Integrate social-emotional learning throughout K-12 education to promote greater emotional intelligence and skills in communication, collaboration and cooperation.
Many students applying to enter college programs have deficiencies in these areas, which places a great burden on both them and their university to enhance these skills while also learning the actual curriculum of the program they are pursuing.
As a part of my interview series about the things that should be done to improve the US educational system, I had the pleasure to interview Dr. Anthony M. Lee, President and CEO of Westcliff University.
Dr. Anthony Lee is the President of Westcliff University in Irvine, California, one of the fastest-growing universities in the U.S., going from less than 100 students in 2015 to over 3,000 students in 2020. Dr. Lee has served in leadership positions across numerous universities and schools in the U.S. and internationally, and has successfully led schools through the accreditation process at the university and K-12 levels. With expertise in innovative online and hybrid programs, Dr. Lee has launched new programs integrating technology with traditional campus-based classes as well as fully online classes to enhance the learning experience. He is a proven leader in many critical areas within higher education including marketing, finance, operations, compliance and accreditation.
Dr. Lee earned his Doctorate in Educational Leadership from the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education with a concentration in Higher Education Administration, and completed his dissertation on innovative international expansion strategies in higher education. Additionally, Dr. Lee earned a Master of Business Administration from the University of California, Los Angeles Anderson School of Management focusing on strategy and entrepreneurship and a Bachelor of Arts from University of California, Irvine, majoring in economics and minoring in management.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the “backstory” behind what brought you to this particular career path?
My passion for education comes primarily from my father. He is a very successful educational entrepreneur who has started schools that have educated over 10,000 students in multiple countries. My father taught me the value of education and how to inspire others through teaching, training and leading by example. He is the source of my ambition, my persistence and my loyalty to those that work with me. He prepared me for a career in this field and I will always be grateful to him for that.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
The story that stands out is our recent acquisition of Western State College of Law. My leadership team and I had a law school on our list of potential fields to venture into someday. Out of nowhere, a former colleague approached me to let me know that the parent company of the oldest law school in Orange County was folding and the law school would likely close with it. Through some initial discovery, we found that there was an opportunity to save the school and bring it under the banner of Westcliff University. Months of hard work, negotiations, regulatory meetings, court proceedings and several late-night meetings led to a successful acquisition in early 2020. We were able to preserve the law school’s accreditation under the ABA, which is the highest form of accreditation for that field. To start all of that from scratch would have taken ten years or more, and my team and I took this opportunity and made it happen in less than two. I am so proud to have been able to save that school not only for Westcliff but for all of the students and alumni of Western State.
The greatest lesson to come from that experience was that we must always be ready for an opportunity when it presents itself. We were lucky, but we had put ourselves in a position to be able to capitalize on that luck, and now the legacy of Westcliff grows with the addition of Western State because of it.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
My goal is to make Westcliff University a leader in educational innovation, and we have several programs going on right now that are driving us toward that goal. Our Innovation Hub is the center of our more creative initiatives, including several projects and ventures designed to create innovative learning opportunities for our students and for the larger community. Among these are our burgeoning entrepreneurship program, an upcoming business incubator, a coding bootcamp program launching next Spring and our SMART Capstone Project, a course designed for MBA students to work directly with startup companies applying the skills and knowledge they acquired to address real-world opportunities within these organizations.
Westcliff University has several Affiliate Institutions around the world that help facilitate the offering of Westcliff online programs to people in locations that may not have the opportunity to study abroad in the U.S. During the pandemic, when travel was not an option, it was an extremely helpful solution for international students. Not to mention, it is also a cost-effective solution for students who cannot afford to come to the US to study. Westcliff also has many university partnerships around the world through which students can complete their degrees at Westcliff by participating in 2+2 or 3+1 programs. In addition, we offer short-term customized programs and certificate programs whereby students can come to the U.S. for a shorter period of time and still participate in a quality American university program.
Another program that Westcliff University is proud of — as we are one of the first universities to do this — is our fully online intensive English program. The program was launched just before the global pandemic. While many universities have intensive English programs on their campuses, ours is especially unique in the online space. This program is also unusual in that Westcliff offers academic credits for its intensive English program because it contains a lot of college-readiness and cross-cultural communications content. The program is very intensive, yet it is quite affordable, like all of Westcliff’s programs. We are currently offering a partial scholarship for this program to do our part to help offset the difficulties people have experienced due to the pandemic.
