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From SAIS President Debra Wilson - August 2019

Monday, August 5, 2019  
Posted by: Abby Schultz
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Dear friends,

Despite having a bit more than a month before school begins, all three of my kids were angling to go school supply shopping in mid-July. They were somehow committed to organizing for the new year, perhaps because summer homework starts to become a bit more real once the halfway mark of summer has passed. Lest you think we have achieved some sort of parenting nirvana, the dining room table is now decorated with a rainbow of binders (all preferred colors), likely not to be cracked for at least another week or two.

I am at least partially to blame for this planning gene as my professional calendar has followed the school year for as long as my children can remember. For 19 years, late July and August have been my time to project forward to the challenges ahead. Although this year finds me in a new and exciting seat, that tendency has not changed.

In speaking with heads over the last few weeks, many have asked what I see as the big issues on the horizon – things we should all be thinking about. While we have no shortage of challenges – financial sustainability, enrollment, student health and wellbeing – there are more specific trends on my mind.

Most immediately in our region this time of year, I worry about heat and student athletes and disaster planning. 2017 was the most expensive year for natural disasters that the United States has ever seen, and 2018 was the fourth. Having watched the possibility of severe storms emerge very early this season, hurricanes are on my mind. Now is the time to revisit your plans with your administrative team, staff, and school community. If you need more resources, here is a good place to start.

Among the larger trends and likely on the minds of a many heads of school are issues related to governance. I encourage you to review the governance guidance article we’ve included in this newsletter and consider registering for the Board/Head Retreat in conjunction with the SAIS Annual Conference. The new SAIS governance videos contain invaluable information and reflection opportunities for your board as you enter your August retreats.

Additionally, I have been paying particular attention to rising concerns of a recession appearing on the horizon. As I write, the Federal Reserve just reduced interest rates for the first time since 2008. Tariff tensions have decreased China’s investment in the U.S. economy, and other indicators have been flagged in major publications. For schools, it is wise to ensure your financial house is in order now. If we do experience a downturn, financial aid requests will grow, families (both of students and staff) may need to move unexpectedly, and budgets will need to be watched closely for adjustments. Schools will want to work with their investment advisors to ensure endowments and other investments are ready for a roller coaster. Now is the time for schools to start playing out table top exercises that ask, “if we lost 20% of our students tomorrow, what would our financial model look like?”

Third, the college admissions scandal has not completely played out yet. Schools would be wise to revisit not just their college admissions processes, but also those related to their own admissions process. I spoke with the Enrollment Management Association on this topic for their podcast this spring. If you have not reviewed both processes, particularly for those students with special gifts and skills, now is a great time to do so.

On a cheerier note, as someone who loves to read, I am really looking forward to the release of three books this fall.

The first is The Infinite Game by Simon Sinek. It is the deep dive on his talks on the same topic that you can find on YouTube. If you are looking for a retreat-minded video on the topic, I am partial to this one, which he gave at a higher education event. The book will be released in mid-October and focuses readers on the true purpose of their work, as well as the key ingredients for how to get there.

The second book is Choosing College: How to Make Better Learning Decisions Throughout Your Life, by Michael Horn and Bob Moesta. For this book, Michael Horn worked with the Jobs-to-Be-Done guru, Bob Moesta, to identify the real reasons someone goes to college. It will be released in early September. This book is likely to shake up the traditional paradigms of thinking about college according to U.S. News & World Report rankings and might help our schools get parents and students to think about higher education with a wider lens.

Lastly, but certainly not least, Shafia Zaloom’s Sex, Teens, and Everything in Between will be released in early September. This book covers many topics related to sexuality for today’s young adults. It will be helpful for parents, educators, and others in the lives of teens, particularly those concerned about the difficult issues of peer-to-peer sexual assault. 

As always, there’s no end to the list concerns our schools will face in the year ahead. We at SAIS are here to help you navigate your course and I am particularly excited to have joined the team this year!


Debra P. Wilson
President, SAIS


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