We’re all being disrupted right now because of the pandemic. But I think it’s fair to say that higher education has been forced to change more than anyone else. Many of these changes (like moving more instruction online) have been fiercely debated for years. And then suddenly, boom. It’s done and they’ve had to adapt.
There are plenty of places where you can read about all of the ways that the events of 2020 are changing higher education. I’ll focus here on a series of discussions I’ve had with academic deans of business schools across the United States. They’ve all shared about the challenges of moving everything online immediately, figuring out how they will need to evolve in order to remain competitive even as their business models are upended, and how to prepare for a future that still looks fuzzy.
We’re in the process of reinvention, whether we like it or not. Post-Covid will not look like pre-Covid.
During a time of multiple crises that are threatening both fiscal and cultural survival of academic institutions, what kind of leadership skills are needed most? How can administrators support faculty who have to teach in new ways and students who have to learn in new ways?
In addition to all of the budgetary and operational challenges, higher education is facing an increasingly relevant question about the value of what they offer in the first place. As noted by Dr. Nancy Hubbard from the University of Lynchburg:
“A dozen of my friends have said, ‘I wish I’d given my kids 200,000 bucks and told them to go start a business. They would have been better off.”
Let’s get into it.
New Niches, Institutional Oversight, and Mergers and Acquisitions
Dr. Nancy Hubbard is Dean of the University of Lynchburg’s College of Business and a Professor of Management. Dr. Hubbard is one of Europe’s best-known experts on acquisitions, change management, and strategy.
We can start with a basic question: who is in trouble?
“Institutions with big endowments can weather the storm,” said Dr. Hubbard. “If you are a small liberal arts college that is tuition-driven with no graduate programs and a small endowment, you are already in trouble.”
What can colleges do?
“First of all, we have to understand the world has profoundly and fundamentally changed. Higher education has always been cocooned because it’s had a free pass to raise its prices by 5% every year, regardless. The combination of pandemic and social unrest is going to shake higher education to its core.”
She talked about expanding the reach to different students by targeting a new niche.
“Colleges have a choice. They can either go after the existing pool of students and do better than their predecessors and everybody else in the market. The other choice is to start new courses, start new offerings, find out what you’re not doing and figure out niches and fill those niches.”
Here’s an example of a niche that Dr. Hubbard shared with me: actuaries.
“There not a lot of colleges that offer actuarial science,” she said. “Students start off making $100,000 a year. It’s a great gig. We developed an actuarial science major and minor last year. We may get 10 students. If we get 20 students over four years, that’s great. In our world, 20 students that we wouldn’t have had otherwise is awesome. That makes a difference.”
She also talked about the need for more institutional oversight.
“One of the issues with higher ed is you don’t have shareholders bugging you for efficiencies,” she said. “If a business isn’t performing well, the board of directors is involved, they have a responsibility to shareholders and it is their job to manage the CEO. Higher ed doesn’t have that. For many institutions, the Board of Trustees doesn’t run it like a business.”
She touched on her own area of expertise: mergers and acquisitions. Buy an asset that you don’t have. Purdue bought Kaplan University for the IT platform. Boston University bought Wheelock for the real estate.
“My area happens to be, how do you play well with others? Do you do alliances, joint ventures, mergers? Or do you decide, I’m going to enter a new market,” she said. “Virginia Tech decided they’re opening a campus in Northern Virginia. That really shook up the whole market, because the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech are both in the southwest quadrant of Virginia, so that means there’s less competition in the north of the state, which is where all the people are. Virginia Tech said, ‘Guess what? We are opening a campus in North.’ Fascinating. Out-of-the-box thinking, quite creative, quite disruptive, really interesting.”
That kind of creative thinking is what every university will need to do now.
“Not everybody’s going to survive,” she said. “For people who are forward-thinking, fast-pivoting, opportunistic visionaries, this is a really exciting time to be in higher ed. But it’s also quite scary because 20% of colleges aren’t going to make it.”
Faculty Training and Student-Centered Learning
How can administrators support faculty who have to teach in new ways and students who have to learn in new ways?
I asked Dr. Ezaz Ahmed, Dean of Business Programs at Columbia College. Dr Ezaz Ahmed brings a robust body of knowledge in Human Resources, Management and Business as an academic and researcher.
“When we have a rapid change, when we have an overnight macro disruption such as Covid-19, the old skillset that we have accrued is not going to work,” he said. “We need to train our professors, our heads of departments, our deans and others to ensure that they can embrace the change. Change process is now continuous.”
What needs to happen in the next 12 months that will define the next three to five years?
“One of the top priorities for higher education right now should be training their faculty members,” said Dr. Ahmed. “In fact, it should be a priority for the accreditation bodies as well. They should demand that colleges and universities invest money and resources for training, for online teaching, leadership in teaching and learning. It’s very important.”
