Rivalry and Education

Rivalry and Education

Jordan vs. Pistons. Magic vs. Bird. Bears vs. Packers. Ohio State vs. Michigan. Ali vs. Frazier. These are all huge rivalries that have left their mark on the world of sports.

A quick Google search shows the definition of rivalry as “competition for the same objective or for superiority in the same field.” And for these individuals and teams, their rivalries challenged and drove them to be better, stronger, smarter, and do whatever it takes to win.

Rivalry and competition have always been a major part of my life. Growing up, I had an older brother who I wanted to beat in everything. I had a best friend with whom I competed in everything from Nintendo Golf to who can make the most money trading baseball cards.

People who knew me then would have ever thought that I would enter the world of education. For many, rivalry and competition are the last things they associate with the world of education. But it’s here and it is a big part of everything that goes on in higher ed.

In my eyes, rivalry and competition are not a bad thing. What rivalry really does is make each side work harder to get better. It drives us to put in that extra effort to succeed whether they are an underdog or a favorite. It can really bring out the best in someone. But there is another aspect of rivalries. They create compelling stories. Competition gives us a place to test ourselves against others and learn from the results. In competition we use all kinds of metrics like batting average, greens in regulation, shooting percentage, etc. to make sense and add dimension to the competition beyond just the score and end result.

In higher ed, where I have focused my career, we see rivalry in the classroom (think teachers grading on a curve or someone trying to be the top of the class) and in all aspects of curriculum and program development. As a former Dean and leader, I saw it everyday with all the schools I work with and with all my peers.

And now as a consultant I am often hired to help schools find the next “wave” to surf or build a program that can be successful in an already competitive landscape. There is this competitive need to be as successful as others, whether they are a rival or not. There are schools and specific Continuing Ed or Extension units we try to emulate because they make $40M to $200M in revenue per year. They may not be in our city, state, or region, but the pool of available students shrinks with every new program offered at all these institutions.

So what do we do? We get better. We research more. We understand our brand and work towards building the programs we know can make us better. Like the world of sports, our rivalries create a better end result for those we serve.

Are you a rural institution? You need to know the extent of your reach, the demographics within that area, and who is your real competition. Are you in a large, urban area with several big name institutions close by? What is your brand? What are you known for? How will you differentiate yourself?

Universities are competing with community colleges, other universities, pop-up organizations, and non-profits who are growing thanks to access to more and more federal and state monies.

The fact is, whether in my youth, as a Dean or now as a consultant, I never really thought, and still don’t think, of these other people, institutions, or organizations as just competition. We are rivals. Not adversaries, or combatants, mind you, but competitors. These rivals drive me to research more, innovate better, and make better decisions that will lead to success. My rivals motivate me to work harder.

Today, this insatiable appetite to be better continues to drive me. Every city I visit, I am always on the lookout of what is happening. My research of current events, future outlooks, and gaps in the marketplace is ongoing. In cities where I do not even work or have a client, there is already a folder on my laptop with ideas and market gaps needing to be filled (hopefully for an institution willing to make the jump).

I write this piece specifically with those of you who are worried about what others close to you are doing. From as nearby as the next cubicle to the institution 40 miles away, remember there is something missing, a gap needing to be filled. Do your research and find it. Then follow the data and go after it. No matter how crazy it may seem, see it through. You never know if that drive that brought you to this point has developed into the next big thing in education. Do not fear competition or let it discourage you from moving into a market. Think of it as a rivalry that will make everyone better.

Meni Sarris, Ed.D.

Meni Sarris, Ed.D. is co-founder of SpurCG.