Published in Trusteeship, Volume 29, Number 1, January/February 2021. This article is an amended version of an article that first appeared in Inside Higher Ed , September 22, 2020. Susan Resneck Pierce is president emerita of the University of Puget Sound, president of SRP Consulting, and author of On Being Presidential and Governance Revisited.
In a time of growing and increasingly complex challenges, too many top administrators, leadership teams and boards are focusing on tactics rather than strategy.
It is common knowledge that many colleges and universities have in recent years faced growing and increasingly complex financial challenges. Many have responded by incrementally cutting expenses and adding new revenue streams. But COVID-19 has rendered such incrementalism insufficient for those countless institutions — public and private, large and small — that might suffer severe cutbacks or even be forced to close if the pandemic persists through the first semester, the coming academic year or beyond.
Coping with these trying circumstances is more difficult than ever, give that past performance can no longer predict what may happen going forward in crucial areas like admissions, retention and fundraising. As one president told me, “I’m used to making important decisions with the best information I have, knowing it’s still only partial information, but I’m now making daily decisions based on no information at all.”
In the last months, I’ve had an array of conversations with presidents and a number of board chairs and other trustees. The presidents have told me confidentially that they have never been so exhausted. Several, who have been successful and have long-term contracts, have decided that this year will be their last. The trustees with whom I’ve talked are struggling with how to support their president and how to add value to the institution. (In the interest of that confidentiality, I’m not naming either individuals or institutions.)
These financial challenges and the need for social distancing created by COVID-19 have also in many instances disrupted the conventions of shared governance. Specifically, boards, presidents, other members of the administration, the staff and the faculty are facing a series of new challenges for. Some context: in normal times boards delegate
the operational responsibility of the campus to the president who in turn delegates particular administrative responsibilities to the members of his or her senior leadership team and primary (albeit recommending) responsibility for academic matters to the faculty and the chief academic officer.
But COVID-19 has required colleges and universities to make significant decisions very quickly, many of which rise to the level of needing board input and approval. For example, colleges and universities have had to decide whether they should resume face-to-face education, move totally to remote teaching or offer some hybrid approach. This is a board matter because the choices may present a conflict between financial sustainability, on the one hand, and the health and safety of the campus community and the larger community in which the campus is located, on the other hand.
Boards are also involved because, in the face of unanticipated and often significant budget shortfalls, they need to act on presidential recommendations about the allocation of resources (including investment in new technology, new safety practices, salaries and benefits), furloughing or laying off faculty and staff, discontinuing programs and suspending capital projects and purchases.
Many presidents have made other operational decisions very quickly, such as instituting hiring freezes, discontinuing travel and cutting all operating budgets. In such cases, presidents generally and appropriately seek trustee advice and support.
Under the pressure of time and in light of the fact that almost all institutions began in March with little lead time and no preparation to function virtually, such decisions have often been made without the institution adhering to the best practices of shared governance, i.e. without the involvement of the faculty in academic matters, without consultation with those who would be affected by the decisions and sometimes without clear and transparent communication about those decisions.
As a result, many presidents with whom I have talked in recent months are dispirited that what they had previously thought were healthy relationships with their faculty colleagues have become fraught with conflict. One president who had led an institution on the brink of closure to a place where it has been thriving explained his stress this way: seemingly overnight, because of the budgetary steps he felt he had to take to preserve the institution and despite broad consultation and efforts to communicate clearly, he is no longer viewed as the institutional savior but as a villain.
Several of the presidents and trustees with whom I’ve talked attributed this new contentiousness to the faculty’s dismay in learning that the trustees, who have fiduciary responsibility for the institution, in fact have ultimate legal authority when it comes to decision-making. Many faculty members have been equally upset to learn that, in times of financial exigency, boards aren’t required to adhere to the processes outlined in faculty handbooks. The result: some faculty members are voting or threatening to vote no-confidence in their presidents. A few have even contemplated voting no confidence in their board.
Fortunately, there are counter examples of collaboration among all constituencies. In these instances, perhaps because of the seriousness of the challenges, the COVID crisis has led to new levels of collaboration between and among members of the campus community and the trustees. In such instance, the presidents and the trustees admired the resilience and commitment of faculty, staff and students to adapting to the new realities.
Tactics, Not Strategy
What most concerns me in my conversations with these presidents and trustees, however — and what I believe may be the most fundamental issue — was how many top administrators and apparently their teams and their boards are focusing on tactics rather than strategy.
