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Leadership Library Selection: Becoming Great Universities

With the high price of attending college today and an ever-changing employment market—now challenged by the advent of high-functioning AI models—the quality and purpose of higher education has come into question.

Harvard Professor Richard J. Light and Nonprofit Leader and Higher Education Strategist Allison Jegla tackle this subject in "Becoming Great Universities: Small Steps for Sustained Excellence." Following years of research, they put pen to paper to map out affordable (oftentimes entirely free) ways for universities to make a greater impact on students, in both learning outcomes and the overall college experience.

In the book, the authors focus on providing ways to create continuous improvement to meet demands now and in the future to avoid falling behind the times. Through actionable steps, higher ed institutions can begin to better meet students where they are in their educational journeys.


It's easy to become a passive participant at school, but Light and Jegla advocate ways to create change agents instead—students who get involved in making a positive impact on themselves and the people around them.

They write, "When campus culture sends signals to each person at a university that they have a special opportunity to make a positive difference and to enhance the 'common good' at their campus, such a culture is especially productive." The book breaks down how to achieve this, while also taking the challenges into account.

Of course, turning a university into a student engagement powerhouse won't happen overnight. They write about this, and the challenges along the way, including factors like the size of the school, the level of affluence in the student body, whether the school is in a rural or urban setting, and many other descriptors, offering outlets for all schools to build stronger connections. 

Success Starts with Students

Each chapter highlights a different core challenge universities face today and a research-backed suggestion for how schools can approach it. Ultimately, Light and Jegla take a holistic view when mapping out ways universities can succeed.

"A recurring theme throughout this book is our view that each member of a campus community—from a president or chancellor to faculty to various staff and even including students—each can play a positive role," they write.

With that approach, the reader will be clued into the fact early on that all of the suggestions throughout the book are incredibly cost-effective. In other words: there's no reason universities should not be taking action.

The authors continually lift student voices up as well and ask universities to listen to what their students are asking for. "What better way to treat students with respect than to ask them about their experiences, invite their feedback and suggestions, rigorously analyze and synthesize what they say, and then to take their observations seriously?"

No matter the school, the prestige behind the name, or lack thereof, these are the actionable low- or no-cost solutions to common problems so many universities are facing today, at a time when trust is low, and the gap between college and career seems only to be widening.

Attending college is still such an important way to get ahead, and remains the benchmark for long-term financial security, but universities need to ensure continual improvement and deliver real value to students. And, according to Light and Jegla, it all starts with them.

"We believe the impact that student leaders can have for setting a constructive tone at a university is sometimes underestimated."

Key Takeaways: "Becoming Great Universities"

In their book, Light and Jegla write about:

  • The importance of a strong campus culture to create continuous improvement.
  • Actionable and affordable steps to make an immediate impact.
  • Leveraging diversity and inclusion to bring students together.
  • Strategies to create feedback loops with students to hear what they want.
  • Preparing students for an interconnected and global economy.

Read Richard J. Light and Allison Jegla's "Becoming Great Universities: Small Steps for Sustained Excellence" and discover ways higher ed can be improving their methods for a modern world.

Read Our Exclusive Interview with Allison Jegla Below:

What initially motivated you to tackle this subject matter?

"Becoming Great Universities" highlights ten core challenges faced by colleges and universities of all types—public to private, urban to rural, small to large. As we conceptualized the book, our top priority was making it as useful as possible for anyone on campus, not just those with the ability to develop and execute on lengthy strategic plans. We wanted everyone, from the first-year undergraduate all the way to the university president, to feel inspired to try something new. It was also important for us to make sure our recommendations were accessible to any institution, not just the ones that have large endowments. That is why nearly all of the innovations we cover cost $0 or very near to it. In short, this book was inspired by our mutual love for and optimism about the future of higher education, and we wanted its contents to reflect that.

What is your connection to your co-author Richard J. Light, and what inspired you both to collaborate on a book?

From first glance, Dick and I couldn’t be more different. He is a grandfather and longtime Harvard professor who grew up in the Bronx and attended an unchallenging high school. I am a recent graduate student who went to a small high school in rural mid-Michigan. When we arrived at the University of Pennsylvania for college, albeit separated by roughly fifty years, we each struggled. Both of us ultimately figured it out, thanks in part to Penn’s strong commitment to its students’ success. That bit of shared history, even though our experiences were so many years apart, gave the two of us plenty to talk about when we were fortuitously paired as academic advisor and graduate student advisee at Harvard. In our many conversations, particularly about the powerful impact that a great university can have on many aspects of students’ lives, we realized that we had a unique perspective to share.

You recently were a panelist for a discussion about the skills gap between college and career. Do you think colleges are doing enough to prepare students for the workforce, and is career preparedness part of creating a great university today?

Put very simply, the core theme of the book is that great universities are those that have a culture of continuous improvement and spirit of innovation. As the world of work evolves, this naturally means that colleges and universities will have to do so as well if they want to be or stay great. This has less to do with curriculum (though that, of course, will evolve, too) and more to do with approach. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that few of us remember what we learned in individual college classes, and even fewer use that specific information in our professional lives. What we do use is the ability to collaborate with people who perhaps don’t share our opinions, the spirit of dedication inherent in working toward a goal, the ability to analyze new information and communicate an informed opinion, and so much more. As the world of work changes, great universities will continue providing a platform for students to learn and practice these skills.

You offer amazing advice for universities to continually improve—what about the individual college student starting out in 2023? What number one piece of advice would you give them?

My top piece of advice for new undergraduates hinges on a concept that we introduce in the book called investing versus harvesting. In short, investing is when students try something completely new—perhaps engaging in an extracurricular they hadn’t experienced in high school or taking a course on a topic that is completely unfamiliar. Harvesting is the opposite: it’s when students continue to pursue something that they already know they excel at and have since high school. Maybe they audition for an acapella group after years of being in choir or continue studying French. As students arrive on campuses this fall, I would encourage them to be mindful of striking a balance between investing and harvesting, being intentional about crafting a college experience in which they can embrace new ideas while continuing to cultivate existing talents.

AI seems to be the number one topic today. How do you see its advances affecting the college experience for students and faculty? Any reason for concern? And do you think the colleges that embrace it will be the ones that will become great?

Artificial intelligence seems to be inspiring awe and fear in relatively equal measures. For today’s undergraduates—who have already weathered immense uncertainty brought on by a pandemic and economic turbulence—I absolutely understand how AI could feel like just one more thing to threaten their career prospects. However, I am increasingly optimistic on the situation, particularly as we begin to hear stories of how institutions are already incorporating it into their curriculums. Harvard’s CS50 course, for example, will take advantage of an AI platform to help students learn more efficiently and ideally approximate a 1:1 teacher-to-student ratio, according to Professor David Malan.

Short-term risks are, of course, primarily around academic integrity, and I guarantee that just about every college and university is reviewing or creating its own AI policies this summer. This is nothing new—we did the same thing after the rise of the internet made plagiarism more difficult to detect.

Like it or not, AI is here to stay and will be a part of students’ career journeys. I believe that the colleges who embrace its potential—and the students who look to it with possibility rather than disdain—will establish themselves as leaders as we look to the future.