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Originally published: “Beyond Incrementalism,” Inside Higher Ed , September 22, 2020. 

In a time of growing and increasingly complex challenges, too many top administrators, leadership teams and boards are focusing on tactics rather than strategy, writes Susan Resneck Pierce.

By Susan Resneck Pierce


It is common knowledge that many colleges and universities face 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, given that past performance can no longer predict what may happen going forward in crucial areas like admissions and retention. 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 weeks, I’ve had at least 20 conversations with deeply dispirited college presidents from various sectors of higher education who have told me confidentially that they have never been so exhausted. (In the interest of that confidentiality, I’m not naming them.) They’ve all struggled with whether their institutions should resume face-to-face education, move totally to remote teaching or offer some hybrid approach. In making those decisions, they’ve sought to make their campuses both safe and financially sustainable, although, in all honesty, those goals may conflict with one another.


Determining how to approach the fall semester did not, of course, end the continuing need to make other equally difficult decisions.


For example, as many people anticipated, not all students are adhering to safety practices. As one friend 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. And indeed, a number of institutions that welcomed students back to campus, confronted with daunting numbers of positive cases, have abruptly pivoted either temporarily or in an ongoing way to remote learning.


Campuses are contending with other pressures. Faculty and staff members fearing exposure to the virus seek to work remotely. Families are worried and complaining on social media that safety practices on campuses are insufficient. And some local residents have protested the return of students and prompted new city ordinances requiring masks and social distancing.


Many campuses embracing e-learning are now struggling 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. The counterargument that remote education is costlier than face-to-face education is not persuasive to students enrolled at residential campuses who believe that tuition dollars provide for a rich collegiate experience, not just classroom learning.


Many of the presidents with whom I talked were dispirited that what they had previously thought were healthy relationships with their faculty colleagues have become fraught with conflict. Some attributed the contentiousness to the faculty’s dismay in learning that, although they have primary responsibility for academic matters, the trustees have ultimate legal authority. Many faculty 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 now attacking the legality of some leadership decisions, while others are voting or threatening to vote no confidence in their presidents.


Two presidents who prided themselves on their collaboration with faculty were particularly distraught that their faculty colleagues had turned on them. When one became president more than a decade ago, the institution was on the brink of closure. Since then, he’s worked closely with the faculty to create and practice shared governance. He’s spent a great deal of time with students. In recent years, this university’s situation improved dramatically, as it obtained healthy enrollments, annual surpluses, an enhanced reputation and a transformed physical campus. But because the institution has depended on robust numbers of international students, indicators are that enrollment will drop significantly this fall. To cover the anticipated multimillion-dollar deficit, the institution has suspended retirement contributions and frozen all hiring. The president explained his stress this way: because of these recent actions, seemingly overnight, he is no longer viewed as the institutional savior but as a villain.


The second president, too, has worked collaboratively with the faculty for her eight years, also emphasizing shared governance in the strategic planning process and involving faculty, staff and students in shaping the institution’s budget. She has routinely included faculty members in trustee retreats. She has raised lots of money for faculty positions and programs. Yet despite recently signing a new multiyear contract, she plans to make this year her last. Her motivation for leaving: a portion of the faculty is vilifying her in the local press and on social media for various COVID-related decisions. She is especially stung that even though no tenured and tenure-track faculty have been laid off, not one of those who once praised her has come to her defense. Instead, many have signed a public letter denouncing her as incompetent.


All this said, I should also add that some presidents had nothing but praise for their faculty and staff colleagues, saying that the COVID crisis had led to new levels of collaboration. And they admired the resilience and commitment of faculty, staff and students to adapting to the new realities.


Most of the presidents I’ve interacted with have also been grappling with another almost unprecedented challenge: how to 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.


Several presidents spoke of the letters along those lines that faculty members at universities as prestigious as the University of Chicago, Dartmouth College and Princeton University have signed. These presidents all applauded the goals of the protestors 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 were 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 simply by wishing it be so diversify their faculty.


Tactics, Not Strategy


What most concerned me in my conversations with these presidents, however — and what I believe may be the most fundamental issue — was how many top administrators and apparently their leadership teams and boards are focusing on tactics rather than strategy. Understandably, most presidents have been preoccupied with how their campus should function this fall. As a result, they unfortunately also have not in a deliberate way been thinking about the long-term, strategic implications of the tactical decisions they are now making. Rather, almost all have been engaging in some sort of magical thinking: if only we can get through the fall semester, things will somehow return to normal.


Although most presidents who reopened their campuses told me they would probably shut it down if they had a COVID outbreak, very few said they and their colleagues had analyzed in depth the financial and reputational implications of such a closure. I was also struck by how few campuses had engaged in tactical scenario planning beyond this fall semester, anticipating the possibility that COVID-19 will negatively impact the entire academic year and perhaps several more.


In addition, most 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 mainly 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 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?


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 fulfill their institutional mission post-COVID — 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 pertain 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 the classroom, for example in conversations among students, faculty and staff and in an array of co-curricular activities. And so I am mindful that many of the following suggestions envision a very different model.


Move even more online. Several presidents confided that they had long wanted to advance online learning but could not overcome faculty resistance to the idea. 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. Those 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.


New online options could also attract and retain students who might otherwise forgo college. In addition, traditional-age students could 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 catalog, “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 should 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 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 described this shift in reallocating resources, the board is not changing the nature of the institution but rather seeking to fund the institution it has 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.


While focusing on such strategic questions today may seem at first overwhelming, I urge presidents to begin to take steps toward doing so, first by listening and then by working together with colleagues, students and, as appropriate, trustees to identify, prioritize, develop and implement concrete actions. For such conversations to result in positive change, presidents must be clear 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.


Ultimately, despite all the challenges, presidents must, through collaboration and genuine communication, lead their faculty, administrators and students to focus on not only what their institution is today but also what it can and will be. They must put in place planning processes that allow their institution to pivot so as not only to survive but also thrive in ways that are true to their core values and goals. In other words, they must think beyond the current crises and, while responding to the needs of the moment, think and act strategically for the future.