What Should Universities Look Like Going Forward?

The global pandemic has shuttered college campuses and shaken the entire higher education industry. We don’t know what’s next. Heck, we don’t even know when’s next. But, it’s likely some schools won’t make it, others will look completely different, and none will ever be the same. What’s a university administrator to do?

Higher ed was already being disrupted before COVID-19, and that tumult has now increased exponentially. Students concerned about rising tuition and crippling student debt are now questioning whether to come back to school now, later, or ever. The devastation wrought by the novel coronavirus has laid bare the vast racial and economic inequities in our country, and some see universities as part of the problem rather than part of the solution. And local and state governments facing vast budget gaps are cutting their support of higher education, with some starting to apply pressure for institutions to pay their fair share for essential public services. Through it all, revenues are down, expenditures are up, and enrollment is uncertain. It is no exaggeration to call this an existential crisis, for individual institutions and for the entire sector.

The thing about existential crises, though, is that it’s healthy for organizations to regularly question their existence. What are we fundamentally about? Who do we serve? How do we produce the greatest good? In short, why do we exist? These are good things to ask, even and especially when the world has been turned upside down.

The irony is that this is something universities used to be good at. Institutions once existed outside of time and place, so focused on intellectual contemplation, rigorous scholarship, and technical research that they couldn’t be sullied by day-to-day interaction with community concerns or current events. Thankfully, higher education has emerged from its ivory tower and integrated with real issues, real neighborhoods, and real people. But it shouldn’t lose its unique purpose in society, to advance human knowledge and seek scientific breakthrough.

How do universities reconcile this duality, to focus on both the hours and days that go into surviving a global pandemic, as well as effect change as measured in generations and centuries, and to care both for each individual student and staff member and neighborhood resident, as well as for humanity writ large? Seems a steep road, especially in the midst of such an unprecedented global health crisis. Hey, I never said this was going to be easy. But I do think universities are well-suited to respond, if they are willing to focus on the following:

  1. Define the mission. Think long and hard about exactly what the institution is about, and do the hard work of making sure that every aspect of university operations reflects that core purpose and that every single person feels included in pursuing that purpose. What a critical time for institutions to reclaim the lofty ideals of their origins, winnow their focus down to only that which advances those ideals, and make everyone feel included in achieving such grand goals.
  2. Match method to market. COVID-19 has forced changes in how instruction, scholarship, and connection can happen, but old delivery methods were already ripe for replacement. Tomorrow’s students expect far more fluidity, convenience, and complexity than institutions have typically provided. The best universities will experiment with innovative approaches – to content delivery, pricing, and community-building – all in the name of helping people thrive.
  3. Play well with others. People are not immortal, but institutions can be, so long as they fulfill a vital societal purpose. Whether it is public health, public education, or public morality, universities must orient their existence around advancement of the greater good. And in order to do that, they must capitalize on our present shared misery to connect to and work with a myriad of entities – governments, businesses, community groups – being helpful today and building social capital to be helpful tomorrow.

The pain universities currently feel is real. But the only way forward for the higher education sector is to affirm that its fundamental purpose is to address the pain around it, in society as a whole and in the communities in which it is located. Define the mission, match method to market, play well with others: all things this global pandemic affords the opening to do, all of which will define what universities should look like going forward.

Lee Huang

Lee Huang brings over 20 years of experience in economic development experience to his public, private, institutional, and not-for-profit clients. He has led consulting engagements in a wide range of fields, including higher education, economic inclusion, environmental sustainability, historic preservation, real estate, neighborhood economic development, non-profits, retail, state and local government, strategic planning, tax policy, and tourism/hospitality, and is a sought-after speaker on these and other topics.

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