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The Future of Higher Ed—According to 100+ University Presidents

Episode 16

July 14, 2020 25 minutes


EAB recently conducted a “Presidential Listening Tour” to identify best practices university leaders are employing to sustain themselves financially, but also to invest in areas that will help differentiate their schools to provide a competitive advantage in the future.

In this episode, Sally Amoruso and Hersh Steinberg discuss what they’ve learned and touch on ways that virtualization will change the way universities operate, recruit faculty, and utilize campus facilities. They point to the incredible agility shown by universities during their quick pivot to online learning last spring as a positive indicator of their ability to evolve and adapt to the enormous challenges facing higher education. Finally, Sally and Hersh discuss the need for ruthless prioritization and why now more than ever, your college simply cannot afford to be all things to all people.



0:00:10.7 Meacie Fairfax: This is Meacie Fairfax, and welcome to The Office Hours with EAB podcast, your weekly dive into the issues keeping leaders up at night. And today, we’ll hear what more than 100 senior university leaders share with my colleagues, Sally Amoruso and Hersh Steinberg. Now, this presidential listening tour included conversations with leaders from all sizes and types of institutions, and Sally and Hersh will share key takeaways from those conversations and touch on a wide range of topics, including ways that teleworking will transform the way that universities operate, as well as the need to prepare students to operate effectively in the online working environment that they’ll likely enter in the not-too-distant future. They’ll discuss ways the pandemic has refocused colleges on the important role they play in their surrounding communities, and finally, they’ll discuss the need for agility and the importance of cutting where university leaders believe they have to while investing in key areas that will help position their institutions to not only emerge from the present crisis, but to emerge with a distinct competitive advantage. Thanks for listening, and welcome to Office Hours with EAB.

0:01:27.2 Hersh Steinberg: Hello. This is Hersh Steinberg, Managing Principal with EAB, and welcome back to EAB’s Office Hours. I’m here with Sally Amoruso, EAB’s Chief Partner Officer, to discuss our presidential listening tour that we conducted across the spring. Hey, Sally. How are you?

0:01:43.6 Sally Amoruso: I am well here in LA. How are you, Hersh? How’s New York?

0:01:48.9 HS: I’m here on the East Coast, experiencing that humidity. It is…

0:01:54.4 SA: Don’t miss that. [chuckle]

0:01:55.3 HS: Yeah, you’re winning on this front. It is most certainly summertime, Sally, and I think to start our chat, I might call out another season. It has been quite the spring between COVID, protests, unemployment, and an upcoming election… Well, they do say, “May you live in interesting times,” and indeed we are. But before we dive in and speak about what you and I and our team have been hearing from presidents and chancellors and the actual changes we expect to see across higher education, could I ask you to provide our listeners with some context on this project that we embarked on over the last few months? We chopped up hundreds of hours of conversation, speaking with presidents and chancellors, from seemingly every type of institution that we serve. Can you speak to the why you decided to mobilize our team on this particular endeavor?

0:02:52.1 SA: Sure, and it does seem like it’s been an eon since February and March, but things were evolving so quickly across the latter half of March and April for higher ed, for the country… We really needed to ensure we had our finger on the pulse of the current and the impending challenges our partner institutions were facing, and no better way to do that then to reach out and to speak to these presidents.

0:03:18.6 HS: I was delighted to have the opportunity, and I’m glad you pointed us in that direction. It was a fascinating set of discussions. There were some major high points, moments of incredible pride, and I think these presidents expressed really the sense of enthusiasm for how their teams responded to what was a very challenging endeavor here in COVID, but we also noticed that there were some lower points, and presidents now have to face the implications of what are major budget gaps and leading their institutions through its continuing challenges. Would you agree?

0:03:55.7 SA: Completely, completely. I actually think universities shocked themselves with their own agility in responding to COVID, because as you heard, Hersh, and as the rest of our team heard, most of these campuses only had a matter of days to completely bring their campuses online, while communicating all the while with students, faculty, staff and the community each step of the way, and they used every communication channel. They used the website, they used email, they used video, they were doing town halls… And it wasn’t just about shifting to online, but for the residential campuses, it was also about, “How do we help get students home?” Or for those who couldn’t go home, “How do we ensure that they are situated in safe, socially distanced accommodations?” And faculty had to figure out Zoom pretty quickly, some of them kicking and screaming across that Zoom line. You had to shift dining halls to take away only, and for a lot of these students who didn’t have technology access, loaner laptops or just laptops given away to those in need.

0:05:01.4 HS: To be fair, what was delivered across the spring probably wasn’t what most of us would have designed online if we’d had the time.

0:05:10.3 SA: No, not at all.

