The year 2020 has been one for the books. Between the pandemic, the economic rollercoaster, racial and social unrest, natural disasters and extreme weather situations, conspiracy theories, and the election cycle, it’s easy to get swept up in negativity.

However, we’ve reached Thanksgiving—and that means it is the perfect time to flip the paradigm and focus on the good. This experiment that is known as the United States of America is not perfect; however, our nation is growing and every citizen shares the common goal of seeing our nation prosper (even though we may not agree on how to achieve that mark).

So in honor of Thanksgiving, we want to suggest seven different reasons (in no particular order) why we’re thankful for this year.

#1 –Servant leadership

The pandemic offered an opportunity for higher education leaders to step into the spotlight in important ways. One example happened in the Texas Panhandle.

Amarillo College (Amarillo, TX) primarily serves underrepresented and non-traditional students. Prior to the pandemic, Dr. Russell Lowery-Hart, the college’s president, investigated the college’s low institutional success rates. Students told him that the biggest barriers to their academic success were child care, health care, transportation, housing, food, utility payments, legal services, and mental health support.

The college’s students faced even more pressure to end their studies during the pandemic. The pandemic added another item to the list – technological resources, which many students didn’t have when classes moved online.

To address these issues, the college opted to use tech-supported online learning, especially since this approach made counseling, tutoring, and advising available to students who were struggling. The school also figured out how to serve students who did not have access to technology at home by opening the school’s largest computer lab. Dr. Lowery-Hart, always wearing a mask, personally manned the lab’s circle desk where he began taking students’ temperatures and asked the protocol questions. He then connected students to a group of employees who could assist them in getting online as well as provide tutoring and advising.  This sent a very strong and clear message to students, faculty, and staff: Amarillo College is committed to helping them succeed.

#2 – Working together

Partnerships, mergers, and acquisitions are a major topic in higher education circles. The challenge becomes how to make these difficult situations a win-win for everyone.

Goodwin University and Paier College of Art are working with the University of Bridgeport, which was experiencing financial difficulties, to create a partnership in order to pursue an alternative way of operating. Dr. Mark Scheinberg, the president of Goodwin University, noted that the University of Bridgeport took the courageous step to focus on alternatives while it still had an endowment and its facilities; the institution’s goal was to create a partnership that would save the core of the university—the students and faculty.

The partnership involves the consortia partners going onto the University of Bridgeport’s campus to offer classes related to the schools that they are taking over. Paier College of Arts assumed the art and design programs while Sacred Heart University took over the engineering programs, counseling program, a chiropractic school, and the school of education. Goodwin University provided leadership for the physician’s assistant school nursing school, dental hygiene school, and the school of business. The University of Bridgeport’s school of art and sciences classes are being assigned to partnering institutions based on where they make the most sense.

The partnership also is allowing the partnering schools to collaborate on operations, such as security forces, food service departments, and housing departments. This partnership is supporting the people affected at the University of Bridgeport while also creating efficiencies for the three partnering institutions.

#3 – Strategic opportunities

The coronavirus caused higher education issues to accelerate by at least five years. Fortunately, some institutions had already done the preparatory work to be ready to step into this situation. One of those is Hiram College where Dr. Lori Varlotta, the institution’s president, led a year-long inclusive strategic planning process designed to grow enrollment and increase the campus’s financial sustainability.

That process led to an academic prioritization process and a major organizational redesign. The implementation process included the identification of an intellectual framework to guide the academic reprioritization process, a timeline for this process, as well as benchmarks and milestones. The process also was iterative and allowed for changes and mid-course adjustments.

A Strategic Academic Team that represented various stakeholders helped develop criteria to prioritize the college’s programs and then disseminated this to faculty members. Data analysis was used to prioritize programs, majors, minors, and programs of distinctions. In addition, another group of faculty innovators identified the priorities needed to keep the college on the leading edge.

