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Last week, I reviewed Jared Diamond’s new book Upheaval

One way that Upheaval has been criticized is Diamond’s attempt to apply a personal crises framework to nations.

As a thought experiment, I wonder if this framework of individual turmoil can be extended to universities?  This may not be a good idea - but it is an interesting one.

Do we learn anything by substitution a person with a school in each of the 12 factors of a crisis framework?

I’ve taken each of the factors that Diamond uses throughout Upheaval to look at Finland, Germany, Japan, Chile, Indonesia, Australia, and the U.S. - rewriting the factors so they make sense for institutions.

Factors Related To The Outcomes Of Institutional Crises

Factor #1. Acknowledgment that one’s university is in crisis

How early, and publicly, should leaders (or faculty and staff) acknowledge that their institution is in trouble?  Does publicly saying that the school is in crisis lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy? 

In a sense, isn’t every college and university in crisis given the unsupportable growth in costs?  Or should only colleges that have a high probability of having to shut their doors be thought of as in crisis?

Factor #2. Acceptance of university leadership and/or faculty responsibility to do something

Who is personally responsible for a college in crisis?  Does that personal responsibility extend only to schools at risk of closing?  Or are leaders - and faculty - responsible for things like rising costs and overall institutional quality?

Factor #3. Building a fence, to delineate the institutional problems needing to be solved

The way I understand factor #3 is the need to identify both strengths and weaknesses.  Can a college survive by spending most of its energy building on its strengths?  How many institutions have the discipline to identify weaknesses, and then to make the hard choices to not invest in these areas?

Factor #4. Getting material and emotional help from other colleges and universities

The ultimate form of material help from peer institutions is to pursue a merger.  Are there intermediate steps that schools can take? 

At almost every higher ed conference that I attend, someone will lament the failure of colleges to share services.  Why don’t schools combine their IT and back-office operations is a question we often hear.  Others point to the success of sharing agreements such as Interlibrary Loan (ILL) as evidence that schools can get this done.

A great use of foundation money would be to overcome the initial friction of creating shared university services. 

Factor #5. Using other universities as models of how to solve problems

Looking at other institutions for success models is one thing that schools do pretty well.  For the most part, we are an open and transparent industry.  (The OPM world being one big exception).

It may that many colleges are too quick to look to other institutions as models. Rather than playing to our own strengths, many schools seek to emulate the practices of others.  This may be a function of the zero-sum nature of the university status hierachy.

Higher ed seems to have a “follow-me” culture.  Being risk-averse, we like to let other schools absorb the costs of new practices before we jump in. 

Factor #6. Ego strength

Ego strength, as articulated by Diamond in Upheaval, is all about the confidence in what makes individuals (and nations) unique and special.  Self-regard does not seem to be an issue for most colleges and universities.

Factor #7. Honest institutional self-appraisal

An honest discussion of our institutional weaknesses may be bad for business. 

Openly discussing our institutional shortcomings is probably not great for student recruitment, or for convincing alumni to give money.

Perhaps honest institutional self-appraisal can be more of an internal campus process.  How often to members of a university community come together to talk about possible areas of institutional improvement?

Factor #8. Experience of previous institutional crises

How many schools changed their ways following the last global economic crisis of 2018?

Have schools become better at forgoing borrowing for large campus building projects?

Are universities planning for the next recession, and subsequent drop in giving and endowment earning, by creating emergency rainy-day funds?

Perhaps it is only the most privileged institutions that have the luxury of planning for future economic downturns.  For most schools, the budget crisis has already arrived. 

Factor #9. Patience

Colleges and universities have very long time horizons.  We think in decades, if not centuries. 

So we are patient, right? 

Patience is probably a function of privilege.  The greater the level of institutional resources, the longer the planning time horizons. 

Factor #10. Flexible culture

Colleges and universities are more flexible than is commonly believed.  Higher ed is often tagged with the label of slow to evolve and change. 

Wearing medieval robes during graduation ceremonies probably doesn’t help our case.

The reality is that universities are changing all the time.  It is our flexible culture that has allowed us to embrace changes in everything from the types of students we educate to how teaching and learning occur.

Factor #11. Institutional core values

The presence of a flexible culture is tied directly to the strength of an institution’s core values.  Having, and committing to operate by, a series of core values will enable a school to evolve. 

The schools that seem to get themselves in trouble are those that are not clear about their core values.  Or that confuse the practices of meetings these values with the values themselves. 

For instance, a core value of a college may be a commitment to the liberal arts.  That commitment does not require that all teaching and learning occur in face-to-face classes, even if that is how teaching has always been done. 

It is possible to provide a wonderful liberal arts education at a distance. 

Factor #12. Freedom from institutional constraints

Every school faces constraints.  The challenge is that for most colleges and universities, the environment has become more constrained. 

The demographic, economic, competitive, and political pressures facing institutions of higher education are likely to become more severe.  At the same time, it is not clear that universities are nurturing a set of emerging leaders who will be up to the challenge.

Do you think that a framework of personal crises can be applied at the postsecondary institutional level?

How would you have applied any of the 12 factors differently to your school?

How much agency do you think that tuition-dependent colleges can exert in shaping their future economic viability?

Are small, tuition-dependent public and private institutions destined to whither and eventually fail? 

Are there examples of institutional resiliency from which we can learn?

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