Turn the Boat Around and Go Downstream: Liberation in the Face of Crisis

The current situation is creating a great deal of dissonance for many of us, not just because of the scale of the COVID 19 crisis, but because the new way of operating is challenging our definitions of self and challenging our previous (often irrational) ways of being and feeling. I recently spoke to an executive who, despite being a high performer and checking all the boxes for “hard-working professional,” was unceremoniously laid off after 25 years of blemish free employment. The financial loss was almost secondary to the emotional trauma. Those of us “white collar” workers who are still employed, or employed in name only, are mostly at home and somewhat discombobulated by the change. All the normal markers of our professional lives have been turned upside down and the ways we have been validated and have validated ourselves are in flux or simply gone.

On the other hand, the reality is that much of how we have traditionally thought and behaved, particularly as it relates to our professional identities, was causing great harm. One of the fortunate ironies of the present reality, is that for many of us, it presents an opportunity, even if a forced opportunity, to reassess very important issues that we were previously “too busy” or too compromised to acknowledge.

Unfortunately, most of us have been acculturated to even attach our very self-worth to our work behaviors and accomplishments. Talk about a set up! By its nature, our work is transient and ultimately dependent on others. Not a particularly great dynamic for something as essential to our mental health and wellbeing as identity and self-worth! Many of us have made a Faustian pact with our work (and our employers) that demands continuous, high-level commitment on our part, with a specious (and no guarantees) return on investment over the long term. A job loss can only cause trauma, for example, if we have an unsustainable dependence on work for identity and self-esteem. We have been tricked into identifying with what we do rather than who we are!

See if some of these examples sound familiar:

  • Having a perpetual sense of urgency
  • Fearing that even temporary “low performance” could cost us our jobs
  • Confusing busy with productive
  • Exhaustion as a status symbol
  • Overachieving as professional validation
  • Working long hours as professional validation

Not only are those simply the wrong things on which to build one’s identity or self-worth, they aren’t even necessarily rational for professional success. For example, a sense of urgency can be valid and productive, but not everything is urgent! Overachieving can be rewarded and mutually beneficial, but it’s also a trap, because, by definition, you can’t always overachieve in the same way that everyone can’t be above average!

Here are some potential, much more sustainable alternatives

  • Having a perpetual sense of mindfulness
  • Achieving fewer, more important things
  • Self-care and compassion as a status symbol
  • Working fewer hours with higher purpose

Thankfully, the current situation, as truly difficult as it is in many ways, is also an opportunity to liberate ourselves from a host of self-imposed, and ultimately harmful, patterns of thinking and behaving. Not only are many of the things we have traditionally enslaved ourselves to bad for our sense of wellbeing, they aren’t even that great for professional success and they certainly aren’t sustainable over a lifetime! Maybe the biggest silver lining of the current crisis is that we can now give ourselves permission to be smarter and healthier, committing to thinking and behavior that provides purpose and human connection rather than unsustainable and unhealthy “bargains” that slowly drain us of spirit.

Footnote

For those of you who are continuing to work out in the real world, delivering supplies, taking care of the sick, keeping the lights on, stocking shelves, etc., thank you. We appreciate the risks you are taking on our behalf and are truly grateful.

What Should Colleges and Universities Be Doing Now?

Despite the unknowns, we’re getting slightly improving visibility into what the mid-term COVID-19 implications might be for higher education.

The Big Picture

According to a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “The coronavirus crisis has the potential to change higher education more than any recession in the past, including the Great Recession, which dealt a tremendous blow to our economy and to higher education.” It is not alarmist to believe that the ultimate effect on the economy could be closer to the Great Depression, with dramatic declines in GDP and historic levels of unemployment. There will also likely be enduring behavioral changes even after we are through the health emergency. Regardless, the impact, broadly and within higher education, will be severe and long lasting with as many as 20% of institutions failing to reopen over the summer or coming fall. On the other hand, this crisis may be the kind of “dislodging event” that finally moves a material number of colleges and universities to embrace truly transformative change and that is probably the most productive way to think about the current crisis.