This process led to specific cuts and downgrades of programs, as well as the elimination of some faculty positions. However, Dr. Varlotta worked with the development office to raise funds to give each faculty member a full-year buy-out and full-year benefits. This pruning also enabled the institution to spend its energy to reposition itself based on its strengths and identify emerging areas where it could shine. These changes also proved to be especially timely as the pandemic emerged, allowing the college to be more nimble.

#4 – Turning on a dime

Higher education has never been one to embrace rapid change. However, responding to the coronavirus in March offered colleges and universities across the country the opportunity to try out new muscles that rarely—if ever— had been used.

One example involves National University, which had completed a strategic planning process that identified that the various system institutions wanted to eventually offer completely asynchronous online education.  The full transition was scheduled to be completed in 3-5 years. By the start of the year, National, which was founded as an in-person institution, had transitioned to a point where half of its classes were in-person and the other half online.

COVID did the institution a favor because it forced faster movement than the system could have done on its own without facing stakeholder repercussions. Now the system’s institutions are totally online, and all but one institution in the system has transitioned to asynchronous online education. As a result, the system is liquidating real estate, including selling the university’s system’s headquarters, since classrooms are no longer needed. This rapid transition also has helped National better position itself financially and academically for the future.

#5- Giving in time of need

The coronavirus also has started diversifying higher education fundraising. While major donors are still a large part of these efforts, there is a shift to more peer-to-peer fundraising, more outreach fundraising, and more engagement across a broader constituent base. In addition, efforts to engage more donors at a lower donation amount are succeeding, which is providing emergency funding and support for students in need; this differs from endowed funds and annual campaigns.

These emergency funding or grants include CARE grants, external funding that the university is helping to raise that is earmarked to support students during this time, or departmental funds that are being shifted around to help fund students. Institutions such as the University of Wisconsin-Madison also began having conversations with donors about making gift stipulations more flexible so that funds could be used to meet COVID needs; most have been amenable. Additionally, these conversations have allowed institutional fundraising teams to deepen their relationships with donors.

#6 – Increased affordability

The pandemic also is offering lessons about how institutions can provide a less-expensive education to students while also saving money through embracing online education. While some students will still want the full college experience of living in dorms and attending sporting events, other students–especially Gen Z, who are technologically inclined—will embrace on-line education more than earlier generations. They want to stay at home to watch a lecture, hear a speech, or do a test instead of attending a school that is 100 miles away.

Institutions also are learning the advantages of technology in preserving the bottom line. For instance, Columbia International University started holding its board of trustee meetings using Zoom, which saves the cost of airline travel, hotels, etc. The institution also is moving many other meetings and trainings–including Board trainings and president’s cabinet meetings–to virtual platforms in order to realize cost savings while increasing efficiency.

#7- The true mission: Educating students

The coronavirus served as a stark reminder that higher education’s true mission is to serve students. Institutions that focus on building or sustaining relationships with their students will have a stronger chance of surviving this crisis. Those who don’t will lose crucial enrollment, which could be a death sentence for the institution.

One of the best at building these strong relationships is Talladega College. During the first part of the pandemic, university president Dr. Billy Hawkins and the college’s faculty members regularly checked on students.  This reinforced that the institution cares about the students, which also is noticed by their parents.

This past spring, the college’s retention office actively stayed in touch with students through weekly podcasts and messages, a regular email blast, regular chats and chat groups with faculty participation that are specific to groups, such as the band.

The institution also focused on listening to students. For example, Dr. Hawkins and his top cabinet also meet monthly with student leaders. The vice presidents and the director of the physical plant are only allowed to sit and listen because Dr. Hawkins wants them to hear how students feel about what’s going on at the institution. After the meeting, the administrators discuss how to fix issues that need to be addressed.

The institution also distributed information to keep students up-to-date on what was happening on campus, such as renovations of older dormitories that had fallen out of favor with students. This created a “wow” factor for students because it underscores that the campus leaders are listening to student feedback.

These seven examples showcase that silver linings, as well as true leadership, have emerged this year.  While we hope this pandemic will end sooner rather than later, its challenges have created opportunities for higher education to be innovative and to take several big steps into the future.

And to show that we care about our fellow humans in ways that we’ve not thought about in the past.