Students walking on campus

Butler Beyond2020

from Fall 2019

Last spring, Butler University President James Danko shared a personal story with a group of alumni and friends about a visit to Rochester, New York, he had made on a bitterly cold day in January 1993. He had just begun his very first higher education job, which entailed arranging 60 action learning projects per year for MBA students at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business.

Two of the most successful companies in the world—Eastman Kodak and Xerox—were headquartered in Rochester (in 1993, Kodak was No. 19 on the Fortune 500 list, and Xerox No. 21). By the end of his visit, Danko had secured learning opportunities for students at both. While it was an exciting trip for that accomplishment, a much deeper impression was made on Danko by the preventable downfall of each company in the ensuing years.

Each company clung too tightly to tradition and ignored revolutionary inventions by their own people. Kodak failed to embrace the invention of the digital camera by one of its young engineers in 1975—insisting that print photos were the future. Thirty-seven years later, Kodak filed for bankruptcy.

Xerox, meanwhile, failed to embrace the potential of the personal computers developed by its own researchers in 1970. Nine years later, Steve Jobs struck a deal with Xerox to bring those innovators aboard his fledgling company—Apple. Today, Xerox is No. 318 on the Fortune 500 list, while Apple is No. 3.

These served as powerful cautionary tales for Danko as he advanced in his own academic leadership career. He believes that saying yes to smart new ideas and embracing innovation—even though it may present some risk—is fundamental to organizational success. Complacency is dangerous. And consistently defaulting to “what’s always worked before” is a recipe for disaster.

Continuing to study organizational leadership over the years, Danko has been equally inspired by stories of success. For instance, when National Geographic, long known for its iconic yellow-bound magazines featuring stunning color photographs, noticed a decline in subscriptions in the 1990s as cable television and the internet grew in popularity, the organization quickly reimagined itself for a new era. In 2001, it launched the National Geographic channel and found new online platforms for sharing the time-honored art of nature photography with a new generation.

Butler aims to forge a similar path—respecting the time-honored traditions and the particular strengths that have always defined a Butler education, while imagining new ways to deliver that education in a rapidly-changing landscape.

To help spur new ideas, Butler sought the guidance of experts, including Blair Sheppard, Dean Emeritus of Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and current Global Strategy Lead with PwC, and Matthew Pellish, Managing Director of Strategic Research and Education for the Education Advisory Board.

Both were blunt about how college has grown too expensive, takes too long to finish, and hasn’t kept pace with cutting-edge workplace needs. These hard realities have forced several schools nationwide to close their doors.

“There will be winners and losers,” Pellish says. “No one is going to win by saying, ‘We’ve always done it this way so let’s continue.’”

Universities that survive will be inventive, flexible, responsive, and thoughtful, Pellish asserts, adding that Butler is all of those things. “Butler was founded on innovation,” he says. “Unleash these smart, dedicated, innovative people on these challenges, and they will find solutions.”

Butler is doing just that. The Butler Beyond strategic vision is comprised of multiple paths that, together, respect tradition yet embrace innovation. Butler aims to preserve and build upon the quality and strength of its long-time success in traditional, residential undergraduate programs, while innovating for the new realities of the world. At the core of each path is the question: What must Butler do to prepare the next generation of learners for what lies beyond today? The graphic below illustrates the paths of our strategic vision.

Pursuing these paths will not be easy, but Butler is up for the challenge. The University is engaging the brightest in the field, learning from others in the midst of transformation, and seeking those “radically different” ideas from its own creative faculty, staff, students, alumni, and partners—who will together move Butler beyond its current model.

We have no plans to abandon Butler’s character or the things we do best,” Danko says. “But future expectations of academic institutions will be very different. We have to incorporate new approaches to education that add value—not only for our students, but for our society.”