Five Themes For Higher Education’s New Imperative

ByElizabeth J. Bohn

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For higher education, the post-pandemic era is here. What’s abundantly clear is that new strategies will be needed for college and university leaders to successfully respond to the types, magnitudes, and concurrent/coincident impacts and mutual amplification of crises they will face in the years ahead. This point was driven home over the last nearly three years as higher education institutions and their leaders faced multiple challenges rising to the level of crises. What made this period so challenging was not the global pandemic on its own (although this was perhaps the single greatest challenge US colleges and universities have faced in history), but the concurrence of multiple crises, more than one of which might even be considered a pandemic.

Let’s start by recognizing and acknowledging the confluence of crises (from the global pandemic; to the growing political divide and crisis of democracy; to racial unrest, Black Lives Matter, and the rise in social justice activism and demands; to the deepening economic crisis; to the public’s diminishing perception of the value and relevance of a college degree) facing higher education. From there the strong case can be made for Higher Ed to both reaffirm its purpose and mission, goals and ideals, and to reestablish itself as a fundamental public good. Using the COVID pandemic as it unfolded and evolved, not necessarily connected to the other crises but certainly intertwining with them, there is a strong and urgent case for higher education to return to being the marketplace of ideas by bringing people back to the middle, away from the extremes to which our society has migrated in the last decade.

Higher Ed’s return to the middle, to the marketplace and to the common good, should be through distinction (not replicating one another) and remaining purpose-driven and not giving in to political pressures or ideological divides. Higher Ed has often run to the middle in a crisis, even when much of society flees to one extreme or the other. We saw this in the pandemic (sensible masking and social distance policies, vaccine policies and requirements that followed the (admittedly evolving) science, and our best efforts to hold firm on free speech without giving in to political pressures from outside or “cancel culture” from within. In this increasingly polarized time, such sensible and unflappable moves to the middle ground (informed, reasoned, tempered) aggravated and angered those at the extremes. But that’s what makes Higher Ed different. It does not, should not, and must not take sides.

Rather, this must be where colleges and universities commit themselves. The middle ground, now largely devoid of citizens (educated or not), must be where people are brought back, for reasoned and informed discourse, for civil discourse and shared learning, and to discover their own truths. Higher Ed’s role is not to validate the extremes but to enable discourse without threat, scientific exploration without boundaries, and learning without limitations. This is how universities can reassert their relationship with their public, restore and gain credibility, and reestablish themselves as a public good. They can do this by fundamentally and unflinchingly advocating for free speech on their campuses as well as for diversity in all dimensions, including intellectual (diversity of discipline and thought).

This is exactly the opposite of where other institutions and individuals are positioning themselves. This is also the opposite of how the public is positioning (through their narratives) higher education. For example, many believed Higher Ed’s response to COVID was driven by those at the edges (i.e., uninformed, unsubstantiated, or ideologically motivated masking and social distance policies), and that they didn’t understand (or were withholding from the public) the science behind the virus. All that said, in their laudable (and largely successful) efforts to do the right thing and follow the science (which would later evolve to reveal new information and new understanding of the virus’ vector, lifespan, resilience, and impact), they moved swiftly and absolutely (and quite consistently across the nation) to close down their campus operations. They didn’t yet fully understand the COVID science. And they didn’t fully realize the cost of shutting everything down. It may have been the wrong decision in hindsight, despite being the best decision given what was known (and believed to be known) and arguably the decision in the best interest of public health, but it most certainly contributed to and even created economic problems that are only now beginning to be fully realized. As often is the case, there exists legitimate criticism from both directions. Higher education is diminished and devalued when it is becomes, allows itself to become, or is believed to be driven by politicians or by ideologues. Rather, their best destiny is in the middle – reasoned, tempered, informed, and ever learning – and bringing the population toward that ground as well. Civil discourse is essential to a civil society, to a democracy, and to a world facing serious and even existential challenges.

