Interview with Sarah Steinberg, Ed.D. - Provost and Senior Vice President at The University of Arizona Global Campus
About Sarah Steinberg, Ed.D.: Sarah Steinberg is Provost and Senior Vice President at The University of Arizona Global Campus (UAGC). In this role, Dr. Steinberg spearheads new strategic initiatives to expand UAGC’s impact and reach, working closely with President Paul Pastorek to determine the best ways to support an increasingly diverse online student body. In addition, she collaborates with other leadership at UAGC, such as the COO, CFO, and CIO, and Chief Human Resources Officer to design, implement, and evaluate academic affairs and operations, curriculum development, financial aid programs, and extracurricular student resources. Prior to her current role as Provost and Senior VP, Dr. Steinberg was Chief of Staff for UAGC’s Office of the President.
In addition to her impactful work at UAGC, Dr. Steinberg is also the Founder and CEO of Frogstone Strategies, a consulting business that specializes in developing education technology solutions for higher education institutions and leaders. Furthermore, she is an Adjunct Instructor at University of Pennsylvania and a Lecturer at Georgetown University, where her courses focus on the intersection of higher education leadership, entrepreneurship, and technological innovation.
Dr. Steinberg received her Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering and her Master’s in Civil Engineering from Cornell University, after which she completed an MBA with a concentration in Marketing and Finance from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. She earned her Ed.D. in Higher Education Management from University of Pennsylvania.
[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] May we have an overview of your role and responsibilities as Provost and Senior Vice President for The University of Arizona Global Campus (UAGC)? What is the vision of UAGC, and how do you advise the President and senior Cabinet regarding the development of online adult education programs that meet students’ professional development needs?
[Dr. Sarah Steinberg] The University of Arizona Global Campus (UAGC) serves a non-traditional population of working adults. There are many schools across the country that are beginning to focus on the population of working adults. However, UAGC has been focused on that population under their prior name—Ashford University—for about 15 years.
UAGC wants to empower them to be good students. We want to support their success. We want to do whatever we can to help them be successful and graduate. They are our primary market, so we know the working adult population very well. They are usually an average age of 30 and above, and it may have been a while since they attended school. These students’ lives are very complicated since they are not always available to just study. They have work, family, life events, and other things that interrupt their studies. Thus, the mission of UAGC is to serve these students and support them as life changes occur.
As the Provost and Senior Vice President, I lead UAGC’s academic mission by working closely with the president as well as the faculty leaders to oversee the service and academic quality for our students. I have direct reports for academic affairs, curriculum assessment, academic operations and innovation. At the presidential level, we have an executive cabinet that meets twice a week to discuss issues with the president. These individuals include the provost, the chief operating officer, the general counsel, the chief financial officer, the chief information officer, and the chief human resources officer. It is a collaborative effort, and I work especially closely with the chief operating officer to assure that the delivery of our academic programs is on par with our expectations. Each of the institutional leaders are focused on their areas of expertise, but regular communications and collaborations are imperative.
UAGC is student-oriented, not bottom-line oriented. It is a big enterprise with nearly 30K students, so there are a lot of different things happening at any given time. We are always looking at what works at another school so that we might be able to use it with our particular population. Since my background is very broad and extensive in higher education at other institutions, I also bring to the conversation best practices from other universities.
One of the things that I love about higher education is that we are generally not in competition with one another. There is a term that I referred to in a presentation many years ago: “coopetition.” Colleges and universities cooperate in a competitive environment. We share our best practices.
Our challenge is that we don’t serve traditional 18- to 22-year-olds, so some of these best practices that work elsewhere for retention and degree completion have to be adapted so they will work for our online population of older, working adults.
[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] UAGC was originally Ashford University. Could you elaborate on the motivations for UAGC to acquire Ashford University and to serve a broader, online student population of busy working adults? What was the process of acquisition, and do you see such transitions as part of a larger movement on the part of institutions of higher education to expand programs for working adults?
[Dr. Sarah Steinberg] Ashford University became a fully online university 15 years ago. It was a for-profit, fully online university serving the working adults population, but owned by a private company called Bridgepoint Education. We often refer to that relationship as a parent-child type of relationship.
All the academic issues resided in the university, and the degree was from the university. However, the owner made all the decisions about where money would be allocated for different support services, which is a very significant piece of information. Bridgepoint Education provided all of the student advising services, did the marketing and recruiting, and did course development, while we provided the faculty members and assessed whether a student was successful in completing a course.
On December 1, 2020, Bridgepoint Education, which at that point was called Zovio, sold Ashford University to The University of Arizona. We are now The University of Arizona Global Campus. We are a separate, independent university with an affiliation to The University of Arizona. This means that we have a separate accrediting agency that oversees us. We have our own board of trustees and are responsible for our own budget. We are also responsible for our own academic quality.
