Eduvation Blog

Leading in Uncertainty

What follows is a selection of coverage from the Eduvation Insider this year focused on leadership in times of uncertainty…



The Calculus of Uncertainty, Budgets, & Blackouts

I know better than to apply business strategy directly to academic institutions, but there are some kernels to be gleaned from a couple of recent articles on responding to the pandemic…

The Calculus of Uncertainty

No strategy will survive COVID19 intact, says Deloitte. “The time frame for making choices shortens, even as the contextual uncertainty makes decision-making commensurately harder.” The biggest dangers are “over-confidence, procrastination, and incomplete or biased data.” Rather than paralysis, complacency, or “misinformed bullishness,” scenario thinking can help leaders through uncertainty by anticipating shifts in markets and input factors, supply chains, consumer expectations and technological change. Weigh opportunities and risks across a range of time horizons, and scenarios can help “stress-test” strategies in a range of potential futures. Deloitte

Time for a Strategic Pivot?

Higher ed needs to reassess its value proposition, now that online courses are being unbundled from traditional campus offerings. Layering online services atop existing campus infrastructure pits “two vastly different business models and their resource needs against each other.” Students expect online learning at a lower price, “just as consumers are accustomed to paying less for a physical book’s digital version.” Institutions need to find a distinct combination of online and F2F ideal for a range of student markets, explore microcredentials and interdisciplinary appointments, embrace experiential learning and reinvigorate the humanities. IHE



Sailing through Turbulence to Opportunity

In today’s issue, I want to turn our eyes towards the horizon, and consider strategic opportunities for our institutions. It’s a digest of 15 particularly meaty articles, and I hope you’ll set aside some time to chew on them…

Focus on the Future

In times of crisis, organizations look to their leaders for vision and focus. The academic instinct will lead to analysis paralysis, and certainly administrations have been consumed by damage control and firefighting. Take some time to contemplate big ideas and a longer time horizon, with a future-focused mindset…

Leadership in Uncertainty

During times of crisis and ambiguity, when our routines are disrupted, “leaders help us find meaning in the chaos, offering direction, perspective, and purpose.” But the best leaders don’t fake confidence; they are authentic and intentional. When confronted with uncertainty, “stop, challenge and choose” to get grounded. Step back from the chaos beyond your control, and focus on what you do know, and what you can do. “Focus on those areas you can influence over time.” Fast Company

Coping with Anxiety and Ambiguity

The world stands at a liminal moment, on the threshold of a “new normal,” filled with potential but also with anxiety, and our reflex is often fight or flight. The “hyper-analytic mindset” (an occupational hazard of higher ed if ever there were one) seldom helps when so much is uncertain and unknowable. Problem-solving modes of thought “make little sense in times of global turbulence, when solutions are beyond our grasp.” Fear and anxiety cause “egocentric thinking,” biasing our perspective; the antidote is community and connection with others. “Caring for others is a wise form of self-interest – especially in a crisis.” Self-awareness and self-care are crucial, as is a focus “in the moment,” to your surroundings and the people you meet. Harvard Business Review

Keeping a Future-Focused Mindset

To emerge from this pandemic stronger (as individuals, teams, and institutions), we need to reframe this “challenging time” as a “window of opportunity.” In many ways, we have less time but more flexibility than ever before. Carve out an hour of “clean slate” time each day or week, for you and your team, to think about future possibilities, perhaps by reading this newsletter, or listening to a podcast and then reflecting. “Hit the reset” and reconsider the habits and self-imposed rules that govern your life, perhaps establishing new rules. Focus on people and relationships, particularly while working remotely. And in a supposedly “learning culture,” don’t “quarantine” professional development, growth and learning. AI

Forget Scarcity

A scarcity mindset creates anxiety and prevents innovative problem-solving. No institution will cut its way to greatness. Focus your attention on long-term solutions, not short-term fixes, and move from triage to transformative strategy…

A New Budget Playbook

Across-the-board cuts and salary freezes may balance budgets and preserve the status quo, but won’t address long-term systemic and structural challenges. In times of crisis, campus leaders need to “prioritize long-term solutions over short-term fixes.” A more strategic approach to institutional finances demands a shared vision for the future based on student needs, clear success metrics, data-driven decision making, and focused investments. Effective change management will also require extensive two-way communication and consultation with stakeholders. IHE

Turning from Triage to Transformation

The sudden impacts of “worldwide disease, injustice and widespread unemployment” make this a pivotal moment for higher ed, says former university president Elaine Maimon. Obviously, campus leaders must deal with the immediate crisis, but they must also “think beyond triage.” “Addressing injustice cannot wait until the budget picture improves.” Like the New Deal following the Great Depression, society’s institutions should be putting people to work, not resorting to layoffs and furloughs. They should expend reserves and even borrow to make new investments in more inclusive curricula, expanded counselling services, and top-quality remote and hybrid instruction. Our students, like ourselves, need to be taught to live with ambiguity, and address problems without clear definitions. Rather than cutting humanities courses and abandoning gen ed to contingent faculty, “making high-quality liberal education available to all students is an investment in the future.” IHE

