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UND PRESIDENT: How UND can ride the 'digitization wave'

University of North Dakota President Mark Kennedy

GRAND FORKS—The rapid spread of digital technologies simultaneously eliminates, creates, alters and moves jobs. Those designing websites are replacing those who sorted and delivered mail, built and used fax machines and published and broadcast traditional advertising.

This digitally driven creative destruction has hurled economic tsunamis at one industry after another. One such storm now is roaring over academia.

As a result, North Dakota students can gain their degrees not only from UND, but also online from Ivy League schools and other premier universities. And they can do this without leaving home.

The strategic planning process recently launched by UND is a chance for the university to ride this digitization wave, rather than get washed over by it.

For this to happen, seven actions are required.

▇ Expand the liberal arts core. The undergraduate liberal arts curriculum must continue to ensure the skills needed for not just the next job, but a lifetime of jobs as individuals adapt to the ebbs and flows of demand.

In addition to being able to think critically, work in teams, communicate fluently and embrace lifetime learning, UND graduates must also know how to use not only the core digital tools that now permeate every career, but also those tools specific to their fields of study.

▇ Deliver results. The explosion of digital information available at prospective students' fingertips heightens the need to compare favorably with other universities in key metrics, including graduation rates, job-placement rates and experiential learning opportunities.

Our planning must identify the factors we believe are most important to attracting students and ensuring their success.

▇ Anchor to areas of national excellence. In order to prevail against heightened virtual competition, each academic unit must either rank among the best in the nation or seek every opportunity to anchor its programs to areas where UND excels.

UND excellence in energy (especially carbon management and enhanced oil recovery), biomedicine (especially rural health) and aerospace (especially unmanned systems) offers opportunities for creative leaders in every field to tap into.

Perhaps the strategic planning process will identify other fields where UND excels nationally.

▇ Bolster research. Each area where UND enjoys national prominence brings with it a host of psychological, sociological, economic, governance, legal and engineering concerns, all of which offer opportunities for study and research.

Redoubling our research, scholarship and creative works in every area will ensure that our instruction is current and our credentials are respected.

▇ Embrace emerging fields of high demand. Technological advances are generating expectations for new skills in every field and even birthing whole new professions. For example, there is an increasing demand in most lines of work for knowing how to apply advanced analytics and cyber protection. Excellence in these fields offers ample opportunities to graduates.

The investment required to start up such programs and the urgency of doing so confirms the North Dakota University System chancellor's wisdom in encouraging UND to collaborate with other North Dakota schools in this effort.

▇ Provide global perspective. The digital explosion has shrunk the world, making us ever more interdependent. It will be increasingly difficult to credibly provide a liberal arts education without offering a global perspective.

▇ Deliver interactive experiences. Just as consumers demand the flexibility to buy either in a store or online, students increasingly expect to get their education either face to face, online or mixture of both. With the rapid advancements in the ability to deliver interactive experiences digitally, every discipline and faculty must explore how to adapt digital capabilities into teaching.

▇ Catch up with digital marketing. UND trails leading universities in adapting platform-aware websites (adjusting screen content depending on whether accessed by a computer, tablet or smartphone), digital advertising and sticky online landing pages designed to entice prospective students to complete their applications.

Rapidly developing these important capabilities is essential for UND, because students today are more likely to use their smartphones to research universities and apply—and universities that make this process easier will win these students' respect.

These challenges must be met while also addressing other pressing demands, including diversity, sustainability and finding the funds to pay for a massive backlog of deferred maintenance.

These imperatives must be addressed to avoid getting pulled under by the forces of digitization. Our strategic planning effort must embrace each initiative to let UND surf this extraordinary wave.

Kennedy is the president of UND.

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