Due to this affiliation, we are permitted to use The University of Arizona’s name, and we collaborate with them on different projects and academic endeavors. Purdue Global has a relationship with Kaplan that is very similar to ours, and it was put in place before our transition occurred. Kaplan was a for-profit entity that spun-off their university, which became part of Purdue. They named it Purdue Global. I don’t want to imply that the Purdue arrangement and ours are the same, but they are very similar from a distance.
UAGC has now been recognized by the IRS as a non-profit university, and we are awaiting further review by the Department of Education. As a 503c, we can accept donations as a non-profit. However, the decision of the Department of Education will impact the rules and regulations that we fall under, whether we are a for-profit in the eyes of the Department, or a non-profit. In either case, our ability to provide financial aid from the federal government is not impacted.
I think we are going to see more for-profit universities transitioning to non-profit universities and they will similarly be under the close review of the Department of Education. We are also seeing a lot of mergers and acquisitions in higher education. I do not know whether they will follow the general operating models currently in place or if the current models will evolve over time. My expectation is that the latter is more likely as best practices continue to be tested.
Some schools were online already or had online programs, but many didn’t. Some smaller schools scrambled to become online during the Covid-19 pandemic. These schools are thinking about whether they want to stay in an online mode, or whether they want to go back to a fully on-ground mode. The pandemic did not impact UAGC because we were already online, so we didn’t have to change practices. Schools are asking themselves whether to stay online or not, and we are seeing some interesting mergers take place as a result. For example, UMass Global in Boston recently acquired Brandman University in California. Brandman is an online university so they will retain their online capacity and services, but they will be rebranded as UMass Global.
So, it goes back to coopetition. People are open and honest about these relationships as much as they can. Financial information has to be protected, but for the most part, we can talk about what works and doesn’t regarding the mergers and acquisitions. Rather than going out of business, colleges and universities are creating opportunities to merge. My prediction for the next decade is that we will continue to see iterations of these transactions. Lessons are being learned, so the market will be more efficient and more collaborations will happen. As a result, higher education institutions will hopefully be able to lower costs for students and teach more efficiently online and on-ground.
Once upon a time we were all fully on the ground, face-to-face teaching. Then it seemed that the new silver bullet was online education. By the mid-1990’s many schools, such as Johns Hopkins University, were dipping their toes into the online delivery models. When I was at Johns Hopkins University, we were at the forefront of starting to do some online education, and it has only evolved further and dramatically nationwide. When the pandemic hit, everybody believed online was the way to go.
However, not every student works well online. Not every student works well face-to-face. I expect that the pendulum between online and on-ground will swing to the middle. There will be hybrid programs with a bit of online support. At UAGC, we are piloting live-learning in certain classes where the students have to be in a certain place at a certain time for a portion of the course delivery. I think this hybrid solution will also overlay the next five to ten years of development in online education.
[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] How is the leadership of a fully online campus different from leading student and staff development programming for a campus-based institution? With the advent of online, self-paced learning, have you seen adult and continuing education become more equitable? What challenges in terms of education equality and equity still exist for online students, whether they are pursuing a doctorate in education leadership or a different degree? What future challenges and opportunities do you see for online educators and their students in the next 20 years?
[Dr. Sarah Steinberg] Flexibility, access, and equity are key principles in online education. One key benefit of online education is the equality that is built into its structure. Nobody in an online class sits in the last row. It is just not possible. Everyone has an equal seat in a classroom. This is a very important pedagogical development. However, the success of the online modality is dependent on proper training of the faculty members. The faculty members must know how to include all the voices in their classroom whether the class is asynchronous or synchronous.
There is a certain amount of flexibility, access, and equity that is inherent in the design of online education, which is important to underscore. One type of online class is a fully asynchronous class. Students are watching videos and posting in a discussion board where there is no front or back row. Everybody—even the faculty member—posts and reacts to each other’s posts in a discussion board.
Another type of class is a synchronous online class, which is what I will be teaching this spring at Georgetown University. All of my students know from the beginning that they are required to be available in order to participate in the class. They have to be available on Tuesday evenings every week. This is when the class is, but they can attend class in their pajamas. They can be at their house. They don’t have to come to campus.
I recently had an interesting experience as an adjunct faculty member at University of Pennsylvania. I was teaching on-site in Philadelphia, and I only had five students in this class. Four of them were with me in the classroom at University of Pennsylvania, and the fifth one, who is unable to go back and forth easily to the United States right now because of the pandemic, was in Canada.
The way we handled the equity issue was for everyone, including myself, in the class to be on Zoom. We held the class as if we were all on Zoom so that the student in Canada did not feel excluded. There were no separate conversations happening that he was not fully part of. Even though we were sitting in this small conference room, no conversations were allowed to occur unless they were occurring on the Zoom platform.
