Higher Ed is in Crisis – Collaboration Will be the Key to Survival

by Terri Givens – Empowering institutions and academics to manage crisis through inclusive leadership, strategic planning & collaboration (bio below article)


The headlines and thought pieces keep coming in higher ed. The first wave of the crisis focused on getting teaching online and getting students off campus. The second wave of the crisis has focused on the financial impact of the crisis. From giving students refunds on housing and meals, enrollment declines to state budget cuts, campuses are bracing for the possibility of students returning in January of 2021 – and trying to decide how they will deliver classes in the Fall (e.g., Boston University Coronavirus Plan Includes Possible January 2021 Reopening). The next wave of the crisis needs to be a focus on strategic planning and preparing for an uncertain future.

Many institutions were already facing an existential crisis, as I have written previously (see The Future of Higher Education: Taking on an Existential Crisis). The uncertainty of the current situation makes it difficult to determine what the best next steps are, we are in the eye of the storm. However, what may be most important is creating an infrastructure that will allow institutions to share resources, including online teaching resources, and finding ways to collaborate that will help reduce costs while maintaining quality and preserving the residential experience that many students desire.

An article from McKinsey and Company lays out the possible scenarios that institutions may be facing in the fall, asking the question: Coronavirus: How should US higher education plan for an uncertain future? The article suggests that institutions should create “nerve centers” to work on issues related to the crisis, but I would argue that these nerve centers should be created at the regional level. For example, institutions in the Bay Area, or in cities like Portland could meet to discuss best practices, potential for sharing online courses, and ways to keep students safe.

It is difficult for institutions to collaborate, given that they are often in direct competition for students. However, this crisis is an opportunity to consider ways that institutions can help each other. As my college Rob Gibson noted in a comment, “Campuses are often tantamount to mini-cities. Police. Health care. Utilities. Even auto-pools. Can’t some of that be shared with the private sector?” The answer is yes – institutions need to coordinate with local businesses and large corporations to find ways to work together on finding solutions to some of the local issues that we are all facing, while sharing best practices that can help all be more productive.

Higher ed has experts that can be called on to help local businesses and institutions can support their employees as they may be trying to learn new skills. As Paul LeBlanc notes in a Forbes article, “For this economic crisis, America needs a higher education industry that is quickly responsive to workforce needs, that can get people retooled in two and four months, not years, that is affordable, and that better accommodates the working adults and under-served populations too often neglected by four-year colleges and universities.”

Yes, we will still need the residential college, but in the near term we need institutions that are willing to work together to provide the best possible opportunities that we can manage under the financial constraints we will have for the foreseeable future. This is a time to break down silos and find ways to do what is best for the greater good. Let’s pool our resources, learn new skills (e.g., strategic planning) and find ways to work better, together.

Terri Givens is the CEO and Founder of the Center for Higher Education Leadership. She has more than 30 years of success in higher education, politics, international affairs, and non-profits. Leveraging extensive experience running universities and bridging the gap between business and the community, she is a valuable asset for educational institutions and companies of various sizes and stages of growth who are in need of expert assistance with strategic planning, budget analysis or handling diversity issues in recruitment and retention. Her broad areas of expertise include leadership, research, writing, analyzing institutional impacts on immigration and integration policy, problem-solving, quantitative analysis, networking, mentorship and community outreach. She is an accomplished speaker and uses her platform to develop leaders with an understanding of the importance of diversity and encourages personal growth through empathy.

Terri has held leadership positions as Vice Provost at University of Texas at Austin and Provost of Menlo College (first African American and woman); professorships at University of Texas at Austin, and University of Washington. She was the founding director at the Center for European Studies at the University of Texas and led the university’s efforts in Mexico and Latin America as Vice Provost for International Activities. At Menlo College she has led faculty and staff in developing programs for first generation students, updating curriculum and infrastructure for evidence-based assessment.

Terri is the author/editor of books and articles on immigration policy, European politics and security. Her most recent book is Legislating Equality: The Politics of Anti-discrimination Policy in Europe. Dr. Givens is currently working on a book designed to provide readers with a life cycle perspective on the challenges that a women of color face in our divided society with the goal of teaching empathy to a broad audience.

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