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5 Questions with SNHU President Paul LeBlanc

Since 1988, the New Hampshire High Technology Council has given an annual “Entrepreneur of the Year” (EOY) award, honoring New Hampshire entrepreneurs for demonstrating leadership, ingenuity and innovation in the technology sector. Last month, the NHHTC named Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) as one of its 2015 winners, for “utilizing technology in truly unique, powerful and very different ways,” said Matt Benson, chair of the NHHTC’s EOY committee.

SNHU President Paul LeBlanc

To learn more about how SNHU earned this award, we interviewed Paul LeBlanc, president of SNHU. LeBlanc has held the post since 2003, and is no stranger to winning awards. In 2012, SNHU was the only academic institution on Fast Company magazine’s World’s 50 Most Innovative Companies list. LeBlanc has also won a New England Higher Education Excellence Award, was named one of New Hampshire’s Most Influential People by New Hampshire Business Review, and named one of 15 Classroom Revolutionaries by Forbes Magazine.

Congratulations on receiving the Entrepreneur of the Year Award! It seems unusual at first blush to think of an 83-year-old university with 60,000 students as ‘entrepreneurial.’ How do you believe SNHU embodies the entrepreneurial spirit?

Thank you! It really was an honor. Fundamentally, I think we are always asking ourselves “Is there a better way to serve our students? To reach more students who need a degree?” and never being self-satisfied. That translates into a set of behaviors: a willingness to try new things, take risks, and make mistakes. Those behaviors then get shaped into a game plan, very much informed by innovation guru Clay Christensen. Clay was a trustee and is now Trustee Emeritus, and his research and writing on disruption have been very influential for us as a university.

People often assume that size means less willingness to innovate and be entrepreneurial, but it doesn’t have to. Especially when you’re willing to create new, small and agile teams, and then give them the running room to try things, break some rules, and invent.

Why, in your opinion, is being entrepreneurial an important quality for educational institutions?

Higher education is in a kind of perfect storm: a combination of massive state disinvestment in public higher education, demographic downturn, worries over high prices and excessive student debt, and new delivery models. The old answers of turning to alumni donors, requests for more state funding, building a new stadium, and living off grants won’t suffice. Higher education is similar to the health care industry, highly regulated with a lot of third-party dollars (namely, $153 billion of federal financial aid), so change will come more slowly. But change is happening and it’s pretty dramatic.

SNHU is now particularly known as an innovator in its field, but that wasn’t always the case. What had to change inside the institution for it to become more innovative?

Honestly, I think we’ve long been innovative. We did satellite continuing education centers decades ago and before they were common. We were early into online education. We were doing competency-based degrees and three-year degrees some 16 years ago. Traditional higher education has always tended to look down its nose at that sort of innovation, so I think we were not recognized for it. Now, higher education is catching up with those innovations – in some large measure because it is forced to find new ways to operate – and we look more innovative. I don’t think we are; I think higher education is finally getting more innovative and embracing things we have been doing for a long time.

Innovation is in our DNA given that history, and we continue that tradition today. I think if you were to ask the higher education press to name the three or four most innovative universities in the country, SNHU would be on everyone’s list.

How is SNHU working to support the broader business community in New Hampshire? Put another way, what impact do you strive to have on the economic growth of the state?

Well, there is the obvious connection, with our rapid growth; we have hired roughly 4,500 full and part time staff in five years. We moved our online operation to the mill yards of Manchester six years ago and had 22 people there. Today we have 1,200. We have a new facility at 1230 Elm St., and have put another 250 people there and will add more. That’s a huge boon to the downtown merchants. Then there’s the building program we have had underway, going from 10,000 square feet of space downtown to over 220,000 square feet. That’s meant build outs, furnishings, HVAC, and more — all work for largely local subcontractors and suppliers. On the main campus, during that same period, we’ve built over $120 million of new facilities – again, a lot of work for local contractors and others. Only Dartmouth College has more international students than we do and an annual independent study indicates that our 1,000 international students have about a $32 million economic impact on the area.

Then you think about the way we supply talent into the local labor market, a critical need for the business community, and the impact of the university is just enormous. Our IT, Finance, Marketing, Math, Hospitality, Communications, and many other majors graduate and become part of the larger talent pool the state so desperately needs. Our online programs, catering mostly to adults, are the second largest in the country and by far the largest in the region. We have thousands of adults with some to no college credits coming back, completing degrees, and retooling for the labor market.

Can you give us a hint about what new trails SNHU will soon be blazing in the academic world?

Well, we just created a new software company, Motivis Learning, and based it in Salem. We have high hopes for that company (it’s our one for-profit subsidiary), and institutions from around the country are adopting its next generation learning platform. We just announced that Anthem has rolled out our competency-based degree program, College for America, to all 55,000 of its employees – expect more such partnerships in the future. We’re doing some really exciting partnerships with other providers too. For example, we have a new Music Industry MBA in partnership with the Berklee School of Music. We are in discussions with others for similar kinds of offerings. We just received a $3.9 million First in the World federal grant to pioneer new remedial education approaches. It’s such an exciting time in higher education, for all its challenges and its uncertain future. But as Steve Jobs said, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”



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