When it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), it is the responsibility of the entire university to make sure that the curriculum of every single online course incorporates the principles of DEI. We are doing this at UAGC. We hired consultants and are training our faculty. We are going through every single one of our courses to make sure that the DEI principles are adhered to and that we are fully embracing those issues of social justice and equity on the education side.
If you were in an on-ground, traditional program in the past, nobody other than the students observed what the faculty member was teaching in the classroom. They probably were pulling out notes from the 20 other times that they taught the same class — with all due respect to faculty. Now one of the great advantages of online classes is that anybody at the university can enter a classroom and review the curriculum. They can review what is being covered, how it is being covered, and whether it is meeting the standards of UAGC. Nothing happens behind closed doors when you are online.
[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] You are also the Founder and CEO of Frogstone Strategies, which offers strategic, technological, organizational, and staff development solutions to colleges and universities, as well as non-profit organizations and technology firms that focus on the expanding needs of adult learners. What was the inspiration for this company, and what have been some of the most rewarding experiences you have had working with clients through your business?
[Dr. Sarah Steinberg] When I received my MBA from Northwestern in 1986, I became interested in entrepreneurship, but I did not do anything about it. Instead, I did what is called intrapreneurship. I created different initiatives at Johns Hopkins University where I came up with an interesting program for high school students who are interested in engineering. We called it Heads Up. I was responsible for putting the team together and launching it as a new initiative. However, it belonged to the university, and I always wanted to have my own organization where I was fully in charge.
When I retired from Johns Hopkins University in 2013, I had a short stint as the CEO of a small company that was in the K-12 space. The founder of that company was a very strong entrepreneur, and he taught me a lot about entrepreneurial practices. He was really a great mentor and a great inspiration. He gave me the courage to start Frogstone Strategies, which allowed me to return to the higher education world where my passion really is.
I primarily relied on my University of Pennsylvania network, where I completed my doctorate in higher education, since a lot of those folks are in senior positions across the country in different universities. They graciously brought me in as a consultant on different issues primarily related to online education. I worked alone on projects for about 25 schools over a period of seven years. The largest school I worked for was Ashford. I also worked with two different historically Black colleges and universities (HBCU) and learned so much about that sector of the market as a result of those two projects. I worked as a consultant for various types of institutions from tier-one schools like Brown University and Johns Hopkins University to religious institutions to small liberal arts schools.
The type and size of school were not as important to me, as long as the project was in the area of technology and education. I explored how I could merge the two and worked closely with the leader of the institution like the president or the chief academic officer. The company still exists, but it is a little bit on the backburner while I am full-time at UAGC.
[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] What are impacts that you have made through this Frogstone Strategies? Any advice that you have for education leaders who are thinking about establishing their own consulting business as well as working in higher education?
[Dr. Sarah Steinberg] I have a lot of advice for people interested in moving in that direction. Although many will counsel otherwise, my advice is to jump into a new entrepreneurial venture with both feet. This is the only way to know if it is your true passion. But if you face financial or other constraints, you may want to start with one or two projects to see if there is something that you like doing. Another option is to partner with somebody else and share the load. If you have a passion for the work, then you can expand from there.
My particular background, which started with degrees in engineering and business, and then later in higher education, gave me a different perspective than a lot of people. Engineers are trained to take complex problems and break them up into small problems, solve the small problems, and build them back up to the solution to the complex problem. I think that my systems and engineering background paired with my understanding of business and finance has helped me immensely in solving the problems and challenges that we face in higher education on a regular basis.
I would encourage people to look for the strengths in their interdisciplinary background and to leverage them in their building of a business. Oftentimes unconventional academic and professional experiences are an asset, and so it’s about framing your strengths and finding ways to combine them in a role that serves organizations.
[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] What role does research play in the development of solutions? Those piecemeal solutions that you then integrate into a larger, complex solution? What does that process look like?
[Dr. Sarah Steinberg] Academics think of research as what is needed to solve a complex problem, such as how the virus that causes the Covid-19 pandemic operates in the human body. This is the first thing that I think of when I hear the word research—a deep dive into understanding a complex problem so that one can find ways to address it. I apply an aspect of research to solving the institution’s business-related and operational problems every day.
I use research in two primary ways. First, I go to the outside environment and see what other universities are doing to tackle the same problems. I visit these schools when we are allowed to travel, or set up Zoom meetings. Sometimes it is not me who talks with counterparts at other universities. For example, our registrar talks to a registrar of another university. Sometimes it is me as the provost, who is in charge of all of our academic areas, talking to the provost of another university. A classic problem that we are all tackling is student retention and persistence to the degree. Retention and persistence are pretty much interchangeable. Degree completion is the end goal as this is what the institution and students are after. I set up these counterpart conversations so that both schools can cooperate and improve by learning each other’s methods for student support and retention.