0:05:10.3 HS: We have our new term, ERI, or emergency remote instruction, and I think that meant varying quality, and the reality that some of these students just didn’t have a great experience. Of course, those students who went home to more chaotic environments, perhaps they’re sharing a room with a sibling or two, they’re lacking Internet or the tech access that so many others had, they had an even greater struggle, and I think the issue of equity was also an intense theme across nearly all of our conversations, and that’s only continuing, Sally. Would you agree?

0:05:42.9 SA: Absolutely. And both points are right. So, we had to go online quickly, and unless you had those online capabilities already, emergency remote instruction wasn’t ideal, and it was what it was, and I think a lot of schools were actually taking the time across the summer to prepare for the reality that if they are going to be online in the fall, that it’s gonna be a different and kind experience. And then the other issue that you talked about, the equity one, you have to consider the backdrop of COVID and how it has disproportionately affected individuals of those same communities. So, how could equity not be top of mind? So you have African Americans dying at 2.3 times the rate of Whites in some metropolitan areas, four to six times the rate, they’re unemployed at higher rates… Then of course, we have George Floyd’s murder, Breonna Taylor, seemingly endless stream of examples of systemic racism, which…

0:06:43.3 SA: One of my favorite quotes, which really helped me to understand this, was Dr. Camara Phyllis Jones, who was pointing out that the underlying cause of higher COVID deaths, it’s not race, it’s systemic racism, it’s the dis-invested communities, the lack of access to healthcare, subpar educational options, options that lead to limited employment opportunities. And quite frankly, I expect this to continue and intensify as COVID continues to surge. One thing that we haven’t actually brought into this consideration that will also exacerbate this is that companies are shifting to remote first or work from home or online, whatever you want to call it, online work, and while the majority of the general population can work remotely, when you look at job categories, only 19% of African Americans are in job categories that lend themselves to remote work. So again, this division of haves and have nots, this systemic issue that continues to perpetuate itself. So African Americans and others from these dis-invested communities become time poor, they need to continue to commute if they’re fortunate enough to be employed, but they’re also the frontline workers who are the most likely to be exposed, and that cycle continues.

0:08:01.1 HS: So Sally, now our partner universities need to have a reckoning with their own equity issues and how that plays into the system. We know hiring a Chief Diversity Officer, that’s a great start, but it’s likely not enough to move the needle here. Students are demanding action and attention and we’ve heard that. Actually, EAB has been doing a ton of work on the equity front. I should probably make the plug here for our 360 degrees student equity audit and our Equity Resource Center… Yes, yes. This is only the beginning of our efforts to double down as our partner institutions dig into these difficult issues. But Sally, looking ahead, there were three strategic imperatives that we uncovered, really what many of the bolder presidents actually articulated for us during the presidential listening tour, during these calls. Now, one was around never wasting a crisis. We should unpack that idea a bit more. In fact, we heard several presidents reference, “It’s time to be bolder,” and what’s that expression? “Slay the sacred cows”?

0:09:06.3 SA: Yes.

0:09:07.1 HS: Always a fascinating reference, but… Sally, can you talk a little bit more about that?

0:09:12.4 SA: Sure. And we heard that phrase a lot, both phrases actually, “Never waste a crisis,” and “It’s time to slay the sacred cows” and, to be fair, for many, that meant enacting cuts that were long overdue, that they just hadn’t been able to get put into action. And everyone is grappling with budget issues this year. So that’s understandable, and in fact, many boards are mandating program review to see if there are programs that need to be pruned, so… Completely understand that, but there’re also a segment of presidents that see that this is a time to create comparative advantage, that it’s a time to make investments at the same time. So not just slaying the sacred cows, but investing in creating comparative advantage. There was one president of a large public flagship that said, “You know, I know other schools are not hiring right now, and so I’m actually doubling down on hiring research faculty because that’s a priority for us, and we’re gonna be able to get a better quality of faculty in this market than in other markets, so I’m gonna take advantage of that.” Or another president of a public research institution, where they were prioritizing the adult learner, and they had actually applied for a grant to fund the infrastructure and marketing and resources to really build that capability up.

0:10:39.0 SA: And what he said is, “I am preparing my teams that I’m gonna cut more than is necessary in some areas, particularly non-critical areas, so that I can reserve funds to invest in this, and the real test of my leadership will be if we don’t get that grant, will I be able to find the funds to invest? And the answer is yes, I will, because I’ve got to prioritize that innovation and that investment.” And what’s interesting is, when you look outside of higher ed, the business world has a lot of evidence to show that these two presidents are right. 50% of the Fortune 500 were established during a recession or a bear market. So innovation is disproportionately rewarded at times like this, but the challenge, of course, is how do you safeguard innovation when you have these challenging times, when everyone is tightening the belt, when you’re having to furlough staff and make budget cuts that are really painful? It’s much easier said than done. So no easy answers, and it’s not like we have a silver bullet. I will say one of the things that this is going to have to call for, which higher ed hasn’t been great at in the past, is understanding what you’re not gonna do.

