Pushing an agenda to transform education (developing a joint vision of what education should be, planning the necessary steps and changes, getting buy-in for the difficult culture changes necessary for success, and then actually implementing) is hard enough during good times. But against the immediate demands of an unprecedented pandemic and unknown budget cutbacks, how can education leaders maintain aggressive efforts to transform the system that is consuming every effort just to preserve? 

With COVID-19 raging, campuses emptying, and the economy see-sawing, university and college leaders are still in the “secure and stabilize” reacting phase—establishing online courses, getting all students home, locking down the campus. While many postsecondary institutions already had some virtual engagement, they are now working to provide all courses remotely with massive shifts in teaching practices and technologies. 

Amidst this backdrop of immediate crisis response, higher education leaders must also begin a second phase of “restore, rebuild, and recreate” to advance the direction for their now-changed institution. Conducting this process can result in what airline pilots call “constructive turbulence;” recognizing that a bumpy tailwind can get you much faster to your destination.

It’s important to remember that often the greatest innovation comes from radically changing circumstances. When a tornado destroys a 75-year-old home, no one can ever rebuild the exact structure or replace the generations of experiences housed within that edifice. Indeed, 2020 already confronts higher education with not one, but two inexorable forces for change: the virus itself and the sudden economic downturn. While higher education leaders are used to up-and-down budget cycles, six months ago, no one anticipated a pandemic that would immediately change deep-rooted social, travel, and education patterns. While an economic slowdown was predicted, the stock market “correction” has now accelerated to potentially cataclysmic. 

During this second “restore, rebuild, and recreate” phase, higher education leaders committed to improving their system’s learning outcomes can take one of two paths. The first is LIFO—Last In, First Out—and this applies to budget cutting and crisis response just as it does to inventory management. In dealing with the immediate crisis, the common reaction is to delay implementation of new initiatives, leaving them on the shelf to be revisited when conditions improve. The second approach is higher risk, but greater return, and that is using this moment to infuse the necessary changes for true improvement of student learning outcomes. Shelving transformation until hard times are over will only ensure another generation of students face a future of hard times. 

No soft pedaling…change during a crisis comes with increased barriers: 

  1. Budget Cuts: The funding that was dedicated to planning, development, and implementation suddenly becomes much more difficult to access. Declining revenues mean hard decisions and budget cutting. Public institutions often opt to invoke an across the board percentage cut, leave it to the department head to decide where the cuts occur, and move on. Also, there are often limits —procurement contracts, collective bargaining agreements, public opinion—to where spending reductions can be made. 
  2. A New Normal: The more our lives are upended, the more we feel the urge to return to normalcy. Getting back to a comforting routine means some calm is emerging from the sudden chaos, so restoring the former processes that existed in the classroom is the default response. This crisis has far-reaching implications that will undoubtedly affect long-term plans. Now is the moment to ask how education can be more effectively delivered.
  3. Culture Shifts: Changing culture in a longstanding system where people are struggling to hang onto any familiar routine will never be easy. Yet often a complete upending of routine life forces people to work in different ways for a solution. The old axiom “when the ox is in the ditch, everyone jumps in to push it out,” applies to crisis management, even in tradition-heavy higher education. 
  4. Donor Delay: A rapidly declining economy means individual, corporate, and foundation donors will have lessened portfolios that fund their contributions. Projects already in the funding pipeline can be hard to maintain; new projects may be delayed. Grantors and grantees need to work together to understand the current crisis while identifying where to invest in the future they jointly envision. 

While the peak of crisis management is the most difficult time for a campus leader to reflect on the future, suggestions for starting the long-term constructive turbulence process include

  • Reviewing any existing vision for the institution’s future, and the steps already taken for implementation. Is it still relevant and how can the immediate stabilizing actions further the progress? 
  • Reviewing any basic concepts that might have been under consideration and evaluating their relevance in light of changes that are being seen now.
  •  Supporting and recognizing the current successes from “stretches’ made by faculty and administration. Positive reinforcement now will encourage future stretching. 
  •  Convening a regular working group responsible for confronting the institution’s future realities, communicating across the campus, and assisting in the implementation of longer- term direction.
  • Communicating constantly the current reality so that all members of the higher education community will understand decisions made for future operations.