The New Normal

If the disruption of campus life is going to persist, to some degree, for more than one year, it will unquestionably result in some permanent changes to student expectations and institutional operations. We may well see a decade’s worth of change packed into the next 18 months…

5 Aspects of the New Normal

Post-pandemic, many things about higher ed will revert to “business as it was,” says Derek Newton, but 5 things will outlive COVID19 and become part of the “new normal.” Every school in the world will have an “online backup plan” to ensure academic continuity, and will adopt remote test security and live proctoring solutions for academic integrity. Institutions will recognize that information technology is more crucial than the campus – that the mobile app effectively is the campus. More creative, student-to-student recruitment approaches will continue. And eventually, campus architecture may downplay physical spaces to meet and mingle. Forbes

5 Permanent Megatrends

The pandemic is a transformative crisis for higher ed, accelerating 5 pre-existing disruptive trends. “We will get a decade’s worth of change over the next 6 to 18 months.” Students and parents will challenge tuition prices, and seek more perceived value from their investment in “life launch.” Expectations will rise for flexible “education on demand,” in hybrid and blended formats, accelerated and part-time programs, and focused microcredentials. We may see even more growth of mega-universities like Arizona State and SNHU. In the wake of COVID19, location will matter more than ever, but stories of successful alumni will shape attractive institutional brands. “Students will seek out brands that speak to the journey they hope to take.” USA Today

3 Things COVID19 will End

The flip side of the 5 trends COVID19 will make permanent in higher ed, are 3 things that the pandemic will end. 1) Email will cease to be a primary communication tool to students, replaced by text and push notifications from dedicated apps. 2) Campus testing centres will seem unnecessary once large-scale use of online testing becomes commonplace. 3) Full tuition for online programs may be a tough sell, now that some schools have started to reduce the price for remote learning. “Taking classes online isn’t quite the same as being on campus.” Forbes

Spotting Opportunities

It’s all well and good to talk about investing in opportunities, but what might they look like? Consider new programs, delivery models, credentials, partnerships, networks, mergers and acquisitions…

Opportunities Amidst Chaos

Higher ed leaders don’t have the luxury of “waiting to see what everyone else does”; they must take decisive action in a chaotic situation, at the confluence of 3 crises: the pandemic, the recession, and protests over racial inequality. A return to normal is not an option; institutions must “evolve or sink.” Visionary institutions have been anticipating a PSE disruption for years, preparing like SNHU has for online, competency-based, half-priced programs. Because of COVID19, program demand will rise in health care, medicine, nursing, epidemiology and immunology fields – and the pandemic is accelerating growth in alternative energy, AI and robotics. There will be opportunity in affordable, short-term, even non-credit courses and programs to reskill displaced workers. AI

Now, We’re ALL Outside the Box

Some so-called decisive actions by college leaders are actually doing damage to institutional missions, cutting key programs at the expense of pet projects. Many small colleges have already cut expenses to the bone, and now can only wait for inevitable closure. The COVID19 crisis has thrust higher ed completely “outside the box,” and now is the time to integrate distance learning into everyday delivery, pursue mergers or acquisitions, partner to reduce costs, share curricula or even senior leadership. AI

Innovating for Student Success

The pandemic, budget pressures and demographic shifts mean that PSE can’t afford to go back to “normal” – and COVID19 “has exposed the flaws in our ability to deliver remote education in a manner that is equitable, inclusive – and innovative.” For the longer term, institutions need to redesign their programs and retrain their faculty to incorporate AI, VR, microcredentials, creative teaching and assessment strategies, and online or hybrid delivery. “Our institutions must commit to innovating beyond theory.” EdSurge

Nimble Planning

No question, it’s an inconvenient time to revisit the institutional strategic plan, in the midst of an unprecedented public health crisis and economic recession, with our faculty, staff and students scattered across the globe and working from home. Something more nimble than the traditional 18-month planning cycle is required, to help your institution pivot to be ready for new opportunities…

Scenario Planning in Uncertainty

In a year of epidemiological and economic uncertainty, higher ed leaders must nonetheless consider medium and long-term implications for teaching, infrastructure, services and staffing. Back in April, McKinsey suggested 3 COVID19 scenarios (which could be pushed 6 months later to align with our current reality), and recommended designing financial plans for each. “Crises can create paralysis and fear. Rigorous scenario planning can help leaders map the potential damage and devise ways to deal with it. Universities need to look beyond the immediate crisis to create effective long-term strategies both to get through the present and to safeguard their futures in the new normal that will follow.” McKinsey

