Dr Mary Landon Darden: Catalysing the Future of Higher Education with an Entrepreneurial Approach
Mary Landon

Educational institutions are instrumental in equipping students with the skills, knowledge, and personal attributes necessary to navigate a successful and fulfilling future. However, what guides schools onto transformative paths are organizations like Higher Education Innovation, LLC. With a mission to empower colleges to adapt, innovate, and thrive in a rapidly changing world, President Dr Mary Landon Darden’s visionary approach serves as an inspiration for women aspiring to create meaningful change in academia.

Darden began her higher education leadership journey as a second career in the mid-1990s. She became the wellness director and subsequently added the position of coordinator of community programs, which was a tiny division of the college at that time. Over the next seven years of innovation and entrepreneurship work, along with her administrative assistant and support team of interns, they were able to build the enrolment of that division from a few hundred to 6000 part-time enrolments.

Entrepreneurial Revolution of Higher Education

Darden has won a few state awards, but the big one was the 2001 National Exemplary Award from the National Council of Continuing Education and Training. At that time, she was offered a full research assistantship for her doctorate in educational administration at Baylor University. She completed that program in 2006 and began consulting, researching, and writing.

She worked directly and indirectly with a number of institutions and organizations and published her first book with The American Council on Education (ACE) and Rowman & Littlefield (R & L) in 2009, Beyond 2020:  Envisioning the Future of Universities in America. In 2010, she accepted a position as Dean of a satellite campus for Concordia University Texas in San Antonio.

There, along with her great team, she continued to build partnerships with businesses and industry and develop out-of-the-box programming and delivery mostly to non-traditional students. In 2015, she left to found Higher Education Innovation, LLC (HEI), a company that focused on the entrepreneurial transformation of higher education and its leadership.

In 2021, she published her second book (also published with ACE and R & L), Entrepreneurship the Future of Higher Education:  Radical Transformation in Times of Profound Change, which won the 2021 American Bookfest Award (education/scholarly) and was named a winner of the “Bookauthority Best Higher Education Books of all Time.”

In nearly eight years of working with institutions across the nation, Higher Education Innovation, LLC has had a 100 per cent success rate in assisting colleges and universities in developing entrepreneurial presidents and administrators, increasing enrolment from 20 to 40 percent, building business and industry partnerships, and expanding workforce training and credentialling, starting philanthropy programs, running innovation workshops to help institutions re-envision their role for the future with relevant programming, emerging fields, niche development, job-market alignment and more.

Catalyst in Radical Transformation

HEI now has a team of accomplished higher education specialists/consultants who help lead institutions into future success.     

Through Darden’s work and research with multiple institutions, she has long seen the emerging crisis in higher education. The resistance to change – which for so long was somewhat of a stabilizing force for the academy in times of gradual change – is now the albatross around its neck.

Darden believes that the American higher education system is failing in large part. Many long-established colleges and universities are on the verge of closing. Darden’s vision for HEI was to find a way to radically and constructively self-disrupt higher education using what was working – and overcoming what was not working – according to HEI’s research and successful innovation. The mission of HEI is to “entrepreneur the future of higher education by assisting colleges in being more innovative and entrepreneurial to make the critical pivots necessary for their continued success.”

Higher education has changed far too slowly. HEI’s primary goal now and for the future is to be a leading catalyst and partner for radically transforming higher education into what the world needs it to be to meet the extraordinary change that is continuing and escalating for everyone. To do this, HEI is currently partnering on various initiatives with organizations like The League for Innovation in the Community College and the National Association for Community College Entrepreneurship. It plans to conduct in-depth studies along with successful institutional presidents from across the U.S. to impact and accelerate the transformation process maximally.

Adapting Changes

The most significant challenges Darden has encountered in her years working with the academy are risk aversion, resistance to change, fear (mostly of failure), and inability or unwillingness to make the necessary stretches into the future. Research, training, tenacity, and success in training and implementation have been the keys to overcoming these challenges where they can be overcome.

One of her greatest moments of glory was when she conducted an assessment of her first college that had not been growing in enrolment despite being in one of the fastest-growing areas in the country. From the findings and recommendations, the college was able to increase its enrolment by 37 per cent by the following fall semester.

This spurred Darden to continue and accelerate her outreach and research, including writing her second book. The awards she is most proud of are the 2001 NCCET National Exemplary Award, the 2021 American Bookfest Award for her second book, and the 2018 Distinguished Alumni Award from The University of Texas Permian Basin. All of these helped Darden realize that she was on the right track and inspired her to ramp up the work.

The key principles that have guided Darden in her leadership style and decision-making are integrity, trustworthiness, transparency, compassion, kindness, collaboration/teamwork, honesty, communication and listening, admitting when wrong, innovation, investing in the success of others, leading by example.

Building Greater Relevancy

Perhaps the most pressing issue in higher education is the falling behind in the ability to prepare students for the current and emerging job market. It is important to look at the relevancy of the courses and programs. Darden believes that educational institutions must teach students to think critically and communicate, as well as prepare them for careers.

Because of its research and successes, HEI is positioned to assist institutions to self-disrupt and build greater relevancy. The academy has already been disrupted by the private sector to the tune of almost 3000 companies that are doing just that and are entering the degree-granting and/or credentialing market.

Expanding Operational Scale

Darden was tasked with the crucial mission of researching and developing essential training for innovative leaders in the education sector. This responsibility was entrusted to her by Kentucky Community and Technical College System President Jay Box and George Washington University President Emeritus Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, who expressed firm confidence in her abilities. Darden drew strength from their continued support and encouragement as she embarked on this monumental undertaking.

She hopes to work with higher education organizations to build and implement on a large scale what HEI has been able to do on a much smaller scale. She will be asking higher education to think less “Ivory Tower” and more “Silicon Valley” in their approach to the future.

Darden has some advice for other women aspiring to make a difference in higher education – and some of this is based on her dissertation, where she studied the success of 18 women presidents. She believes that women should know that they will have to work harder, produce more, make fewer mistakes, sometimes take bigger risks, communicate very well, and be prepared to stretch into new and different education skill areas. But, perhaps most importantly, they need to make it a point to mentor other women and help move them into innovative leadership roles.

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