Specifics

First, we know that enrollment will decrease again in the fall, taking us into the 9th consecutive year of decline. We just don’t know how much. A recent survey suggests that close to a fifth of all incoming freshman for Fall, 2020 are already reconsidering their decision to enroll in bachelor’s programs. We also know that some material number of already enrolled students will not return to school after this term because of negative changes in their own or their family’s financial health. Both new and existing international enrollment will also decline. Relatedly, based on data from the 2008 recession, we can expect a 25% or more decrease in operating revenue for typical institutions.

For nonprofit institutions, both new donations and existing endowments will decline precipitously (they already have). For public institutions, they can also expect material decreases in already anemic appropriations because tax receipts are cratering as most of the U.S. economy is shut down (New Jersey has already cut half of the funding destined for public colleges for the remainder of this year). For profit institutions will likely be hurt and benefit from opposite sides of the same coin. They have never had the benefit of endowments or state appropriations. On the other hand, because their financial model is more tuition-dependent than traditional institutions, they operate much more leanly with lower overhead and fewer extraneous expenses. They also tend to offer shorter programs with very specific paths to work, which may be more attractive to a growing number of students. Moreover, while proprietary institutions are not, in reality, more innovative than other sectors of higher ed, for a variety of reasons, they are able to make changes much more quickly, which is favorable under the circumstances.

The Opportunity

So, the 64 thousand (billion) dollar question is whether or not COVID-19 will finally push traditional higher education institutions into the 21st century. One of the fascinating things about the eight-year decline that was already a reality before COVID-19 is that very few institutions actually engaged in the necessary planning and transformative change necessary to address the foundational challenges facing the industry. What we’ve actually seen is a bifurcation which includes one camp that has made cautious, incremental changes in an attempt to forestall failure such as layoffs, delayed maintenance, increased institutional debt, a shift away from tenured faculty, etc., and another camp (about 1300 institutions) which has already failed, then merged with others institution or closed outright. Only a handful of the 5,000 plus Title IV eligible colleges and universities in the U.S. have meaningfully innovated for today’s reality, even before the COVID-19 crisis. The operative word for any efforts undertaken within higher ed now is sustainability. Every initiative, commitment, and decision should be vetted for its likely impact on sustainability, which includes both basic issues like academic efficiency and transformative ones like what business you’re in.

Robert Zemsky of the University of Pennsylvania suggests that the current crisis could be the kind of dislodging event noted above that finally catalyzes transformational change in higher education, but only if approached collectively. Specifically, he notes, “such an event might promote reform because the various parts of our higher-education system, despite their distinct missions and organizational arrangements, are linked to one another.” Although he further notes that when organizations panic, they circle the wagons and do dumb things, and and we are at severe risk of that now.

So, what should colleges and universities be doing now?

  • Determine what values you really, truly believe in, and let those values guide everything else you do. Your actions in the midst of this crisis could define your institution for years to come.
  • Be purposeful about supporting and strengthening your community. You will need it.
  • Identify what operations, programs, and commitments are mission critical and what is discretionary. Much of what is discretionary might have to go based on your specific situation.
  • Prepare for lower fall enrollment now—estimate reductions of at least 20%.
  • Prepare for reductions in Fall 2020 revenue of at least 25%. If that turns out to be overstating the problem, then you’ll be in a stronger position.
  • Preserve liquidity—prioritize accounts payable and restructure any debt possible. Access credit lines now and open new ones if at all possible.
  • Identify any partnerships that will grow revenue, share expense, increase flexibility, etc.
  • Determine what new things you are doing now as a result of COVID-19 that you will continue to do in the fall because they are more efficient, flexible, sustainable, etc.
  • Revisit mission, vision, and strategy. Do they still apply?
  • Begin an intense dialog about what opportunities the current crisis provides for transformational change and sustainability—nothing is sacred or off the table.

