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I recall one of the very early conversations among board members at the National Association of System Heads (NASH), where I serve as a senior fellow, at the moment our systems were called to shift to remote instruction in midwinter 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. NASH is the leading association for public university systems, and the more than 60 systems in 44 states, two-thirds of which are NASH members, educate nearly 75 percent of the nation’s students in four-year public institutions.

You’d think all the talk during that discussion among system heads in the room that day would be about the immediacy of the moment. You’d think they would focus almost exclusively on taking fast action -- recognizing it would be a major undertaking, nonetheless -- and that the need to transition to remote learning to serve our students, almost overnight, was paramount. But in that moment, while those leaders did, in fact, take immediate action, they simultaneously were also beginning to reflect on the longer term and the big picture -- the really big picture.

The big picture is a concept that Ronald A. Heifetz and Donald L. Laurie captured in their 1997 Harvard Business Review article, “The Work of Leadership.” The main thesis of their work is that leading an organization through major changes, crisis or not, requires its leader to view its patterns as if they were standing “on the balcony.” As they note, “Leaders have to see a context for change or create one” -- elevating an organization’s history and what’s good about the past, as well as taking responsibility for shaping the future. They call this the capacity to move back and forth between the field of action and the balcony. All elements and actions then flow from this ability to see the big picture.

That big picture for America’s public university systems assumes that we continue to internalize the profound effects of COVID-19 in exposing the limited access of vulnerable communities to quality health care, the overwhelming effects of deep and systemic injustices, and the severe gap in economic opportunity that so many people have experienced. While always vitally important to our nation, university systems are even more crucial at this turbulent time. They provide education from workforce certifications through the most advanced professional and academic degrees. They serve their states and the nation through community outreach and public service. They contribute to economic development, social mobility, public and environmental health, civic engagement, and the nation’s defense.

In fact, higher education systems are distinctly poised to leverage the collective assets of their constituent campuses to address some of the most significant challenges facing humankind -- and imagine what a network of these systems could accomplish to not only improve education outcomes but also expand health care, address systemic racism and strengthen our economy and communities. Thus, the COVID crisis represents a major opportunity for us to get “on the balcony” and reimagine public higher education systems and the new post-pandemic roles they might play in strengthening our country.

University system heads and NASH are now, in fact, giving much thought to how together we turn this view from the balcony into a transformation agenda, with measurable metrics and an accountability system that truly reflect our collective ability to lead this nation’s recovery over the next five years. We are referring to this consequential agenda-setting initiative as “the Big Rethink.” To accomplish this task together, we’re dividing our work into two parts as follows:

No. 1: A transformation agenda for public university systems. As the leadership association for public university systems in the United States, NASH will develop an agenda to help these important systems: 1) respond to the health-care crisis, the calls for racial justice and the need for economic recovery in the short term and 2) transform themselves to ensure enhanced success for their students and the states they serve for the long term.

Already, NASH has convened four of its systems in leading the change in upskilling their states’ health-care networks to increase certification at upper levels of care to provide more ICU nurses and more health-care specialists to buy down the health risks in vulnerable communities. It has developed a broad-based racial equity action framework to advance evidence-based antiracist health-care content and delivery.

NASH systems are also offering more applied learning opportunities by creating a technology platform to get the right students interning and co-oping in our nation’s businesses, industries and social service agencies. As to our student success agenda, a network of more than 20 of our systems has created a now seven-year agenda for “taking student success to scale” (TS3), where the delivery of high-impact practices across system campuses are showing results in student success outcomes.

No. 2: Guidance for public higher education systems to propel the agenda forward. NASH also plans to prepare a three-volume publication, Public University Systems: Origins, Impacts, and Possibilities for the Future, with contributions from highly regarded higher education scholars, university system leaders and visionaries that will:

  • Describe the mission, history, structure and functions of university systems;
  • Critically assess the variety of barriers, leadership, innovation and impacts systems are making on important societal goals; and
  • Develop the transformational possibilities for how university systems can lead in a post-pandemic world.

We will be documenting system leadership of programs to counteract systemic barriers and close equity gaps once and for all in the decade to come, such as the California State University Graduation Initiative 2025 and the Minnesota State Equity 2030 agenda. Two systems are also taking on equities across their Indigenous populations: Hawaii and Montana both are engaged in comprehensive system agendas to more effectively reach these populations on campus and through expanded remote instruction. And all member systems are engaged in prioritizing career-related credentials, certificates and badges and in accepting prior-learning credits -- thus speeding time to greater workforce opportunities.

We look forward to sharing updates on this transformation agenda and invite you to follow us on the NASH website as our work proceeds.

Perhaps the best way to summarize such an effort is to underscore the significance of this opportunity. This “Big Rethink” is the first major examination of public university systems since Clark Kerr led the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education’s foundational studies in the 1970s. Now, a half century later, and in the face of a global pandemic, we as public systems of higher education are called once again to show the way. We must be creative, innovative, compelling and willing to take risks in leading our collective work in this transformative moment.

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