In the higher education sector, Reena Lichtenfeld, Ed.D., Vice President of Enrollment Consulting Services at Ruffalo Noel Levitz (RNL), is a formidable leader and a force to reckon with. Her journey as a woman in leadership – in the education space – has been a tapestry woven with threads of passion, innovation, and an unwavering commitment to excellence. She has always amplified voices and created pathways for people – the students whose futures are being shaped, the counselors who guide them, and the leaders she mentored and developed.
Reena’s mission is to help people achieve their goals. “Every day, when I see that mission come to life, I consider it a success,” she says. Success, for her, means realizing one’s mission in a way that positively impacts others. She explains that it is not just about achieving personal milestones but also ensuring that they create ripple effects that uplift others.
Attracted to Transformative Power of Education
Reena believes in the transformative power of education and has been drawn toward it since her growing-up years. Her mother was a high school math supervisor, while her stepfather was a high school principal – the principal of the high school she attended. So, from a young age, she was captivated by the vast potential of higher education – not only as a pathway to a career but also as a crucible for human development.
For her, higher education is not just about individual growth. She views it as a tapestry that colors communities, enriches species, and contributes immeasurably to the betterment of society. “My dream has always been to champion this vision and ensure that the transformative power of higher education is accessible and impactful for all,” she says.
Now, she envisions a future where higher education would be a co-creative endeavor, harnessing the power of AI to enhance both institutional operations and the learning experience. “But beyond the technological advancements, I’ve always been passionate about the intangible skills and attributes nurtured in a college setting,” Reena says.
According to her, the cornerstones of a holistic education are critical thinking, informed debate, intellectual discourse, empirical research, and the invaluable experience of learning from diverse peers and mentors.
Co-creating Visions and Roadmaps
Ruffalo Noel Levitz is a “guiding light” in the higher education consultancy landscape. Its mission is “to make higher education institutions successful and vibrant through inspired and relevant engagement.” Reena says this is not just a statement – it is a commitment. RNL’s services play a pivotal role in this era, where the future of education is being reimagined. Its tools and insights help institutions navigate the evolving landscape of higher education.
“By empowering institutions to overcome enrollment challenges, we’re not just ensuring their operational success but also championing the transformative power of education and its potential to enrich communities and society at large,” Reena says.
As the Vice President of Consulting Services for Enrollment and CRM consulting, she oversees the consultancy’s strategic direction and ensures that its services remain top-notch, relevant, and impactful. “My responsibilities delve deeper into co-creating visions and roadmaps for the future with our clients,” she says. This collaborative approach is grounded in understanding best practices, the ever-evolving climate of higher education, and the unique needs and aspirations of each campus client they serve.
Reena points out that their work is multifaceted, from organizational and operational assessments to student journey optimization and annual marketing and recruitment planning. It is not limited to delivering specific services. Reena and her team follow a holistic approach when aiding institutions with CRM support, digital marketing and SEO strategies, forecasting, strategic enrollment planning, advanced financial aid strategies, or any of the myriad services they offer. “We aim to weave together the best of what’s available in the industry with each institution’s specific goals and mission,” says Reena. The consultancy’s and institutions’ missions are at the heart of all these endeavors.
Every strategy they devise, or every solution they recommend is geared towards helping individual institutions realize their objectives and stay true to their mission. And to ensure that they always remain at the forefront of higher education consultancy, Reena fosters a culture of continuous learning, innovation, and collaboration within her team. And, over the years, they have learned to listen more intently to their clients and always to prioritize the students’ journey.
“In the next few years, my goal is to amplify the impact of our consultancy, ensuring that an even greater number of institutions can benefit from our expertise and the unique perspectives we bring to the table,” she says.
Experiences Across Different Institutions
Before she joined RNL, Reena’s professional journey in higher education was marked by diverse experiences across various institutions, including small and medium-sized private colleges, large public universities, prestigious private institutions, and for-profit entities. “I’ve had the privilege of contributing to and learning from each unique environment,” she says.