Consider five themes for higher education’s great reset:

1/ Disruption

The pandemic made clear that for colleges and universities to survive, they must both adapt and differentiate, and to do these, they must be open to and indeed commit to disruption. Long standing issues within Higher Ed were highlighted and in some cases amplified as the pandemic unfolded and institutions responded. Status quo would no longer work, and the “do-nothing” strategy resulting from ignorance, arrogance, or impasse could no longer be acceptable. Change was needed – perhaps long overdue – and failure to make needed changes to adapt as the pandemic unfolded and secure a sustainable future both represented existential threats.

Adaptation came quickly by academic standards, at times surprising even those within Higher Ed, but focused on immediate needs (i.e., a triage model of adaptation rather than a strategic or systemic model). By contrast, little attention was paid to hardening finances, adapting operating models or governance, and securing a sustainable post-pandemic future. This was perhaps made less urgent by the generous and substantial, though fixed-term, financial support provided by the federal government. There have been few changes in university operating models and no changes in governance.

The risk now is “sliding backwards” to pre-pandemic models, dynamics, and expectations. To do this would be both a missed opportunity and grave mistake. Commitment to (and comfort with) disruptive change is needed desperately and this will require new and different thinking, leadership, and governance dynamics.

2/ Re-thinking

Higher Ed must embark on a “total rethink” (a great reset) using the pandemic as a springboard but recognizing that securing a sustainable future that is mission-driven (purposeful), attractive (compelling), and financially responsible (stable) requires a willingness to rethink nearly every aspect of higher educational institutions’ operations. This includes mission, purpose, and role; enrollment management strategies; costs and financial models; marketing and communication; campus operations; strategic planning and decision-making; the academic calendar; academic offerings (degrees, certificates, and more); the effective integration of academic and student life programming; the use of technology and role of experiential education; how universities engage with their off-campus constituents; and even the design and role of the physical campus.

Colleges and universities must break free of the incremental “nibble around the edges” strategy of both resource allocation and expense reduction. It has not served any institution well and has led directly to diminishment if not demise of their ability to deliver on mission as well as morale of faculty and staff. A decade or more of incremental cuts has left many colleges and universities stagnant, severely curtailed, and hopeless.

Rethinking everything requires a new culture of leadership, governance, engagement, and partnerships. It requires trust, respect, and a new sense of shared direction and shared commitment. Above all, it requires a recognition and understanding that system change means just that – it’s a systemwide commitment, and “all-in” conversation where everything is on the table and there is no exclusion of “sacred cows.” No individual, department, program, or office is immune and none are held harmless. Neither is there a one-size-fits-all approach.

The goal must be an institution that is able to be more responsive and adaptive as crises present, with strong predictive and planning capabilities so that the response is more thoughtfully and carefully implemented, and less suddenly reactive. Higher Ed institutions must manage change rather than be managed by it. They must follow the lead of Nancy Zimpher, Chancellor Emerita of SUNY, who has written that higher educational institutions “must become the best at getting better.”

3/ Bearing Witness and Reflection

Over the last two years, my series in Forbes has chronicled the COVID pandemic experience for higher educational institutions through multiple lenses, university leaders as well as their constituents and the broader public, and on lessons learned in real time and upon reflection.

This series (and others) documented the unfolding pandemic and decisions that were made in response to the evolving crisis, and explored fundamental lessons learned in the pandemic, key decisions (e.g., pivoting to online instruction, shutting down campuses and sending students home) made early on, and major milestones (e.g., requiring masking and social distancing, and the end of those requirements). They also examined the unintended consequences of those decisions, including mental health issues, economic issues, and exacerbated access and affordability issues.

Nearly every college and university, in the end, followed the same script and the same timeline in their response to the pandemic and in how they managed the crisis. There was even near uniform consistency in the timing and process for returning to full on-campus operations. Whether this was sensible and strategic, or a nationwide example of follow-the-leader (or fear of mis-stepping), is still unclear. They all came from the same place of relative ignorance. But there most certainly will be another global health pandemic or pandemic-like crisis in the years ahead. What remains to be seen is whether universities’ responses will be more individualized, more independent, or more effective. They certainly should be more well-informed and better planned.

