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5 Biggest COVID-19 Strategy Mistakes

Episode 14

June 30, 2020 32 minutes


The health and financial impacts of COVID-19 are forcing universities to make significant budget cuts in a highly compressed time frame. Melanie Ho and Carla Hickman talk about the risks of allowing immediate crisis response efforts to sabotage a school’s ability to make the transformative changes needed to achieve longer-term aspirations. They urge university leaders to take active steps now to build strength and resiliency into their institutions.

They offer suggestions on the areas where campus leaders should focus their efforts in preparation for the fall semester and beyond. Finally, they discuss the importance of incorporating faculty voices into the planning process, suggesting there has never been a better time to gather together the best minds on campus to develop solutions to the institutional challenges they face.



0:00:09.7 Matt Pellish: From EAB, I’m Matt Pellish and this is Office Hours, your weekly dive into the issues keeping campus leaders up at night. In the early part of the Covid pandemic, all schools, big, small, public, private, they all found themselves in crisis mode as they were quickly altering their cores in these very uncharted waters. But as the weeks passed, a lot of those schools, they started to shift from crisis response to this much more strategic approach, and with it came some mistakes. On today’s episode, we welcome back two familiar EAB voices. We’ve got Carla Hickman and Melanie Ho with us to walk us through the biggest mistakes to avoid when designing the COVID-19 strategy. They’ll talk about some of the near-term cuts that are sabotaging the long-term aspirations, they’re gonna give us a few suggestions on where they think leaders should be preparing for the fall, and finally, they’re gonna talk about the missed opportunity we’ve seen when schools don’t seek some of the brightest minds on campus for help, their own faculty. Thanks for listening and welcome to Office Hours with EAB.


0:01:15.4 Carla Hickman: Today, we are going to talk about five mistakes that higher education leaders and institutions could be making with their COVID-19 strategy, and more importantly, how to avoid those five mistakes. I’m Carla Hickman, and I am joined today by my very good friend and my long time EAB colleague, Dr. Melanie Ho. And Melanie, you actually authored this piece for EAB and would love to start, before we dive into those mistakes, telling us a little bit about what prompted you to write this particular piece.

0:01:46.8 Melanie Ho: You and I spent a long time, along with other colleagues, just even deciding whether to use the word mistakes. We didn’t wanna downplay how hard it’s been for institutions to deal with all of these multiple difficult choices where it seems like often they’re needing to pick the least worst option. At the same time, I think as our team was having, I think we counted about 1000 conversations with college and university leaders just in the month of April alone, and we didn’t do the count for May, but I would guess it would be about similar. As we did so, I think what we kept thinking was that as colleges and universities are so focused on the litany of operational details that need to be figured out for the fall and beyond, the urgent is really crowding out time for the important, for longer term strategy. And our worry was that if we were to look back from the crystal ball of history, say a year from now or two years from now, there might be a number of areas where schools will look back and have a lot of regrets, regrets of things that they could have done that might have made the difference between bouncing back as quickly as possible and not.

0:02:58.9 CH: And I heard you say before that this crisis is different than others higher education leaders may have experienced across their careers, and one reason that is was the case is because there is this uncertain timeline. I think that connects with the impulse to want to just weather it, just get through the immediate boom, and then we can do strategy at a later date. But one of the biggest mistakes you’ve identified, I think we’ve all identified in our work, is that you cannot let this crisis response… In fact, this is mistake number one. You can’t let that response crowd out the attention for those bolder moves that you’re going to need to recover, to end up at the end of the day, maybe a year from now, maybe three years from now, in a stronger position than you were before. Talk a little bit more about this extended crisis playbook and how’s that been playing out for the university and college leadership teams you’ve talked with?

0:03:51.6 MH: In a typical crisis, we think of their being a boom, followed by crisis response, and then recovery, and then ultimately resiliency, trying to figure out how to be stronger on the other side. This crisis, due to the extent and nature, due to the fact that there is no clear end point, is different. There’s not just boom after boom after boom, but we can’t afford to go through that cycle of response and recovery, before we get to resiliency. We’ve got to figure out how to deal with the after, even while we’re still extremely focused on the now.

