For colleges and universities across the country, the past few weeks represented a historic, breathtaking achievement. Faced with the choice to act or be acted upon, higher education institutions took the initiative and led the nation.
In a matter of days, they transformed curricula that would normally take years or decades to reshape. In the face of deep uncertainty, wobbly governmental guidance and no precedent whatsoever, they moved thousands and thousands of students out of harm’s way. They made bold choices, and they did so with intelligence, grace and an unfathomable amount of hard work.
And now, even as we counsel our clients to find time for a breather, we know that can be only the briefest of respites. Because if colleges and universities are to recover from this pandemic, leaders must begin now to plan what those institutions will do and be when the crisis ebbs.
It’s not as if the immediate needs will go away. Some students are still stranded on campuses; decisions about refunds and student assistance must be made and communicated; and tough choices about keeping workforces healthy, intact and paid are coming due. So there may be a temptation to keep throwing oneself into the need of the moment.
But in many ways, planning to reopen successfully, and building the bridge from here to there, will be much more complicated and precarious than shutting down. It will take college leaders’ full attention over the next several weeks to work out what can return to its pre-pandemic state, what must be abandoned and what innovations of March and April should become a permanent part of the future. It will be intense and difficult work, but it also represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to chart a new course for institutions across every part of the sector.
So how do you get started? How do you begin to plan for a successful future post COVID-19? We’ve been thinking about this together as well as talking to trusted peers around the country, and here are some initial insights.
- Appoint the right leader. Like any strategic planning effort, this one will depend heavily on who leads it and the support they get. Ideally, a president or chancellor needs to appoint a senior leader who has credibility, creativity, strength and complete focus on coordinating and driving forward a plan.
- Include the right voices. Unlike other strategic planning work, this one cannot accommodate every single constituency or volunteer who might want representation. That said, a diversity of voices really will make your plan stronger and more creative. You will need many hands and heads.
- Stair-step deadlines. You will need critical information along the way, even if the full plan is not ready. Think about how you can set targets that turbocharge the process and give the president and trustees the information they need to provide support. For instance, could the first two weeks deliver a decision tree for how and when to open in the fall, with a clear list of questions that need to be answered and voices that need to weigh in?
- Create parallel plans. The trajectory of COVID-19 has been marked by constantly shifting information, guidance and realities. The only way to plan ahead in such an uncertain environment is to create scenarios. What if we can offer in-person programming? In contrast, what if we provide it remotely? What if key personnel are ready and able? What if, instead, they are unavailable due to illness or family care? What is the range of financial implications you may encounter, and what levers can you pull, in each instance?
- Tend to your leadership team. Your top administrators and the next tier down have become first responders. Be aware of the trauma they’ve experienced and the intense pace at which they are working. Recognize the remarkable efforts they are making on behalf of the institution and support them.
The Medium Term
- Re-recruit your current students. A range of surveys among prospective students suggests that students’ college plans may shift in response to COVID-19. There has been plenty of speculation that the rapid shift to online instruction may lead students and families to question the value of the education they are paying for. Now is the time not only to recruit your incoming class, but also to re-recruit your existing students and their parents: letting them know how much they are valued, showing how you will deliver a high-quality experience and demonstrating the return on investment of their college education.
- Woo the incoming class. Admissions teams are struggling with the loss of normal mechanisms like campus visit days. At the same time, colleges and students everywhere are feeling the loss of community. This is a great time to use technology (video messages, social media and the like) to create human connections between your alumni, faculty, staff and students and your admitted students. This work will need to continue over the summer beyond the normal recruitment and decision deadlines.
- Symbolism matters. Colleges thrive on ritual and celebration. Campus communities are keenly feeling the loss of graduation ceremonies, March Madness and other traditions that bind us together and mark key moments. It’s important that the current school year not fade into the mist and that the new school year start strong. Look for ways -- through leadership messages, virtual events and crowdsourced activities -- to create substitute rituals and build community. That may involve repurposing existing programs in creative ways. For example, can the original date for graduation become a chance for students to create a digital yearbook experience, sharing their favorite photos and memories of their time on campus? Can your teaching awards program become a chance for students and alumni to praise the faculty who had the biggest impact on their lives?
- Reinforce your brand. Johns Hopkins leveraged its medical expertise by establishing the go-to dashboard for global tracking of the epidemic. The University of Chicago reinforced its urban commitment by supporting communities and businesses on Chicago’s South Side. Grand Valley State and Xavier Universities demonstrated their commitment to students by having faculty and staff members personally reach out to check on each student. What actions can you undertake that reinforce your distinctive values and identity?
- Rethink board engagement. Moving your board and committee meetings into a virtual space is not sufficient. The nature of discussions with your board should shift. What are the important strategic and business-continuity questions your board should grapple with? How can their experiences and networks help you? And what do they need to be educated about? For example, one campus leader we spoke to discovered the board didn’t fully understand the economics of housing and dining as they discussed refunds after the campus closed. Rethink board agendas to include these critical topics and discussions.
The Long Term
- Throw out your assumptions. Your existing strategic plan may be insufficient or suddenly off target. Your value, to families and society, may not be the same now as five years ago. Your untouchable premises now can be touched -- and should be examined. It’s time to revisit the most basic assumptions of your academic programs and operations.
- Retain talent. Wherever you end up going, you will need the best minds and the strongest leaders to succeed against stiff headwinds. Colleges that prioritized retaining and acquiring talent in the Great Recession shot ahead when the economy improved. It’s hard to invest in talent in a crisis, but there may be no other single priority that is more important.
- Decide what to discard. Pay attention to what you thought you needed before but has proven unnecessary in this new world. Flying to conferences all over the world for professional development and scholarly exchange? Restrictions against flexible work locations? Old-school resistance to online educational components?
- Decide what to embrace. What new academic programs emerge as areas of growing student interest? What is working in online teaching that should be a part of your program going forward? What innovations in admissions recruitment should you invest in, even when prospective students can visit in person again? What lessons did you learn about how your administrative structure is most effective?
- Position yourself as the solution. The world will be different after this pandemic, and the needs will be daunting for society and for the next generation. Identify what your institution has to contribute and have the courage to realign your priorities to invest in that.
- Prioritize communication. Effective, consistent, clear and empathic communication builds trust and mitigates stakeholder fears. Communicating well -- and humanely -- about decision making is as crucial as the decisions themselves.
We are so proud of what colleges have done over the last four or five weeks. We have seen leaders exhibit tremendous grace under pressure while being laser focused on supporting their students and their communities. What they do over the next 12 months will help set the course for higher education for a generation to come. We are hopeful that many institutions will rise to that challenge and ultimately emerge stronger.