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Innovator Dr. Paul LeBlanc Leaves Southern New Hampshire University’s Presidency: What’s Next?

Anyone interested in online education will eventually hear about Dr. Paul LeBlanc, the visionary president of Southern New Hampshire University. In December 2023, SNHU announced that Dr. LeBlanc would step down after two decades in which he transformed a struggling college with less than 2,500 learners into America’s largest university, now enrolling 224,000 students.

“Paul’s two decades of leadership have not only transformed SNHU, but also the landscape of higher education,” said the American Council on Education’s President Ted Mitchell in a statement. “His dedication to student success and willingness to challenge the status quo underscore a legacy that will resonate far beyond his tenure. Paul has not just led, but he has redefined what it means to be a true innovator in higher education.”

An English Professor Excited by Tech and Innovation

Dr. LeBlanc’s background isn’t typical of many professors or university presidents. A first-generation college student who grew up in a working-class immigrant family from Quebec and worked construction jobs to pay his tuition, Dr. LeBlanc graduated from college at Westfield State University. He then earned a master’s degree in English from Boston College, followed in 1990 by a PhD in rhetoric, composition, and technology from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Forbes’ education editor Susan Adams reported that during his PhD studies, Dr. LeBlanc had become excited by the possibilities offered by technology. He had started lecturing at academic conferences to advocate that textbook publishers should begin offering digital course materials.

Dr. LeBlanc then gained early experience with innovation while setting up a technology startup subsidiary for the Houghton Mifflin Company. During those three years, he developed a networked, collaborative text-editing software application similar to Google Docs’ first version.

He then turned down a lucrative job offer from Houghton to take the president’s job at tiny Marlboro College in Vermont, where he spent seven years. The $44 million he had raised saved the 300-student school from collapse, but its board of trustees rejected proposals by Dr. LeBlanc to introduce online courses. Fortunately, nearby Southern New Hampshire University had been looking for a new leader, and their board wasn’t as resistant to new ideas.

Betting Big on Online Education

But upon taking over as president at Southern New Hampshire in 2003, Dr. LeBlanc faced a fiscal crisis that posed a challenging dilemma: either bet big on tuition revenues from the school’s fledgling online education infrastructure or start slashing budgets within the on-campus programs. For advice, he called upon an old friend who happened to teach at another college in Boston.

While studying for his master’s degree, Dr. LeBlanc had met Dr. Clayton Christensen, a professor at the Harvard Business School, in a Boston church basement during a pickup basketball game. The two became close friends more than a decade before Dr. Christensen published the landmark treatise that had “deeply influenced” Apple’s Steve Jobs.

That book was The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail. In the book, Dr. Christensen introduces the theory of disruptive innovation. As summarized by Investopedia, a disruptive innovation transforms expensive or sophisticated products or services previously accessible to only a limited segment of customers into those that are more affordable and accessible to a broader population. Such a transformation disrupts markets by displacing longstanding, established competitors. Amazon is one of the best examples of disruptive innovation.

Dr. Christensen argued that in the not-too-distant future, many brick-and-mortar colleges would no longer exist, while universities with online divisions that save students time and money by changing the learning model would thrive. That theory didn’t gain a wide audience until Dr. Christensen published a controversial 2013 op-ed in the New York Times.

In that piece, he characterized online learning as higher education’s form of disruptive innovation. He predicted that online instruction would drive the bottom 25 percent of struggling colleges to merge or disappear by 2028. Four years later, Dr. Christensen doubled down when he also predicted eventual bankruptcy for 50 percent of America’s nearly 4,000 colleges and universities within a decade.

Dr. Christensen had agreed to a seat on SNHU’s board of trustees starting in 2004, a role he continued until 2012. The theories and data provided by Harvard’s scholar gave Dr. LeBlanc the ammunition he needed to win his board’s approvals of an assortment of strategic approaches unprecedented among small colleges in rural New England:

  • Targeting adult students—especially those with some college but no degree—because qualified high school graduates were becoming scarce;
  • Focusing on online courses that would enable SNHU to enroll students from across the nation;
  • Adopting the curriculum design and delivery approach originally introduced by Britain’s Open University, a pioneer in online education. Instead of hiring tenured professors to design the curriculum, the Open University had relied on professional course designers and subject matter experts, along with adjunct faculty as online instructors;
  • Hiring 160 staff members to help potential students arrange for federal financial aid such as Direct Loans and Pell Grants, along with a team of academic advisors to closely monitor students’ progress towards graduation using customer relationship management (CRM) software like Salesforce; and
  • Implementing an aggressive marketing program that borrowed the most effective techniques exploited by for-profit colleges like the University of Phoenix. As we discuss below, these tactics included nationwide 30-second advertising spots on broadcast television and on cable networks like MTV.

Still, tension ensued among the college’s board of trustees and senior leadership because Dr. LeBlanc’s revolutionary strategy was generally considered such an outrageous gamble. Lee Gardner, the senior university management writer at the Chronicle of Higher Education, recalls a famous incident where Dr. LeBlanc had “walked out of a board of trustees meeting early on, and told administrators who had accompanied him that they had effectively just bet their jobs on the strategy’s success.”

But by 2005 the strategy was clearly paying off. Incredibly, SNHU posted an $11 million surplus during the Great Recession in October 2010. That’s because Dr. LeBlanc had persuaded his trustees to spend an extra $4 million on television advertising a year earlier.

