Higher Ed Change Leadership: The “New Normal” After COVID-19:

with Dr. Drumm McNaughton and Guest Rob Hartman | Changing Higher Ed Podcast 073

Table of Contents

Higher Ed Change Leadership: The "New Normal" After COVID-19

Higher Ed change leadership efforts remain at the forefront as colleges and universities continue to adapt to the “new normal” created by COVID-19. The pandemic put a spotlight on the gap between what higher ed institutions were doing by rote and how they needed to change due to the pandemic. These changes provided numerous lessons and a cultural change that will continue to evolve into the future.

Starting in March 2020, higher education leaders were required to make radical adjustments at breakneck speed due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Colleges sent students home; institutions transitioned traditional on-the-ground curriculum and programs to online platforms during the short window of opportunity provided by spring break. While challenges did emerge in making this transition, faculty stepped up and quickly made this transition.

Columbia International University (CIU) was one of the institutions that made this transition with little fallout. Remarkably, all but 7 of their 1000+ students completed the Spring 2020 semester. (The students who dropped out were already on the bubble and may have left school anyway.) CIU’s faculty and staff learned to work from home. Additionally, the university had to be flexible to support employees who had to quarantine because their spouse or child had contracted COVID-19. Some faculty contracted COVID, but once they got past the virus and could teach again, they taught their classes online from home.

Building Shared Vision and Cross-Campus Consensus

Soon after the pandemic emerged, Columbia’s president put together a stakeholder-based committee that had cross-campus representation, including employees from student life, finance, and food services. This group had long brainstorming sessions that continued through the summer to develop a shared vision for CIU’s plan and response.

CIU’s leaders decided not to hold a summer term in 2020. Additionally, the university canceled all university-sponsored events as well as facility rentals by outside organizations that were scheduled for that time period. This created some budget hardships, but the administration wanted to err on the side of caution, especially since town-gown relations are so important in their hometown of Columbia, SC. This time allowed them to put a solid plan in place for reopening for the Fall 2020 semester.

Building a shared vision of the path forward was important to CIU. This meant working with a large group of stakeholders and interest groups and getting consensus for the path forward. Consensus meant that groups of individuals did not always agree with every decision, but they agreed to support it. For example, the committee decided to strongly recommend face masks, even though some committee members felt that masks needed to be a requirement. The committee also decided to create safe spaces for being seated in the chapel and classroom for those who did not want to wear a mask – thus creating a level of comfort for everyone, whether they opted to wear a face mask or not.

Once leadership felt a good plan was in place to mitigate and isolate students and faculty who contracted COVID-19, they moved forward to reopen the campus to students for the Fall 2020 semester.

In the development of the plan for reopening in Fall 2020, the group felt strongly that communication with key stakeholder groups would be critical. This committee published their shared vision on a 1-page document – there was an insistence that this be a 1-page document so that it was easy to read and understand.

During the summer of 2020, the school’s leaders regularly communicated with parents of new and potential students that CIU planned to allow students to return and that safety precautions were being strongly encouraged. This included sharing with them the 1-page document.

Putting Safety Precautions in Place

The safety precautions included the strong face mask recommendation, which a vast majority of students and faculty followed. Additionally, plexiglass barriers were placed strategically around campus. The food services department changed its processes to eliminate cafeteria-style self-serve stations and instead had employees serve food. Meals also were delivered to students who were in quarantine.

Specific safety precautions were instituted for the residence halls. No more than two students were allowed in any dorm room. In some larger rooms that held three students, only two students were permitted to room together. Furniture was rearranged to provide appropriate social distancing, which minimized capacity.

Fortunately, the university had an apartment complex on campus, so those empty rooms could be utilized for overflow. This building allowed CIU to be able to provide housing for students who wanted the campus experience. To do this, leaders had to think creatively about how to maximize capacity while also reserving a certain number of rooms for quarantining students who contracted COVID. In addition, Columbia has a full-time nurse on campus who put in Yeoman’s hours throughout the Fall term attending to faculty, staff, and students.