0:04:21.0 CH: I think one of the ways that I can imagine for any leadership team to be able to do that, so how do you balance response and recovery simultaneously? I think the first is to remember that much of what we’re experiencing right now, Covid has really just served as a catalyst for trends that were already impacting higher education, already impacting our students, our finances, our institutional curricula, and it’s recognizing that those trends now have accelerated, but that we still did have solutions, we had ideas, we were likely working on a strategic plan that was at least directionally correct. So it’s going back to that and pivoting it for this moment, re-prioritizing your efforts, but realizing that many of the things that you were working on in February, they’re still true today. It’s just that you’ve got a shorter timeline in which to make progress against them.

0:05:14.7 MH: One meme I’ve seen going around social media is jokes around the word unprecedented, and how often the word unprecedented is being used right now. And it’s not a joke, this is an unprecedented moment. But what I think is interesting is that even before Covid, higher education was talking about how we were facing this unprecedented moment. And schools, we were trying to figure out where do they need to make bolder swings, where do they need to make more difficult choices? And so for a lot of colleges and universities, the conversations they were needing to have, they actually were already having before the crisis. It’s just that our timeline has accelerated.

0:05:52.4 CH: I think it’s also reminding people that your executive leadership team has likely been very much in the weeds and we’ve been calling it firefighting, so you’re answering the hundreds of questions, you’re making difficult decisions. The institutions that are, in my opinion, doing some of the best work in the midst of the crisis, they’re the ones that are actually extending those leadership and crisis management principles and responsibilities much further down and deeper into the organization, and franchising their faculty in particular, and the conversations that need to be had and the tough trade-offs that most campuses are gonna face. I think one of the mistakes that’s connected to this idea that you can respond and then recover later, is not realizing that every corner of your campus is wearing a crisis management hat right now. We’re all personally affected by COVID-19, but we’re also professionally affected. And so using those resources, getting them involved in your table top discussions, get them involved in your scenario planning, certainly there are great ideas, but their input, I think, is also gonna be critical for you to be able to move quickly enough as we head into this next chapter.

0:06:55.7 MH: Yeah, I think that’s a great observation, because in a crisis, especially with as much ambiguity as this one has, there can be a tendency for the senior-most team to hold decisions even more closely and even tighter. Things are moving so quickly, there’s so much uncertainty, it can feel harder to bring in a broader group of stakeholders, but actually there’s no time that’s more important to do so. And that’s not just because the number of details, both operational and strategic, that need to be figured out simply just require more folks, but as you mentioned, this crisis is impacting every single corner of the campus. We’ve been starting to do tabletop exercises, not just with the cabinet, which is something EAB has done often to help institutions with emergency response, but many cabinets have said to us, “Actually, we need to train the next level down and the next level down below that in that kind of emergency response.”

0:07:52.2 CH: So if that’s mistake number one… And I will say to folks, we are gonna go through these five mistakes today, but Melanie has written a fantastic article, we will link to it so that everyone can go read the full article in depth. It is certainly worth that investment. And of course, we’re always here to want to talk one-on-one with you. But I actually think that point about expanding the definition of your crisis response team, recognizing it touches all corners of campus, it will help you navigate what we’ve outlined as mistakes two, three, four and five, because these are the four decisions and the new investments institutions will need to make, where you’re gonna need the help, you’re gonna need the help of the faculty, your student leaders, certainly all of the members of your staff and your administration, if you’re gonna make progress and avoid these five.

0:08:33.8 CH: So Melanie, let’s talk a little bit about mistake number two. It’s certainly been top of mind for leadership teams as they’re thinking about re-populating campus in the fall. I am now saying re-populating campus because as I think I noted on an earlier episode, campus is open. It might not be open physically for people to walk its quad, but re-populating. So mistake number two says, assuming there is any scenario, when we look into this next academic year, moving into the fall, that will not require enhancing digital capabilities significantly in order to safeguard student success. Tell us a little bit about this mistake. What are people getting wrong?

0:09:17.1 MH: EAB is getting a lot of questions from colleges and universities about re-populating from a campus point of view, thinking about all of the operational details you need to figure out testing, PPE, plexiglass, for example. And what we’ve noticed is there’s so much conversation about that, that even though for most campuses, a good number of courses, if not all, have to have some kind of remote analog. The transition to remote instruction in the spring was a difficult one. And I think through that though, institutions started to realize a few things. One, the areas where they need to invest further in digital capabilities in order to provide more student services, in order to help with student success.