This is the time for leaders to find courage and creativity. Despite the stress, it is probably also the best opportunity for regenerative change you will ever have. An article from McKinsey provides a framework for how to think about the new normal from a financial perspective.

A Final Note

Transformative change will not be possible without the liberation to innovate from the entire regulatory triad of state, Education Department, and accreditors. The entities that oversee institutions of higher education MUST free those institutions to experiment and innovate without penalty—even as this relates to the most entrenched and highly controlled aspects of college operations. A good example is the recent Education Department blanket approval to put content online. In fact, if colleges and universities are to engage in the kind of transformative change that is necessary to meet the existential nature of the current crisis, then the regulatory and accreditation regime must not only facilitate that effort, but be an active partner in encouraging paradigm busting thinking related to program structure and delivery, partnerships, how credit is allocated, learning outcomes, credentials, and alternative ways of accomplishing virtually anything related to the delivery of education.

Regardless of when things get back to “normal,” they will not be the same. Those who can effectively navigate the new reality, preserving what still exists and makes sense, while embracing completely the changes and new ways of doing things, will not only “survive,” they will play a leadership role in finally moving higher education from its centuries old paradigms to something that not only works in the new normal, but that puts students at the center of the enterprise, while creating deeper value for all stakeholders.

Moody’s Downgrades Higher Education from Stable to Negative

Not surprisingly, the higher education crisis continues to worsen under the burden of COVID 19. We are currently in the first of three stages: Acute Outbreak, Recovery, New Normal. Unlike the rest of the economy, however, higher ed as an industry was already in an extended, eight-year decline. Late last week Moody’s downgraded their rating from “stable” to “negative” based on continued disruption in enrollment (and revenue), declining state support, endowment income and philanthropy, and reduced research grants and private-sector contracts. Additionally, most institutions are incurring incremental costs for moving content online, implementing COVID 19 safety protocols, mothballing facilities, and other related activities. The cancellation of the Division I basketball tournament (March Madness) has cost schools in that NCAA division more than a billion dollars alone!

Multiple institutions across the country that still have them are tapping (and tapping out) credit lines and/or issuing bonds to bolster their cash positions. Many more, however, had already exhausted credit lines before the new crisis and at least a quarter of private, nonprofits were already operating in the red, with layoffs, deferred maintenance, delayed accounts payable, and other “tricks” to keep enough cash to make payroll. It is inevitable that the current crisis will exacerbate and accelerate mergers and closures. However, it also presents an opportunity, if not requirement, to engage in something that higher education has never been very good at: transformational change.

So, how should we think about all of this?

First and foremost: As truly difficult and overwhelming as this current crisis is, it will get better. We don’t know how bad it will get or how long it will last, but it will end.

Second: Out of the wreckage will come better practices, stronger organizations, and new opportunities. There will be “winners” in the third stage, new normal.

Third: This is the time to find our humanity because the greatest costs of the crisis, for both health and economically, will be borne by people. We are all in this together.

On one hand we must be painfully honest about the depth and breadth of this crisis. There is much we don’t know, but we already do know is that:

  • More schools will close than would have.
  • Many people (millions) will be laid off, both in higher education and across the entire economy.
  • Many individuals will suffer severe financial hardship and some material number of students who could afford to attend school before COVID 19, will not be able to going forward.
  • Many businesses will fail and both families and commercial enterprises will be insolvent in fairly short order without cash flow.
  • And tragically, some substantial number of people will fall ill and some of those will die.

This is a truly unprecedented crisis and the fall out will be brutal. In the entire history of the United States, we have never, in effect, “shut down” the economy as we are doing now, for an extended period of time.