Positive Changes in Higher Ed Due to Covid

One of the biggest positive outcomes of the pandemic for CIU was that it brought the campus community together in remarkable ways. For example, food service employees were supposed to deliver food to students in quarantine. However, the timing of meals was awkward, so delivery became an issue. The result: Students who lived in the same building who were not in quarantine volunteered to deliver meals, which were in sealed containers, to those in quarantine.

This ability to adapt continued throughout the year; when there was a bump in the road, somebody—students, the nurse, financial aid staff, or others—stepped into leadership roles to handle the situation.

By implementing the plan and working together to adapt, the university will finish the 2020-21 school year very successfully. CIU’s enrollment grew by almost 30% – from Spring 2020 to Fall 2020, overall enrollment grew from 1718 to 2145. The largest percentage of this growth was online – about 18% – but the university’s enrollment of on-campus students also grew around 12%. Additionally, residential capacity did not drop from previous terms, which surprised the university’s leaders.

The growth was in both undergrad and grad programs. Undergrad grew from 751 to 887, and grad from 967 to 1258. Additionally, Fall 2020 to Spring 2021 was relatively flat, so even in the middle of the pandemic’s worst, CIU was still beating the odds (and their competition).

The institution’s endowment also increased. This was partially due to the institution’s financial advisor and his team, who kept their fingers on the pulse of the market and took appropriate measures. However, while some of the institution’s larger donors held off from providing financial support, some donors who had previously made smaller gifts increased the size of their gifts while some who had not given in years decided to financially support the institution during the crisis. Additionally, those larger donors have not gone away – they still have made commitments to donate at the same or higher levels – but wanted to wait for better timing for their own portfolios.

Another big thing that CIU found was that staff and faculty made the transition to working at home with very few challenges and that working from home did not affect productivity. In fact, some employees – especially those in financial aid, accounting, and other backdoor operations – have been more productive. This was surprising for the administration, who expected productivity to drop. However, because of the increase, the administration is continuing the practice of allowing many to work from home on multiple days.

Board meetings were held via Zoom, saving the institution significant travel expenses. It is anticipated that this will continue going forward for the majority of board meetings.

Higher Ed Change Leadership Moving Forward

In hindsight, higher ed change leadership says they would not have done anything differently – and plan to continue some of the practices. These include:

  • CIU plans to resume a summer term in 2021. At this point, interest in resurrecting summer events at the university has not emerged for summer 2021.
  • The building of consensus with the stakeholder-based pandemic committee showed a new way of governing that will be continued going forward.
  • Many meetings – including many board meetings – will continue to be held using Zoom. Thus, those individuals who cannot travel to the physical site still will be able to attend meetings.
  • Online education will continue and will be focused upon as a new way to grow enrollment and revenue. This is especially true given the upcoming enrollment cliff and how many institutions are projecting enrollment declines for Fall 2021.
  • Endowments can be grown in difficult times by reaching out to alumni and those who have not been active donors in the past. This will continue and is expected to yield good results.
  • Working from home has been very helpful for many, and so long as productivity continues, many will be permitted to continue this practice going forward.

Three Recommendations for Higher Education Leadership and Boards

  • Do not let a crisis paralyze the institution. Use this as a learning time. Bring different stakeholders together to think creatively about how to get out of the rut. Fear paralyzes while creativity energizes.
  • Meet people where they are and then take them to new heights. Great leaders do this by seeing the potential in people. The challenge is to not push too hard so that an individual becomes discouraged. Additionally, by thinking, “We can beat this” or “we can work around this,” leaders can help individuals figure out how to work through this system.
  • Transparency is critical in building community. Be honest with individuals; otherwise, the team will not come together. The best leaders are the ones who are the humblest.


Dr. Drumm McNaughton provides strategy and change management consulting for higher ed institutions. 

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