Think Like a Designer During Crisis

In the past 20 years, many organizations have moved away from the traditional, ponderous approach to strategic planning that is still practiced on most higher ed campuses. In unpredictable times, when “fully rational planning” is increasingly pointless, “design thinking” may be a better model for institutional strategy. Our “focus on activities” (in syllabi, strat plans and job descriptions) needs to shift to a “focus on results” – particularly during remote work. Designers start by asking “what problems do we need to solve?” – and they don’t focus on “gravity problems” like demographics, which are simply givens, but on “wicked” problems with complex solutions. Instead of “blue sky thinking,” designers find that constraints can be catalysts for creativity. Instead of focusing on institutional self-preservation, focus on the needs of students. “Once you design something, it changes the future that is possible.” IHE

The Upside of Turbulence

If this pandemic is to have an upside, it will be to the degree that it reinvigorates our society and its institutions, increases social justice and equity, and prepares our colleges and universities to navigate continuous turbulence with optimism…

Reinventing the American University

COVID19 will have a greater impact on US colleges because of their remarkably broad quality stratification, increasingly corporate structures, and the high cost of tuition. Rather than “an instrument of social equity and justice,” the American higher ed system is polarized between elite colleges and the community colleges and online institutions that enrol most students. “Pandemic-driven reform may have an upside,” if it brings about “a more accessible and affordable education model,” even if students miss out on “some of the atmospheric trappings.” Massification along the lines of large Italian universities can still produce “strong minds that are internationally competitive.” Quillette

Thriving after Turbulence

In the wake of the pandemic, no company (or campus) can afford a return to the pre-COVID status quo. Research shows that “the biggest shifts in company fortunes, for good or for ill, happen coming out of downturns.” (There are 47% more “rising stars” during turbulence than calm – but also 89% more “sinking ships.”) Recovery will be asymmetric and iterative, but “leaders in the next wave will use each advance to move toward a new future, not back to an old and outdated idea of ‘normal.’” Emergency measures to bypass needless bureaucracy or automate processes need to become permanent improvements. Efficiencies need to be balanced with resilience, possibly through networks and collaborations. For agility that lasts, simplicity needs to replace complexity. Short bursts of activity will be more energizing than “monolithic moon shots,” and will help build an institution that can thrive in the face of continuous turbulence. Bain & Co



Post-COVID Scenario Planning

Predicting the New Normal

Sometimes crowdsourced answers are superior to one expert’s opinion, while other times the outlier shows us the best way forward…

Post-Secondary Post-COVID

A dozen experts predict how higher ed will be changed 2 years from now (or whenever the pandemic is done). PSE will make more sophisticated use of online tools to personalize independent and collaborative learning, while also maximizing the unique affordances of F2F campus interactions. Campus facilities will start incorporating architectural and ventilation improvements to boost resilience to contagion. Academic programs and delivery models will evolve specifically to support upskilling and reskilling unprecedented numbers of displaced workers, with modular, accelerated and stackable microcredentials, and flexible continuing education. Students of all ages will demand more work experience and career coaching. Heightened awareness of the challenges faced by marginalized members of our society will result in renewed efforts to support equity, diversity and inclusion and encourage and support PSE participation among at-risk groups. One key will be more affordable, widespread broadband internet access, particularly in rural and remote communities. First Policy Response

Expectations for Transformation

According to 7,000 learners in 7 countries, “there is no returning to a pre-COVID19 education world.” Let me pull out some Canada-specific results. 82% of Canadians expect higher ed to fundamentally change, although 86% think “colleges and universities need to adapt faster to the needs of today’s students.” Post-COVID, 80% of Canadians think fewer students will study abroad, 72% think fewer people can afford PSE, and 62% think fewer people will seek out traditional degrees. In fact, 44% of Canadians say “you can do okay in life today” without any PSE, and 72% believe a college credential is “more likely to result in a good job with career prospects than a university degree.” 88% think universities should offer shorter cycle, lower-cost options for displaced workers. The public believes online learning is “here to stay,” but learners want better technology and a better experience. 83% of Canadians believe more PSE students will study virtually within 10 years, although 63% think education institutions are “less effective at using technology than other industries.”  Pearson


“Never before have we seen a medical scenario become such a public topic, where you have the president of the United States and the president of other countries weighing in on whether a drug works or not. And then you have the public weighing in on whether they agree with that individual, based on their own politics. This is unheard-of.” – Edward Mills, Faculty of Health Sciences, McMaster U

“[In scenario planning] you build one model where things get better, one where they get worse, and one where they get weird.” – Steven Johnson, author of Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions that Matter the Most

“The organization should set bold aspirations that represent a step change in performance, as typical, incremental aspirations will not be enough to deliver results in the next normal.” – McKinsey

Scenario Planning

A key arrow in the futurist’s quiver is scenario planning, particularly when we’re facing a volatile, unpredictable few years…