One interesting perspective, however, is that even though the situation for higher education continues to worsen, the entire economy is now in decline, so higher ed as an industry is no longer alone. That actually matters because we are seeing policy level responses that will benefit higher education that would not have happened in the absence of a national and global recession. Examples include reductions in regulatory burdens and unprecedented flexibility for institutions as well as protections for students relative to financial aid. One proposal currently under consideration in the Senate via the “CARE” act would protect students and institutions from having to return any financial aid even if classes are not being held or students are forced to drop out. Similarly, the bill would not count Spring 2019 financial aid against student caps or timelines and would also defer payment obligations for those with loans. It is reasonable to assume that some amount of the projected $1 trillion plus in stimulus and direct aid will find its way into higher education.

It is also almost certain that higher education will look and operate differently after we get through the current crisis. Some likely examples include:

  • Far fewer meetings and conferences will take place in person.
  • Many courses that were moved online will stay online or partially online.
  • Some “social distancing” will continue.
  • Overall enrollment will decline further, ensuring a 9th year of continued reduction, but learning options for students will be much more flexible.
  • The shift from “higher education” to “post-secondary” education, with many non-degree models being offered outside of colleges and universities will accelerate, although the growth of industry developed and delivered education will almost certainly slow as businesses recover over time from what will be a very deep recession.

While it is not possible to know with certainty at a societal level what things will look like when the current round of the novel corona virus burns itself out—or even when that will happen—there are some things we can assume with fairly high confidence.

  • Unemployment will soar. Some estimates put job losses at 3,000,000 to as many as 7,500,000 unemployed by this summer.
  • The recession (we are already in one) will be much deeper than 2008
  • The previous “recovery” was already weak for a majority of the population
  • Many businesses will not survive
  • New models will replace old models for everything (telemedicine, telecommuting, communications, virtual meetings, online education, retail, etc. will look much different and many things will not go back to how they were)
  • Travel will be comparatively limited and may not return to previous levels for years, if at all
  • Supply chains will get shorter and less global

Some Personal Thoughts

The current situation is probably causing more stress and anxiety than any other period in my lifetime, as well as the lifetimes of most people reading this article. Previous recessions and crises were qualitatively different. Even something like the Cuban Missile Crisis, existential though it was, was short lived and did not take out the global economy. Same for 9/11. And, we were already dealing with climate change, mass shootings, and frightening political divisiveness.

Yes, we need to think about and plan for the future. We need to advocate for ourselves and our families by aggressively protecting or pursuing employment and stretching out fiscal resources as far as possible, but the most positive element of this current terrible crisis is that it is so big and so pervasive that we are literally all in this together. The one saving grace is that unlike “traditional” recessions or even depressions, no one is exempt from the effects of the current crisis. As terrifying as the reality is, tens of millions of Americans will not suddenly be on the streets when they can’t pay rent, because that is not logistically possible. There is no mechanism to evict that many people and no place for us to go anyway!

We cannot individually stop the virus or the recession, but we can contribute to the effort. It is a fact that many of us will experience greater financial duress in the near to mid-term future than at any time in our lives simply because despite the headlines about the economic recovery that is now over, it was never a strong recovery for most of the population to begin with. And some number of us, very unfortunately, will do battle with COVID 19 itself.

For those of us who suddenly have more time because we are out of work or our work has changed, this is an opportunity to give ourselves permission to engage in beneficial activities that we would not have otherwise.

  • Read articles and books you couldn’t get to previously
  • Write articles and books you couldn’t previously
  • Take walks
  • Get to know your family members
  • Grow a garden
  • Work on your mental and physical health
  • Start a gratitude journal
  • Take extended breaks from the news

We don’t know for sure where we are headed, but it would be a shame to squander the opportunity that many of us have to pursue edifying and beneficial activities. Love yourself, love your family, and love your neighbor.

The Mental Health Crisis in the C-Suite: A Plea for Courage

Image Credit: Kassandra Estrada

This may be the single most important article I have ever written. For those of you who are struggling with your own emerging or growing mental health challenges, please continue to read the full article. For those of you who have not allowed yourself the vulnerability to accept that you are in an untenable situation, I also ask that you continue reading as well. I was once where you are now. In either case, you are not alone!

