Strategic change in higher education was unexpected and rampant in 2020. After the COVID-19 pandemic emerged in March 2020, institutions moved to online education and asked students to return home. Higher education leaders had to figure out ways to adapt and move forward in ever-changing conditions, including making the campus safe, planning for the fall semester, and holding major events.
Adapting to the Pandemic
The year 2020 was a major watershed year in the United States, thanks to the combination of the coronavirus pandemic, social and mental psychological upheavals, 2020 elections, economic fallout, and social movements. The year has taken a great toll, with many people dying and families facing the long-term ramifications of the pandemic.
When boards and leaders of higher ed institutions come together and work as one, many positive changes can be created, even when dealing with chaotic change triggered by the pandemic. Leaders faced many unknowns early on; it was important to focus on student safety and ensuring that they could get home safely.
One major early challenge was that many students’ homes were in U.S. pandemic hotspots. Because of this, Talladega leaders decided to wait to help students in these areas return home until the pandemic had eased around the country. All students were able to return home safely.
The leaders then focused on strategic change and planning for the future, knowing that COVID-19 would continue for an unknown period. Talladega helped students finish the spring semester online and then held summer school online. The institution also focused on providing students with the assistance they needed.
Strategic Change for Fall Semester
Talladega College’s leaders were determined to hold a formal graduation for its 170-plus graduates, the largest class in Talladega’s history, so they moved the spring commencement ceremony to August. The institution rented a big tent that held 1,000 people and placed it in the campus’s Quad. Participants were required to wear masks – this was before federal and state mandates about masks went into effect. Social distancing was maintained, and each graduate was permitted to bring two guests.
The College’s leadership had a surprise in store for its graduates. One of the graduates, who sat on the dais masked during the entire ceremony, step forward to receive the last degree awarded – that graduate was Deion “Prime Time” Sanders, the retired star football player who finished his degree through Talladega’s adult learner program – and he served as the surprise ceremony speaker. Needless to say, the audience burst into applause, and he treated them to his famous end zone “primetime endzone celebration” dance.
On a more serious note, during that weekend, Talladega also opened its new museum featuring its prized Amistad Murals as well as a student activity center, named in Dr. Billy Hawkins’ honor.
At the same time, Talladega was bringing its students back to campus for the fall semester. Despite the pandemic and economic downturn, the college’s enrollment reached 1,300 students for the 2020-21 school year, the highest number of students in the institution’s history. This has been a tremendous blessing for the institution, which had only 280 students enrolled 13 years ago when Dr. Hawkins became president.
While many institutions made the decision to hold all classes online for the fall semester, Talladega’s leaders believed they could use the initial CARES Act funding to make strategic changes and proper adjustments to protect its students and faculty. The institution developed its own technique and philosophy, not knowing if it would work or not – this involved investing over $1 million in preparing to protect the safety of students, faculty, and staff.
Some of the steps they took included installing protective barriers and cameras that checked individual temperatures as people walked into a building or room, purchasing rapid COVID tests and custom facemasks, and implementing more stringent cleaning and maintenance requirements. Talladega also created a campus COVID-19 committee that was responsible for the COVID-19 testing. These precautions worked; Talladega had less than 1% positive COVID test results on campus. Students who tested positive quarantined at a college-owned house on campus.
CARES Act and HBCUs
HBCUs benefitted significantly from the second CARES Act, which passed in December. The United Negro College Fund’s administration led the way through its working with Congress, convincing both sides of the aisle that the proposed package was a good thing to do.
In addition to sending increased funds to these institutions, the Act included debt forgiveness that ranged from $5 million to $150 million, based on the school. Removing major debt from institutional books was an important opportunity to create sustainable institutional health.
Talladega received $6 million along with $8 million in debt forgiveness. The college’s leaders will continue to use this federal aid to support students and enhance the campus’s safety and sanitation, including taking appropriate COVID-related precautions in classrooms. A portion of the funding also will be used for COVID grants for students to help relieve debt to the college so they can continue their education.
Throughout their history, HBCUs have never before received this level of federal government assistance. Without these funds and the debt relief, some schools would have closed.
Strategic Change by Continually Adapting
Moving forward, Talladega will continue to focus on incremental strategic change by adapting, both from an administrative standpoint as well as an academic standpoint. Faculty have had to make continual adjustments in the learning process over the past year. They have learned that they should not continue to teach the same old way—the lecture style—that they have done for the past 30 years. Now faculty understand how to use different teaching methods, including utilizing online learning for classes, flipped classrooms, and how to adapt. The institution is now technology-driven and can make those adjustments. Students also have learned how to adapt to technology, including online learning.
The pandemic also has changed the nation’s social behavior. At Talladega, sanitizing will be part of everyday life and will become part of the regular maintenance routine and process. Handshaking may no longer be common. The younger generation also will have different norms, based on the pandemic. In addition, masks will be the norm for the foreseeable future.
Four Recommendations for Higher Education Leaders and Boards
- Be good stewards of the funding that has been received. Institutions have received significant federal funds. HBCUs also have done well through UNCF fundraising.
- Find ways to collaborate and help each other so that every school stands strong.
- Focus efforts on educating the young people who have chosen your institution.
- Continue to be servant leaders who provide an example moving forward.
Dr. Drumm McNaughton provides strategy and change management consulting for higher ed institutions.