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Innovation in Higher Education - The Inspiring Story of Dr. Paul LeBlanc

By Fatima Alzahraa Sharouf

Never forget your roots. I really like this expression. One person who personifies this is Dr. Paul LeBlanc, President of Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) and one of America’s ten most innovative university presidents according to Washington Monthly.

Probably most would assume that the president of a major university in the United States comes from an affluent and educated background. However, that is not the case for Dr. LeBlanc. Born in an impoverished farming village in eastern Canada, Dr. LeBlanc’s family immigrated to the United States when he was a child. After settling in the USA, Dr. LeBlanc received his Bachelor’s Degree in English from Framingham State University. He continued his educational pursuits, earning his doctorate and Ph.D. in Rhetoric, Composition and Technology from Massachusetts University.


“I was the first member of my extended family to go to college; it made an enormous difference in my life and created all kinds of opportunities,” he said. “I have seen how much it has changed my life. So, I always wanted to make college access possible for other people.”


As a student refugee in Lebanon, I am a benefactor of Dr. LeBlanc’s commitment to make education accessible for people in different parts of the world. Dr. LeBlanc has spearheaded SNHU’s innovative approach to higher education. When he started his term in 2003, the SNHU student body was only 2,800. Under his leadership, the university developed an online program that helps people from different ages and backgrounds to obtain a degree. This resulted in a dramatic increase; SNHU now has over 150,000 students.


“When I came to SNHU, we were not very well known,” he said. “But we set out to build online programs. We wanted to create educational opportunities for working adults. These programs grew very quickly and we became the fastest growing university in the country. Now we're the largest university in the United States.”


As Dr. LeBlanc has led this transformation, he has been guided by SNHU’s mission: to educate people and help them to transform their lives through better opportunities.


“We think talent and intelligence exist across society, but that not everybody has an equal opportunity,” he explained.


This mission goes beyond the United States’ borders. Dr. LeBlanc and his team kept considering the most vulnerable people - refugees. In 2016, he visited a refugee camp in Rwanda with Dr. Chrystina Russell, who was at the time Vice President for Global Engagement.


“After this visit, I knew we needed to take action,” he said. “I saw so many refugees living in difficult circumstances and they needed opportunities to increase their possibilities through higher education.”


Shortly thereafter, he gave the green light to launch the Global Education Movement (GEM), an initiative that aims to provide high-quality education to refugees from different parts of the world. To date, more than 1,000 students have gone through the GEM program:

  • 98% of students complete an associate degree within two years of commencing their studies through GEM.

  • 88% of refugee students are employed within six months of their graduation.

  • 50% of GEM students are women. (In Lebanon, it is even higher: 60%).

Reflecting on the impact of this initiative Dr. LeBlanc said: “I was asked last year to speak at the World Economic Forum in Davos, the famous gathering of world leaders, to discuss our work with refugees. So the GEM program made this opportunity possible. This is just one example of how this initiative has raised the reputation of the university.”


No one can deny that SNHU has risen to such a high level under Dr. LeBlanc’s administration. Many people instantly associate SNHU with its innovative approach to providing online higher education.


“We have good marketing and know how to tell our story very well,” he said. “That's been attractive to people.”


Another important key to success is the emphasis on opening paths for students by training them to get well paid jobs. Dr. LeBlanc and his colleagues have truly done an outstanding job in listening to the voice and concerns of students.


“We're trying to create an opportunity for them to unlock a better life,” he said.


LeBlanc has been able to tie together his education and earlier work experiences to lead such innovative educational projects. While he was pursuing his PhD, he was also working in an area that was of great interest to him: technology. For three years he was the Director of the Sixth Floor Media with Houghton Mifflin Company, a publisher of educational resources. This opportunity enriched his knowledge on how to merge technology and education.


“I became very convinced of the power of the edge of technology to extend education,” he said.


His first job after receiving his PhD was as a professor at the University of Massachusetts. At the age of 37, he became President at Marlboro College, a private liberal arts college in Marlboro, Vermont. He was surprised to be nominated for this position at such a young age. He spent seven years there, before becoming President of SNHU in 2003.


Advice for aspiring innovators


Here are some of the keys to Dr. LeBlanc’s success as an innovator in higher education.


1. Turn your mistakes into lessons. “Committing mistakes is part of human nature,” he said. “Your real challenge is not avoiding mistakes, but to turn your mistakes into learning that can improve the quality of your work.”


2. Don’t be afraid of innovation and always think about iteration. When you come up with new ideas, it might not be realized instantly. Review what you have done, make changes and then continue to pursue your goal.


3. Think of your WHY. Before you start with an innovative project, ask yourself: Why? Why am I doing this? What is the purpose of walking on this path? Setting your WHY will help you to put in place a clear plan to achieve your goal.


4. Find your call. This relates to passion. Ask yourself: what makes me happy? What is the thing that gives meaning to my life? Your call is the thing that you were born to do regardless of your circumstances.


5. Consider the different facets of innovation. “There are different kinds of innovation,” he explained. “If you want to be faster or superior in your business, it is sustaining innovation and requires one approach. If you want to come up with a totally new idea and take a risk, then this is disruptive innovation and here you play according to your own rules.”


My takeaways

Dr. LeBlanc’s story is truly motivational. This interview has provided me with a memorable experience in every sense of the word. I want to live out some of the characteristics and approaches Dr. LeBlanc highlighted in our discussion.


For example, I want to face my fears. Oftentimes, I don’t feel courageous because I am worried about making mistakes. This discussion underscored that I need to approach mistakes differently. Mistakes are not sins, rather opportunities for learning. It is important that I follow my heart to reach my calling.


Dr. LeBlanc has one of the most inspirational stories that underscores the importance of how education changes people’s lives. His vision has changed a large number of students’ lives, including mine. I am one of GEM’s students who was given the opportunity to earn an undergraduate degree because of Dr. LeBlanc’s faith in the importance of giving equal opportunities to students, especially refugees and displaced people.


Like Dr. LeBlanc, I will remember my roots as I pursue my career goals. I also want to work towards making the world a better place for all refugees and everyone who wants to learn.

Learn more about Dr. Paul LeBlanc via LinkedIn.

Fatima Alzahraa Sharouf is a Business Administration student who is part of the Global Education Movement initiative, at Southern New Hampshire University on a mission to provide access to higher education and a path to employment for refugees. Connect with her on LinkedIn. Fatima wrote this story after going through the Global Innovators Academy's Interview an Innovator experience.

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