Scenario Planning in Uncertainty

Much remains uncertain about COVID19’s transmission, the potential of a vaccine, the duration of border closures, economic recession and depressed international student mobility. WHO and PHO orders and guidance are shifting almost as quickly as the daily infection numbers. In times of radical uncertainty and ambiguity, it is critical for institutional leaders to map out many potential scenarios and consider risks and possible responses, to avoid “disjointed impulsivity… in crisis mode.” It helps us remove our blinders, consider multiple eventualities, overcome optimistic bias, and avoid underpredicting or overpredicting change. Consider underlying forces shaping the future, and how they may interact. Clarify your assumptions and then challenge them. Look for strategic responses that span multiple scenarios: these are often your best bets.  Forbes

Asking the Right Questions

Decision-making processes can break down in the face of heightened uncertainty, resulting in either fear-based paralysis or biased reactions. We are confronted with data that “looks actionable” but is in fact incomplete and constantly evolving. Salient data may disproportionately capture our attention; contextual data may need to be reframed; and the appearance of patterns in random data may not have predictive value. Focus on determining what information you need most, in order to make decisions.  Harvard Business Review

4 Post-COVID Scenarios for PSE

In mid-April, Deloitte consultants proposed 4 hypothetical scenarios for higher ed in 3-5 years, considering trends already in motion and sector uncertainties:

The “Passing Storm” scenario heightens inequities among students and institutions, with thousands forced to close or merge while the mega-universities grow. Poor experiences with emergency remote learning only serve to reinforce the appeal of traditional approaches, and the impact of COVID19 is similar to previous recessions: government funding drops and endowment returns decline. Incremental adoption of technologies and microcredentials occurs.

In the “Good Company” scenario, the pandemic persists and recovery takes until late 2022. Banks and multinationals step up to assist governments, fund workforce training and applied research, and define new credentials, often delivered by community colleges, private providers and mega-universities. International student mobility rebounds, although price sensitivity increases and the residential experience is increasingly regarded as a luxury. Some corporations acquire or build their own universities.

In the “Sunrise in the East” scenario, China and East Asian nations ramp up direct foreign investment and become primary global powers with rising PSE institutions, while Western governments struggle to subsidize lasting economic and social damage and cut support for institutions. Higher ed is “caught in the crossfire of anti-globalist and nationalist movements,” as anti-intellectual resentment rises. Several public university systems fail, while the strongest global brands with satellite campuses in Asia succeed.

In the “Lone Wolves” scenario, isolationist governments go it alone and increase surveillance during a prolonged, endless pandemic and lengthy recession. Calendar-driven PSE is untenable with rolling, unpredictable campus lockdowns. Advanced manufacturing booms as countries re-shore supply chains, and performing arts experience an unexpected resurgence. The earnings premium for degree grads shrinks for the first time, and government support drops to little or nothing. Class divides, protests and demonstrations intensify, tuition-dependent institutions are decimated, while elite “sanctuary” institutions wall themselves off from society in a pandemic bubble.

Regardless of scenario, PSE will need to assess finances, plan for resiliency, bolster relationships with the private sector, challenge orthodoxies, rethink operations, invest in digitization, and prioritize EDI. Institutions will need to revisit the academic portfolio, and “curate the student experience,” finding ways to preserve or adapt the in-person, residential modality. Deloitte



Budgeting in a Pandemic Hurricane

The Big $ Picture

Above and beyond the financial pressures, budget cuts and job losses impacting higher education around the world, here is some interesting insight and strategic advice…

Bad Choices Left us Vulnerable

Since the last recession, US colleges saw enrolment decline 12%, yet they grew full-time faculty by 7% and admin staff by 16%. Their endowment funds realized just half the gains of the stock market. And they accumulated debt to spend $11B a year on new facilities. With decentralized budgets, minimal accountability, and perverse spending incentives, some blame PSE administrators for their financial weakness, even before COVID19.  Hechinger

Managing Shrinkage

Matt Reed observes that college presidents have spent decades in growth mode, leaving their legacies by adding buildings, programs and students. But the past decade has seen a downward trend in enrolment, particularly in the US Northeast and Midwest. “Suddenly, the task for many presidents involves managing shrinkage rather than growth.” Campus stakeholders credit their leaders for growth, but blame them for cuts – meaning leaders have powerful incentives for denial, or stalling on tough decisions. It’s also difficult to get stakeholders to understand the situation “when their livelihood depends on them not understanding it.”  Inside Higher Ed

Strategies for Sustainability

As institutions face downward pressure from demographics, government funding, fundraising and/or tuition, they need to leverage data as a strategic asset to improve student recruitment and retention, operational efficiency and cost-containment. (And this spring’s online pivot makes even more data available than ever.) In the long term, sustainability will require cost controls on academic programs, administrative costs, and facilities. Ultimately, the entire campus community will need to be engaged in strategic efforts to transform operations. “The incremental approach used so often in higher education won’t be enough. We believe higher education must re-energize its efforts and unleash the power of data and analytics… to support students and institutions.”  Education Dive