Lastly, Westcliff University is proud to be launching its entrance into secondary education with the opening of the Westcliff STEAM Preparatory Academy in 2021. The high school will begin as an online high school and will later have onsite and boarding facilities. The high school encompasses the Westcliff educational philosophy that caters to a focus on Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics because these are the fields that will most shape the global economy in the 21st century.
Can you briefly share with our readers why you are authority in the education field?
I have been surrounded by education for as long as I can remember. From my earliest childhood, my family has worked in education at both the K-12 and university level. I received my doctoral degree from USC in Educational Leadership, and I am the President of a regionally-accredited university that has been in existence for over 25 years. Fortunately, the institution I lead has received many commendations as a well-run educational institution, from regional and programmatic accreditors; to business leaders in the industries we educate; to our most important stakeholder, our students. I am humbled to say that our students continuously provide us with an over 90 percent satisfaction rate and serve as a referral source for nearly half of our incoming classes.
In addition, I have had the honor of serving on accreditation teams to evaluate other institutions, assess their processes and compliance with accreditation standards, share feedback on how they can improve, and ultimately earn accreditation. My expertise has allowed me to serve as an accreditation consultant for the California state regulatory body in evaluating other institutions, and I have always been able to learn a tremendous amount from these experiences. To this day, I continue to work as an education consultant and help other schools with marketing and recruitment, international expansion, online delivery and navigating the accreditation process.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. From your point of view, how would you rate the results of the US education system?
I believe there is room for improvement in the U.S. education system. The system is in need of a significant overhaul to bring it further into the 21st century. The private sector and certain players within the public sector that embrace entrepreneurial thinking are primed to advance the field, yet there are barriers to doing so. All institutions at every level must embrace the change that is being demanded by a new generation of learners, a competitive global community and technology capable of transforming the teaching and learning experience. Some are doing this, but not enough and not to a great enough degree.
The U.S. has great institutions of higher education, yet we rank as the 6th most educated nation in the world. I think that is unacceptable and would like to see us leading the world in education. Cost is a significant barrier for many in our nation, which is why we strive to maintain affordable tuition at Westcliff.
Can you identify 5 areas of the US education system that are going really great?
- Movement toward embracing technology — COVID-19 has thrust most educational institutions into online learning, and since necessity is the mother of innovation, I believe more universities and employers will see the value in an online degree.
- Short-term programs — Businesses have begun to demand focused skill sets in addition to college degrees, and we as an industry are listening and responding with more short-term certificate programs, such as the Westcliff bootcamp, designed to get students skilled and ready for the workforce as quickly as possible. These types of micro-credentials and stackable certificates allow students to get jobs earlier in their educational journey.
- Investigation of new teaching methods — Competency-based education provides students the opportunity to learn at a pace they are comfortable with and demonstrate their success through application as opposed to how many hours they spend in a classroom. As more institutions get on board with this approach, regulatory bodies must figure out how to provide students an adequate means to pursue this style of learning.
- Focus on assessing and improving learning outcomes — Accreditation across the country has embraced assessment of learning outcomes as a means of evaluating the effectiveness of institutions. This puts the onus on the institution to use data to ensure that they are delivering content in a manner that students are receptive to.
- Improvement in online delivery of content — New tools and techniques for how to approach online education in a variety of ways are being made available every day, even more so in response to the pandemic. This massive shift in online learning has led more companies toward innovation as they aim to replicate the experience of the brick-and-mortar classroom in distance education.
Can you identify the 5 key areas of the US education system that should be prioritized for improvement? Can you explain why those are so critical?
- Communication Skills — Students must be able to better communicate with others and thus better explain their ideas so that they can translate their potential into their success. Generations that are growing up with social media can struggle with authentic communication if it is not continually and effectively reinforced throughout their education.
- Mathematics and Technology — The industries of tomorrow are going to demand STEM-related skills. Students must be proficient in mathematics and fluent in technology to be competitive in the careers that are likely to dominate the 21st century.
- Cost — With a 1.5 trillion dollar student loan debt crisis on our hands, we cannot afford for students to keep borrowing money to pay for overpriced degrees that do not lead to meaningful employment opportunities with salaries sufficient enough to pay them back. The American educational experience must be affordable for all who want to seek it, including international students from low-income countries who seek an American degree as a means of improving themselves and their communities.
- Internships — By and large, students go to school so that they can transition into a career. Education has to prepare them for that career by teaching them skills that they can use immediately in the workforce. Developing career readiness through practical application opportunities, such as internships, should be priority number one for any degree program.