On some level this is understandable. Presidents and boards are now being confronted with a new set of tactical decisions. For example, determining how to approach the fall semester of course did not end the ongoing need to make other equally difficult decisions. Because, as many anticipated, not all students are adhering to safety practices, a number of institutions that welcomed students back to campus have now been confronted with daunting numbers of positive cases and so have abruptly pivoted either temporarily or in an ongoing way to remote learning. As one trustee put it, if 18 to 22-year-old students are confronted with choosing between their college’s honor code and their hormones, hormones are often going to win.
I was also struck by how few campuses had engaged in scenario planning, seeking to understand the financial and reputational implications of their choices if, as now appears possible, that COVID-19 will negatively impact the entire academic year and perhaps beyond. Few seem also to be thinking about the long-term, strategic implications of the tactical decisions that they are now making. Unfortunately, many have been engaging in some sort of magical thinking: if only we can get through the fall semester, things will somehow return to normal.
Campuses are contending with other pressures. Faculty and staff fearing exposure to the virus seek to work remotely. Families are worried and complaining on social media that safety practices on campuses are insufficient. Local residents, such as those in Ann Arbor, have protested the return of students and prompted new city ordinances requiring masks and social distancing.
Many campuses embracing e-learning have struggled with student demands for reduced tuition and fees as well as financial relief for students who had leased off-campus housing expecting they would be taking in-person classes, a demand that some have expressed in lawsuits. The counter-argument that remote education is costlier than face to face education has not been persuasive to students enrolled at residential campuses who believe that tuition dollars provide for a rich collegiate experience, not just classroom learning.
Some New Challenges
Most of the presidents I’ve interacted with have also, generally in consultation with their board, been grappling with another almost unprecedented challenge: how their campus should deal with the emerging demands of various campus constituencies that their institution immediately provide significant support to eradicating systemic racism and other social inequities on their campuses — as well as to improving the living conditions and opportunities of those beyond the campus.
Most presidents and trustees applauded the goals of the protesters and those articulated in statements from members of their campus community. A number observed that their institution’s commitment to diversity and inclusion had, in fact, led to significantly more diversified boards, senior leadership teams and student bodies. But they all said they were unsure how much they could actually do right now when they must cut rather than add new positions and new programs at their institutions.
Many presidents have been further unsettled by being presented with demands in areas for which they had neither responsibility nor authority. Several noted that members of their campus community did not understand that presidents alone cannot redesign the curriculum (for which the faculty has primary responsibility), cannot unilaterally decide to spend money from the endowment (which is ultimately a board decision), and cannot also simply by wishing it to be so diversify their campuses.
In addition, many presidents told me they simply didn’t have the bandwidth now to consider — much less to consult robustly with other administrators, faculty, students and trustees about what it would mean for their institution truly to make, and not just give lip service to, a long-term commitment to racial equity and social justice. Those communicating with others only through video calls saw that as a further impediment.
So how should presidents begin to think strategically about the content and the pedagogy of the education their institutions will offer going forward? How should they lead their institutions to take concrete steps to eliminate systemic inequities on their campuses? How can they facilitate a commitment to combat racism not only on their on their campuses but also in their local communities and beyond? How can they manage all this as many face daily threats to their institution’s financial health? And as importantly, how should boards support their president and what should boards require of their presidents?
My own answer to these sorts of questions is, that despite the tyranny of today’s immediate, this is a time when presidents, in collaboration with their campus community and their trustees, should lead a review of how they can fulfil their institutional mission post-COVID-19 or even whether that mission needs to be revised.
Some of the presidents with whom I talked, along with several trustees and faculty members, have inspired the following suggestions for how at least some campus leaders may begin to think about the future. I want to emphasize that none of these approaches pertains to all institutions. I also want to make it clear that I have long advocated for the value of a residential college experience, recognizing that a great deal of important learning does take place outside of the classroom, for example in conversations among students, faculty and staff and in an array of co-curricular activities. Even as I am mindful that many of the following suggestions envision a very different model, I hope that residential campuses will thrive post-COVID, although perhaps incorporating technology in new ways.
Each of the following possibilities should be considered at the Board level because of implications for both mission and budget. At the same time, if presidents are advocating for changes within their institution, it will be critical that they have the support of the trustees for doing so.