Things were difficult, particularly in higher education, which has experienced an eight-year enrollment decline, even before Covid 19 began turning our world upside down. According to the American Psychological Association, Americans were already feeling more stress than at any time since the APA began tracking it due to climate change, mass shootings, and political divisiveness.  Now, with the novel Corona virus, According to the CDC and the National Institute of Mental Health, whatever stress and distress was already in play has been hugely exacerbated by what may become the single greatest challenge to our economy and society since the great depression. While this reality affects everyone in society and everyone in organizations, executive level leaders are burdened with the added challenge of responsibility and accountability for the very survival of organizations themselves—and the health and livelihoods of everyone in them, not to mention the satisfaction and wellbeing of the customers/clients/students/patients etc. served by those organizations and businesses. They are also burdened by even greater stigma around mental health than the population at large!

If you are an executive level leader, you were already statistically likely to be feeling extreme stress and related downstream emotions such as feelings of inadequacy, fear, anger, anxiety, and depression, and physical symptoms such as increased blood pressure, headaches, difficulty concentrating, problems sleeping, decreased appetite, and addiction among others. In fact, if you are an executive and you are not feeling some of these symptoms, you are among a minority of your colleagues. A recent review of literature found that executives are likely to be depressed at double the rate of the general public! And, as noted, due to the absurd cultural and organizational norms applied to senior leaders, who are irrationally supposed to be “bullet proof,” they are more stigmatized for mental health issues than are others, and thus are less likely to even acknowledge, let alone pursue treatment for, mental health challenges. This dynamic is brutal for executives themselves, their organizations, and the people in their personal lives as well. It is also ultimately unsustainable.

As someone who has personally hit the wall and had what in the old days we would have called a “nervous breakdown,” I am making an appeal directly to those of you in senior leadership roles (and anyone else who is suffering from mental health challenges) to take the courageous step of acknowledging the reality and seeking professional help. For those of us who have, as Buddhist nun Pema Chodron, says “reached our limit,” we have been blessed with an opportunity to take a step back, reevaluate our lives, and put ourselves on a sustainable path to mental health and a viable future. Your courage to act will also be a gift to others in your organization who will feel empowered, by your example, to make their own brave decisions about mental health. If you aren’t ready to help yourself from a perspective of self-compassion, then do it from a perspective of how it can support and preserve your professional efficacy and benefit the organization in which you are a leader. For the small minority of executives who are not facing significant stress and related emerging or growing mental health challenges, you have the unique responsibility to empathetically and logistically support those who do.

Unfortunately, I ignored my own situation until I was in crisis and no longer able to function at a desirable level, either professionally or personally. While hitting rock bottom has its advantages in terms of having nothing to lose, I can tell anyone who finds themselves nearing their “limit” that acting sooner rather than later is a smarter path. What is incredibly ironic is that if any of us were in a car wreck and suffered physical injuries, we would not only openly acknowledge them, we would be immediately treated with all available surgeries, medications, and therapies because that’s what we do with physical injuries and health issues. In fact, we would actually receive public sympathy and support for our injuries! Not only does our psychological health deserve the same respect, we simply cannot be whole, healthy people without supporting mind and body equally. And, critically, we must have the insight, vulnerability and courage to accept that just as our physical health is influenced by our lives outside of work, each one of us brings a legacy of psychological issues to the workplace that influence our work selves and are influenced by our work lives. I personally sacrificed years of mental health and compromised my personal relationships because I did not allow myself the vulnerability, and the thus the courage, to admit that I was not bullet proof. As most executives do, I tragically mistook vulnerability for weakness and I paid a steep price. While I am now on a sustainable path that supports even greater efficacy for myself as a leader as well as health in my personal life, stigma and ignorance robbed me of precious time and wellbeing. If you are among the majority of leaders who are being compromised by the same stigma and ignorance, I hope you find the courage that is inside you to do the right thing. If you already have, then congratulations for honoring your vulnerability. In either case, you, and those around you, are unquestionably better off acknowledging your challenges and supporting your mental health than not. And, importantly, honest, vulnerable, authentic leaders are better leaders, so you will benefit professionally as well.