Second, we primarily do our research by piloting programs that are designed to address certain hypotheses that we have in order to constantly improve. We pilot the initiatives by testing, improving, and trying them again. For example at UAGC, one of the most important things is that faculty engage closely with students. There is lots of evidence that when faculty engage with students above and beyond teaching in the classroom, it helps to encourage students to complete their degrees.
Some of the studies that have been done over the last couple of decades on faculty-student engagement are from small, liberal arts colleges. We have 30,000 students that we are working with to test our research hypotheses, while other schools are doing it in a face-to-face kind of environment. As a result, the online education environment has given us a much larger dataset to work with to find insights on how to optimize student education programs and support.
We created and implemented an initiative that we believe will work in our online space called Power of One. To further enhance the Power of One program, we provided the faculty access to technology that is currently on the market. Signalz is a product that gives the faculty member some immediate information about how the student is doing in the class and how they performed in general as a student. The faculty member can quickly zero-in on the student who may not have reached out to them, and the faculty member can be proactive and engage with the student. Thus, we call it Power of One because every single student counts. We trained a core unit of faculty members on how to do outreach because it matters.
Power of One is responding to the fact that students have different competing demands on their time. Sometimes they need an extension, even though it might say in the syllabus that no extensions are allowed, but we can make exceptions when things happen. Over the last two years we have learned that a lot of things can happen, and students need a little bit of extra time, or a little extra help to get an assignment over the finish line. We are assessing the data and we will continue to expand the faculty member training and make adjustments along the way.
[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] Could you provide some details on the courses that you teach and how you’ve helped other educators hone the skills to step into education leadership roles as an adjunct instructor at University of Pennsylvania and as a lecturer at Georgetown?
[Dr. Sarah Steinberg] I have been teaching as an adjunct faculty member for about four years at both University of Pennsylvania and Georgetown University.
I teach courses for a Master’s in Education Entrepreneurship at University of Pennsylvania. It is the first degree of its kind in the country. Students are in a master’s degree program that lasts for a year, and they come in with venture ideas. For example, students may have some ideas about engaging students more in the STEM fields in K-12, or their ventures could be related to higher education. I generally advise the students whose ventures are in higher education.
For example, I have a student this year who is working on the social-emotional aspects of being a new student on a campus, and perhaps being an underrepresented minority on a campus. She has a particular idea based on some work that she has done in other areas that she wants to apply to colleges and universities. I’m working with her this year on her venture. I love this course and the students with whom I work. I keep in touch with them even after they graduate. Many of them have actually launched their ventures, and they are doing fascinating work.
At Georgetown, I started by teaching a course that was very much focused on the intersection of technology and education, which is a passion of mine. All of my teaching at Georgetown is online and asynchronous, except for this new one that will be online and synchronous. I started in their technology management program, and I developed a course for them on something that is called enterprise management. This covers topics like how to introduce a new student information system. I developed this online course and taught it for a couple of years.
Then Georgetown started a new degree in higher education, which is my comfort zone. I was asked to put together a course on global higher education and I learned an awful lot. I developed a course that someone else now teaches, whose field is global higher education. Now I am going to be teaching a course that is in my area of expertise, which is organization and administration of higher education.
Teaching is a great outlet for me. I highly recommend it to others, whether you are in higher education or not. I teach only at the master’s degree level, which is my preference. Teaching is a great opportunity to share your expertise. I also learn things from my classes and students, which I then bring into my workplace.
[OnlineEdDPrograms.com] How does global education intersect with innovative education technologies and access in the international higher education arena?
[Dr. Sarah Steinberg] Italy and China were two very prominent locations where Johns Hopkins University has been co-located for years, so I was familiar with the global higher education opportunities. When I came to UAGC, they had military students who came from other countries. Our military students were deployed to other parts of the world, but we only had a few foreign students in our program. Yet as an online university, we should be attracting global students.
Learning a lot about the global growth patterns of higher education has been instrumental to my role as Provost in terms of advising on where the university might look for partnership opportunities. One of the patterns that I had studied a lot, as I was preparing the Georgetown course on global higher education, was that there was a growing number of students coming from South America. We did not have any partnerships in that part of the world. Everybody was looking at China and other parts of Southeast Asia for partnership opportunities, but we are beginning to look at South America.
University of Pennsylvania has been very successful in attracting students from South America. For example, three out of the five students in my current class are from South America – two are from Panama and one is from Argentina. UAGC hopes to continue to have that kind of success. When identifying new global partnership opportunities, I am involved at the outset. I am involved in the research and recommendations, but the actual implementation is generally handled by others in close collaboration. I really enjoy the nature of my work where I help identify opportunities, spearhead program ideas, and connect the relevant parties so that they can come to the table and create something innovative to improve online education on a global scale.
Thank you so much, Dr. Steinberg, for your excellent insight into the evolution of online higher education, both in the United States and internationally! It was a privilege to speak with you.