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Is reinventing higher ed in COVID-19 an overreaction or great leadership?
One of the challenges in an uncertain season without an authoritative playbook (see: adaptive challenges) is that a strong response will feel like an overreaction at the time. When we’re experiencing something we’ve never seen before, we may need to do something we’ve never done before.
But that change can be painful, and there’s a chance this could blow over and everything return to normal.
Is the risk of rapid, painful, and risky change worth the potential reward? Do we count on return to normal, or do we make significant changes that could set us up to lead in a new reality (but may also crash and burn)?
Seth Abramson has a helpful thread that considers the foundational disruption higher ed may face. I’ve copied a few sections of his thoughts here, but the whole thread is helpful. (You may disagree with his framework or politics. If so, that may be a feature rather than a fault. It seems that hearing from a variety of perspectives can be helpful in charting a path forward.)
Here are the relevant pieces:
19/ We keep being told that real leadership is about telling hard truths and demanding hard sacrifices from people in times of crisis. But we are being told this by people who are still painting for us a much rosier picture than any of the data or science is currently projecting.
20/ The evidence suggests that we'll either be indoors until a vaccine arrives in 2021 or 2022 or outdoors and at great risk of contracting an incredibly contagious, significantly lethal virus. If we *accepted* this, we could start making real plans about how to save our economy.
21/ Let me give an example: higher education. The *second* the novel coronavirus hit, higher ed—which was *already* in the midst of a sea change—altered forever. Dramatically. Permanently. And it moved us like a lightning bolt toward distance learning. But academia is resisting.
22/ It's a vicious circle: colleges and universities haven't told students that their worlds just *permanently* turned upside down, so students expect a return to normalcy; and because students expect that, colleges and universities must promise they'll open in the fall as usual.
23/ I say this, mind you, just from reading the CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION—which lists school after school as reciting that it's "planning" to reopen as normal in fall. It seems clear that no one wants to say, "Look, everything just changed—we'll work together to navigate it."
24/ But—and this is just my personal opinion—what we *really* need to do in *every* field, from education to restaurants to live performance to voting to everything else, is *accept* that there's "Before COVID" and "After COVID" and we must now prepare *24/7/365* for the latter.
And further down his thread:
33/ The first step in "reconstruction" is the significant one: understanding that what exists now is *not* a binary between APOCALYPSE and NORMALCY. Reconstruction only occurs, indeed, after a *deconstruction* that requires an *entirely new frame* for any subsequent construction.
34/ Higher ed can survive and thrive—but it'll be in a context and form and under philosophies that must be imagined from the deconstructed pieces of the Before COVID-19 era. The same is true for dining out. Movies. Voting. *Every facet* of American culture. I'll give an example.
35/ TROLLS WORLD TOUR—a movie I can't imagine any person ever wanting to see, and I *love* kids' films—just set a digital record for sales and way outpaced how its predecessor did in theaters. They're saying this *one event* could change Hollywood forever.
36/ A week ago Hollywood thought it might collapse post-COVID-19. And now—with a single, seemingly obvious realization (that people may *prefer* to choose when and where they see movies)—the whole paradigm of *what Hollywood is and how and why it works* may have changed forever.
37/ My *personal* opinion is that any college or university that announces—boldly, proudly, maturely—that it is transforming itself into what education looks like *now*, and doing so to ensure it is always best serving its students, will in *at least* the middle-term be rewarded.
38/ And what we're seeing in our leaders is the same. When Andrew Cuomo gives seemingly *bad* news that we see is accurate and honest, we—most of us—admire him for it. And if he tells New Yorkers that their lives will *not* go back to the way they were, they'll respect that also.
39/ So because of the philosophies, gameplans, biases, tendencies, knowledge deficits, rhetorical tug-of-wars, and so on I'm seeing in America now, I—and millions of Americans, I suspect, who work in certain industries—am seeing my life as being an indoor life until 2021 or 2022.
40/ But I *also* think it's incumbent upon *all of us* in that situation to try to brainstorm, collaborate, and signal-boost those future-oriented leaders who are trying to reconstruct America (*ASAP*) in a way that allows *all* of us to thrive in the "After COVID-19" epoch. /end
Sharing ideas and forming connections
Abramson isn’t alone in debating whether returning to a status quo will be possible. Graeme Wood writes in The Atlantic that the entire foundation of (historical, residential, undergraduate) universities was designed to mix people and ideas in a way that is antithetical to our current, physically distant, reality. From the article:
The whole point of a classroom section is to turn everyone into Kevin Bacon for an hour. Ideally, everyone speaks. The engineer says something that the painter would never hear from his painter friends, and the engineer hears something from the painter that she would never hear from the engineers back in the shop. That is part of the pedagogical idea of the university, anyway: Students are supposed to encounter new ideas and new people, to become different from who they were when they matriculated. That means mixing with new people—students, faculty, and guest speakers.