Footnote

While the challenges noted in this article affect everyone, there are additional complicating factors based on gender that further compromise our efficacy and mental health. As noted in a recent Harvard Business Review article, “In a long-hours work culture, men have one primary identity: that of an ideal worker, fully committed and fully available. To fit this image, they must adopt the psychological stance of ‘my job is all-important.’ Nonwork identities, no matter how personally meaningful, become contingent and secondary.” My own wholesale dedication to work-based identity and self-worth proved to be disastrous and unsustainable. It also came at the cost of “nonwork identities” and relationships.

For women, the same HBR article notes that, “according to the work/family narrative and broader cultural notions, their commitment to family is primary by nature, so their commitment to work has to be secondary. They are expected to embrace an intensive, ‘my family is all-important’ approach to parenting… but a family-first stance comes at a significant cost to their careers and flies in the face of their professional ambitions.” It is a classic no-win situation.

In short, for decades we have perpetuated work-place cultural norms that hurt us professionally, hurt us personally, and mitigate against our mental health. This is a kind of malpractice that, at best, leaders have ignored, and at worst, have perpetuated. Those of us in leadership roles have a moral obligation to change these damaging norms–for ourselves and those we support.

Moving Face to Face Courses Online as An Emergency Initiative

For any institution of higher education who would like to discuss their current efforts and challenges to quickly move instruction online, you can reach the author at wkp@wallacekpond.com.

As colleges and universities across the country race to make wholesale shifts in a week or two from face to face to online educational delivery, many are discovering the challenges of such initiatives in the absence of adequate infrastructure, trained faculty, digital content, tech support, etc. What is happening today in many schools is a process that normally takes years and substantial resources.

I have personally built out online capacity, in some cases from scratch, four times in four different institutions going back to the mid 1990s through the mid 2010s. What I know from that experience is that while it is possible to create “band aids” in order to salvage a semester, it is not possible to create anything approximating a best practice online education operation in such a short time frame. Even in institutions with existing capacity for fully online delivery, unless most of the content delivered is already online, scaling up in a couple of weeks is basically impossible without substantial compromises to what their fully planned online education normally looks like.

In short, under the circumstances, there are extremely limited opportunities to leverage the powerful tools present in learning management systems. On the other hand, as a last resort response, it is possible to create a bridge that keeps students enrolled through the end of the term. In most cases, this bridge will be pedagogically weak (so weak as to be indefensible under normal circumstances), but as mentioned previously, the objective is not a best practice learning experience, it is short-term survival.

What to focus on if you only have a week or two to create an online course?

Principles

  1. Accept that the bridge to the end of the semester will not meet normal standards or even requirements for things such as attendance, contact hours, student identification, pedagogy, or even learning objectives.
  2. Focus on the lowest common denominator in terms of technology and process. Keep it simple. This is for students (who may have poor internet access of campus) as well as for instructors.
  3. Use anything that already exists and start from there: syllabus, publisher content, test bank, online discussion board, etc.
  4. Prioritize: communications, engagement with course content, and basic assessment and let the rest go.
  5. Accept low-tech and/or offline methods to achieve the minimum necessary and go with whatever hodgepodge combination of strategies get the job done.

This minimalist approach is critical not just because there is inadequate time and training, but because in most cases there will also be minimal or non-existent tech support, so all participants, students and faculty, will have to navigate their online learning mostly on their own.

Importantly, a course could be delivered online even without a learning management system (LMS) if necessary. See the information below for how that could work.

