2020: A Year of Crises and Opportunities in Higher Education

Table of Contents

2020: A Year of Crises and Opportunities in Higher Education

The year 2020 has been a year of crises and opportunities in higher education. The year’s challenges have given higher ed institutions a chance to practice change management, as well as necessitated a sustained focus to build leadership capacity for higher ed and more targeted higher ed branding.

This blog article sums up some of the major issues that higher education leaders faced during this transformative year. It also sets the stage for the upcoming podcast that forecasts what higher education leaders may see in 2021.

Crises and Opportunities in Higher Education Brought on by COVID

The COVID pandemic has turned the world upside down, let alone higher education. Long-time higher education leader Dr. Gordon Gee said he has never seen anything like it—a situation which he said “is accelerating changing in higher education by a decade or more,” and which is testing the resiliency of colleges and universities staff and faculty.

First of all, the emergence of COVID-19 accelerated the transition to distance and online education significantly. Many institutions had less than a week to convert face-to-face courses to online education.

COVID also brought the enrollment cliff much closer, and student enrollment has dropped approximately 8 percent across the board. As noted by Bill Conley, higher education was facing this enrollment cliff prior to the pandemic because of the “Birth Dearth” in the Midwest and Northeast, declining high school graduation rates, and increasing costs of attending college. And, although there are projected population growth in the Southeast and Southwest, this will not be sufficient to replace the decline, especially when the decline of international students is factored in.

One of the silver lining opportunities for higher ed: Most of the students in these growth areas are more likely to be first-generation, lower-income college attendees, thus raising the education level of the US overall.

On the flip side, because of the pandemic, higher education is being challenged as a result of the economic struggles of families, educational quality has suffered because of distance learning, students are holding off on getting a college education, and many are asking questions about whether earning a college degree will truly prepare students for the work world.  Because of these factors, Bill Coney and Bob Massa stressed that it’s important for institutions to create an enrollment management system that analyzes the institution’s recruitment, admissions, financial aid, retention rates, graduation rates, and giving rates among alumni.

COVID also is requiring crisis management and recovery for higher education institutions. This ongoing situation made it very clear to institutions where their focus needs to be to survive this crisis, which is on the students and their academic success. Dr. Scott Cowen, who led Tulane through Hurricane Katrina, pointed out that institutions need to focus on what they can control in this crisis since so much is out of their control. He also encouraged higher education to communicate regularly using a well-thought-out communication plan and to listen in a variety of venues, including chatrooms, to hear what stakeholders are saying.

The pandemic also forced higher education to embrace distance education rapidly. Dr. Gee noted that many in higher education were “Luddites” before the pandemic; however, these individuals had to shift courses to online platforms over a two-week period in March. Some of these faculty members are finding that they can be effective and engaging in this new paradigm.

Unsurprisingly, COVID is causing employee distress which is and will continue to hamper performance. Dr. Tom Marrs of the Mays Business School at Texas A&M University cautioned that many individuals are going into survival mode, which can create burnout if it continues over a prolonged time. This can lead to frustration, a hair-trigger, forgetfulness—and ultimately, the employee is classified as a troublemaker – when their issues are a result of pandemic stress. Therefore, leaders need to look for ways to offer empathy while also being aware of their own level of stress and how it affects their dealing with faculty, staff, students, and other stakeholders.

Black Lives Matter

When the pandemic began, Dr. Gee hoped that social distancing could bring people together. Soon Black Lives Matter emerged, bringing the nation’s long-festering social issue with race back to the forefront. This affected everything from campus statuary to classroom discussions—and in some cases, caused issues with donors.

Higher education leader Dr. Mary Wardell Ghirarduzzi offered sage advice to college and university leaders about the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion. She encouraged institutions to build leadership capacity for higher ed through creating a more diverse group of leaders who could in turn create a structure and environment that is supportive of diversity. She also recommended valuing people wholeheartedly and addressing hidden biases among students, faculty, and staff.

Changing Nature of Leadership

Societal strife due to Black Lives Matter and the pandemic has put significant stress on higher education leaders. Dr. Risa Dickson believes that as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, two different styles of leadership are emerging. The first is command-and-control, i.e., leaders who want to think about plans and next steps to accomplish goals. The second group is relational leaders, those who help stakeholders come to terms with what is happening. There is a place for both types of leaders in an institution. Identify who these people are and then find the best use of their leadership talents.

These events also are forcing leaders to consider their own values.  Crisis situations often become soul-baring moments when the core nature of institutional leaders is revealed. Bill Coletti stressed that leaders must be very clear about their values as well as their institution’s mission and what it stands for (its real values, not just those on its website). Leaders also need to maintain a high level of EQ in these situations.

Leaders also are being asked to gain a deeper understanding of their students during this year. Even before the pandemic, Dr. Russell Lowery-Hart advocated for the need to ask students about the barriers they are facing to learning, rather than relying solely on conjecture or past history. Now more than ever, an institution’s administrators, faculty, and staff need to fall in love with the students who are at the institution instead of focusing on a different type of student who is not in attendance. A composite student that is based on enrollment data can help leaders, faculty, and staff have a template of what students are facing and the assistance they need.