He said we also need to ensure that as we expand the programs online, the courses are offered in a way that is student-centered. That means not just transferring some slides online.
“Student-centered learning means that students are highly engaged,” said Dr. Ahmed. “They are interested in the topic. They are interested in learning more about the topic in the future. Remember, one of the reasons students come to the university is not only to learn about subject matter – but also to learn HOW to learn, so it is a life-long learning pattern.”
He also stressed the importance of asking the students how they’re doing.
“Students learn differently,” he said. “Not two students will be learning in the same way. Some students might even have learning difficulties. Considering that, we should focus on understanding what students like to have out of these courses, and then we should also cater or provide more customized and personalized teaching experiences and learning experiences.”
Our Current Nimbleness Needs to Continue
If you’re one of the schools fighting for survival right now, it’s important to find your own point of distinction as an institution and also as a partner to your community organizations and to the employers who are looking to your students to help them address their own challenges as well.
Dr. Daniel Connolly is a professor of management at Drake University’s College of the College of Business and Public Administration in Des Moines, Iowa, and a recognized global thought leader in the area of hospitality information technology.
Dr. Connolly shared some insights about being a good partner for local businesses that need talent. He also discussed how the adaptations that every school has had to make this year creates a nimbleness that can be an asset.
“If I were having a conversation with my faculty colleagues a year ago and said we need to be completely online by April 1, I would have gotten a bazillion of reasons why we couldn’t do so or why that was a dumb idea,” said Dr. Connolly. “Of course, necessity is the mother of all invention. We were forced to do it and people rose to the challenge and made it happen. There was a nimbleness that the world really has not seen much of from higher education, but that nimbleness needs to continue.”
“There are many schools out there that right now literally are fighting for survival,” he continued. “Instead of trying to copy elite schools that are much better off resource-wise, this is an opportunity for somebody to be a real standout, to rise from the pack of pencils. And, and be bold and different and come up with new models.”
He shared the example of Southern New Hampshire University, which was a struggling traditional school that, as he put it, “bet the farm on online and said, we’re going to become this great go-to place for online education. And if you look at them today, they are a powerhouse. And they did so at a time when most of the players in the online world were for-profits. Yet they had a president who was willing to be bold and put a stake in the ground and be very different than everybody else. And it paid off.”
On the subject of how to partner within your community with employers who need talent, he said it’s important to find what employers are looking for, the gaps they need to fill, and make sure your graduates are being trained to fill them.
“I’ve met with several employers here in the Des Moines area, and often the message is the same: they don’t have the people equipped with the mindset or the abilities to take them to the next level,” he said. “They’re looking for people who will be not just proficient in the new technologies, but also who will be agile and able to lead and influence change. They want people who will help influence their peers to gravitate to new directions and embrace new thinking, new technologies, new ways of doing business and come up with those innovations that these companies need.”
“I think one positive aspect of the whole pandemic is that it’s causing so much disruption in so many places, in so many industries and within industries,” he said, “that it’s really forcing people to rethink, innovate and figure out ways to do more with less.”
Make ‘Developing Leadership’ Your Mantra
The importance of developing future leaders was a common theme among everyone I spoke with.
Wendy York became the 15th dean and first female to lead business education at Clemson University in July 2018, following successful leadership roles in business and academia. Before that she served as an associate dean in Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. Prior to that, she held executive-level positions in small and large non-profit and for-profit organizations, including employment with Bechtel Power Corporation and Bank of America.
Dean York put it this way: “My mantra in life is the topic of leadership.”
She explained: “College is not just about getting academic expertise in something enough that you can get a job when you get out. It gives you some area to initially begin to explore what your interests are, what you may have some native talents in, and where you might actually be able to market yourself to someone.”
One of the lessons from the events of 2020 is that we need to make sure students graduate with the emotional resiliency and leadership skills they’ll need in this uncertain world. Dean York described the concept of leadership as a choice, not a title.
“Leadership is about feeling the responsibility to see how a whole system is working for people, and trying to address issues that will make it better,” said Dean York. “You have a responsibility no matter your level or role in your organization – whether it’s your first job or you’re in your dorm.”
She wants students to come out of college as thoughtful mission-driven leaders who think about other people, and think about how to impact the culture to include more people.
“I know that feels kind of touchy feely, but it has to do with honoring students as individuals and also demanding that they be the best people they can be,” she said. “And the way we do that is not only preparing them to be able to support themselves, but challenging them to have a sense of who they are as people who will go out into that world.”
To that end, she created a new class born out of the pandemic: Leadership Lessons, Leading in a Crisis.
“This experience was so energizing and fulfilling,” she said. “It was great to see how passionate students are about embracing this topic of being a leader. None of them took the class to get a better job or make more money. They were excited about the topic because they genuinely care about this topic of leadership.”