0:11:48.1 SA: So we’ve often talked about the fact that higher ed is the land of initiatives. Initiatives proliferate. There’s never an initiative we don’t love. But this is the time when you have to say, “We are not going to do this, so that we can do that, because that is critical to our strategy and to our mission and to serving our students.” I will say on the side, that some presidents are having luck also fund-raising around innovation, so if we can’t fund it from our operations and our budget, can we get some of our major donors and supporters to understand the critical nature of innovation to drive recovery for our region and invest in that?

0:12:29.0 HS: It’s fascinating, Sally. You talk about trade-offs and the difficult decisions, the notion of saying no. It’s hard. This is very hard and it will continue to be very hard. I work with a fair amount of public institutions, and one theme that I heard quite a bit was around how much their institutions were stepping up and partnering with the community throughout COVID… One chancellor I spoke to, I think I mentioned this to you, but her campus played a pretty major role, not just in the community, but in the region. When COVID first broke, and that was still the case when we spoke again two months later, their leadership really rallied, and so many of these institutions are informing their communities when it comes to testing safety awareness… It reconnects them to the importance of place, which we’ve spoken about. It’s part of their identity, it’s their mission, whether it’s educating the community or offering space for hospital overflow or when there is an academic medical center helping to lead that community and their efforts to battle COVID itself…

0:13:35.3 SA: Absolutely.

0:13:36.4 HS: Yeah, there’s a lot here.

0:13:38.6 SA: There’s a lot here, and you’re right, that COVID has reconnected universities and colleges to place and to their role in supporting the region. It’s not that they had really stopped doing that, but it was a moment where they could step into that in a different and kind way. So when you think about some of the regional leadership to battle COVID itself, many of those folks are from the research ranks or the academic medical center ranks of our universities, and then the community efforts and collaboration and education, and it’s not just from publics… Gordon Gee from West Virginia recently declared to me, “We are all land grants now,” and I think there’s a lot of truth to that, fueled by the opportunities of COVID, but also with the opportunities to drive regional recovery. Look, we have dealt with more than a decade of deteriorating public narrative around higher ed, and now as presidents are trying to make the difficult decisions required to keep their institutions financially sustainable, they have to deal with a lot of community backlash, especially when they are contracting faculty lines or letting staff go because those folks are of the community, so public protests, the votes of no confidence and the like.

0:15:00.8 SA: But the truth is that universities often don’t get credit for the ways in which they are contributing to the community. So, many startups are founded on the research of our universities or collaborations through employer partnerships. We’re really digging into the needs of a region and offering courses to help upskill and drive re-employment. Those are opportunities that are gonna come out of this very difficult situation. The truth is that as schools are looking for opportunities for growth and innovation and aligning to student need, a lot of those answers are going to lie in better and more deeply understanding the needs of the region.

0:15:45.6 HS: I completely agree. Going back though, to the notion of “We should never waste a crisis.” We heard that a lot, and the need to innovate. Of course, the flip side is what you referenced before, the schools are gonna need to understand what they are not going to do. So I think relinquishing this idea of all things to all people… I’m interested in this, and you spoke a bit about it, but in many ways, that is more difficult for our partners than finding areas of innovation in which to invest. And that, I think, was pretty typical in the discussions that we were having, but can you speak more about those that raised this particular challenge, ’cause I think that is an interesting one for our listeners?

0:16:26.9 SA: Sure. There’s no shortage of areas in which to invest. So the challenge here isn’t in finding ways to innovate, it’s in understanding which ones really warrant prioritization and which things we’re not gonna do. And again, that is a much harder question for universities. But it goes back to truly understanding our value proposition for our students. What do they value, what do they not value, and how much are they willing to pay for it? When you think about some of the class action suits around tuition refunds, that was a real referendum on the fact that it’s not just content delivery that students value and are paying for, but there is something really special and extraordinarily valuable to students about the on-campus experience. So while not a good thing to have to deal with, it actually affirms that there are separate jobs to be done, if you will, in that value proposition. Certainly, they need to have that academic experience and gain the skills and get to degree, but there is a separate job to be done around that on-campus experience that is separate and distinct from the delivery of the content. And a lot of presidents argued, “Well, the online delivery across the spring actually cost us more,” and students don’t care. The cost…

0:17:53.0 SA: This is not a cost-plus model, if you will. Their value is really around whether we are accomplishing for them the jobs that they need us to accomplish for them. So when I think about innovation, it has to be driven by deeply understanding those jobs to be done, and then figuring out where the underserved segments are. So are there students who might not be getting their needs met? Or figuring out how to better or more affordably serve our current students.