One of the standout moments of her career was the establishment of the Center for Degree Acceleration. Reena feels it is a testament to her commitment to enhancing the student experience and making higher education more accessible and efficient. Another significant milestone, according to her, was her involvement in the startup of a new institution in Australia – the first to be recognized by the Ministry of Higher Education in over two decades. “This endeavor was not just about establishing an institution; it was about pioneering a new era of academic excellence and opportunity in the region,” she says.
However, beyond these institutional and technological achievements, what she holds closest to her heart is her impact on individuals. It has been “profoundly rewarding” for her to witness the growth and rise of people, especially women whom she has worked with or mentored. She points out that there is an unparalleled satisfaction in seeing someone one has guided or supported achieve their dreams, break barriers, and make a mark in their respective fields.
“These personal success stories, the journeys of resilience, determination, and excellence, are what I regard as my most significant achievements,” Reena says. “They serve as a reminder that while institutions and technology play a crucial role in education, at its core, higher education is about people, their dreams, and their potential.”
Strengths and Leadership Approach
As a leader, one of Reena’s distinct strengths is the ability to connect dots – to see patterns and opportunities where others might see challenges. This knack for problem-solving and her talent for recognizing individual and collective strengths have enabled her to drive transformative change. And her leadership approach is both holistic and impactful. She has tapped into the wisdom of thought leaders like Patrick Lencioni, Jim Collins, and Stephen Covey and the principles of CliftonStrengths and Accountability with Care ® to craft such an approach.
“Lencioni’s emphasis on organizational health, Collins’ focus on having the right people aligned towards a singular vision, Covey’s insights on the pivotal role of trust, and the strengths-based approach of CliftonStrengths have all been integral to my leadership philosophy,” Reena says.
In addition to understanding these principles, she has also seamlessly integrated them, creating a harmonized culture and experience.
“As a woman in leadership, the ability to orchestrate delicate pieces, to weave together diverse strands into a cohesive whole, is part of the ‘superpower’ I bring to the table,” she says.
At the Forefront of Many Changes
Over the years, the landscape of higher education has undergone seismic shifts. “I’ve been at the forefront of many of these changes,” Reena says.
She recalls the days when they debated the inclusion of an email address on paper applications, the potential of integrating a form on our websites, and the budding possibilities of platforms like Facebook and Yahoo Groups. She finds the journey from those initial discussions to today’s sophisticated digital ecosystems exhilarating. However, for her, as a woman, championing these technological integrations came with its unique set of challenges. “In an industry predominantly led by men, my approach had to be cautious, strategic, and often doubly validated,” she says.
A recent study by the Eos Foundation’s Women’s Power Gap (WPG) Initiative, in collaboration with the American Association of University Women (AAUW), has shed light on the stark gender disparities in higher education leadership. Reena notes that despite women earning the majority of Ph.D.s in the U.S. for about a decade, only 22 percent of top positions at 130 major public and private universities are held by women. The disparity is even more pronounced for women of color, who, despite comprising one in five Ph.D. earners, hold only 5 percent of top executive positions. She underscores that this is not due to a lack of qualified women; many are at lower administrative levels. And women make up 39 percent of academic deans and 38 percent of provosts. However, the gender divide widens considerably at the top, with only 22 percent of campus presidencies and 10 percent of university system presidencies held by women, Reena points out.
As a part of such a landscape, she has had to navigate systemic challenges, advocating for technological advancements and a more inclusive and equitable leadership environment. “Every step, every innovation I championed, was not just for operational efficiency but also a statement, a testament to the capabilities and potential of women in leadership roles,” she says.
Lessons Learned from Setbacks
Reena has never allowed setbacks to impede her progress. She views every setback as a lesson in adaptability. One of Reena’s “most poignant” setbacks was in the technological domain. At the time, she was passionate about advancing initiatives that would streamline and enhance the student experience, particularly the automated transfer of credit process. However, despite its potential, it was not always prioritized, leading to delays and, ultimately, the stalling of the initiative. “Such setbacks, while frustrating, also became opportunities for innovation and adaptability,” Reena says.