She said the final project of the class was that each student had to assume the role of governor, during the pandemic. Their executive order to stay in place was expiring, and they had to make a decision to either extend it or start opening up. They turned in a two-page executive summary of their decision, and then had to defend their decision in a one-on-one 15-minute interview with the Dean York and another professor.
“Another thing that was so exciting about this class was to see how students evolved from the beginning to the end,” she said. “We had people who were brave enough to take that class who, at the beginning of the class, answered ‘no’ when I asked if they thought of themselves as a leader. At the end, we literally had people come out of that class saying, ‘Wow, I think I am a leader.’”
Corporate and Community Partnerships
I spoke with Dr. Sridhar Sundaram about forging corporate and community partnerships to close workforce knowledge and skill gaps. In particular: How should higher education define partnership success?
Dr. Sridhar Sundaram is a Professor of Finance and the Tiedemann-Cotton Dean for the Kate Tiedemann School of Business and Finance, Muma College of Business, at the University of South Florida. His educational background includes a Master’s degree in Accounting, and a MBA and a Doctorate degree in Finance.
He agreed this is an important and timely discussion as we look to redefine and innovate higher education.
“Covid-19 and the recent social unrest have revealed the difference between delivering ‘content’ versus being an ‘engaged partner’ in our communities,” he said. “Institutions that can move from a ‘standardized’ approach to tailoring their academic programming to fit the needs of the students and the communities they serve with innovative approaches will be successful in the post-pandemic world.”
He stressed that the success of any community or region hinges on whether universities, the business community and civic partners can come together, saying, “Success is defined by our ability to address the workforce needs and the societal needs in the region.”
Here are some ideas he shared about how to forge successful corporate and community partnerships to be impactful and relevant.
He said it’s important to gain understanding of the critical stakeholders – students, talent seekers and the global and local communities.
Among students, it’s important to understand their individual types and needs. For example, those who are in college for the first time – they need an engaged experience at their respective institutions. Transfer students, most of whom work, need a flexible modality. Working professionals are looking to advance or reset their careers. Those who are in executive education programs need credentialing focused on developing competencies.
He also shared thoughts on innovative approaches for how to create society impact by creating community and civic partnerships.
“Focus research and programming that addresses community and societal issues relevant to the region and nation,” he said. “Develop thought leadership, to serve as a resource for the community through various intellectual engagements. Overall, be an engaged partner who supports community development needs.”
A New Value Equation for Higher Education
Google is investing significant resources in unlocking possibilities in higher education – powering advanced research, breakthrough discoveries and learning opportunities at colleges and universities. I asked Google’s education industry leader John Farrar what he sees as the new value equation in higher education.
“The truth is that it’s time for Higher Ed to create the new value equation – but it starts with higher education institutions really understanding their students and how their values have shifted during/as a result of Covid-19,” said Farrar.
He said, first, institutions should look to quickly boost their online presence.
“Covid-19 has changed the trajectory of higher education advancement overnight, pulling forward years of online adoption,” said Farrar. “After Covid hit, students began flocking to online, particularly younger students. Younger students flocking to online degree programs is likely a new normal for our universities.”
Here’s how to get started.
“Schools should start with an audit on what already exists, informed by data on where current and future demand lies,” said Farrar. “This may mean thinking about online options as more than complementing the in-person experience – but core to education offerings. Then, assess a number of options to increase their offerings either through working with Online Program Managers (OPMs), or developing in-house, or partnering with other industry constituents. Faculty upskilling and embracing of online learning should be a key area of investment as well.”
I asked him what have been the most revealing insights from Google’s research around the student and parent mindset.
“Based on what I’ve seen and heard in the industry I believe that amidst Covid-19 we’re seeing flexibility rise to the top,” said Farrar. “Flexibility is a broad term, these can be applied to offerings that most higher ed’s already offer: an online offering and a variety of courses which is incredibly significant – having an online offering is now core to how students evaluate their enrollment options.”
“Across all industries, we’ve seen that most behaviors we dealt with pre-Covid are changing,” he continued. “Younger students, particularly in Covid, will now flock to online learning by choice, whether they live at home or on campus, and plan to continue with it post Covid-19. Could we see the next wave of students come to campus but take all classes online? The reality is that this has happened a lot this year already. Athletes have been doing some of this for the last couple years and it’s likely the new norm.”
Preparing for the Cultural Demographic Shift
From my own research of thousands of leaders across Corporate America, people are tired of predetermined metrics for academic and career success. I don’t mean that standards should be lowered – but the fact is that the kind of workforce that Corporate America needs is evolving. Organizations need people who know how to create systems that foster inclusion and innovation. These are rare leadership qualities but they’re essential for our collective future. Whether someone is studying science, humanities or trades – if they’re not also learning how to activate individual capacity within those realms, then we’ve failed them and ourselves.
