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When All You Have Are Questions; How Do You Plan?

May 18, 2020

As institutional leaders it seems as if all we have right now are questions. “When can we reopen?’ “When should we reopen?” “What can we do to make sure we have a safe reopening?” As well as the lurking monster in the back of our minds -- “how will we adjust our business model to survive?” Whether your institution has an elaborate planning process or not this is a deeply unsettling moment. All we have are questions and very few good answers.

So how do we move forward when uncertainty abounds, and doubt is abundant? The only answer that makes sense is to focus on the basics. Make sure you are doing the little things well. Make sure your processes and procedures are tight, nimble and responsive. Still using paper forms? Ditch as many of them as you can. Your students expect to transact all business online anyway.

Are the right people in the right chairs? Now more than ever, is a great time to look at skills across the entire organization and move things around to maximize talent and opportunities. Nothing will be the same again, so now is the time to be bold and make those big moves.

It is also the time to focus on your core business model. Often, we talk about core mission without having a clear definition of what it is. It is astonishing how many educational institutions do not have a clear sense of who they are who they are trying to serve and who are their ideal students. If you do nothing else, come up with a clear definition of what your School, or College or University is about and make sure that your team is on the same page. Not everyone will like the definition that you settle on, but it is long past time for institutions to pretend that they can be everything to everyone.

If you are a liberal arts university, do that proudly and unapologetically, but always with laser focus on what the market wants. Imagine for example, an integrated philosophy and coding program. There is a market for coders to bring a strong sense of ethics and humanity to high-stakes projects like autonomous vehicles or medical devices. Focus on your local community and they will help sustain you through these challenging times. Who are the emerging employers, what do they want and need? If you haven’t asked for a while, now is definitely the time. Create a new advisory board that brings together academics and business leaders to develop new programs.

For any educational institution, now is the time to look at extracurriculars, facilities and even the mix of personnel. Been avoiding Friday classes or weekend classes because the students will grumble, and your faculty will be equally reluctant? Now is not the time to hold back. You may be making decisions that determine the survival of your institution. Do you want to roll the dice for mediocrity or go big? What made sense 10 or 20 or even 50 years ago probably does not make sense in 2020. We cannot let emotional attachment turn us from facing the hard truths that things must change in education.

Every institution will have its own mix of offerings and programs that bear close scrutiny. For some it might be athletic programs, for others it might be arts programs while for others it might be aspects of the core curriculum. Regardless of your institution type, if there ever was such a moment to be ruthlessly honest and aggressive in reshaping to thrive in the future, it is this moment.

At every institution that are certain issues that are like the third rail of the subway – touch them and you Die! For some institutions that sacred cow might be the calendar that treats a three-month summer break as holy. For others it might be the status of faculty and employees. Elsewhere, it might be the mix of academic programs that are sacrosanct and untouchable. There are usually only two times that a leader can really shake things up. One is in the first year of their administration and the other is as an interim leader with a strong mandate to impose change. Outside of those two occasions, rarely do we get an opportunity to attempt sweeping change. To echo Rahm Emmanuel – “[y]ou never let a serious crisis go to waste. [a]nd what I mean by that it's an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.

We don't know what the next week or month four years are going to bring. We might have a strong class of students, we might be online in the fall, we might have calamitous decline in enrollment…we simply have no idea and anyone who professes certainty and confidence in their predictions is simply lying to themselves. What we do know and what we can control, is focusing on business practices procedures and core mission. Good luck!

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