0:18:23.9 HS: So it’s a podcast. The group listening can’t see me vigorously nodding along as you’re going through this, but we did hear more about there’s gonna be more innovation on the horizon and coming out of that and more clarity around what is the value proposition. And I think that would be an interesting element to touch on. Can you share more about some of those insights because that is, I think, on everyone’s list, but what did we hear in those discussions?

0:18:53.6 SA: Sure. So I do think one of the great silver linings coming out of this very challenging time is that it gave us the occasion to question the premise around certain things that have always been the way they’ve always been. The way the academy is designed, the fact that we follow an agrarian calendar, the way that we structure requirements to a degree, and presidents were really fundamentally questioning this, with their teams, of course. So, on the academic redesign front, several presidents really moving away from the department structure, recognizing that in order to provide that value to their students, they needed to have much more flexibility, interdisciplinary pathways. Certainly, the move away from the agrarian calendar… Almost all schools are doing that now going into the fall, so sending students home for Thanksgiving and not bringing them back until after Christmas. And one president just declared, “Why did we ever do that? Why did we ever do that? And even after COVID, we will not go back to that because it just didn’t make sense. We just didn’t have the occasion to question it.” Better workforce alignment, so schools really identifying the segments of the regional population that have lost jobs, some offering fast cycle courses to support re-employment or needs, like a course on contact tracing, for example.

0:20:16.2 SA: And then also seeing online, not as a modality only, but also as part of experiential education. So as we move into a workforce that is going to be much more work from home and remote, these students need to be able to operate in a world like that. So lots of schools designing online gap years, online work study, online internships so that we can actually better prepare our students to work in that world. So, lots and lots of examples of this. One great idea around student customization is to think about a carousel model, where a student could customize summer, fall, winter, spring, based on their particular goals across the curriculum and for a career. So maybe they have an interest in a career where a spring internship really makes sense. So maybe they’re in-person summer and fall, but they’re online in the spring so that they can better accommodate that internship. And again, being able to customize that based on what students are able to pay and what they value, whether that’s speed degree or elements of the experience.

0:21:28.3 SA: But I think one of the most important things to remember is that while this is a really extraordinary moment around innovation and it allows us to question, the enduring advantage is going to go to those institutions that not only innovate in this moment, but that start to build the organizational capacity for change. So this idea of organizational intelligence. Are we getting the right inputs? Are we synthesizing those inputs in the right way so that we can understand what to act on, what are meaningful indicators and which ones are not? And then the second part is agility. The ability to shift, adapt and innovate, because the fact is, while this is a transformative moment, higher ed could have been better at adapting for the last two decades, and what we wanna do is to take from this moment that idea that this is more about adaptation and agility than about revolution in crisis. And one silver lining is that we can really use this momentum from this crisis to build those capabilities.

0:22:32.4 HS: Sally, great insights, and it started off in March as, “Let’s jump on the line and have some conversations with presidents and chancellors.” Fast forward to now at summertime, we’ve had hundreds of hours of discussions, we’ve talked about how agile our partners have been in responding, the budgetary impact that’s been staggering… What has been, in most cases, less than ideal remote instruction, but I like how you ended their silver linings from Zoom rooms to community partnerships. We had the opportunity to speak with some of the more innovative presidents and chancellors out there, and we’ve tried to document some of that here in this podcast, but I’m curious as we start to wind down on the podcast here today, what comes next? What will we be sharing back? What is EAB looking to do here across the summer? Anything you wanna share?

0:23:30.4 SA: Well, we’ll certainly publish the findings in a much more detailed fashion because a 100 plus hours of conversation can’t be captured in a 25-minute podcast, but we’re also gonna be doubling down on how we support some of these key capabilities that institutions need to be intentionally hardwiring into their organizations. And at the same time, continuing to support some of the immediate and ongoing decisions around COVID, whether that’s de-densifying campus or other aspects of the fall and winter that they’re gonna need to grapple with.

0:24:04.1 HS: Looking forward to it. And on behalf of Sally, the EAB team, this is Hersh. We thank you for taking time out of your day to listen in.

0:24:11.9 SA: Thank you.

0:24:13.6 HS: Looking forward to the next podcast. Have a good one, everyone.

0:24:16.3 SA: Thank you.


0:24:23.6 MF: Thanks for listening. Join us again next week when Sally returns to interview Dr. Christine Riordan, Chair of the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities in New York, and Dr. Jeffrey Gold, Chancellor of the University of Nebraska Medical Center. Sally will ask these two leaders about how they’re advising their respective stakeholders to prepare for the fall, and about the types of support they might need from state officials. We hope you can join us. For EAB and the Office Hours podcast, I’m Meacie Fairfax. [music]

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