Eduvation Blog

Strategic Pivots for PSE

Good morning!

Today is apparently “Shark Awareness Day” – and unless you’re reading your email at the beach, you might want to take that metaphorically, as advice to think strategically about your environment, competitors, and “black swan” threats (like, oh I don’t know, say – a global pandemic).

Perhaps I’m thinking about institutional strategy in particular, because I’ll be presenting a session this morning on “Post-Pandemic Pivots: Seizing this Moment of Opportunity” at the 2021 Society for College & University Planners conference.

If you’re attending SCUP 2021, I hope you’ll join me. If not, here are some highlights of my reading this week…



Strategic Pivots

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





Since the goal of strategic planning is to clarify a distinctive, extraordinary path for your institution – pivot or not – here’s a new spot from England that seems thematically à propos…


Find Your Extraordinary

In this new 2-min spot, uHull (with a little help from Team GB, the UK’s Olympic team) encourages students (and perhaps also researchers, donors, and everyone else) to “find your extraordinary at the University of Hull.” The dynamic spot utilizes plenty of athletic clips and patriotic colours, but subverts our expectations by assuring us that “extraordinary is all around us. It’s being the first to talk in a roomful of strangers, speaking out against injustice, trusting your conscience, making changes to your own life to make the world a better place.” It’s a dynamic spot with peppy music, clever writing, fun typography, and some uplifting altruism – and of course that lovely accent makes it all the more watchable. “With us behind you, and opportunity ahead, you’re unstoppable.”  YouTube



Phew! You may not have noticed, but that’s the third long Insider in a row this week, on top of a busy week personally and with my clients… so I’m going to cut myself some slack tomorrow, and quite possibly also Friday. Don’t be surprised if you don’t hear from me until Monday – in which case, I hope you have a wonderful weekend!

As always, thanks for reading! Please do drop me a line if you spot something thought-provoking on your campus, or affecting the future of higher education more broadly!

Stay safe and be well,


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