Discussion Questions for Higher Education Leaders

As a service to the higher education industry, Econsult Solutions has developed the following questionnaire to help leaders prepare for success in an uncertain future. Many are looking to you for the answers, which are hard to come by when things are so fluid. We know you appreciate the importance of asking the right questions, and it is in this spirit that we provide this resource.

Today’s challenges are part of a broader disruption to the sector that is forcing universities to confront stark realities and contemplate tough decisions. Every institution must adapt, and not all will make it. The threat to the industry and to many institutions is existential. But the opportunity to make an even bigger difference – to students, communities, regions, and society as a whole – has never been greater.

The questions below are for your leadership team to tackle. They were carefully formed to elicit just the open-minded, far-sighted, and inter-disciplinary planning your institution needs now. We hope to supplement the rigorous efforts you are currently undertaking.

Importantly, while the questions touch on the present plight we all find ourselves in, they are not primarily focused on the big decisions you have to make soon, like when and how will you open up your campus again. Instead, they are intended to utilize this present moment to elicit deep thinking on the broader decisions you are faced with, which will not only shape your recovery from this current crisis but determine your long-term viability.

We have experts that can assist you if this exercise reveals to you the need for outside guidance. We stand ready to help you adjust and thrive, so you can make your unique contribution for times that desperately demand it.

 

MISSION

While tactics and strategies evolve over time, mission is constant. So, when the world is every changing, it is useful to reclaim what is unchanging. Which means being able to define what that is, how that has manifested itself in the past, and what it might look like going forward.

  1. How would we describe what our institution’s core mission has been since its very inception?
  2. What is a good recent example of mission fulfillment?
  3. What will mission fulfillment look like in the future?
    1. How have current events created challenges for mission fulfillment? What about opportunities?
    2. If we had to merge with another institution, what of our mission is non-negotiable and what is adaptable/expendable?
    3. Where is the greatest resonance between what the institution’s mission is and what its stakeholders (students, communities, regions) need from it right now?

 

VALUES

Universities are nothing if they are not led by values. Uncertainty combined with financial distress forces uncomfortable trade-offs. Charting a course through such choppy waters requires having something to stand on. People will brook short-term pain and unpopular decisions if they are made in service to shared values.

  1. What have been the biggest challenges and opportunities as it relates to upholding your most deeply engrained values during these challenging times?
  2. How will we uphold human dignity – in general and as it relates to our students, staff, and extended community – in the face of difficult choices?
  3. How will we continue to work towards a diverse and inclusive campus community even if we have fewer resources to advance such an objective?
  4. What progress have we made of late in diversity and inclusion, which this present crisis and our potential response to it may help or harm?
  5. How will we continue to make education affordable and accessible even if we have fewer resources to advance such an objective?
  6. Amid pressures to unbundle higher education and focus on a shorter list of institutional specializations, how will we continue to invest in our students’ whole being?

 

KNOWLEDGE

Universities are academic institutions, committed to research, scholarship, and the advancement of human knowledge. Which makes pedagogical philosophies and instructional models so important to develop, adapt, and hone, especially in light of significant changes in who universities educate, what their expectations are, and the job market they enter upon graduation.

  1. How do we respond to students’ evolving familiarity with and expectations around digital curricular platforms?
  2. How can we maintain our pedagogical rigor and institutional strengths in a climate that demands way more remote learning than before?
  3. How do we accommodate students’ growing demand for inter-disciplinary and real-world curricular content?
  4. How do we lean into our pedagogical roots and instructional strengths in ways that serve today’s students and anticipate tomorrow’s needs?
  5. How can our overall approach to academic instruction survive an extended period of remote learning (due either to public health restrictions or student preferences)?
  6. How can we deliver as much value as possible in the non-classroom elements of the student experience if limitations or preferences require a more remote format?
  7. What investments are required in instructional training and in technology infrastructure to make this all possible?

 

PLACE

Universities benefit from the confluence of many things in one place: human capital, research infrastructure, venues for intellectual/social/cultural/recreational interaction. In the short run, institutions have to restrict physical gatherings. In the long run, institutions have to rethink their approach to physical space altogether.

  1. What aspects of instruction are best done in person, online, or in combination? What about the social aspects of university? What about research and scholarship?
  2. What is the highest and best use of on-campus space and buildings going forward? What should the campus-adjacent real estate strategy look like going forward?
  3. How do we create the ideal setting for human flourishing – concentration of human/academic/research activity, opportunity for both formal gatherings and serendipitous encounters – in a post-COVID world?

 

COMMUNITY

Universities are anchored in a specific location and as such have a vested interest in community relations. Town-gown relations, which are often fraught with simmering tensions, are now being reevaluated in light of tightening finances and heightened sensitivities around equity.

  1. What will be the meeting point issues and potential collaborations between our institution and its host neighborhood going forward? Are we ready to both lead and serve on those fronts?
  2. Have we created space for community members/groups to feel a part of our campus community? Have we created space for our students to engage with the surrounding community and its people/issues during their studies?
  3. What does it look like to create space for both planned gatherings and chance meet-ups – the backbone of an intellectually prolific and socially connected campus – in a world of social distancing?

 

 OPERATIONS

Universities are complex entities that require nimble internal operations to get anything done, let alone pivot to new opportunities and make an indelible difference to society. It is essential to take stock of these structures and hierarchies, to determine if the inner work of the university can be effectively and efficiently accomplished.

  1. Can we marshal the appropriate operational, financial, staffing, and instructional data to consider and make decisions around curricular changes (e.g. adding courses, subtracting courses, creating a new major, closing a department)?
  2. Where are the outsized effects – e.g. a 10% cut in academic offerings yields a 30% savings, a 10% investment in one aspect of operations that yields a 30% revenue increase – and how can we exploit them?
  3. In light of ever-evolving public health circumstances and fast-changing public health guidance, have we prepared multiple scenarios for upcoming semesters, with attendant operational, financial, staffing, and instructional implications?
  4. Do we have the organizational nimbleness in place already to quickly and decisively marshal leadership, logistics, resources, and communications in response to whatever is the next big unexpected event (e.g. public health outbreak, natural disaster)?
  5. Do we have the strategic infrastructure in place already to monitor and respond to large-scale existential industry disruptions (e.g. loss of 20+% of students, loss of 20+% of federal/state funding, fundamental change to tuition model, fundamental change to tenure model)?
  6. How can we invest in relationships with potential collaborators to achieve operational efficiencies?

 

To access a Word document version of this template please click here.

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