Following the recession in 2012, SNHU had annual enrollments of 17,000 online students in addition to its 3,000 on campus, more than 160 admissions counselors working in a converted mill in downtown Manchester, and a deficit-free budget. By then, SNHU was already well on its way to transforming into a “megaversity,” similar to rivals such as Western Governors University, Arizona State University, and Grand Canyon University. During the eight pre-Covid years from 2012 to 2019, SNHU’s enrollments soared by another 125,000 students.

Impacts of the “Jobs to Be Done” Theory

By no means was the theory of disruptive innovation the only Clayton Christensen concept that led to the success of Southern New Hampshire University. It turns out that another one of his theories—the “Jobs to be Done” theory, also called the “Jobs Theory”—was actually much more significant. In short, that’s because the Jobs theory helped Dr. LeBlanc and his team redesign and rebuild the university to achieve a very different set of objectives from those of previous administrations.

In this context, a “Job” represents the progress someone is trying to accomplish in a specific circumstance. Here’s how Dr. Christensen describes such jobs in a Harvard Business Review article:

We all have many jobs to be done in our lives. Some are little (pass the time while waiting in line); some are big (find a more fulfilling career). . .

When we buy a product, we essentially “hire” it to help us do a job. If it does the job well, the next time we’re confronted with the same job, we tend to hire that product again. And if it does a crummy job, we “fire” it and look for an alternative.

As explained by Dr. LeBlanc in this 2023 interview, he and his team realized that SNHU was attempting to serve potential students who needed to fill two vastly different jobs. The first job, sought by traditional-age students, was the “coming of age” job. The second job, sought by working adults, was the “step it up” job.

The “Coming of Age” Job

Traditional-age students wanted the classic college experience as a bridge between high school and adulthood and wanted that experience at the best school that would accept them. These high school juniors and their parents were hiring SNHU for this “coming of age” job.

Although they wanted college to lead to a good career, they also considered many other attributes and objectives. Some of the most frequent included team sports, clubs and organizations, a junior year abroad, building relationships with faculty, and late-night talks with classmates about the meaning of life.

The “Step It Up” Job

Working adult students wanted to hire SNHU for a very different job that might differ from the university’s overall mission. They wanted the university to help them “step it up” in their lives. These were typically parents in their 30s and 40s who were economically and professionally stuck in career plateaus.

These folks had enough “coming of age” experiences years ago and didn’t want any more. Instead, they now needed education that would rapidly help them achieve professional growth—but still fit into their busy and sometimes hectic lives.

In contrast to traditional-age students with many different concerns, these working adult students only cared about the “four C’s:

  • Convenience
  • Customer service
  • Completion times
  • Credentials

In 2004 SNHU’s team realized that the university had failed to distinguish between these groups of students and their very different Jobs. For example, inquiries by the “coming of age” high school juniors about financial aid could take weeks to resolve because these weren’t urgent requests.

But the working adults needing to “step it up” urgently needed answers about financial aid without delay—and waiting hours for a response was frequently too late for them. They also needed to know right away how many transfer credits SNHU would accept from their previous college’s official transcripts; that’s why the school’s admissions counselors offered to obtain the transcripts on behalf of potential applicants for a nominal fee.

For the “step it up” potential students, SNHU needed to change almost everything, starting with reimagining how the college measured marketing success. For example, in a technique borrowed from the University of Phoenix, SNHU’s admissions counselors tried to call all potential applicants within only three minutes of them filling out and sending the inquiry form on SNHU’s website.

Then the university overhauled its marketing and promotional strategies for the online programs. Here’s how Dr. LeBlanc and Michal B. Horn, the Clayton Christensen Institute’s co-founder, describe changes to SNHU’s advertisements:

SNHU redid its advertisements for its online programs to focus not only on the training students needed to advance in their career, but also on the emotional and social dimensions around the pride one feels in realizing a goal.

When asked in an advertisement why they earned their degree from SNHU Online, one father said, “I did it for you, bud,” and held back tears as his young son said, “Congratulations, Daddy!” These students enrolled because their families were counting on them.

A 30-second commercial that SNHU ran on television and social media for five years between 2017 and 2021 presents a remarkably compelling example of this advertising strategy. As this YouTube video shows, SNHU calls this ad “Stand Up.”

Rebuilding the university around Dr. Christensen’s “Jobs to Be Done” marketing theory has helped SNHU become America’s largest college with 224,000 students in 2023, and with bachelor’s degree graduates earning on average $51,000 according to 2019 polling data. Dr. LeBlanc and Horn offer these parting thoughts about the significance of this Jobs thinking:

As colleges and universities suffer public criticism around the perception of their high prices and low value, Jobs thinking presents an opportunity to flip the script and allow the higher education community to design better sets of experiences to help students make progress and be successful in their lives.

Douglas Mark

While a partner in a San Francisco marketing and design firm, for over 20 years Douglas Mark wrote online and print content for the world’s biggest brands, including United Airlines, Union Bank, Ziff Davis, Sebastiani and AT&T.

Since his first magazine article appeared in MacUser in 1995, he’s also written on finance and graduate business education in addition to mobile online devices, apps, and technology. He graduated in the top 1 percent of his class with a business administration degree from the University of Illinois and studied computer science at Stanford University.