013, starting this new position admittedly required me to overcome some degree of trepidation. Having worked for such a long time at one institution, I had gotten comfortable. The two institutions are also markedly different. Redlands is a traditional liberal arts comprehensive institution, while Brandman had evolved out of Chapman University in Orange, Calif., so it could focus on working adult learners. On the cusp of this new position, I had the same kind of doubts most people face when they encounter significant change, especially in the latter part of one’s career: It’s so different; what if I can’t handle it? Six years later, I can honestly say that the transition to a new kind of learning environment has been reinvigorating—refreshing my professional perspective and rekindling my excitement about the possibilities of higher education.

Breaking Away From the Pack

Brandman University has had an interesting evolution. It grew out of Chapman University to specifically serve adult learners through breakthrough programs in a cost-effective way. Before it formulated the concept of Brandman, Chapman University, like many other institutions, was finding it difficult to manage its adult programs alongside its traditional educational program. So, Chapman innovated. It spun out the adult education program, creating a distinct nonprofit that is a separately incorporated and accredited institution focusing solely on the adult learner. Brandman started with approximately 9,000 students, and today, after 10 years, we serve about 25,000 students, of which nearly 15,000 are enrolled in credit-bearing courses.

Brandman continues this founding premise of innovation by creating an environment where changes in service and effectiveness are accepted and embraced by all constituents, including the faculty. One area we’ve been working diligently on has been the development of competency-based education. Our CBE program, which is self-paced and nonterm, is delivered fully online and involves direct assessment. It is designed to increase student access and convenience while enhancing affordability. One of the challenges with a self-paced, nonterm, direct assessment program is that none of the term-based technology systems common to higher education is compatible. So Brandman had to create its own CBE ecosystem. It has been tremendously exciting to see our CBE program evolve over the past few years.

Another exciting initiative has been the introduction of fully paid programs where employers are paying the full cost of an employee’s degree program, including tuition, fees, and books. Under this initiative, Brandman is providing educational programs to employees at major employers such as Walmart, The Walt Disney Co., and Discover Financial Services.

The undergraduate population that Brandman serves traditionally struggles to reach graduation. Our undergraduate student population consists primarily of adult learners, underrepresented students, Pell Grant recipients, and first-generation students. In spite of this, recent calculations show that our six-year undergraduate graduation rate for non-first-time students has reached 79 percent, and the eight-year rate is 81 percent—outpacing many traditional institutions. Our high completion rates give our entire campus community a compelling reason to be proud of what we are accomplishing together.

The Hybrid CBO

Building a school to serve the adult learner population has meant moving away from the single, traditional campus model. Instead, Brandman has 25 campuses scattered across California and Washington state, including the main campus in Irvine, Calif. Students enrolled at our campuses can access their programs either online or in hybrid formats. We also deliver online degree programs to students throughout the nation.

The school’s physical structure directly influences my responsibilities as executive vice chancellor. While I have ownership of many of the conventional areas of a CBO—such as finance functions, IT, HR, and legal—I no longer have some of the typical worries that a CBO of a traditional, large campus has, such as building and maintaining facilities. Instead, I focus a lot of my time orchestrating and developing the systems needed to support innovation, both on the operations and academics sides of the business.

Fulfilling the back-of-house functions that are so important to delivering on our education promises requires Brandman to build partnerships. When building out the CBE ecosystem, we had to develop our own learning management system and find a financial aid system that could operate in a nonterm environment. In the end, we created what we call ‘middleware’ to connect nonterm and term systems, which required that I develop the partnerships necessary for collaborating on product development as well as coordinate the related licensing and financials.

My corporate experience has been particularly relevant to the innovative work we are doing at Brandman. Because we are developing and managing new partnerships and systems—including those that haven’t yet been tried or tested in the world of higher education—we are working with several cutting-edge companies. I learned to be quick and flexible when making decisions in industry, and these are precisely the skills required of me when managing partnerships at Brandman. In effect, I see my position as a kind of hybrid between my career in industry and the work of the CBO at an innovative institution.

Mastering the Change Model

To make these innovative strides, I rely on a team that is focused on strategic planning while remaining attentive to trends in higher education. Together, we set forward-looking goals internally for our management and faculty, as well as with the board. Our CBE model arose, for example, from conversations with these stakeholders about the evolution of higher education and issues of affordability and accessibility. Because I encourage my team to stay educated about current trends and not to shy away from change, we have been able to imagine and anticipate future needs, ultimately establishing Brandman as a leader in online, CBE, and employer-funded programs in the higher education space.

While embracing change and anticipating future trends are key to sustaining higher education, institutions need to be cautious about creating another Betamax. Here at Brandman, we’re trying to be ahead of the curve in many areas, and there is some inherent risk that we could be investing in something that really doesn’t get traction in higher ed. To guard against risk, we invest our time in a patient analysis of what we think the school and its students really need and how the market might evolve over time.

Being open to innovation necessarily means being open to organizational change. At Brandman, we are constantly adapting, which takes a lot of time, resources, and commitment that could easily fatigue our team. As a leader, one of my priorities is to continually keep in mind ways to support the team by evaluating how we are structured, what other resources we might need, and how to be more cost effective.

Engaging with the networks of colleagues I’ve met through NACUBO and WACUBO has provided us some of the most beneficial support. The work we are doing at Brandman is pioneering in many respects, so when I’m confronting a tough challenge, I don’t have many peer institutions to look to for guidance on best practices. A lot of the institutions that we compete with are for-profit institutions, which don’t have much of a network. Through organizations such as NACUBO and WACUBO—as well as PAC-CON and WCCI, made of CBOs and other business and finance leaders—I get to access a brain trust of information on a plethora of relevant and timely topics that can assist us in achieving our strategic priorities. I also get to share some of the approaches we’re using at Brandman to be viable and financially healthy. I can move Brandman forward into a dynamic future with confidence knowing I have so many phenomenal colleagues who I can turn to for support.


Hear More

Listen to Phillip Doolittle in a CBO Speaks podcast by visiting our podcasts page here.


PHILLIP DOOLITTLE is executive vice chancellor of finance and administration and chief financial officer, Brandman University, Irvine, Calif.

Credit: Phillip Doolittle, Executive Vice Chancellor of Finance and Administration and Chief Financial Officer, Brandman University, Irvine, Calif.

Related Topics

To guard against risk, we invest our time in a patient analysis of what we think Brandman University and its students really need and how the market might evolve over time.

Engaging with the networks of colleagues I’ve met through NACUBO and WACUBO has provided Brandman some of the most beneficial support.