One thing is certain, the arc of this remarkable story provides a series of important leadership lessons and serves as a backdrop for needed change and for responsible change-management.

4/ Accelerating

Clearly the need for change is urgent and colleges and universities must accelerate (not simply gravitate) toward that change. They must “smash the rear-view mirror” and not be constantly looking backward, longingly or for the safety or comfort of what was known. Instead, they must focus their energies and their commitments to moving forward – strategically, responsibly, and quickly. This means redirecting their antennae or their radar forward. This means committing to making long-needed and long-overdue change quickly in order to ensure their sustainable future.

Universities have been, and are still at-present, catatonic. The “teacher-learner-books” model is no longer applicable or relevant. We live in a fast-changing digital world. Businesses have taken the place of universities as drivers of change. Our slow pace to recognize, accept, and adapt to the changing world has left us marginalized and at considerable risk. They must accelerate or die.

But colleges and universities have learned through the pandemic that they are capable of making change. They demonstrated both the will and the capacity to adapt quickly. They broke through longstanding taboos around online learning, remote work, and flexible schedules. Faculty, staff, and students rallied. Continuity of teaching and learning was ensured. And they were able to return to normal campus operations seamlessly and no doubt better prepared for the next crisis.

But these institutions must now take steps to leverage that new learning and not allow themselves to slide back to pre-pandemic operating modalities. They must not only get better at being part of the changing world around them but they must also get better at monitoring, forecasting, recognizing, and acknowledging changes that are (and will be) taking place. Adjustment in real-time is the better strategy. It’s far more difficult and far more disruptive, as has been learned, to react and re-establish following a crisis.

Two sayings come to mind. The first, “you’re either at the table or on the menu” reminds universities that to survive they must be part of the conversation. While the second, “if you want to run with the big dogs you have to come down off the porch,” reminds them that they cannot simply watch and bear witness. They must engage and commit. They must dive into the fray where it’s messy and where there is risk. And they must accelerate.

5/ Responding and Repositioning

Public perception of higher education has declined over the last decade, in part due to Higher Ed’s failure to tell their story effectively and in part due to their failure to adapt and evolve to meet changing conditions, expectations, and needs. The world had changed and our institutions turned a deaf ear, a combination of arrogance and reticence, almost daring the world to go on without them. And it did. Higher Ed not only lost its luster, it allowed itself to become marginalized.

Higher Ed must begin paying closer attention to public sentiment, listening and hearing from the public, and writing a new narrative that will enable broader support, trust, and respect of our colleges and universities. Only by acknowledging how they are perceived can they change it to match their aspirations. Only by listening to those they serve can they truly be responsive to their needs. And only by continuing to engage authentically and consistently with their communities and stakeholders can they remain relevant, trusted, and counted upon as a public good.

Our colleges and universities have an incredible opportunity (if not imperative) now to reaffirm their mission and value, reach more students and provide even greater accessibility and affordability, connect more authentically to the public they serve, and rebuild respect, confidence, and trust.

As they continue to grapple with woke and cancel cultures, political divides, economic pressures, and the move away from fact-based reasoning and civil discourse, higher education must return to first principles and the university as the marketplace of ideas, the broad and fertile center ground where civility and science and debate live largest. Our great colleges and universities were once looked to as brilliant and shining lights on the hill. Today they are at risk of becoming little more than cave drawings on the wall, telling us something about what life was like long ago but offering little about where we must go next. Historic but of little relevance today, and certainly not visionary.

For higher education, it’s time for a reaffirmation of ideals, evolution of mission, much needed and long overdue change, and both new leadership and new leadership-governance dynamics. By committing to these, our colleges and universities can secure a brilliant future, one in which they are once again central to our nation’s growth, trusted and respected, and looked to for light and guidance as well as solutions and discoveries.


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