- Equity — Education can and should be a means of gaining upward social mobility, yet access to education continues to have a gap. Institutions of higher education must adapt their programs to the learning needs of non-traditional students who may be balancing several other responsibilities while pursuing their education. We must create clearer pathways between the ladder and those who have the most room to climb it for our education system to truly fulfill its purpose of providing opportunities for anyone to create a better future for themselves.
How is the US doing with regard to engaging young people in STEM? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?
STEM concepts are just starting to be truly embedded into K-12 curriculum, and this trend should keep moving in that direction. These concepts should be infused into learning at a very early age to allow students to advance their understanding as they develop and progress through their education.
Professional educators must embrace an active learning approach as STEM concepts are best learned by doing. Students need to experience science and technology, learning through trial and error, and be able to apply learned information immediately and frequently.
Many efforts are being made to engage more female students in STEM early on, and those must continue as well. Half of the population has been turned off by an industry that until recently refused to embrace them. Our efforts must go above and beyond what we might think so that a young girl’s pursuit of STEM-based learning is normalized in every aspect of society.
Can you articulate to our readers why it’s so important to engage girls and women in STEM subjects?
Tremendous opportunities are available in STEM subjects, and there is absolutely no reason that those opportunities should be made more available to anyone based on any other factor other than how hard they are willing to work to seize them. Gender-based barriers have no place in our society, and the more girls and women engage with subjects that have previously excluded them, the closer we get to making these barriers truly obsolete.
How is the US doing with regard to engaging girls and women in STEM subjects? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?
Not very well. Women remain quite disproportionately represented in engineering and science professions. When a young girl demonstrates an early interest in these subjects, our education system must reinforce this interest and encourage efforts to pursue them.
School districts should prioritize classroom resources and materials (such as textbooks) that provide equal examples of females in STEM industries (compared to males) so that they may serve as role models for young girls with similar interests.
Beyond classroom materials, schools must highlight examples of successful women in STEM to all students to normalize male acceptance of women with interest in STEM subjects as well.
As an education professional, where do you stand in the debate whether there should be a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) or on STEAM (STEM plus the arts like humanities, language arts, dance, drama, music, visual arts, design and new media)? Can you explain why you feel the way you do?
STEAM is a model that is more comprehensively inclusive of valuable skills for success, including critical thinking and the appreciation for humanity and aesthetics that is gained from studying the arts. Hard skills are important to do the STEM-related work that needs to be done, yet soft skills are just as essential for understanding why the work needs to be done, what impact it has on society and the world and how to relate to others while doing it.
If you had the power to influence or change the entire US educational infrastructure what five things would you implement to improve and reform our education system? Can you please share a story or example for each?
- Integrate social-emotional learning throughout K-12 education to promote greater emotional intelligence and skills in communication, collaboration and cooperation. Many students applying to enter college programs have deficiencies in these areas, which places a great burden on both them and their university to enhance these skills while also learning the actual curriculum of the program they are pursuing.
- Level the playing field for all forms of higher education (public, private, traditional, online, vocational). All education institutions must be held accountable to the same standards as to whether or not they must meet outcomes related to student achievement and placement.
- Implement long-term policies that cannot be overturned or reversed with a changing administration to allow for long-term planning at educational institutions. Strategic planning becomes difficult when government policies on regulating education and immigration change drastically after a four-year presidential term.
- Increase salaries for teachers to a level that reflects the true value of their roles. Teaching is a profession that has gone undervalued in this country for far too long. The dedication and commitment teachers make, and the role they play in preparing future generations are not matched by current salaries.
- Create manageable student-to-teacher ratios. At every level of education, students deserve a degree of personalized attention. Overcrowded classrooms limit an educator’s ability to address the unique needs of each student and put students at-risk for not getting their educational needs met and falling behind.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.” — Gandhi
As a leader, I drive my team to always be learning so that we can always be growing. We take action swiftly so that we can make the most out of the opportunities presented to us. We stay alert, always looking to learn something new so that we can translate that knowledge into action and provide more and better opportunities for our students.
We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
CEO of LinkedIn, Jeff Weiner
Jeff Weiner took LinkedIn from a modest company with 400 employees to a global leader with over 16,000 employees. His company became a household name and he achieved that with a focus on creating and maintaining a culture of compassion. He made every employee feel like they were a part of his team, and through those connections and monitoring the pulse of the organization, he drove their efforts to fulfill his vision for the company.
These are goals I strive to achieve as an executive. To be able to sit and discuss this style of leadership with someone who has done it so successfully would not only be an honor, it would be an incredible learning experience for me.
How can our readers follow you on social media?