Out on the Balcony: Thinking Beyond the Crisis

COVID-19 has the potential to transform our institutions for the better, and this is the time to be thinking of the possibilities, writes Scott Cowen.

April 1, 2020
 
 
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If there is something the Italians have taught us during this time of crisis, it is that balconies can be a powerful symbol of resilience. My point is not that higher education leaders need to start singing and dancing across balconies -- although if there ever was a time for sectorwide community spirit and collaboration, it is now. Rather, I’m invoking the balcony metaphor to remind us of the important task of taking a step back from the action to shift our attention to the big picture.

The concept of “getting on the balcony” during challenges that require adaptive leadership was popularized by Ronald Heifetz and Donald Laurie in their 1997 Harvard Business Review classic, “The Work of Leadership.” Survival and recovery are one thing, but rebuilding for the future -- and thereby making us more resilient -- requires leaders to see exactly what’s going on and discover patterns and opportunities for improvement and innovation.

When Tulane University went through Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005, I realized that it was difficult for me as president to go to the balcony amid the reality of having to make decisions on the fly just to survive. Acknowledging my limitation, I surrounded myself with a group of advisers that included fellow presidents and senior administrators from other universities to take me to the balcony in order to plan for Tulane’s future beyond survival. For I knew in my heart that Tulane could not realistically go back to the way it was prior to the hurricane.

As it turns out, the perspective, insight and foresight that we gained “up there” proved invaluable for Tulane’s comeback and long-term success. For example, they suggested that we streamline the engineering school and relocate the physical and natural sciences from the School of Arts and Sciences to engineering to create a new School of Science and Engineering. This gave sharper focus to the liberal arts while creating academic synergies in engineering and the sciences.

Today, higher education administrators and faculty members everywhere are scrambling to adapt to the new normal we find ourselves in with plenty that has to be sorted out on the spot. It is a disruptive period of rapid decision making. However, our focus cannot just be on the pressing needs of the present and the foreseeable future (e.g., grading policies, graduation, immediate financial shortfalls). Here is why: institutions of higher education will not be able to restore things to their pre-pandemic level and just go back to the way things were -- nor should they.

When the novel coronavirus outbreak comes to a halt, and we all come out of this state of emergency, our world will be changed. The experiences, experiments and adjustments we will have made will have opened the door to renewal. Intentionally or inadvertently, we will have begun the work of reimagining how we do the work of the university.

One of the important lessons I learned from Hurricane Katrina is that we had an obligation, not an opportunity, to reset how we were functioning as a university and a city to ensure something positive resulted from the tragedy. And, in the long run, the transformation that Katrina so violently and abruptly put in motion greatly benefited Tulane and New Orleans. I firmly believe that COVID-19 also has the potential to transform our institutions, and this is the right time to be thinking of the possibilities.

As I reflect on the renewal likely to occur across the higher education sector, I first think of the goals at the center of a significant change effort, the process by which to achieve the goals and the lessons learned from the decisions being made during the crisis. As a start, an institution may focus on a change agenda that makes education more affordable and accessible, while also enhancing the efficiency and effectiveness of student learning and success. Community building within the university and among other stakeholder groups and community partners -- locally, regionally and globally -- is also currently emerging as a key effort.

These goals, and strategies to achieve them, are already being prioritized by some universities today -- such as Arizona State University and Southern New Hampshire University -- but they have not been scaled across the higher education sector. The intention of this change initiative is not to commoditize higher education but to make it even more distinctive and value producing.

What we in higher education need now to successfully undertake such a future-oriented transformational endeavor is a Skunk Works group that facilitates the process “from the balcony.” Whether this work happens at the individual institutional level, at the sector level (ideally with a higher education association as the backbone) or both, the sole focus would be on chronicling and rigorously evaluating the lessons learned and further testing the efficacy and value of any changes for various stakeholder groups.

The creation of an external group of proven change makers to challenge conclusions and assist in the discovery journey could complement our internal work. It’s all about gaining perspective and taking the long view. Where do we want to be, and how can we come out stronger, when this is all behind us? Only when we are out on the balcony can we truly think beyond the crisis.

Bio

Scott Cowen is president emeritus and Distinguished University Chair of Tulane University.

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