Communications

The most important issue for students and faculty will be communication. Most LMSs have basic, user-friendly systems for announcements, email (using existing email addresses) and discussion boards. Some have chat tools as well. In this emergency situation, a course could be delivered with only these tools. Faculty can share information and lead discussions using offline content such as an old fashioned textbook. Instructors can also link to external content on YouTube, Wikipedia, and to publisher content via the LMS communication tools. This is not the time to be elitist about where content comes from.

Course Content

This is the time to ask publishers for everything they have related to the course being taught. In many cases, such digital content already exists connected to a textbook, and often can be accessed via the publisher’s online platform. It is also a wonderful opportunity to engage students in finding and even creating content related to the course subject—in other words, the current emergency is a good reason to look at ad hoc online courses as “wikis” for students as well as instructors.

Although most online course content in an LMS is usually posted in folders designed for that purpose, often sequentially by week or unit, an instructor can also post a PowerPoint, Word doc, spreadsheet, other file or link within a typical discussion board post as well or can even send such information via group email as an attachment. One can even scan a hard copy document and upload that. Another option is for the instructor and students to sign up for a free “Dropbox” account where documents can be made available to the group. For brief lectures or demonstrations, any instructor can create a YouTube account and upload videos recorded with your computer or smart phone. The site can be open or password protected, with access provided only to students. Remember, this will not be polished, edited video content. It’s a way to quickly provide acceptable content under pressing circumstances.

If you do have access to an LMS, and you have the time/expertise, you can populate course content folders with any digital content available, but that is not necessary in the current situation. The same can be done via Dropbox.

Lastly, as a short-term survival strategy, this type of online learning requires a minimalist approach to the volume of content as well. It is an opportunity to prioritize what content and assignments are most essential to the course’s core learning objectives. Students will actually appreciate that. A way to think about it is if you were still teaching on campus, but only had half the normal contact hours available, what would you teach?

Assessment

Under the circumstances, any online course that didn’t exist two weeks ago, being taught by an instructor without the normal training, will be a bare-bones exercise across the board. Although all LMSs have assessment tools, it takes time to learn how they work and more time to populate the assessments themselves. Unless you have an option for a publisher assessment that can be automatically loaded or accessed on a publisher platform, a simple Word document will suffice, disseminated by email or the discussion board. Students can send completed assessments back to the instructor either individually or in groups if that is the nature of the assessment /project. Track Changes can be used to comment on the student work. For instructors with a little time and curiosity, you can create multiple choice and short answer “exams” through Survey Monkey and it’s free. Small assessments covering limited amounts of content are preferable to large, comprehensive tests, as are pass/fail approaches.

Nice to Haves

Institutions that can provide their instructors and students access to an LMS can also utilize tools such as gradebooks, “whiteboards,” embedded multi-media functions, course management functions, customized assessments, etc. However, in the absence of training and tech support, it is not a good idea to get distracted by the steep learning curve required, particularly without institutional support. Simple is better for now, so use familiar applications.

Third Party Tools

Fortunately, we are in a time in which many video conferencing and other communication tools are available and most can be used free for limited amounts of time and/or users. Tools such at GoToMeeting, WebEx, Zoom, Microsoft Team*, etc. facilitate real time communication during which an instructor can deliver a lecture, with screen share, or a student can make a presentation, and students can also communicate multi-directionally. Even old-fashioned phone conference calls can facilitate basic, real-time communications. And remember, even though your on campus class would have been “synchronous,” your online version doesn’t have to be.

*Microsoft recently announced that their tool is available to any organization for free.

Other options include Facebook and Instagram groups, Google “Teach from Home,” G-Suite and GoogleDocs, etc.

Other Ways to Put Courses Online

Borrowing existing online courses, even if they were developed for other topics, is an option that can provide a developed template that can be adapted more quickly. However, if previous content cannot be easily removed or hidden, it will cause confusion. Another possibility is for a course that was taught on campus to join another section of the course that is taught online, even at another institution, or through consortia such as Acadeum Solutions, ClassCentral, Coursera, or even Udemy, which offers roughly 100,000 non-credit, online courses. Some helpful tutorials from KeyPath Education can be found here. It is also a good idea to pair “mentor” instructors who have experience with online education with colleagues for whom this is new.

