Pandemic Inspired Leadership Lessons: #1 Plan Now for a Post-Pandemic Future

If history is any indication, crises spur innovation.  For example, the great Renaissance was borne out of the Black Death, a time in which a third of Europe’s population died.  Historians have written that the horrors of the Black Death disease eventually led to a period of creative adaptation and the development of medical science as a respectable approach to healthcare.  According to a recent Forbes article, the Black Death was one of the greatest world disasters ever visited upon the human race; while also giving ‘rise to a new world and a new order of thinking that has shaped our lives for centuries and influences how we live and think today.’ Epidemics have also ignited individual accomplishments.  It is said that Shakespeare quarantined during the bubonic plague, leading to his emergence as a paid poet (as theaters were shuttered) and one of the world’s greatest writers; during his confinement, he produced King Lear, Macbeth, and Anthony & Cleopatra.  Similarly, Sir Isaac Newton went into isolation in the countryside during an outbreak of the same plague and—in complete seclusion—developed his game changing theories of calculus, and the laws of motion, gravity, and optics.

You may be wondering what this has to do with higher education?  I have been struck by how pessimistic many of the public conversations about higher education are trending these days.  And for sure, the challenges facing the higher ed system are significant and not to be taken lightly.  However, there are tremendous opportunities to be found in this moment if one can muster the courage to look beyond the immediate crisis.  For example, while the quick pivot to online learning in March at our nation’s colleges and universities may not reflect ‘optimal’ online teaching and learning practices, there is much to be taken away from the Spring 2020 experience that we can use to prepare for a post-pandemic future.  Prior to the pandemic could you have imagined the willingness of the faculty at our more traditional institutions to pivot so quickly to move their classes online?  And yet, we now have thousands of faculty who have dipped their toes in the water of online learning and may be willing to explore and experiment more deeply and effectively with the use of digital technology to transform learning.  Imagine the future possibilities and the potential benefits for student learning.

As we prepare for the Fall 2020 semester in the midst of extraordinary uncertainty, we are seeing colleges and universities around the country experimenting with previously sacrosanct traditions and structural features.  For example, Beloit College is among a growing number of institutions that have announced plans to offer a more flexible academic calendar and delivery model.  Specifically, Beloit is breaking the semester into two modules during which students will take two courses each.  At my own institution, we have consolidated the course offerings and academic calendars for our traditional undergraduate campus-based program and our fully online adult program offered through The American Women’s College (TAWC) in order to provide students with more flexible enrollment options. And Southern New Hampshire University recently announced its plans to ‘redefine and reimagine the traditional campus-based learning model to bring more affordable, flexible, and accessible degree pathways to students and families.’  At the core of the plan is a suite of unbundled enrollment pathways enabling students to pick and choose the campus features they wish to access—all with a $10,000 tuition price tag.  Taken together, these experiments signal the opening of the academy to changes that may just result in the transformation of student learning.

One of my favorite management concepts is Kaizen, a Japanese inspired approach that has been widely applied across many fields and refers to improvement and ‘making things better’.  Implicit to the Kaizen approach is the importance of considering short-range decisions and actions in the context of long-term success.  Especially when making plans during a period of uncertainty, it is critical that leaders consider their plans and decisions for the short run in the context of where they want their institutions to land long-term.  For example, when the baccalaureate occupational therapy program market constricted in the early part of the 2000s due to external regulatory issues, the Bay Path University leadership team decided to stay the course and not eliminate the program, in contrast to what many other institutions did at the time. Why did they make this decision?  In looking ahead, they knew that the market demand for occupational therapists would eventually rebound, and that healthcare programs would occupy an increasingly important position in the University’s academic program portfolio.  Maintaining the long view in this case meant that, as the regulatory issues worked themselves through, Bay Path’s program was able to quickly adapt and accommodate the burgeoning student demand. Occupational therapy is now Bay Path’s largest graduate program and a critically important source of tuition revenue.  

How might academic leaders best maintain a long view right now, especially as time and resource critical decisions are at your doorstep?  Let me suggest three things:

First, broaden your short-term preparation and planning to extend beyond the Fall semester.  Most of us have already convened task forces to prepare for the Fall 2020 reopening.  Use this crisis as an opportunity to plan creatively for the entire year and be sure to look beyond just the tactical matters.  Consider the short-term budget and resource allocation decisions you make now in light of your long-range ambitions. For example, if your ambition is to develop more flexible enrollment options for your students, ask your faculty to extend their use of digital technologies in their course preparations for the entire year.  With every decision you make in the next year, ask yourself how potential options will best serve your institution for the long-term?  Does it move you closer or further away from the institution you aspire to be in 2030?

Second, look beyond today’s pandemic and focus on the next several years—as far out as 2030—and get clear about the pathway you want your institution to stake out post-pandemic and beyond the ‘cliff’ that many had predicted was coming prior to this current crisis.  Convene a second task force right now and charge this group with developing a blueprint for the next decade.  Spend some time reflecting on what your institution has learned from Spring 2020.  Ask your faculty and students to tell you what went well in the spring.  What did you do that is worth continuing and pulling forward?  How are your students’ needs changing in the midst of this pandemic and what does that signal for the future that you must respond to?  Make sure your blueprint for 2030 reflects a well-informed and realistic understanding about the changes in our world as well as in who the students of the future will be and what they will need.

   Third, start small experiments now to test—in a low risk way—your ideas about how best to position your institution for the future.  For example, if one assumes that chaos, stress and disruption may become the new normal for many of our institutions in the years ahead, there are several key questions which can serve as inspiration for experimentation:

  • What residential campus features and services might be delivered virtually to enhance the online learning experience?
  • How might residence halls be used differently or more broadly to serve other campus or student needs?
  • What opportunities do we have in our backyard with local students?
  • What resource sharing opportunities might we explore with other institutions?
  • Do we have any unique courses that might be offered online for free to broaden our reach?

During times like these, it is impossible to develop a fool-proof plan for the future.  However, we can prepare for the future.  And preparing well begins with asking the right questions, getting comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity, being willing to let go of things that no longer serve our students’ needs or add value and having a clear-eyed vision for the future that extends beyond 2020.  I believe that this moment provides much cause for optimism; especially for those institutions that are able to differentiate between those things that are most worth holding on to—such as our core educational values—and structures, traditions and features that may have outlived their usefulness.  To whatever extent your institution can carve out a pathway to 2030 with options that leverage and reshape your core educational values using new models and approaches that are better aligned with and responsive to the changing world and your students’ needs, you will remain relevant and your opportunities will be ample.

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