0:10:09.1 MH: Another is that there are some surprise benefits of remote instruction. This is something we’ve also written about. That there are ways that education can benefit from, for example, the power of asynchronous discussion boards to allow for equity of participation, student voices that faculty had never heard before. They’re now realizing how insightful some students are through discussion boards who never would have raised their hands in class. And I think there’s a real opportunity for the fall to think about how do we enhance the digital experience for the many students who will not be on campus or who may need to have a remote experience if there is a local outbreak, for example? But we’re not hearing institutions talk as much about that as they are about all of the campus operational details.

0:10:56.7 CH: It reminds me, for years now, we would have campuses work with EAB and say, “What should my online strategy be?” And you’d certainly… You and I and our colleagues who work in this space, we would say, “There’s no such thing as an online strategy.” Online education, or digital capabilities in this case, they can help you to achieve multiple worthy ends. It might be a way for you to extend the campus’ reach to new populations who can’t travel. It might be a way to rethink the pedagogical model for various courses your faculty are developing. It might be a way actually to go big, to generate lots of revenue by having a national or global reach. It can be many and all of those things simultaneously. And one of the things I’ve been concerned by in the narrative I’m hearing in higher ed right now is we’ve gone back to that day where online is an end unto itself, and I think we’re unhelpfully hitting in an opposition to that in-person, face-to-face learning experience, as though you have to have an either/or.

0:11:58.3 CH: I do believe that’s a false dichotomy, and I think to our point earlier, that Covid is sort of exposing trends that were already happening in higher ed. Students today, and I don’t just mean Gen Z, I do mean Millennials and Gen X-ers and all of the student populations that are served, I think they’re wanting the flexibility of what’s been called multimodal or even a multi-access institution. Their lives, their priorities shift and change. And this could be a moment to catalyze that kind of development to create a truly dynamic and flexible curriculum, and I’m worried we’re gonna get so focused on the fall, so focused on Covid and being worried about what students and parents will or will not pay for, that we’re gonna miss this moment to really dynamically alter how we teach and how we reach different students.

0:12:47.6 MH: We’ve been talking a lot about at EAB the different ways that higher education can learn from other industries, and the one that feels even more relevant now is journalism. There was an interesting piece in The Boston Globe about this a few weeks ago, that if you think about in the early days of how journalism was responding to digital, it was kind of this basic, let’s put a PDF online, and that’s it. And now, if we think about news outlets, they have really found different ways to leverage the digital experience to think about how you can update folks in real time, how they use social media to create community and conversation around the news, and there are all of these benefits to being digital that far surpass some of what you can get through print in many, many ways. And that’s something where I think higher education is still a little bit trapped in seeing digital as inherently inferior to in-person. And yeah, absolutely, there are many ways it is, but there are many ways where we could leverage those benefits.

0:13:50.6 CH: And we’re only talking about the classroom experience. Digital capabilities can help institutions to deliver the student services, the experiential moments that are also part of being a university or a college student. So I don’t wanna say that this is only about classroom instruction, I think digital capabilities, whether it’s Covid or just the way the world is moving, that actually enhance lots of ways that we wanna support our students through their college journey.

0:14:14.6 MH: You mentioned it wasn’t just Generation Z, and that makes me think of the phrase Generation C. And I can’t remember, is C connected or consumer? But it’s the idea that there’s these Uber generations that span all generations, where we have an overall zeitgeist where folks are looking for that connectivity.

0:14:35.3 CH: That’s funny, I hadn’t heard that before. I had heard that Generation Z was being recalled Zoomers. So you have boomers and Zoomer, and I thought, “Man, I was just getting these to Gen Z. Now I’ve got a new term apart I have to learn.” So I think enhancing the digital capabilities, that also is gonna require some investment dollars, so it isn’t just about cost-cutting. And that takes me, I think, to your third mistake, which is another where I’ve been spending a lot of time, and that’s that some campuses, they are following that Great Recession playbook a little bit too closely. And when I say Great Recession playbook, what does that bring to mind for you? What do you think the Great Recession playbook was?

0:15:16.3 MH: Well, I took it back to… I remember you and I started at EAB right before the Great Recession, and I remember…

0:15:22.0 CH: That’s right.

