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Part II: Thought Leadership Series: Learning From Outside Of Higher Education To Build An Agile Campus

October 9, 2023

Series Overview

The landscape of higher education is undergoing a pivotal transformation, one that demands a fresh perspective on how we approach the student experience. Drawing parallels from places outside of higher education and the evolving needs of students, we’re embarking on a journey to explore how institutions can adopt and adapt these lessons. This series will delve into the innovative strategies of leading retail, healthcare, and other institutions that could enable a more agile campus, and help shape the future role of the campus in an increasingly online world.

Part II: What Can Higher Education Learn from Retail, Specifically Apple?

‍‍Are there examples or even best practices outside of higher education that can help teach how to be more agile? Where can universities look to gather lessons on improving the overall student experience?

This second article, taken from a series of interviews with Dr. Doug GuthrieElliot Felix, and Dr. Scott Bass, focuses on lessons to be learned from the retail industry. Taking insights from places like Apple and Costco, the conversation looks to expand horizons. In the next article, we will dive deeper into healthcare, specifically how higher education can learn from innovations that have been implemented at hospitals to improve patient care. Part I of this series can be found here.

‍Key takeaways: 

Takeaway 6: Retail at its best focuses not just on the product or service being provided but rather the overall experience for that customer.


“The Apple retail insight is that yes, you need the best product on the market, you need a beautiful thing that is technologically the best and the best user experience, but this experience is also walking into that beautiful store. So the consumer experience is not what the product did. You get it at the end. That’s part of it. But the consumer experience is also how you experience that thing … That’s why Apple developed all of the SE devices. The idea at Apple was you could still have access to an Apple product, Apple software, and Apple services. Apple CEO Tim Cook emphasized that “we have to teach the virtuous cycle. It’s hardware, software, and services. It’s not just that you have the phone. It’s how you’re treated when you call a service person and how they treat you on the phone. When you buy an SE, you still get the software and services. Apple was very good at thinking about that. Higher Ed needs to do so.”


“I think the Apple analogy is quite a fruitful and generative one. Economists think about Higher Ed as an “experience good,” something you don’t know the value of until you’ve experienced it. You can think about Apple by its products, but in a way, it’s also an “experience good” because the Apple experience is a function of the brand. It’s a function of the products. It’s a function of the retail spaces. It’s a function of the services that they offer in those spaces. It’s a function of the program that they offer to activate and enliven those spaces and to bring people together around their products and with their products. So I think it’s quite fruitful because Higher Ed has all those things. It has spaces. It has support services. It has people. It has products, which are its academic programs. It has all the things you can do in and out of the classroom. It has a brand that becomes part of your identity. All of those lead to an experience.”

Takeaway 7: This experience is driven by proactive, helpful staff whose job it is to be knowledgeable, friendly, and capable. 


“What makes the Apple Store experience great, of course, is the brand. While Apple has great products, it’s that they thought about the space, the services and the staffing together. You come in and it’s a beautiful space. It’s large, with big pieces of glass, and clean lines. But it’s also the staffing: There’s a sea of people that are there to help you, which is what makes it possible to take away the “cash register”. Then, there are also the services, the programs, the classes, and the Genius Bar for tech support. 

Bass [applying it back to HiEd]

“It has to do with the way you’re treated at the college or university. Do I belong here? Do people care about me? Do I have to go to another office to deal with my financial aid question after I spend time at the One Stop Center? Should I need assistance with multiple issues, such as those related to my health, my conflict with my roommate, and my academic accommodations associated with my learning disability, how can I manage these issues when my academic advisor only knows about my coursework, academic requirements, and my academic plan of study, but all these issues are on my mind?. There are lots of supportive people in the student service offices and everybody seems to care, but nobody has all the information to effectively solve complicated problems promptly. “

Takeaway 8: The goal is to invoke aspirational values with that experience, to invoke a sense of community and connectivity, simply by showing up and participating. 


“The big thing Apple did is shift the paradigm in retail. They were very explicit about creating a space that was about the ownership experience, not the buying experience. They wanted to create a public space that felt like a library. According to Ron Johnson’s early remarks, that ownership experience meant you had reasons to go there other than simply to buy something. You might go there for tech support, which became the Genius Bar. Or you might go there to learn something in a class. Or you might go there to feel like you’re part of something, part of a  community, which I think is something Apple does so well with their brand. Somehow, they’ve done the brand alchemy of making you feel like you’re part of a creative community by owning an Apple computer. I think colleges and universities have amazing brands and can do that similar kind of alchemy, maybe even more easily – to feel like you’re part of something. They have sports, they have activities, they have apparel, they have affinity or identity groups and spaces, and you’ve got your classes and your major I think Apple is an instructive model for building a community around a brand and we know how important community and belonging is to student success.”


