Positive Change During Challenging Times: How Six Leaders Transformed Higher Education During the Pandemic

December 7, 2021 Watermark Insights

To say that the pandemic triggered transformation change in higher education is an understatement. The Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (AGB) and the Chronicle of Higher Education have hosted discussions with higher education leaders to learn how they navigate this current pressure for transformation. Three topical areas of discourse have emerged from these discussions: facing new world realities in higher education, transformation strategies, and growth in times of uncertainty.

Facing New World Realities in Higher Education

The new world reality in higher education stems from the impact of the pandemic, which is forcing change on higher education leaders. However, as Paul Friga, a Senior Consultant for AGB, points out, the current societal turmoil presents an excellent opportunity for change because higher education administrators have the attention of faculty and shared governance. It is not a time for higher education to rest on its laurels: “I am hearing stories and seeing some situations where institutions think they're OK now,” Friga said. "They were hitting operating deficits, and they were able to plug those (with)…up to seventy-six billion dollars of governmental assistance…. But if we (don’t)… make the changes needed to be sustainable, we're a couple of years out from some of this really hitting us.”

Higher education leaders from the University of Maine at Augusta and the University of New Hampshire recognized their institutions needed to make changes to ensure their future sustainability. President Rebecca Wyke of the University of Maine at Augusta emphasized the reality that declining student enrollment called for a heightened vigilance for using limited resources for only the highest priorities. “I have seen, over my 13 years in higher education, complete disconnects between what a campus community wants to do and where they're putting their resources,” Wyke said. “And you will not be successful in that environment. You will never achieve those goals until you put the resources towards those places where you need them.”

President Jim Dean of the University of New Hampshire emphasized working with faculty and using market data to make changes to course offerings. “Faculty will make really impassioned arguments about the importance of their field,” Dean said. “But at the end of the day, if people don't want to study it, what are you going to do? You can't offer classes (with) no students.” But he also emphasizes that universities need to build on their specific strengths. “We have a world class marine science program…. We're one of the strongest universities in the country in terms of sustainability. We're going to build in those areas and look for ways to leverage strengths across areas.”

Transformation Strategies

Leaders from Kansas State University, Kent State University, and the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) face transformation head-on, something Friga recommends for everyone in higher education. He says all higher education leaders should do everything they can to push for “the smart kind of change, with a long-term view in your institutions while you can. Don’t try to sweep things under and let it go.”

President Richard "Dick" Myers at Kansas State regards COVID as an opportunity for making the types of changes that would be harder to make without the urgency the pandemic created. He mobilized his entire campus to work on critical initiatives, including cost control.

Kent State University President Todd Diacon and Trustee Virginia Addicott engage in "courageous leadership," identifying fiscal challenges, getting people on board, and being brave enough to "right-size" before investing in new areas. "In general, we focused on making cuts in areas that would impact the students the least,” Diacon said. “We did not cut academic affairs or enrollment management to anywhere near the level of all (our) vice presidencies. The president's office took a thirty-two percent cut during the pandemic.”

One of the most significant transformations occurring right now is within the PASSHE system. To reduce redundancy in the system, its leaders consolidated six institutions into two. PASSHE leaders built alliances and got the board and campus working together, and also got the support of the state legislature. “(We) put in place tools that just weren't there in a way that you'd expect to see in a $2.1 billion enterprise,” said Chancellor Dan Greenstein.

Growth in Times of Uncertainty

Higher education may be facing uncertainty, but it is still possible for leaders to have a positive vision for growth. Arizona State University President Michael Crow and Regent Fred Duval provide such a vision for their institution. “No other institution has grown more than Arizona State over the past decade in terms of student growth and thinking of different ways to serve students,” Friga said.

Crow and Duval believed the university should not continue to measure its quality by the percentage of students they did not accept into the institution. Instead, they began to judge themselves on how inclusive they were in their admissions and how well students thrived at the university. Student enrollment has grown from sixty-five thousand eight years ago to over 300,000 students in 2021, and there are plans to double that number within three years.

“We don't see ourselves just in the degree business, and that's a fundamental change in philosophy," Duval said. Instead, he said, they are "in the opportunity business, the economic development business, and the solutions business. We hold ourselves responsible not just for the outputs of our university but for the success of our state. And that's an entirely different frame, within which we can then draw the system assignments and the individual university assignments."

To hear more about these stories of transformation, watch the webinar replay, which features presidents and board members from Arizona State University, Kent State University, the University of New Hampshire, Kansas State University, the University of Maine at Augusta, and PASSHE. The webinar also includes commentary from Scott Carlton, a senior writer at the Chronicle; Marjorie Haas, president of the Council of Independent Colleges; Brian Robinson, Vice President of Product at Watermark; and Paul Friga, Senior Consultant for AGB.

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