0:15:23.4 MH: I remember the conversations we would have after we would talk to colleges and universities who would say, “You know what, they were just gonna muddle through it.” This was hard, this was tough, but they felt like they could muddle through the Great Recession. They’d figure out a few places to raise costs, maybe start a few new programs, but there wasn’t the sense of needing to do anything different. So I think that’s… Comparison number one, I would say, is because of all of the challenges that we were already facing before Covid. The unprecedented… I’ll use that word, even if it seems overused now, the unprecedented challenges. This is different from that. I think this is also different in a few other ways. There’s the speed at which it descended, there’s the impact that will have on student and family ability and willingness to pay. After the last Great Recession, we saw all of that data on underemployment, on unemployment of millennials. We at EAB talked a lot about the lost class. And in the intervening decade, you think about just the perception of colleges and universities and how much public confidence in higher ed has really declined, and so now we’re hitting a new recession at that period, at that period where a lot of the faith the public had in higher education has really dissipated across the last decade.

0:16:52.5 CH: I think it’s also… I do very much remember those early days at EAB, and at the time we were serving principally provosts, Student Affairs executives, chief business officers, and so they were cutting because there were budget numbers that they needed to hit, but they very quickly turned their attention to ways to generate additional revenue: new populations of students. David Attis and I on an earlier episode here in Office Hours talked a little bit about why that’s gonna be so hard this go, because those student populations, international students really aren’t an option right now. Non-traditional students, where you and I have spent the vast majority of our careers supporting campuses, much more competitive than I think most realized. And that to me is really interesting. This is mistake number four. I’d love for us to spend a bit more time here, selfishly, because you and I love this topic. But most institutions, they are already behind when it comes to serving the non-traditional or the post-traditional markets, and they don’t necessarily have the infrastructure or the resources at hand that it takes to compete, to really capture enrollments, or certainly to do so quickly. So mistake number four is just not making that realization, not realizing how much it takes to compete in these markets right now.

0:18:04.5 MH: One thing we often hear from college and university leaders is that their boards are saying to them, and maybe this is a moment where we can suddenly become an online powerhouse, I think a lot of what our research shows is how incredibly hard that is. One in five online graduate students attend one of seven institutions, and three of those are non-profit, four of them are for-profit. Those institutions have built the kinds of capabilities marketing, recruiting, student services that are hard to replicate overnight.

0:18:44.5 CH: I think that’s exactly right. And I do think that right now in this moment, when you need to move very quickly and you need to respond to these unforeseen shifts in what students are going to need and how the economy has moved, it is the institutions who aren’t just new to the game. There are universities and colleges, two-year institution, four-year institutions, who for 20 plus years have been investing in marketing, in recruiting, in student services, in program development and program planning disciplines who did manage to reserve some dollars to be able to invest in new launch, they had that infrastructure already in place before Covid.

0:19:21.5 CH: Now, strategic reserves are likely getting swept right now, I realize that, that there are institutions out there who can get to market very quickly, they already had those market-sensing capabilities. And whether it’s one of those online giants that you talked about who we could all quote and we all watch their advertisements, or it’s just your regional competitor who has been at this for a while, and students recognize them and know they can trust them for that online program, I think right now, those are the institutions that are going to be able to capitalize on the moment, because they’ve already done the hard work of putting the investment and the infrastructure into place. If you were one of those campuses though, or even if you had some portfolio of credentials, where would you, Melanie, where would you tell an institution to focus its efforts right now? If it were gonna try to capture some of the working professional or adult market, what feels like a smarter investment?

0:20:16.8 MH: We’ve talked a lot about how to help displaced workers and how do we help them immediately, how do we think about their longer-term career development? And a lot of that is going to be regionally dependent. I know that’s something that you and your team have worked a lot with colleges and universities on, is how do we find the first cut of new opportunities depending on what’s going on in your region?

0:20:41.4 CH: Exactly. So it’s using that information. I think it’s gonna become even more hyper-local. And especially for the public institutions out there, they need to be part of the story of economic recovery, so identifying what are the industries that have been hardest hit? Our team here at EAB has been using some real-time labor market data to understand how has the composition of your local economy been either insulated from or most impacted by COVID-19? So think of Florida institution, who most of the folks around are in hospitality or in tourism or the restaurant industry, the composition of that economy’s been much harder hit. So the kinds of credentials and experiences that those displaced workers are going to need for the recovery are gonna look pretty different than maybe somewhere else. And really getting that level of specificity. If you don’t have those capabilities already to really understand how employers and how the economy is shifting in real time, it put you at a disadvantage when it comes to new program development.