“When you go to Costco Tire Center and are a member, you go there knowing exactly what you need – quality brand-name tires. Should you purchase a set of tires from them they’ll rotate and balance the tire at a pre-determined number of miles at no additional cost effectively extending the life of the tires.. They’ll fulfill everything they said when purchasing a set of tires. They will offer you a battery for nearly $100 less than the same battery anywhere else, but they will not install these same batteries. The point is that Costco is very clear in what they can do and within these terms, they provide great service at a fair price. REI also prides itself on its membership program. If you want to return something in a year and you’ve used it and you don’t like it, no questions will be asked. L.L. Bean is another outstanding example of customer service. When you go to Freeport, Maine, you know that the LL Bean store is always open, 24-7, so you can be confident to acquire goods for hunting, fishing, camping, and other outdoor items just when you need them even at an hour when other stores are closed. Each of these retail centers is clear on its mission, its niche, and what it can offer and what it cannot. As a result, they build a respected and distinct reputation – even a dedicated following.”


Dr. Scott A. Bass is Provost Emeritus and Professor of Public Administration and Policy in the School of Public Affairs at American University (AU). He is the Executive Director of the Center for University Excellence at AU. Since he arrived at AU in 2008, Dr. Bass has focused on strategic planning, diversity, inclusive excellence, strengthening the academic infrastructure, intensifying research productivity, and enhancing the total student experience. Before AU, Dr. Bass was Vice President for Research and Dean of the Graduate School at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) where he helped expand research funding and enhanced graduate education. His first faculty appointment was at the University of Massachusetts at Boston where he was the inaugural Director and founder of the Gerontology Institute, the Ph.D. Program in Gerontology, and inaugural Co-editor of the Journal of Aging and Social Policy. He has written or edited 8 books, 27 book chapters, and 54 articles, earned a Fulbright Research Scholarship to Japan, and was a visiting professor at Stanford University in 2004 and 2019. He earned his Ph.D. at the University of Michigan, MA at the University of Michigan, and a BA from the University of Michigan. His most recent book is titled Administratively Adrift: Overcoming Institutional Barriers for College Student Success (Cambridge University Press, 2022).

Dr. Doug Guthrie has spent his career researching, writing, teaching, and advising about two topics: organizational development, where he has focused on issues of leadership, organizational culture, and corporate social responsibility; and the Chinese economic reforms, where he has focused on the intersection of economic and political forces that lead to successful economic development models. Currently, he is a Professor of Global Leadership and Executive Director of China Initiatives at the Thunderbird School of Global Management. He is also Co-Founder and CEO of the virtual thinktank, On Global Leadership ( From 2014 to 19, Guthrie was a Senior Director at Apple, based in Shanghai China, where he led Apple University efforts on leadership and organizational development in China. Before joining Apple, from 2010-14, Guthrie was Dean of the George Washington School of Business, Vice President for University China Operations, and Professor of International Business. Before GW, from 1997-2010, Guthrie held faculty positions at NYU’s Stern School of Business, where he was Professor of Management and Director of custom Executive Education, and NYU’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, where he was Professor of Sociology and the Founding Director of the University’s Office of Global Education. He has held visiting Professorships at several business schools, including Kellogg, Harvard, INSEAD, Stanford, Columbia, and Emory. Guthrie received an AB in East Asian Languages (Chinese literature) from the University of Chicago and MA & Ph.D. degrees in organizational sociology from the University of California, Berkeley.

‍‍Elliot Felix is an author, speaker, and consultant to more than 100 colleges and universities. He is a Partner at Buro Happold where he and the higher ed strategy team – brightspot – create more engaging, more equitable, and more impactful experiences for students by transforming facilities, support services, and technology. He is an accomplished strategist, facilitator, and sense-maker who has advised more than 100 colleges and universities including Arizona State University, Carnegie Mellon University, Georgia Institute of Technology, MIT, NC State University, New York University, Stanford University, the University of California Santa Cruz, the University of Michigan, and the University of Virginia. Elliot is also the author of How to Get the Most Out of College which provides 127 evidence-based tactics for academic, social, and career success in college and beyond. Elliot is a prolific speaker and writer on reimagining higher education and you can find his work in Fast CompanyForbes, and The Chronicle of Higher Education. He received his BS from the University of Virginia and an MA from MIT.

Series Navigation<< Part I: Thought Leadership Series: Learning From Outside Of Higher Education To Build An Agile CampusPart III: Thought Leadership Series: Learning From Outside Of Higher Education To Build An Agile Campus >>
This entry is part 2 of 4 in the series Learning From Outside Of Higher Education To Build An Agile Campus

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Series Navigation<< Part I: Thought Leadership Series: Learning From Outside Of Higher Education To Build An Agile CampusPart III: Thought Leadership Series: Learning From Outside Of Higher Education To Build An Agile Campus >>