Simmons University Forges Ahead Confidently By Building Upon Key Partnership

An Interview with Simmons President Helen Drinan

June 18, 2020

Woman working alone at a desk remotely

As we all prepare for the next phase of life during these times, both non-profit and for-profit organizations are scrambling to devise move-forward plans. While every industry faces its own unique challenges, many Higher Education institutions are finding themselves considering seismic shifts.

Simmons University in Boston is no exception. News of the announcement about its plans for an online undergrad experience in the fall of 2020 continues to reverberate across the industry.

As part of our “Innovators in Education” series, we interviewed Helen Drinan, President of Simmons University, on how the university arrived at this juncture and is moving forward.

Drawing Upon Past Experience

While today’s world is unlike any we’ve ever seen, some Higher Ed institutions are finding inspiration in their past experiences facing tough situations. In more recent times, that was the recession of 2008 and 2009.

At that time, Helen Drinan moved from her position as Chair of the Board at Simmons to become Interim President. Almost immediately, she faced monumental problems, from the school’s banker going under to its contractor declaring bankruptcy without completing an important new campus building. On top of this, the school wasn’t certain students would return to campus for the fall semester because of the economy.

After installing financial discipline, President Drinan’s first priority was turning to strategy. “We couldn’t just survive. We needed to come out better than before,” she says.

The key was identifying a differentiating strategy within strict parameters: The strategy couldn’t require major financial investments and it had to align with Simmons’ core strengths. Recognizing an opportunity to expand its well-respected, on-campus professional degree programs beyond the local geography, Simmons knew it needed to embrace technology and online learning.

The university launched its own pilot enabling students to pursue degrees in Simmons’ very highly rated, on-campus programs. While it wasn’t able to grow the online program due to market reach constraints, Simmons realized a fair amount of success with it.

This and the university’s other experiences to date would pave the way for a new future.

Taking a Bold — and Early — Risk With Online Education

In 2010, 2U — a global leader in education technology — began building new online programs across the US by forming partnerships with reputable schools. 2U approached Simmons about taking its Library of Information Sciences program — then #10 in the nation — online. While this plan was shelved since the field was in so much transition, 2U re-engaged Simmons in 2013 with a vision for offering its nursing program online.

“Many in Higher Ed are wary of partnerships with for-profit organizations. However, such partnerships are the key to future success in our field,” Drinan says.

Since that time, 2U has helped Simmons bring high-quality online education to thousands of graduate students, strengthening the university’s financial standing in the process. Together, the organizations have built six sustainable, successful online graduate degree programs in critical fields including nursing, social work, and public health.

Quickly Pivoting in 2020

Simmons’ prescient decision to offer online programs nearly 10 years ago positioned it to adeptly pivot in the face of today’s rapidly evolving new reality. In fact, in 2014,  Drinan proclaimed that Simmons might sometime in the near future have more students enrolled online than on campus.

After years of partnership with 2U, Simmons’ faculty voted in less than one week to approve the deal to develop and deliver a fully online, reimagined undergraduate experience for new and returning Simmons students in September 2020. Working in close collaboration with Simmons faculty, 2U is redesigning hundreds of courses from the university’s catalog for online delivery with a blend of synchronous and asynchronous coursework. The goal is to ensure continued academic quality for all undergraduate students—whether they return to campus or continue classes remotely.

Explains Drinan, “As our Board Chair explained to our staff, this is Simmons’ future. The biggest question we hear is whether are we abandoning our traditional, residential-based programs. Absolutely not. Online is different from the on-campus experience but it’s not inferior if we pair the two. We want both because it offers students the best possible experience.”

Lessons Learned

Drinan and the university have gleaned many lessons from this experience. When a peer at another institution questioned whether her school could pull off the plan to offer an online undergraduate experience by September, she was brutally frank. “We are converting 350 courses simultaneously. It would be impossible without our partnership,” she says

She advises that other Higher Education institutions consider the impact of moving ahead without adjusting for the times. “Some schools plan to stay the course with what they’ve done to address the spring semester, without making adjustments to enhance the online student experience. If they do so and keep charging the same tuition, they’re going to collide with a paying public that won’t tolerate it. This is a huge opportunity for Higher Education institutions – it’s going to force at least 40 years of change in a short time frame.”

She also reminds schools not to completely abandon their history and success to date; instead build upon and enhance it. To that end, she recommends schools:

  • Don’t just think about the technology. Identify critical touchpoints for students, such as tutoring, writing, and mental health services. “We still need to sustain students in their process of being students.”
  • Make the student your focus. “Students are not the center of the universe in Higher Education, but they’re going to be. Schools need to start thinking of their students as customers.” 

To that end, Simmons tracks and responds to student feedback it gathers in the form of Gallup surveys and NPS scores. “We’re embracing the model of the for-profit world – we need to know what’s on our customers’ minds at all times and respond. Your faculty might resist but data helps you understand what to do and at what points for students.”

  • Provide instructional and human resources to help faculty successfully transition. “This spring, every college and university had to come up with a new plan in weeks. It’s a miracle we did and it shows we can change quickly if we put our minds to it. However, lack of support left many faculty in compromised situations.”

As Drinan highlights, an investment in faculty support comes with a hidden gift: Faculty are being upskilled and will become experts in two modalities – teaching on campus and online. “Not many faculty consider how to increase their marketability. But it’s healthy and positive that they think of themselves as a valuable commodity that can command a higher price.”

President Drinan’s biggest takeaway? Higher Education institutions can’t simply replicate another school’s strategy as they forge a new path forward. “We took an early risk on online education so our strategy won’t necessarily work for others,” she says. “Find ways to build on your strengths. Perhaps you want to grow a signature program. The key is to devise a strategy that fits your school and capitalize on what you do best.”