The pandemic also has led to a number of retirements and resignations among higher education presidents. Their replacement faces unprecedented challenges as well as emerging opportunities. Dr. Sam Horn noted the pandemic also has changed the induction process for many new higher education presidents. They no longer have the luxury of spending months assessing the situation. Now they need to be able to create strategic movement, something which higher education often hasn’t embraced in the past. Yet, strategic leadership is even more important because of declining credibility among both the general public and business leaders.

Changes in the hiring process have occurred as a result of the pandemic. No longer is there the “luxury” of long campus visits and meals with the board prior to being hired. Dana Cohick discussed how the traditional search process has changed, and although the need for a candidate to align with the institution’s mission and values, and someone who also understands how to take the institution to the next level, has not changed, candidates must have stronger leadership and communication skills, be transparent, and be “OK” with uncertainty and not having all the answers.

Because of the tumult caused by the pandemic, higher education leaders should be looking closely at their business models, including higher ed branding. Gerry Czarnecki believes smaller private colleges and universities that are trying to combine the model of research/academic pursuit of new knowledge, as well as the model of teaching students, are the ones whose business model will be most challenged. They don’t have the grant money to subsidize their activities or a large endowment to subsidize students and will face increasing pressure to maintain their enrollment strategy and cost pressures to be competitive in the marketplace.

Mergers and Acquisitions

The pandemic also sped up the necessity for struggling institutions to start the movement toward mergers and acquisitions. Dr. Ricardo Azziz noted that most institutions do not have experience with mergers and acquisitions; leading a successful merger requires skills not normally found in higher education governance or leadership, including a supportive and understanding board; the right kind of institutional leaders; a vision that encompasses and drives the merger, so the university community sees itself as part of the merger; a sense of urgency so people understand why this needs to happen; a communications plan; a robust project management system; and resources.

Dr. Tony Allen noted that mergers and acquisitions can have a silver lining because they can help institutions reach more students and provide more extensive programs. Institutions that are interested in these types of actions need to consider fit. That includes proximity, campus facilities, student body, programs offered, institutional missions, and current financial status.

Additionally, higher education leaders can create innovative solutions through partnerships related to mergers and acquisitions. Mark Scheinberg helped form one such partnership between Goodwin University, Sacred Heart (who has since dropped out of the partnership), and Paier College of Art, which are working with the University of Bridgeport to absorb its programs. He stated that institutions can create these partnerships in ways that create economic benefits in operational areas such as residential services, food services, custodial services, and security services. This allows institutions to focus their financial sources more on teaching and learning.

Another emerging option is to create a consortium as a way to avoid a merger or acquisition. Dr. Michael Horowitz noted that joining a consortium can provide life-saving support both financially and programmatically. Consortia can provide support in business functions (accounting and contracts), human resources functions (health insurance and retirement plans), admissions (inputting applications), marketing, technology, and international partnerships.

Election of Joe Biden = Opportunities in Higher Education

The 2020 election cycle and the time between the election and inauguration also added societal stress, thanks to divisive rhetoric from candidates and the outgoing president at all levels. However, the election also offered some stark differences related to education policies among the presidential candidates.

The election of Joe Biden to the presidency suggests a shift in accessibility to and affordability of higher education, as well as policy changes related to student loans and free speech. Policy shifts also can be expected in relation to student loans, Title IX, and free speech. The incoming Biden administration is expected to focus on developing a balanced system that gives institutions the tools to properly administrator Title IX. We can expect the new administration also will be much more sensitive to ensuring the protection of the person who has suffered while also ensuring that the process is fair and expeditious.

Federal policymakers also have considered ways to support higher education during the pandemic. For example, they discussed opening the Chapter 11 Bankruptcy reorganization to higher education, according to Mike Goldstein. This would enable some institutions to survive their current financial situations.

The pandemic is having an effect on the roll-out of several policy changes, including repayment of student loans, student leave of absence, reporting deadlines for fiscal and financial aid reports and fiscal audits, and Return of Title IV Funds. Tom Netting pointed out that the Department of Education offered flexibility to institutions in relation to the pandemic but according to Russ Poulin, some specific rules still will go into effect, including a regulation defining distance education that broadens the area of substantive interactions that comes out of Neg Reg 2019.

It’s a Wrap

THANK HEAVENS 2020 is almost finished – I’ve never seen another year like this one (and I hope I never do). It’s going to be a while before we understand the fallout from the events of this year, i.e., what higher education becomes as a result of all these changes, but one thing is for sure: This clearly has been a year of change, and as The Little Rascals correctly said so many years ago:

“I don’t know where we’re going, but we’re on our way!”


Share This Post
Recent Posts and Podcasts:

Subscribe to The Change Leader

Get the latest higher ed news and expert insights from our articles, podcasts and newsletters.

Skip to content