0:21:44.5 MH: Yeah, I think it can be hard to think of silver linings in a moment like this, but if you think about the history of any college or university, it’s one of evolution along with the community it serves. I love to look at college and university histories whenever I go on a campus, and you see how different the institution has been sometimes every decade, based on what was going on in its region. And this is a moment for higher education to really reclaim that sense of public good. As our regions are facing new challenges, how can we step up to that? How can we find the right offerings and the right services to be able to support our regional growth?

0:22:25.5 CH: And this might be a moment to remind people that when we say offerings, we don’t just mean degrees. So I think it’s really important to support your institution and your faculty and the development of non-degree, whether that be individual courses or boot camps or certificate programs. There’s an incredibly rich ecosystem, and I’ve been really excited by conversations I’ve had lately where people are really getting down to what can we accomplish in a handful of hours that would teach someone a new skill that’s valuable in this job market? It doesn’t have to be the full degree programs that can take us two years to get off the ground and into the market. And in fact, if you’re counting on that, I’d say that you’re making probably mistake 4.2. You absolutely, I think need to be lacking at non-degree right now.

0:23:17.3 CH: So I think the last mistake that we wanted to talk about, and it is one that I am certainly hearing as well, is it’s institutions that are making cost-containment decisions disconnected from investment decisions. And in a way, Melanie, I think this brings us full circle to your first point. To me, it’s very much connected to someone who’s in an immediate response mindset and they haven’t yet thought about recovery or strategy and how that needs to be guiding those near-term decisions.

0:23:46.7 MH: Yeah, I worry most about institutions who say to us that they’re going to wait until the fall when things have calmed down to look at their strategic plans and to look at whether they have the right strategic initiatives. Fall is too late. By the time fall has come, other institutions have started pursuing those new program or non-credit opportunities that maybe you could have. Other institutions are taking advantage of the NACAC changes and potentially poaching your students who will melt. Fall is too late. And I think one example of where… Getting back to that, looking back from that crystal ball of history in the future, where might institutions have regrets, I think one of them might be how they approach cost cutting. What we see often is cost-cutting decisions made separately from investment decisions. Absolutely, many schools will have to figure out where they need to look at cost reduction, but if you don’t look at where you need to invest first, then you’re in danger of cutting in the wrong places.

0:25:01.0 CH: And as we know, and those who have listened to other episodes of Office Hours have heard our colleague, Kaitlyn Maloney, lots of folks cut too deep and they cut too deeply in the wrong places. And post-recession, the institutions who did that, they actually found that not only did the cost curve continue to grow, I think she says three years after the recession, the slope of that line or the rate of increase had actually surpassed where institutions were before they did the cut in the first place, and that’s because they cut too deep or they cut in the wrong places, and they had to hire back often at a higher level. And so to me, that is indicative of what I am unfortunately hearing from some institutions that are feeling the pain of the moment, but they’re not really connecting that to where they’re trying to go.

0:25:46.4 MH: If you’re hearing a strange sound on my microphone is because my cat has decided to come up and befriend the microphone at this moment.

0:25:55.1 CH: See, I’ve been jealous. Everyone, Melanie certain knows that I have a miniature schnauzer named Schnitzel who I talk about as though he is my co-worker, and I guess he is right now, but he has not made his presence known on any of my episodes so far. So one day, maybe Schnitzel will decide he wants to say hi.

0:26:14.0 MH: Oh, yeah, well, Joey likes this podcast mic a whole lot.


0:26:17.1 CH: I think that’s the difference between cats and dogs. Schnitzel is not jumping up on the desk to say hello to the microphone.

0:26:21.3 MH: That’s true. That is a big difference.

0:26:25.4 CH: So our lovely animals aside, so Melanie, I had asked you this actually in preparation, knowing we were gonna have this chat today, but we outlined five mistakes here. There have been many conversations with university leadership teams since you first wrote the piece. Ae there others? Are there other mistakes that higher ed needs to be avoiding if they’ve planned a response strategy?