Budgeting in a Hurricane

A focus on improving performance has 30x greater impact on outcomes than managing to meet budgeted income and expenses. This is particularly true in times of crisis and disruption, when historically two-thirds of plans have to be rewritten. “In a world of unpredictable and accelerating change, long-term forecasts will be increasingly unreliable, and commanding people to stick to flawed plans will grow more dangerous.” In turbulent times, consider budgeting like NOAA forecasts hurricanes: describe expected paths, estimate uncertainty, and track your hypotheses over time. Ongoing agile budgeting “focuses on learning, adapting, and growing – not on trying to predict the unpredictable.” Allocate a percentage of your budget towards incremental innovations, and toward breakthrough innovations. To be strategic about outcomes, “allocate resources from the strategy down, rather than from individual projects up.”  Harvard Business Review

Who Pays for COVID?

US colleges and state governments alike face massive deficits because of COVID19, and the campus experience that justifies high tuition fees has evaporated. “Education can be delivered in a pandemic. But schools that are losing revenue were delivering more than that,” observes Scott Pulsipher, president of Western Governors U. “To the extent that schools are losing revenue during the pandemic, it is largely because they are not able to offer the private goods: food, housing, and fun.” Naturally, Pulsipher believes public funds should not subsidize lost revenues from housing or food, but should be targeted toward reskilling and upskilling the workforce.  Forbes

Pathogens & Monocultures

In discussing the idea of trimester scheduling, Matt Reed deploys a powerful metaphor that I think can apply to institutional revenue models, expenses, and much more too. He points to the uniformity across the higher ed landscape, resulting from accrediting bodies, financial aid rules, collective agreements and centuries of tradition. “If we saw more experimentation, we’d be less likely to see the entire industry struggling at the same time. As any farmer can tell you, pathogens thrive in monocultures… If we want the system to be resilient, we need to allow its members to try many different approaches.” Insider Higher Ed





Pivotal Moment

Today I want to share some thoughts for higher education, drawn by analogy from business analysts and consultants. Hopefully you know me well enough by now (from all my ranting about the way Laurentian U has abused the CCAA process, if nothing else) to know that I don’t think of colleges and universities as mere businesses. They are much more than that, but obviously, they are also organizations of employees working toward common goals, sometimes developing actual strategies, and certainly subject to fiscal pressures. The economic and social disruption of the pandemic creates a pivotal moment for all organizations, with risk and opportunity. Some will emerge poised for success…


The Big Guys Win More

In a March 30 report, McKinsey Global Institute predicts that the pandemic will boost productivity for large, successful “superstar” firms, while “lagging or zombie” ones experience an 11% decline in revenues – and some will even fail. (This is what I described as the “Amazon Effect” back in February, and to some extent we’re seeing it play out in PSE enrolments.) “Winners” deployed 66% of pre-pandemic resources to innovate, pivot boldly, and position themselves for growth post-pandemic, and experienced no decline in revenue in the meantime. As in PSE, that usually required a shift to online channels, investments in automation, heightened operational efficiencies and streamlined decision-making. Globally, business digitized activities “20-25x faster than they had previously thought possible” (which sounds a lot like what PSE endured too). The big leadership challenges (which also apply to PSE) include catalyzing change to spread innovations more widely, growing revenue rather than merely cutting costs, reskilling employees, and investing significantly in sustainability and infrastructure.  McKinsey


“The pace of digitization and automation quickened in some companies, remote working became the norm, firms became more efficient and agile, and many businesses—and people—went online for the first time. The bold response of many companies and governments proved that organizations can transform quickly when they have to.”McKinsey Global Institute, Will Productivity and Growth Return after the COVID19 crisis?



What About Smaller Guys?

In times of recession (and/or depressed enrolment, international mobility, or government funding, for public PSEs) midsize organizations tend to “play defense” rather than making bold investments like the big guys. They tend to get caught up in the crisis, and cut investments in PD, R&D, advertising and personnel. Three business scholars (including 2 from uCalgary) acknowledge that “ambidextrous” companies fare best, achieving “the delicate balance between cutting costs and making forward-looking investments.” But their research shows that firms that significantly increased investments during the recession saw strengthened financial results coming out in the recovery, while those that decreased investments in tough times saw all measures deteriorate afterwards. “Playing offense dominates playing defense” because recessions are “inevitably” followed by longer-lasting expansions: “Recessions are fertile ground for creative destruction and catapulting new winners.” They recommend several strategies for a recession, including attracting more affordable talent, considering mergers or acquisitions, deploying new technologies, and locking in long-term financing. They emphatically discourage restructuring or laying off workers, which usually incurs short-term costs, damages morale, and leaves you unprepared to rehire and train replacements when the crisis is past.  Harvard Business Review