Look back at what Abramson mentions above:
It's a vicious circle: colleges and universities haven't told students that their worlds just *permanently* turned upside down, so students expect a return to normalcy; and because students expect that, colleges and universities must promise they'll open in the fall as usual.
Without resetting expectations for students (and faculty, staff, and administration), the only option is to see this as temporary.
We crave going back to what is known. But what emerges from this time, whether we have one month or many months of intentional distancing ahead, will certainly be some form of a new normal.
It is impossible to promise an exact return to what we knew, and holding out that hope limits the new thinking that could occur. Rather than thinking of this as a “temporary move”—pushing the same services and classes into Learning Management Systems and video streaming—what if we asked questions about the rhythms and methods that will serve students best for the next five to seven years?
Foresight over fear
In the staff meetings I facilitate in my corner of higher ed, we’ve discussed the idea of foresight over fear.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the “what if” scenarios. We don’t know what’s next. We can’t.
But we must think clearly about the core of what we do (and why) and then consider how we can achieve those goals within our current context, whether it be in person, in person at a distance, or completely remote.
The outcomes of your campus, program, or department are as needed as ever, but how we do it will, without a doubt, be different for at least the coming year.
So, how far should change go? What is good leadership in this moment?
It depends on the context. Some institutions will be able to ride this out, shake it off, and resume in some version of a new normal in a few years.
But for others, there is a need—even an opportunity—to reimagine how to achieve their mission in ways that are more engaging and more accessible than before.
That’s a tall order, and it’s likely an unreasonable ask in a crisis. But, what if that’s what it takes to serve students and fulfill our mission?
What does it mean to consider:
Modalities (online, in person, hybrid, adaptive learning, a mix of all depending on the class and program)
Schedules (standard semesters, shortened semesters, self-paced, individual intensives, modules within semesters…)
Flexibility (how to manage due dates, papers, staffing, working from home vs. on campus)
Assessment of learning
Types of programs
Types of support
Accessibility and Equity (In all of these changes, how do we consider our programs through an equity lens? Some changes due to COVID-19 make education more accessible to all (e.g. recognizing the weights students carry outside of classes, from family responsibilities to work) and some create issues in access and attainment (e.g., technology, space to focus and do work, scheduling).)
The one thing we can know is that we don’t know. Maybe there will be a vaccine available as early as this Fall and things really will return to normal. Maybe, as the thread above suggests, there is no real return to what was.
This is when leadership matters. Successful navigation of this crisis will take transparent leadership that provides clarity about where we are and what we are planning without promising what we cannot know. It will require leadership that challenges those they influence to create and shape what is best for this moment.
I believe we’re up for the challenge.
Why Higher Ed Futures? (Add your voice)
In this newsletter, “futures” is intentionally plural. With any challenge, there is more than one option in moving forward. A thriving educational system will require a network of focused, differentiated colleges and universities that meet the variety of student needs.
My hope here is to avoid binary thinking and create a community where people passionate about higher education can think, dream, and challenge assumptions together.
If you have an idea that challenges, refines, or proves the thoughts above wrong entirely, please share! Hit reply to this email, and let’s talk. With your permission, we may include the counterpoint in a future email. Let’s include it in the conversation.
Reinventing career fairs (Handshake)
This means doing more than trying to faithfully replicate in-person worlds online. It means thinking through a fundamentally new and different approach to how the network of early talent connects virtually around a common outcome.
A reminder: Take care of yourself and others (via Tom Peters)
MEMO TO EMPLOYEES/APRIL 2020
1. You are not “working from home,” you are “at your home, during a crisis, trying to work.”
2. Your personal physical, mental, and emotional health is extremely important right now. Take care of yourself!
3. You should not try to compensate for lost productivity by working longer hours.
4. Be kind to yourself and don’t judge how you are coping based on how you see others coping.
5. Be kind to others and don’t judge others in how they are coping based on how you are coping.
6. Success will not be measured the same way it was when things were normal.
Blue Mountain Community College, Boardman, Oregon