0:26:47.5 MH: I think it’s probably even more clear in the last month, the importance of making sure faculty voices are being incorporated into planning processes, and making sure there are clear communications with faculty. That does seem to be something that is missing in a lot of responses.

0:27:07.2 CH: I’ve noticed even in this current moment where we’re talking about re-populating campus, what that’s going to mean for in-person instruction versus virtual instruction, when you read the plans, whether it’s on the institution’s website or it’s press that they have done, it is rare to see a thorough examination of what this means for staff, for faculty, for the personnel that make the campus go. And I understand, again, this is a tough spot. If you think about a lot of campuses, they’re the primary employer in their community, and so like all businesses, there’s a real desire to get people back to work and to recreate that magic of being together on a campus. Although you know me well enough to know that I’m gonna push on that a little bit. I think that’s a little bit of an idealized Hollywood version of what higher ed is. A lot of higher education institutions don’t look like what we hear when we say that. But that aside, I have been surprised because to make any of this work, whether you think about instruction or making sure that folks are taking safety precautions into place, it’s gonna require the faculty and staff fully on board, and they’ve got a lot of concerns themselves about what this pandemic will continue to mean for their own personal health and safety.

0:28:20.9 MH: And a lot of ideas as well. When we think back to the Great Recession, I remember being impressed by institutions who had realized that it helps to have faculty brains on difficult budget problems, for example.

0:28:34.4 CH: Good point. Yeah, if I were trying to solve one of the toughest crises of our lifetime, so I didn’t say unprecedented, but close enough, of course I’d want faculty, the disciplinary expertise, the ability to examine a problem from multiple angles. There’s really… We’ve said before, there’s no other place where you’ve got all of those perspectives and that much expertise located. So their ability to actually tackle a challenge is exactly who you want on your team.

0:29:04.5 MH: And they want to help. I think that it’s… And again, I know it’s hard to bring in more voices when things are moving so quickly and when there is so much ambiguity. But especially as schools start getting deeper into where they need to pivot their strategies, into how to think about the future of their colleges and universities and how they come out stronger on the other side, absolutely need to bring in voices of campus stakeholders from faculty, to students, to alumni, to staff across the board. And the community.

0:29:36.0 CH: I think that’s right. And I think engaging them, hopefully, in this moment, that creates a way to engage them in a conversation about where the institution is going to go. What is that broader vision? We have said often at EAB, what’s gonna endure? How do you come out stronger? And we imagine there are going to be institutions that are gonna make very bold pivots in this current moment. I don’t know that we know exactly what that’s gonna look like yet, but I’m excited to see where institutions go, and I think that you have a better chance of landing on something if you’ve got those multiple perspectives around the table.

0:30:16.4 MH: I know a lot of folks at EAB have heard me say this multiple times a day, but one of my favorite phrases to come out of just all of the Covid conversations comes from an author named Gregg Levoy. He wrote a book called Callings, and he talks about the unexpected entrance cues, ideas that were previously unimaginable or didn’t seem possible before Covid, that now there is a unique moment where they have that unexpected entrance cues, those ideas can come in, those ideas can become real. And I think underlying all of this is schools making that time to focus on, well, it’s not just fighting the next fire, but who could we become out of this?

0:31:06.2 CH: I love that, and I think that is a great call to action to end our conversation today. So be thinking not only about how to avoid these mistakes, and that’s six that we’ve now added to the list, but also be looking for those entrance cues, thinking bigger, thinking bolder, taking your institution and your community into new directions, and I appreciate that very much. And again, we’ll make sure that we’ve got the full article so that folks can read it in greater depth, and of course it links to lots of other EAB resources and research that we’ve mentioned across the time today. And are wishing everybody the best of luck as you’re navigating this, because we certainly don’t wanna minimize. We know there’s big decisions to be made, and hope that in avoiding these five mistakes, you get to a place of better strength where you’re happy about where you’re going.


0:31:57.8 MP: Thanks for listening. Join us next week when we’ve got two of EAB’s own best and brightest, Ann Forman Lippens and Kaitlyn Maloney, where they’re gonna dive into how Covid has forced universities to shrink class sizes, reimagine their on-campus housing, their dining facilities, and come up with some new uses for other buildings across campus. For Office Hours with EAB, I’m Matt Pellish.


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