Covid-19 has disrupted the ways we usually measure student success – seize this an opportunity to re-evaluate what we mean by success.
Consider the student populations that represent the Cultural demographic shift (CDS): the CDS is my term for what happens when large cultural segments of the population reach numbers sufficient enough to have a significant effect on what we do and how we act. The cultural demographic shift has reached its tipping point.
What does this mean? The CDS is what ignited the personalization movement both in the marketplace and now in the workplace. In other words, the students that we all thought would assimilate, will not be assimilating and therefore they need to be at the center of your growth strategy.
For example, I spoke with Dr. Tomas Gomez-Arias, Dean of the College of Business Administration at California State University, Stanislaus. Before joining Stanislaus State, Tomas was Chief Diversity Officer at Saint Mary’s College of California, where he was also a Professor of Marketing and Global Business, Chair of the Department of Marketing, Director of the M.Sc. in Business Analytics, Associate Dean for Faculty and Research at the School of Economics and Business Administration, and Director of the Center for the Regional Economy.
Dr. Gomez-Arias shared that 55% of their undergraduate and 42% of the graduate students are Hispanic. He said that one of the primary strategies they are focused on is moving away from a “deficit mindset” to an “asset mindset”.
When I asked Dr. Gomez-Arias about the degrees that Hispanic students gravitate toward, he said “majors that allow them to help individuals and society and those that give them a better understanding of the world where they live – such as criminal justices, political science, child development, psychology and sociology to name a few.”
But one thing in particular that Dr. Gomez-Arias noted was that Cal State Stanislaus is not only mindful of access and providing affordable high-quality education, but also the importance of creating systems that support the significant responsibilities that their Hispanic students have beyond academics.
Often, their Hispanic students play the role as providers to their family and extended family that include work obligations, childcare and other societal commitments. It’s from this experience with Hispanic students that Cal State Stanislaus realized the importance of being sensitive and aware of the critical needs of the entire student population – that this wasn’t exclusive to Hispanic students. This is why Cal State Stanislaus ranks as one of the Best Colleges For The Money.
Cal State Stanislaus is an illustration of how higher ed can begin to learn about personalization through those populations that represent the CDS.
“Thinking about students, faculty and staff – what do they need?” said Dr. Gomez-Arias. “How can we encourage their own strengths and their own passions, because that’s when they are going to perform the best. For example, when I’m recruiting faculty, they ask me about research expectations. I tell them I want you to do your best research, I really do. If that means straying away from your core discipline, so be it. If that means collaborating with people outside your discipline, so be it. If that means publishing in outlets that I have seldom seen in my discipline, because they’re working with someone else, so be it. I want you to do your best research and that is usually the research you are really passionate about. And the same thing with students.”
This is an approach that more universities should be taking, because more and more of your student body and your faculty will be among the CDS in the future.
I asked Dr. Gomez-Arias how he would advise a university that historically has had a very small percentage of Hispanics as part of their student body – what should they be doing now to prepare for them?
“There is something that I have been repeating for a number of years. I’m originally from Spain, the old world – I have worked with institutions that have foundational charters from the 1200s and 1500s. These are absolutely fantastic institutions, but often they are designed for a student that doesn’t exist anymore. They are prepared for an 18-year-old boy who can take four years out of his life to live the life of the mind. That student is only a very small minority in higher education today.”
The paths for today’s students must be different.
“In most cases, our students don’t have their parents paying for them to take four years for their education,” he said. “They are thinking about pathways toward graduation that don’t necessarily fit the four-year bachelor’s degree with eight semesters. That’s not the norm anymore, and it hasn’t been the norm for a while, but we still think in many ways in terms of that student. That’s part of the switch that we have to make in higher education – to think about students as starting an intellectual and professional journey and we are partners with them in that journey. And I think that’s the change we need in higher education.”
Disruption is Here – Like it or Not
Be mindful of what happens when you try to deny or resist disruption – look at Blockbuster Video or traditional taxi companies (when Netflix and Uber showed up).
When you’re in the middle of disruption, you can either double down on your standards of the past and harden your stance – and probably end up breaking in two.
OR, you can realize that you and everyone you lead needs to practice some new skills and strategies. This is exactly what I do with leaders across Corporate America – they’re the same strategies that are needed in higher education. When you deliberately try to put these in practice, you make yourself and your institution more agile and able to bend without breaking.
We are witnessing the beginnings of a massive convergence across industries. The reinvention of higher education has a tremendous dependency on its ability to partner with Corporate America. My organization has launched a series of Leadership in the Age of Personalization Summits to bridge the gaps between Corporate America and Higher Education that must be more interconnected and interdependent than ever before.
On October 28-30, leaders across healthcare, corporate America and higher education will gather for a virtual summit to discuss those strategies for making your institution more agile – strategies to achieve inclusion in today’s personalized world.
Learn more at www.ageofpersonalization.com