Higher education will not return to the pre-pandemic business as usual. What our academic future might look like is debatable. We don’t know how rapidly the shift to online learning will occur. Nor are we clear on the role alternative credentials and nondegree online programs will play at traditional residential institutions.
At this time, it is not clear how many days a week the academic staff working primarily remotely for the past couple of years will spend in their campus offices. And we are all wondering how the shift to virtual meetings will impact the culture of our campus organizations.
There is much about the post-pandemic future of higher education that we do not know. But there are some things about the future of academia that are clear. One of these areas of clarity revolves around the skills that academic staff—and especially alternative academics (alt-acs) will need to thrive in the new higher ed. These post-pandemic alt-ac skills include:
The Ability to Make the Most of On-Campus Time
Doing anything new in a higher education setting is extremely difficult. The long time horizons and regulated environment that define the postsecondary sector mean that individually our institutions are highly risk-averse. Doing new things, therefore, requires the development of networks and trust.
The requirement to develop internal trust is particularly acute for alternative academics. We often lead campuswide projects that depend for their success on coalition building and resource sharing. Top-down mandates are rare in academia and don’t work when attempted. Colleges and universities run on relationships.
The question going forward is how to build those campus networks when not on campus? How do you build trusted relationships without the informal connections that a dense campus experience enables?
Virtual meetings work well for colleagues who already know and trust one another. But Zoom is lousy for building new relationships and cementing trust.
Among the most critical alt-ac skills will be to figure out how to make the most of on-campus times. They (we) will need to figure out how to use precious in-person days for relationship building and collaboration. It will be a total waste of time if on-campus in-person days are spent on Zoom meetings. Successful alternative academics will be visible, connecting, social and collaborative on the days that they are on campus.
Expertise in Leading Location-Agnostic Teams and Projects
The role that alternative academics play on our campuses is often to lead projects, initiatives and programs. These activities most often span campus organizational boundaries. The alt-ac must usually manage these projects not through the levers of explicit authority but through softer mechanisms of alliance building and collaboration.
How can the alt-ac get things done at the university when the colleagues who must do the work are working hybrid and remote? How does the work of leading projects and teams change when we don’t see each other face-to-face each day on campus?
Alt-acs who excel at leading projects with hybrid/remote team members will be in much demand. The skills required to lead initiatives with hybrid/remote teams differ from those needed for fully campus-based groups. Communication, coaching and project management techniques will need to evolve to accommodate a newly flexible campus workforce.
Developing a Reputation for Adding Value Across Organizational Boundaries
The pandemic has scrambled the utility of existing campus organizational structures. Organizing the work of a university by the building in which the members of a particular campus organization were hired might—might—have made some sense pre-pandemic. After COVID, many of the existing campus organizational divisions act as hindrances to innovative institutional work.
Organizational structures, and especially university organizational structures, can be sticky. While many schools have engaged in large and small reorganizations, these changes are just as likely to reinforce as demolish silos.
The effective post-pandemic alt-ac will need to develop skills in transcending the existing campus organizational structures. To do so, they will need to establish a reputation across the institution for adding value to projects and initiatives. This reputation building will require alternative academics to approach their work with an institutional lens. They will need to make connections and relationships with colleagues outside of the campus organization in which they work.
What are some other skills that you see as critical for alt-acs post-COVID?