Universities
Embracing Chaos: Disruption as a Catalyst for Change
Barry Telford
Barry Telford
CEO, Universities West, Sodexo North America President, Sodexo Canada

Disruption – disaster or opportunity? The 2008 global recession was a milestone, profoundly affecting every aspect of the economy, with repercussions extending to the present. The military term “VUCA” sums up the situation: “volatile, uncertain, complicated, and ambiguous.” Sodexo was no exception; it was clear that we needed to reassess, innovate, and deliver new service solutions to help our clients cope with the new reality.

It wasn’t just corporations that dealt with the economic fallout – colleges and universities saw the status quo evaporate as they experienced a major increase in student enrollment, an increasing need for student loans complicated by the changing availability of debt, and major policy changes in federal financial aid. This was a seismic shift, and many struggled to survive.

Desperate situations require innovative solutions. Threatened by the effects of the Great Recession, Mary Baldwin University in Staunton, Virginia chose a bold path as detailed in the most recent chapter of President to President, “Guiding Cycles of Transformational Innovation” by President Pamela R. Fox. The institution’s eight-year evolution from college to university was brave and brilliant, producing enviable programs and facilities that address market needs and attract new students, from pre-high school to doctoral level.

Today’s education market continues to demand innovation like Mary Baldwin University’s— and from partner companies like Sodexo that strive to improve the campus experience. Students’ expectations about campus life often affect retention, a key issue for administrators. And while Millennials got a lot of credit for driving innovation, they have nothing on today’s Gen Z students, who have grown up in a world molded by ever-advancing technology and relentless innovation. The challenge is to develop products and services that engage this generation and improve quality of life as Mary Baldwin University did so successfully. For Sodexo, one approach is to directly engage students in developing innovations that impact them now and in the future.

Innovation that drives Quality of Life is a Sodexo strategic imperative, so we’ve partnered with the Village by CA Nord of France, engaging world-class academic, business, and government entities to accelerate the development of plant-based foods. The associated European Student Challenge involves 112 student participants from many disciplines working on 32 projects to develop ways to feed the world’s growing population while mitigating the impact of animal protein production on climate and biodiversity. Winners of the Challenge will be announced in March 2018 and may well influence future menu offerings.

In addition, Sodexo sponsors Design for America (DFA), a program dedicated to using design innovation for social good and to improve the student experience. A recent project with teams from Michigan State, University of Cincinnati, Johns Hopkins|MICA, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and Rice University focused on students’ preparedness and resilience to boost retention and graduation rates. Other interdisciplinary DFA teams apply the design process to tackle challenges in health, economics, education, and the environment, promoting collaboration, leadership, and creativity.

Understanding students’ expectations is vital to delivering campus experiences that support engagement and retention. Sodexo’s ongoing research ensures we understand how our global services affect the quality of student life and the overall campus experience. The annual International Student Lifestyle Survey and the new Captured digital feedback tool provide real-time insights that guide service solution development to meet students’ needs.

The realities, expectations, and challenges inherent in higher education are constantly evolving. Trying to keep up with – and even get ahead of – these shifts and the chaos they bring can seem daunting at times. That’s why Sodexo maintains an unwavering commitment to understanding the changing landscape of higher education and continuously developing innovative programs and solutions alongside our campus partners.


Barry Telford
 is the CEO of Universities West for Sodexo North America and the President of Sodexo Canada. A strong advocate for the new performance frontier: Quality of Life, Mr. Telford believes that great performance is driven by strong, inclusive leadership based on family and community-centered values and a commitment to serve others.   Mr. Telford serves on the Board of the Sodexo Stop Hunger FoundationToronto’s Second Harvest and the Canadian Council of Aboriginal Business (CCAB).

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