“Recessions are fertile ground for creative destruction and catapulting new winners.” V. Govindarajan, A. Srivastava & A. Iqbal, in Harvard Business Review



Being Prepared

The turbulent and unpredictable context of the COVID19 pandemic has intensified the pressure on colleges and universities to become more nimble and responsive, but also offers an moment of opportunity…


Moment for Reinvention

The pandemic has been “the last straw for US higher education,” and for many tuition-dependent colleges, “financial viability will depend on new [economic and academic] models once considered out of bounds.” The best path forward depends on an institution’s starting position: with a weak financial outlook, institutions need to stabilize their finances, restructure costs and maximize revenues. In the worst-case scenarios, they need to consider major restructuring or consolidation. But ideally, institutions will take this moment to develop more differentiated program offerings, target new student markets and consider new economic models. More institutions are looking at career-focused microcredentials, lifelong continuous learning models, on-demand year-round offerings, flexible degrees and stackable certificates, and employer-funded tuition. PSEs will increasingly outsource housing, dining, athletics, facilities management and more, in order to focus on core academics. “The transformation will happen in waves, starting with insurgents and at the edges of incumbent institutions, and eventually expanding as followers replicate successful innovations.”  Bain & Co


4 Mindset Shifts

To transform an organization into an agile one requires people at every level to transform their thinking in 4 key ways. We must shift from a focus on outputs to outcomes, measuring not our production but our impact on strategic priorities. We must shift from thinking in terms of academic cycles to focusing on continuous incremental improvement, testing hypotheses in small-scale pilots and making data-driven decisions to scale them up. We need to spend more time considering external perspectives (such as the student, alumnus or employer) rather than myopic internal ones, and delivering segmented or customized programs and services. And finally, we need to distribute decision making throughout the campus, rather than struggling with the bottlenecks of top-down approvals. The result will be more creative, responsive, and accountable decisions, utilizing more of people’s talents and passion. (What’s striking is how much the pandemic has imposed many of these mindsets onto us. The challenge will be: how can we retain them going forward?)  Marketing Profs


9 Future-Ready Imperatives

Even pre-COVID, the world was being transformed by rising connectivity, automation, and shifting demographics. According to McKinsey, many global businesses are “too bureaucratic, too slow, and too siloed.” (That sounds nothing like PSE, now does it?) There are 9 organizational imperatives that will “separate future-ready companies from the pack,” and they seem relevant to higher ed institutions too. Start by strengthening organizational identity, clearly defining your shared purpose, institutional differentiation and understanding the value you bring to stakeholders. Don’t underestimate the impact of campus culture as the “secret sauce.” Then, rethink structure and operations to prioritize nimble responses, “radically flatten” hierarchy and delegate decision-making authority to the lowest levels possible (or even to algorithms). Ideally, your institution should aim to be “fitter, flatter and faster.” Treat talent as your scarcest resource. Finally, build towards success by adopting an “ecosystem view” of partners, leveraging big data and technology, and accelerating learning across the organization with a “mindset of continuous learning.”  World Economic Forum


“As organizations move from a mindset of coping to one of competing, the best companies will seize the unique unfreezing opportunity before them to imagine—and create—new systems and modes of organization that are more flexible, integrated, resilient, and ultimately, more human.” A De Smet, C Gagnon, & E Mygatt, McKinsey



PSE Opportunities Now

Instead of “going into hibernation until the pandemic passes,” campus leaders need to “lean into the work that we do,” writes Mark Zupan, president of Alfred U (NY). Now more than ever, higher ed can play a crucial role to address rising social issues of racial justice and economic opportunity, environmental sustainability and of course enhancing pandemic preparedness and antiviral vaccines and therapeutics. Campus leaders should seek out research grants, but also philanthropic support (yes, even in the midst of a recession). The pandemic has actually boosted personal disposable income by $1 trillion this year, boosted the consumer savings rate to 38%, and sparked a rise in stock and real estate valuations. Now is also, says Zupan, the time to invest in campus upgrades and new construction, to “build for the future.” Philanthropists know that higher education is a “smart-money” investment, with the potential to drive societal improvement and solve “most every problem vexing our world.” “Now is our time.”  Inside Higher Ed






Strategic Pivots for PSE

Granted, the word “pivot” (like “unprecedented” and “uncertain”) has been seriously overused during the pandemic. (It’s probably just the alliteration.) But most businesses, organizations and institutions have had to make abrupt changes in strategic direction, products, services, or at least processes, during the past 15 months. Management studies have found that the right decisions in a time of crisis can set your organization on a path to greater success afterwards…