Rather than being deterred, she channeled her energy and expertise into establishing the Office of Degree Acceleration during her tenure as the Executive Director of Admissions Services at Walden University. This initiative was born out of the same core challenge: attracting and enrolling more adult learners with prior experience or transfer credit. “Recognizing that these students prioritize completing their degrees quickly and cost-effectively, the Office of Degree Acceleration was a strategic response to meet their needs,” Reena explains.
Every personal or organizational roadblock has taught Reena the importance of resilience, adaptability, and unwavering focus on the student journey. “It’s not just about overcoming challenges but finding innovative ways to turn them into opportunities for growth and betterment,” she says.
Roadmap for Ruffalo Noel Levitz
The future roadmap for Ruffalo Noel Levitz is anchored in a deep understanding of the evolving landscape of higher education and the challenges and opportunities it presents. Reena and her team recognize the demographic shifts on the horizon – often referred to as the “demographic cliff” – which will significantly impact institutions. “Navigating this impending shift requires a blend of innovation, strategic foresight, and a robust institutional culture,” Reena says. “Our role is to guide institutions through these turbulent waters, ensuring they not only survive but also thrive.”
Being data-informed is no longer a luxury but a necessity. Institutions must have a clear grasp of their realities while also staying attuned to market needs and demands, Reena points out, adding, that this dual focus ensures that they remain relevant and responsive. Furthermore, the quality and diversity of programmatic offerings, the modalities in which they are delivered, and the overall quality of instruction are pivotal in determining an institution’s success. Under Reena’s leadership, the team is committed to assisting institutions in refining and optimizing these aspects.
She also highlights that artificial intelligence (AI) is a transformative force in this equation. Its influence is pervasive, touching every facet of higher education, from admissions and marketing to student success strategies. “And, as we look to the future, institutions must have clear guidelines for integrating A.I. into their academic and operational frameworks,” Reena says. This includes understanding its potential, setting boundaries, and leveraging it to enhance efficiency and effectiveness.
In essence, the future roadmap of Ruffalo Noel Levitz is about embracing change holistically. RNL aims to leverage technology, deepen its understanding of institutional and student needs, and provide comprehensive solutions that address both immediate challenges and long-term goals.
“Our commitment is to be a steadfast partner for institutions, helping them navigate the complexities of the present and the uncertainties of the future,” Reena says.
Leading by Example
Mentorship holds a special place in Reena’s heart – both within and outside higher education consultancy. As a contributing faculty member at Walden University, she guided several female students toward their doctoral pursuits in higher education administration and leadership. She reveals that one of her mentees is delving deep into the lived experiences of African-American Women ascending to leadership roles.
“I firmly believe that to inspire the next generation, one must lead by example,” Reena says. She has set an example by breaking barriers, pushing for excellence, and chartering new territories. She now hopes these actions will serve as a beacon for upcoming women leaders.
And as a life-long learner, Reema believes that her journey as a female leader is an ongoing process of introspection, growth, and evolution. Every experience, be it in the classroom, boardroom, or museum, adds a layer to her understanding and perspective. “It’s this mosaic of experiences that I hope to share and pass on, inspiring the next generation of women to carve their unique paths, fearlessly and passionately,” she says.
Message to Aspiring Women Leaders
“Your voice is not just important; it’s also essential,” Dr. Lichtenfeld tells aspiring women leaders in education. “The unique gifts, abilities, and balance that women bring to leadership roles are invaluable in shaping the future of education.” She urges them to use their voice with confidence and seek out mentors who can help amplify it.
She also advises them to reflect on their journey in higher education and think about the skills they have honed, the challenges they have overcome, and the growth they have experienced. She points out that higher education equips one with more than just academic knowledge. It also fosters critical thinking, encourages intellectual discourse, and inspires a drive to exceed expectations. “These are the tools that will empower you to lead, innovate, and inspire,” Reena tells aspiring women leaders.
She underscores that despite the skeptics and doubters, higher education remains a transformative force for individuals and society at large. “As you navigate your path in this field, always remember the profound impact of your college experience on shaping who you are today,” she says. “Harness that knowledge, that growth, and use it to drive positive change in the world.
“In essence, embrace challenges, seek mentorship, and always stay true to your mission,” she adds. “The future of education is brighter with your leadership.”