A scrappy university that has always fought above its weight class aims to make a big dent in the national economy with collaborative leadership.

“Sixty percent of those who start a course of education, sadly, do not complete it,” Bellevue University President Dr. Mary Hawkins told the Albany Times-Union earlier this year. She cited this as a major reason workers get left behind. “If we can motivate those students to return later in life, there could be a positive impact upon the nation.”

Such a bold push may not have been possible. Hawkins never intended to live in Omaha. From kindergarten at Blessed Sacrament, to grade school at Christ the King and then Marian High School, Hawkins headed west after graduation. Studying agricultural economics at the University of California-Davis and business administration at the University of Arizona, she was never planning on going into education or nursing, which were among the few established career fields for women at the time.

But when she met and married an Air Force man, she found herself heading to Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda, halfway up the index finger of Michigan. Overqualified, she worked as a freelancer on operation manuals for the base. When an Offutt assignment brought them back to Omaha, she was ready to work.

Metropolitan Community College called first; she started there as a retention counselor, which was a prescient beginning. When she took the chair of industrial technologies, it changed her outlook on learning. This was, quite possibly, the spark that today ignites Bellevue University’s fire to change education.

 “I really came to value learning. It was different from general business and arts learning. In an automotive program you get the vehicle right, get chemical mixes right, you actually have to do,” she emphasized, “and master what you are learning. There is no ‘oh, I got the brakes 70 percent right, they sort of stop, but they don’t.’ ”

 “It was interesting to see that performance was so tied to learning. I developed a deep respect for learning that is absolutely applied. Healthcare is the same thing. You have that in a lot of those fields. That was fun.”

She came to Bellevue in 1995 as vice president of marketing, moving to Provost and taking charge of academic affairs in 2000 and becoming president in 2009. During that time, Bellevue University grew from 2,000 students at two locations to 11,000 at 12 locations in five states and everywhere online. One of the first accredited educational institutions to start offering online degree programs in 1996, its online platform is award-winning and was the first to offer a Masters in Business Administration. The results have been world-class.

According to U.S. News & World Report, “Leadership Excellence magazine ranked Bellevue University among the top 15 schools in the country for developing leaders, along with Harvard, MIT and Northwestern, to name a few … the only accredited university to win a Corporate University Best in Class award … ranked No. 1 for three years in a row [by Modern Healthcare magazine’s annual list of the nation’s largest master’s healthcare programs]; most recently, the United States Distance Learning Association awarded … [them] . . .  the prestigious 21st Century Best Practices Award.”

Seated at a small table, Hawkins discusses creativity in a flurry of thoughts woven together, at one point offering up that she’s not a “linear thinker.” As the interview progresses, she asks questions for all the answers she gives, creating an interaction that is both conversational and collaborative. She pulls you in so you can learn something together. It even flows into her sense of space. “I like kitchen tables,” she explained. “I like working at a table where you have your cofee and water.” It’s a space where the conversation can run deep.

It seems as if she really enjoys learning, which is useful given her challenges. Hawkins see three big things that need to change in higher education.

“One, we have really got to pay attention to knowing that learning occured, not assuming that students learn because they went through a class. We are looking at how can we measure mastery.

“Two, the skills that most employers complain about are critical thinking and communication. How do we embed those into our curriculum and continue to reinforce those throughout?”

Which leads to two and a half.

“In education, we’ve made learning variable and time fixed. You have 12 weeks for a course. You may not have learned enough, you may have learned adequately or you may have mastered, but that’s the variable — the learning. You need to get to that mastery if it takes you 6, 12 or 18 weeks. Time needs to be variable, and learning needs to be our fixed measure.

“The third thing is the financial burden. Students need to be able to graduate and earn a living. It’s not so much about the price as the value.

“There are couple things that build student debt. One is time. If they keep going to school, they continue to borrow, and they will accrue more debt. Two: only borrow what you need. Three: be sure you leverage whatever you’ve got. . . . be purposeful. Your major matters.”

Which brings us back to the intangible that Bellevue University is trying to tackle with its new website, MakeItHappenNow.org. It targets the 38 million Americans with college credit but no marketable degree.

“We’ve been very focused around creating confidence in people,” said Hawkins. “You have to believe in yourself to allow yourself to be creative. If you’re waiting for someone else to tell you what do, if you don’t believe you can help solve a problem or don’t believe your ideas have merit, it’s not going to benefit your organization or community.”

Or benefit yourself, for that matter.

“We really try to teach people that they are responsible,” she added. “You have responsibilities. If you want life to be good, you need to care about voting, you need to care about who is in office, the laws and regulations, you need to care about systems and infrastructure.”

Hawkins sees Belleuve’s role continuing to grow in Omaha’s creative economy. In a fast-changing world, knowledge is readily available online and educators need to build practical skills.

“We’re a part of the process,” she said. “The thing we’re doing is to de-silo education. We’re looking at curriculum more broadly instead of each individual 3-credit class. What’s the whole learning experience, how do we integrate that?

“We are in the inventing process. It’s not well-traveled ground. We continue to calibrate it. Education is in a tremendous change process now. The threat is also the same as the excitement. It’s the unknown. It’s creativity. It’s changing the model.”

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