Reinventing Organizations

While it can be tempting to focus on stabilization, the aftermath of a crisis also provides an opportunity to take a fresh look at your organization, its people, and the surrounding landscape, to reinvent the institution and make it more resilient for the future. Leaders have to “call time,” to signal the end of a crisis and a gradual return to normalcy (while acknowledging sacrifices, loss, and the work that remains). De-escalate the crisis and find time to decompress, to ensure your leadership team focuses its energy on strategic priorities. Monitor weak signals and develop strategic foresight. Consult widely to identify lessons learned during the crisis, and then act on them – particularly if there are “immediate, no-regret actions” you can take. And find ways to develop “a more human organization,” with greater emphasis on EDI, holistic wellness, and workloads, to build a “reservoir of trust.”  Harvard Business Review


Pedal to the Metal

Right now, PSE leaders should be feeling increased urgency to make long-term strategic decisions to position your institutions for stronger enrolment and revenue in the wake of the pandemic. Strategic planning should focus on the substance of your student experience, engage stakeholders broadly, and gather data for solid decision-making. uChicago, for example, responded to the 2008 recession by innovating in academics, co-curriculars and student life (and investing in enrolment and marketing) to transform its reputation, boost its ranking to the top 5, and double applications in just 4 years. Providence College (RI) counter-intuitively raised its tuition fees substantially in the wake of the recession, allowing it to invest in faculty and infrastructure while competitors were cutting costs. Liberal arts colleges have responded to crisis by reinventing their curriculum. “Making the right strategic moves today… can position a college or university for sustained success once the current storm has passed.”  Inside Higher Ed


Maybe Don’t Pivot

Strategic agility has been much hyped during the pandemic: in times of crisis, organizations are told to make decisive cuts and pivot quickly to new markets and business models. But if by chance your strategy is already optimized for your evolving circumstances, staying the course can provide stability, and could lead to long-term success. During the pandemic, some ecommerce and IT companies (even in the hard-hit travel sector) were well positioned, and instead of pivoting they slowed down, reaffirmed their strategies, listened to stakeholders, trimmed “fat, not muscle,” watched data closely, and tested for weaknesses in advance. They “downshifted” to conserve resources in case new initiatives were necessary.  Harvard Business Review


“Nobody ever regrets making fast and decisive adjustments to changing circumstances.”Leadership Team, Sequoia Capital



In times of ambiguity and turbulence, deeply-held assumptions are questioned and the previously unthinkable starts to seem possible. To identify strategic opportunities while emerging from crisis, an organization needs to be vigilant about environmental scanning and data-gathering in its systems, and future-focused – alert to future scenarios and strategic foresight. (My goal, with Eduvation’s workshops and this Insider newsletter, is to help you do just that.)  

It also helps to have some sense of the future scenarios we’re heading towards…




Although some strategic advice for corporations also applies to higher ed institutions, there is no doubt that colleges and universities operate in distinct political, intellectual and social domains. (Although don’t try to tell that to the board at Laurentian U.) Fortunately, higher ed is also filled with reflective leaders and consultants who have written on the challenges of the pandemic…


Beyond Incrementalism

Too often, PSE leaders focus on tactics rather than strategy, and implement incremental budget cuts or revenue streams as the path of least resistance in challenging times. Many institutions need to consider moving even more programming online, potentially to lower financial barriers for students, reach new geographic markets, or provide flexibility for international exchange or work-integrated learning students. Some may want to modify the traditional departmental model in favour of divisional or interdisciplinary structures. Many have consolidated student services, and could even consider a shared services model with other institutions. Now is the time for institutions to address “systemic racism, sexism, homophobia and other biases,” diversify staff and faculty at all levels, and even “contend with their own histories.” And institutions facing major budget deficits may have to redirect resources to mission-critical areas, and high-enrolment programs, “not changing the nature of the institution, but rather seeking to fund the institution it has become.”  Inside Higher Ed


Flexible Institutions

“Flexibility” and “resilience” have been watchwords during the pandemic, and most PSE consultants emphasize the importance of a more flexible post-pandemic university, that can bend without breaking. That flexibility should go beyond hybrid course delivery, to include flexible timetables, formative feedback, self-paced and self-directed study for students, and flexible remote work policies for staff.  Wonkhe


Permanent Transformation

While most colleges and universities were slashing budgets in the face of COVID19, some opted for permanent transformation instead. Unity College (ME) slashed its tuition, committed to hybrid delivery, and switched from 2 traditional semesters to 8 year-round terms of 5 weeks each – with tuition payable by the term, and 5 intakes per year. Metropolitan State U of Denver launched a Skills Lab to retrain displaced workers at no charge. NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts is collaborating with the Parsons School of Design at the New School on short, online survey courses as “try-before-you-buy” introductions to full courses. Other institutions have been sharing back-office staffs, or acquiring struggling competitors to expand their program offerings and consolidate their finances.  Hechinger Report


“You’re not going to cut your way through this. You have to transform.” – Melik Peter Khoury, President, Unity College



