The coronavirus pandemic is changing higher education. The disruption is historic. For some campuses, adaptation has been a transformative journey involving the discovery of opportunities and solutions. Both public and private colleges have been forced to accelerate, moving in a few months toward something that might have otherwise taken years.
Some of this change is good and necessary; most of it is daunting and leaves faculty, staff and students wondering what’s next.
As veteran executive search professionals, we spent time talking with clients in the higher education sector to get a deeper understanding of how they are thinking about their people, adapting to uncertainty and the ways in which human capital needs have shifted. These are concepts that were once often particular to the private sector. Current world events have seen seasoned higher education leaders embrace some of the urgency once reserved for Fortune 100 C-suite leaders.
“Higher education tends to respond to things in an evolutionary way rather than a revolutionary way,” says Dr. Terri Mangione, dean of students and vice president for student affairs at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. “Many have had to pivot quickly since March to respond to student and parent needs in a virtual environment. We are all looking at our work differently and adjusting to ever-changing circumstances. Our goals remain the same, however … to provide an excellent academic educational experience and a robust student engagement experience.”
When it comes to managing teams in a different way, “we refined and repositioned our organizational structure to create fewer layers, greater autonomy, and a higher level of responsibility,” says Tom Mitchell, vice president of development and alumni affairs at the University of Florida. “We have been able to make decisions faster, align our teams with far less bureaucracy and create great efficiency and clear communications. We moved our accountability reporting to two-week sprints that focus on one wildly important goal each day, with the thought being that we could win the day.”
Dr. Kerry Walk, president of Marymount Manhattan College, offered insights into enhanced efficiency on her campus, located in New York City. “We have used organic attrition to better serve our students. Specifically, Student Affairs and Enrollment Management have been consolidated into one division, Student Success and Engagement. Not only does the new division afford more effective collaboration across the entire student life cycle (from prospective student to graduate), it also builds into our organizational structure our commitment to our students’ success in college and beyond.
“We have also reassigned several staff members. For example, my executive assistant is now also leading stewardship and external relations in Institutional Advancement. Finally, every member of our extended leadership team — approximately 35 people — serve in various roles in our emergency command structure.”
Walk continued, “I have appointed successive task forces to develop our opening plans and policies and also manage emergency preparedness and response — keeping in mind that there’s a high likelihood that emergencies of any kind will be related in some way to COVID-19. Members of my Cabinet have taken prominent leadership roles in the reopening and emergency management efforts. I’ve made one new appointment to my Cabinet to include the chief equity, diversity and inclusion officer. This officer, who already reported directly to me, is now officially a part of our senior leadership team.”
Dr. Brad Andrews, president of Southwestern College in Winfield, Kan., shared, “In March, as things began to unfold, we adjusted the reassignment of our responsibilities and duties, taking into account the new and emerging needs. It quickly became apparent to me that it has never been more important to have good, competent, adaptable team players across the levels of the organization.”
“I have not restructured our leadership team,” says Tori Murden McClure, president of Spalding University and acting chair of the NCAA Board of Governors. “I am a low power-distance leader, and the organization is relatively flat, especially for higher education. With the trifecta of COVID-19, social trauma and unrest, and a looming recession, people need to feel as if they are in close contact with whoever they feel is in charge. We need to meet people where they are now.”
When asked about any reductions in staff, Murden McClure says, “We did some downsizing (about 12 people) this summer. I took a 25% pay cut and other leaders took 10%. Our goal was to keep as many people employed through the pandemic as we could responsibly carry. We consciously kept our dining and custodial staff on the payroll despite an empty campus.”
At Rice University in Houston, although hiring was frozen, “we have not restructured the staff or developed a different structure,” says Kathi Dantley Warren, vice president of development and alumni relations. “We have evaluated new ways to engage our alumni and key stakeholders virtually and meaningfully and deployed resources to achieve those goals. For instance, instead of an in-person reunion and homecoming weekend, we are planning a week-long series of virtual engagement activities in an effort to engage our constituents.”
Other leaders noted that the pandemic has prioritized decisions that may not have taken center stage previously.
“COVID has crucified institutional budgets,” says Tracy Ostrem, associate dean for advancement for the College of Arts & Sciences at the University of Washington. “Higher education was facing a budget crisis as we approached the enrollment cliff that was coming in 2024. Now, due to COVID deficits, institutions will need to make the difficult decisions on priorities. We can no longer afford to offer the breadth and depth of programs across our campuses; we will do more with less. I hope that leaders allow for strategic investments on new ideas and innovations.”
Optimism and silver linings can be found at some universities, such as at the University of Rochester in New York. “Presently, we are not considering eliminating positions, but are looking at how we realign our current jobs to the changing environment,” says Holly Wolk, executive director of talent management and administration in university advancement. “We have an opportunity to grow staff’s skill sets and allow them to expand their experience. This time has allowed staff to become more adaptable to technology and allowed more space for innovation and creativity on how the work is changing in this environment.”
Continuing with optimism, Amy Bronson, executive director of advancement resources and strategic talent management at Boston University, says, “We have made only one hire since COVID, a mission-critical cabinet position. This has worked very successfully for us, in large part because the hire has been adaptable and had the right experience to thrive and make an impact — despite never having set a foot on our campus except for the early interview process.
“Although COVID has made people cautious in their career journeys, I believe the rule in hiring has not changed,” she says. “You can attract, hire, grow, and retain top talent if you have the right ingredients, no matter what challenges you face.”
There is simply no question that we will see more and more change that requires innovation, unprecedented levels of communication and courage from our higher education leaders at every level. Over the next six to 18 months, the one certainty is that the dynamics of the pandemic and its impacts will continue to evolve in academia.
Sally Bryant is the president and CEO of Bryant Group, a retained executive search and leadership development firm based in Dallas and serving higher education, health care and nonprofit clients. Bryant has more than three decades of leadership experience in higher education, recruiting and leadership consulting, serving clients throughout the US and Canada.
Shelli Herman is the president and founder of Shelli Herman and Associates Inc., a retained executive search firm based in Los Angeles with a specialty practice in the higher education and nonprofit sectors. With more than two decades of executive recruitment experience, Herman has a proven track record of successful searches and building upper-management teams, identifying leaders who strengthen their organizations.