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At Globe Summit, local college presidents speak out on the future of higher education

Three higher ed leaders spoke with Boston Globe Media CEO Linda Henry (right) at Globe Summit 2023. From left, they are: Aisha Francis, President and CEO of Benjamin Franklin Cummings Institute of Technology; Paula A. Johnson, President of Wellesley College; and Marisa Kelly, President of Suffolk University.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

In a sweeping conversation about the future of higher education, the presidents of Suffolk University, Wellesley College and Benjamin Franklin Cummings Institute of Technology spoke about the turbulent headwinds their institutions face, and areas of hope for colleges and universities of all sizes.

At a Globe Summit event moderated by Linda Henry, CEO of Boston Globe Media, the leaders of three Boston-area schools said they are confronting changing consumer demands, enrollment declines, and public distrust in higher education — challenges that require adept leadership and innovation.

“I think we are getting better at telling the story of higher education [and] helping people to understand the value that we provide to individuals who have different types of educational needs,” said Marisa Kelly, president of Suffolk, which enrolled 6,790 students last fall, about a third of whom are minority students.

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Kelly said that college leaders also have to improve messaging around the economic contributions their institutions add to New England, as employers, research hubs and shapers of the future workforce. More than 60 percent of Suffolk graduates stay in Massachusetts after graduation, she said.

The panel was part of the third annual Globe Summit, which gathers influential thinkers, change-makers, and risk-takers for three days this week to address the most pressing challenges facing our communities.

A declining population of college-aged people in New England has increased competition for students among the dozens of schools in the region. Massachusetts has seen about 20 colleges and universities close or merge in the past decade, often due to financial challenges tied to enrollment declines.

Aisha Francis, president and CEO of Benjamin Franklin Cummings Institute of Technology, said Tuesday that the diversity of institutions in New England is important, and worth protecting. BFCIT, which plans to move to a new campus in Roxbury, enrolls about 750 total students, most of whom are men of color from Boston.

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“You need the big comprehensive research [universities,], you need the liberal arts of all sizes, you need technical colleges, and our community college siblings as well,” Francis said. “It’s important that we have the diversity that we do, and that should be cherished and not seen as something that requires undue consolidation.”

Francis said that students today want more flexibility from higher ed institutions, which prompted BFCIT to add more short-term certificate programs for students looking to change careers.

“Those have [been] really popular,” Francis said. “There’s a lot of innovation and interesting things happening in higher education, all in service of trying to reach a consumer that definitely still needs further education in order to grab higher rungs in terms of economic mobility.”

The recent Supreme Court decision that effectively banned the consideration of race in college admissions is top of mind for highly selective colleges, including Wellesley. College President Paula Johnson said that she is concerned the decision will discourage minority and low-income students from applying to competitive schools.

She said she wants to make “a very clear statement that places like ours are places where students of all underrepresented backgrounds are welcome.”

“This decision is truly awful,” said Johnson. “The work we will need to do to double down on our commitment to maintaining the diverse community that we have is significant. We’ve invested more in admissions [and] building relationships with high schools and community-based organizations, both here in Boston and across the country.”

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For Johnson, students give her hope about the future.

“Higher ed is a hopeful place to be because we are really thinking about the future of our world,” Johnson said. “Seeing our young people rebound from what was an incredibly difficult time, and even with all of the mental health issues, their excitement about coming to college and learning about the major issues of the world — that’s real and it’s tangible. That’s our job to keep that fire alive.”

Correction: Due to a reporting error, an earlier version of this story misstated the number of students that Benjamin Franklin Cummings Institute of Technology enrolls.

Boston Globe Today | September 18, 2023
Watch the full episode of Boston Globe Today from September 18, 2023.

Hilary Burns can be reached at hilary.burns@globe.com. Follow her @Hilarysburns.