Reinventing Higher Ed

Most colleges and universities (those without massive endowments) will have to reinvent themselves post-pandemic, either improving their recruitment from existing markets, opening satellite campuses in new markets, or pursuing new niches with new program offerings. They have to differentiate, boldly, and tailor their programs and research to meet the needs of the students and communities they serve. Some US colleges have been acquiring assets, merging or partnering with competitors on joint ventures. Institutions also have to update the skillsets of faculty, staff and administrators to cope with online delivery, personalized supports, and continuous change. In some cases, online offerings should become core, instead of a complement to F2F instruction. And all institutions need to respond to the “cultural demographic shift,” rethink student supports and our measures of student success.  Forbes


“For people who are forward-thinking, fast-pivoting, opportunistic visionaries, this is a really exciting time to be in higher ed.”Nancy Hubbard, Dean, uLynchburg College of Business


“The truth is that it’s time for higher ed to create the new value equation – but it starts with institutions really understanding their students and how their values have shifted during/as a result of Covid19.” – John Farrar, Education industry leader, Google



Bold PSE Strategies

Some forward-looking colleges and universities responded to the COVID19 crisis not only by shifting to remote delivery, but by “radically rethinking their admissions practices, their curriculum, and the student experience.” Some split their semesters into two 7-week halves, allowing students to juggle fewer online courses at once – and hyflex or modularized courses could offer even more flexibility. Some created interdisciplinary courses to tackle “wicked problems,” sometimes with experiential learning components, while others enhanced co-curricular offerings in skills-building, leadership, financial literacy, or mentorship. Learning communities, meta-majors or first-year cohorts could foster community and belonging. During Summer 2020, some colleges offered free or “extremely cheap” courses to keep students on track to graduation – and perhaps we could do more to make summers “an integral part of the academic year.” Institutions should create stronger, integrated systems of academic, personal, career and technical supports that can respond proactively to students – and perhaps emulate the coaches and mentors provided by major online providers.  Inside Higher Ed


4 Post-Pandemic Trends

Last Fall, EAB surveyed 122 North American higher ed business and finance leaders, and identified 4 emerging trends in post-pandemic PSE business models. 1) Most were looking to “recalibrate” their business model, rather than pursue radical changes, but most planned immediate changes to remote work policies, IT, automation, space utilization practices and shared services. 2) Respondents no longer view technology as “incremental solutions” or cost centres, but as a “core competency that must be central to their institutional strategy.” Investments in ERP, CRM and LMS systems were priorities, but they also anticipate expanding online enrolment. 3) Many want to “right-size their investments in physical services and infrastructure,” most plan to “reduce” the investment in facilities, and EAB suggests that the “amenities arms race” may well be over at last. And finally, 4) Some CFOs are rethinking “intricate revenue cross-subsidies” to prop up struggling business or academic units with revenues from international students or residence operations.  EAB


PSE in a Disruptive World

Last October, KPMG International released a 30-page paper on The Future of Higher Education in a Disruptive World, arguing that “the Golden Age of universities” is passing away, due to converging demographic, financial, political and technological pressures. With the COVID19 pandemic, “the future arrived ahead of schedule, abruptly and without invitation,” and both institutions and higher ed systems will need to be “reimagined” for the new “age of the consumer.” The paper predicts a proliferation of diverse higher ed providers and approaches, experimentation and personalization – and an overall shift towards “digital first” delivery, with a decline in international student mobility. Future PSE will be borderless, unbundled, digital, scalable, experiential, lifelong and part-time. The 4 strategic building blocks for PSEs are reviewing mission and strategy, improving core capabilities, adopting a target operating model, and modernizing technology. Organizations will benefit from data-driven decisions, “experience centricity,” “seamless interactions,” and an “integrated partner and alliance ecosystem.” (Most universities surveyed rated themselves average on a typical bell curve.)  KPMG


“The ability to transform will be the critical one for all education institutions to cultivate, so they can shape and respond to a changing world of education.”Stephen Parker, Global Lead, Education & Skills, KPMG International



The Post-pandemic University

Vivek Goel, the new president at uWaterloo, observes that higher ed has a “generational opportunity” to address historical inequities and global challenges, and to “breathe fresh relevance into the postsecondary experience.” With accelerating change in the economy, “a university education should not necessarily end after 4 or 5 years,” and traditional institutions must compete with new competitors to meet the lifelong learning needs of the workforce. They must also ensure “every member of our community feels represented and empowered,” through efforts at antiracism and Indigenous reconciliation. The “great reset” is a chance for universities to “rethink how they fit into their communities.”  Globe & Mail


“As the world reopens, against a backdrop of accelerated change and exacerbated inequities, universities should grasp this once-in-a-century chance to reset. A successful postpandemic university will be one that sees this moment for what it is: a time to seize technological advances to build on centuries of expertise; to use these technologies as a tool to break down barriers to access; and to understand how these challenges are connected.” Vivek Goel, President & Vice-Chancellor, uWaterloo





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