Move even more online. Several presidents confided that they had long wanted to advance online learning but could not overcome faculty resistance to doing so. The spring semester, they told me, has changed that dynamic. Many praised their faculty colleagues for their commitment to learning how to teach remote classes effectively and the pleasure many of them took in doing so. These presidents believe that online teaching will help them address growing concerns about costs and encourage admissions, persistence, improved graduation rates and accelerated times to degrees. Several presidents believe that many students, even those who are residential because they want the college experience I describe above, will nevertheless prefer to take at least some classes online. To that end, they are redesigning all classrooms to enable every student going forward to take classes in person, online asynchronously or, in some instances, both. Several have committed to recording and archiving all classes so that students could both participate in real time and review in their own time.
New online options might also attract and retain students who might otherwise forego college. In addition, traditional-age students might routinely take online courses during the summer, while on study abroad, during an internship or co-op experience, or even as an “overload.” Institutions might also consider extending the geographical online reach of programs of strength. International students who previously attended or would have attended American universities might now be amenable — given travel restrictions and financial concerns — to earning their degrees from these same institutions remotely.
Rethink goals in light of demographic realities, concerns about costs and shifting student interests. Some institutions with large commuter populations have been seeking to become more residential by building additional residence halls and creating a more vibrant campus life for residential students. Those institutions might now instead focus on ensuring that commuter students are appropriately supported. They might work with commuter students to determine what sort of activities are of interest to and value to them, recognizing that many commuters work full-time, have families and are older than the traditional residential student.
Reconceptualize and streamline institutional structures to better serve faculty and student realities. As David Rosowsky and Bridget Keegan recently suggested, institutions might want to abandon the departmental model and move either to divisional or new interdisciplinary structures. And even if campuses wish to preserve the departmental model, they might encourage and support faculty efforts to create new interdisciplinary programs. For example, the University of Puget Sound, where I served as president for 11 years, now offers a bioethics program that, according to the catalogue, “encompasses work in the fields of biology, natural science, neuroscience, religion, philosophy, literature, sociology, psychology, politics, economics and business.”
Consolidate student support services. Many institutions have created “one-stop shopping for students,” co-locating such areas as financial aid, student accounts, the registrar, advising, the writing center and career services. Institutions might also consider partnering with other institutions to create a shared services model and/or to partner in terms of academic programs. Such efforts have in the past been elusive for many campuses because one or more of the potential partners have significant liabilities. Others have faltered because of a failure to agree on matters of governance, the location and even the name of a new partnership entity. But now is the moment to decide to function in ways that will better serve students and more effectively use human and financial resources.
Embrace the virtue of the out-of-doors. Colleges in temperate climates might emulate other institutions that have equipped outdoor spaces with Wi-Fi and furniture to create socially-distanced classrooms and dining facilities as well as safer venues for students to study solely or in small groups. Post-COVID, such colleges should continue to offer such spaces.
Budget for mission, with long-term strategies in mind. In addition, as painful as it probably will be, institutions with huge COVID-related deficits should engage in zero-based budgeting in order to direct resources to areas that are mission-critical and adequately staff programs with high student enrollments. As one president said about a shift in reallocating resources, the board is not changing the nature of the institution but rather seeking to fund the institution it had already become.
Address systemic racism, sexism, homophobia and other biases. Perhaps most important, presidents, leadership teams and trustees must listen and be open to suggestions from members of the campus community, particularly those who have historically been subject to and harmed by such biases. Campuses should work to diversify the faculty and staff at all levels and to institute policies that ensure equity and inclusion. Areas in need of being addressed include hiring practices, tenure and promotion policies, the curriculum, and financial aid. Administrators should ensure that faculty and staff members from underrepresented groups aren’t exploited by the expectation that they serve as diversity representatives on committees and as mentors/advisers to larger than normal numbers of students (a role that they should be applauded for fulfilling but that should also be recognized and rewarded accordingly). In addition, institutions will need to contend with their own histories if those histories are rife with bigotry.
The Role of the Board and the President Going Forward
While focusing on such strategic questions today may seem at first overwhelming, I urge boards and presidents to make doing so a priority. Ideally, the president will design and the board will concur with a planning process that will enable the institution to pivot in order not only to survive but also thrive in ways that are true to its core values and mission. As a first step, despite all the immediate challenges, boards should insist that their president, through listening, collaboration and effective,transparent communication, lead the faculty, staff and students to focus on not only what their institution is today but what it can and should be. . For such conversations to result in positive change, presidents should be clear and their boards should concur from the outset about who ultimately will be responsible for making which decisions, what criteria they will use and what resources are available so that those who are offering ideas are informed from the beginning about what is possible. In other words, boards and presidents must think beyond the current crises and, while responding to the needs of the moment, think and act strategically for the future.