Michael Bills

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Mike Bills, Ph.D. is a 2020 graduate of the PHD Program in Leadership and Change at Antioch University.


Dr. Mike Bills at his Dissertation Defense.

From L-R: Dr. Jon Wergin, Committee Chair, Dr.Laurien Alexandre, Committee Member, Dr. Terrence MacTaggart, Committee Member

Dissertation Committee

  • Jon Wergin, Ph.D., Committee Chair
  • Laurien Alexandre, Ph.D., Committee Member
  • Terrence MacTaggart, Ph.D., Committee Member


Private college, Tuition dependence, Board of trustees, college presidents, alumni board members, decline, financial stress, turnaround, change, enrollment strategy, optimism bias, loss aversion, crisis leadership, structural deficit, case study

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Even before the COVID-19 Pandemic, higher education has been facing unprecedented threats to existing business models. Small, private colleges heavily dependent on tuition revenue are particularly at risk. These at-risk small, private colleges need to make significant changes if they are to stave off decline and turn themselves around. Most of the literature on turnarounds of colleges and universities is focused primarily on the president, and is largely the reminiscences of former presidents. The board of trustees, however, is the ultimate governing authority of a college/university. If an at-risk institution needs to change in order to survive, the board must recognize and accept the need to change, and then use its authority to take the necessary actions. Private college boards, however, are not generally known for embracing change. This dissertation used comparative case study of three small, private colleges that successfully turned around to examine how their boards of trustees that oversaw and contributed to their decline became capable of overseeing and contributing to their turnaround. Each of the colleges studied had experienced at least three consecutive years of seven figure operating deficits followed by at least two consecutive years of seven figure operating surpluses. Semi-structured interviews with the presidents, board chairs, influential trustees, CFO’s, and other cabinet level staff members were done at each institution. The interview data were triangulated with Integrated Postsecondary Data System (IPEDS) data, tax returns, audited financial statements, articles in the press, trustee bios, presidential speeches and writings, and legal filings. The current findings suggest that in the decline phase, boards of trustees suffer from problem blindness, loss aversion, and optimism bias. Turning around required hiring a president more similar to a corporate CEO than an academic, moving fast to cut expenses, and recruiting diverse board members open to change. Most importantly for board members, the findings revealed that there is no White Knight or One Big Idea that turned these colleges around. Each of them had operational deficiencies in nearly every area, all of which had to be remedied to turn the institutions around. This dissertation is available in open access at AURA: Antioch University Repository and Archive, and OhioLINK ETD Center,



Mike Bills, Ph.D.

ORCID Scholar ID #: #0000-0003-2909-690X

Dr. Michael Bills has served as President of ConexED since 2015. ConexED is the leader in virtual student services in higher education. Dr. Bills is a leading authority in using technology and data science to improve student learning outcomes. From 2004 - 2014, Michael led a series of acquisitions of three underperforming businesses across a broad set of industries. As CEO, he led the turnarounds and negotiated and executed the sale of all three businesses -- two to strategic buyers, and the other to private equity. Michael is a graduate of Westminster College in Salt Lake City, UT and has served on the Westminster College board of trustees since 2008. He currently serves as Chair of the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion committee and Vice Chair of the Governance committee. As a board member, Michael has been a passionate advocate for first generation and underrepresented minority students. Michael completed his Ph.D. at Antioch University, Graduate School of Leadership Change where his research focused on higher education governance. A former nationally ranked triathlete, Michael now focuses on being fit rather than fast, and spends his free time mountain biking, road cycling, and skiing.