Many sectors, such as the travel and hospitality industry, are on the precipice of change in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. While some restaurants and hotels are worried they won’t bounce back, others have started innovating wholly new models. To learn more about how higher education leaders are similarly seizing new strategic opportunities to thrive in a post-pandemic world, I sat down with EAB’s Senior Vice President of Research, Melanie Ho. We chatted about the virtual Leadership Circles Melanie facilitated with several dozen college and university Presidents in late May, which included discussions on how higher education leaders can identify opportunities and make bold changes during these challenging times.
Bridget: It feels like we are constantly reading about the challenges higher education institutions face as a result of COVID-19, so it was uplifting to hear Presidents discuss some of the opportunities presented by the pandemic. Melanie, I’ve often heard you talk about these opportunities within the context of an unexpected “entrance cue.” What is an entrance cue and what types of opportunities are coming up as a result of this unexpected entrance cue?
This has obviously been a transformational few months in higher ed, and Presidents were heartened to tell us about innovations on their campuses that felt too daunting before the crisis. Staff have moved processes and services online. Faculty are finding new ways to get to know students who might not have engaged in face-to-face environments. Researchers are coming together across disciplines to collaborate with a depth and speed never seen before. We heard from Presidents that they want those innovations to endure after the pandemic, and that they hope to harness the energy of innovation to tackle even more aspirational changes next.
Bridget: This all makes me think about the “alternative future” scenarios for higher ed that we had already been using, before the pandemic, to provoke discussions with cabinets and boards about bold strategy. We originally conceived these scenarios as thought experiments to push the boundaries of imagination further in strategic planning discussions, almost like science fiction, but so many elements of those futures now seem possible.
Melanie: Yes! Our Centaur University scenario always provoked skepticism. It’s a university that runs on a fully integrated, technology-enabled infrastructure to promote students’ academic success and wellbeing. As recently as six months ago, that scenario felt like a foreign land to most leaders. Even those who saw its potential to differentiate the student experience and increase graduation rates, felt that level of digital transformation on their campuses would be prohibitively Herculean. But now it feels within reach!
Bridget: That’s very exciting and could certainly take higher education in a new direction. You have noted, though—and importantly, I think—that not every bold swing is right for every institution. How should institutional leaders determine which opportunities are right for their institution?
EAB is working with institutions through an exercise we developed called a “Strategy Pivot” to re-evaluate the assumptions originally embedded in their strategic initiatives. What assumptions are still true, or even more true? What are the implications for the timeline? Some initiatives, such as ensuring student success or defending enrollments from competition, may need to be dramatically accelerated due to adjusted assumptions.
Bridget: One of the more exciting topics discussed during our Presidential Leadership Circles was partnerships. Even before the crisis, presidents were telling us that partnerships—with industry, with local governments, with K-12, and with other universities—would be the key to higher ed’s sustainability. The presidents in our Leadership Circles expressed even stronger interest in partnerships. Beyond thinking about the business model, Presidents are eager to think about how institutions can partner together to address some of the most pressing challenges of the pandemic, like a testing regimen once students are back on campuses. How can leaders know which opportunities are right for them?
Melanie: This is certainly a moment when higher education institutions need to partner with each other, but it is often difficult to envision partnerships because of competition. Even though most institutions have greatly expanded the set of schools they view as competitors, not every school is a competitor in every single area. Institutions should consider what outcome they want from a partnership and then think creatively about where to find the right partner. Sometimes you’re looking for a partner that is geographically proximate, sometimes you don’t need that. Sometimes it’s about shared mission. Sometimes it is about being in the same state system, where you have the same processes.
Bridget: It feels like this new environment is requiring higher ed leaders to think boldly and creatively in a lot of different ways. That being said, we also know leaders need to think more cohesively about how all these aspirations and individual innovations that have happened this semester add up to comprehensive change. It’s a lot to juggle.
College and university leaders often reference the saying by Peter Drucker, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Culture is often rooted in mindset, much of which is unconscious—and a crisis can shake up our mindsets, but it can also entrench them. Now more than ever, we need to train ourselves to think more about the future and recognize the biases that prevent us from embracing new possibilities.