What about courses that don’t work well online?

The fact is that some courses (theater, labs, dance, clinical courses, auto mechanics, etc.) are less amenable to online delivery, particularly when there hasn’t been time to plan or find simulation tools or local practical/internship opportunities. However, we are not operating in normal times and if we hold ourselves to normal standards/practices, we will simply have to cancel a large number of courses in the middle of the term. This article doesn’t provide the space for a full discussion on these types of courses, but there are ways of using recordable media, for example, that allow students to practice and demonstrate some physical and even clinical skills. While not ideal, instructor or other demonstrations may have to suffice for what hands-on student engagement.

As noted earlier, we cannot worry about secure identification of online students or fully meeting “contact hour” requirements or using the highest quality assessments. We are in uncharted territory and the reason the US Department of Education gave IHEs blanket approval to move instruction online is because this is an emergency situation and much of what ends up online will not meet normal DoE or accreditation requirements. The point is to salvage an academic term for millions of students while battling a public health crisis. The harm to students (and institutions) from losing the entire term is far greater than the harm of a temporary, suboptimal learning experience.

For any institution of higher education who would like to discuss their current efforts and challenges to quickly move instruction online, you can reach the author at wkp@wallacekpond.com.

Why Technical Skills Are Less Important for Leadership Than People Skills

In the old days people got to senior leadership levels through their technical skills, ability to drive activity and results, and often, the force of their “executive personality.” That was fine and dandy when the pace of change was relatively slow, processes and tasks were static and less complex, competition was less fierce, and leaders could actually influence organizational outcomes with their own technical skills and task completion. In fact, in a recent letter to Amazon shareholders, Jeff Bezos claimed that skills are overrated and have less to do with Amazon’s success than do high standards. He notes that leaders bring more value by being able to identify what technical skills that someone on the team must have and must know what high level expertise and performance look like, but don’t need to be the source of technical competence themselves.

In today’s hyper-change, complex, volatile, and ambiguous operating environments, organizations succeed not because leaders “drive activity” or are technical experts. They succeed when they maximize human capital. When that human capital functions collectively, driven to achieve high standards, the effect is no longer linear, it’s geometric.

Leaders that support an entrepreneurial spirit, collegiality, risk-taking, innovation and accountability achieve the greatest results. This comes from effective people leadership and it is critical because, as research at Gallup notes, employee engagement drives discretionary effort, which is what moves the needle. As Jeff Bezos described in the same letter to shareholders, much of the success at Amazon has come from “the work that no one sees. The work that gets done when no one is watching.” The opposite, disengagement, is not just less effective, it’s actually damaging to performance and to the organization as a whole.

Importantly, the most successful leaders today are successful because, through their ability to connect with and motivate people, they affect organizational culture. It is culture, by the way, not rules or incentives or processes that drives human behavior over time. As Bezos further notes, “A culture of high standards is protective of all the ‘invisible’ but crucial work that goes on in every company.” Similar values for risk taking without penalty, working for the good of the whole, transparency, wellbeing in the workplace, etc. not only support success, but sustainability—and building supportive culture is one of the most important things any leader can do—for the organization and for him or herself.

On the contrary, as noted in a recent Harvard Business Review article, “Whereas competent leaders cause high levels of trust, engagement, and productivity, incompetent ones result in anxious, alienated workers who practice counterproductive work behaviors and spread toxicity throughout the firm.” What is interesting about the HBR research, and that conducted by Gallup and others, is that competent leaders who bring positive impact to their organizations in today’s environment almost uniformly do so via people leadership skills rather than technical skills. Relatedly, they manifest high levels of self-awareness, emotional intelligence and vulnerability. The reason these qualities have become so much more powerful than technical skills relative to leadership “competence,” is because, in most cases, what a leader can accomplish with her or his own technical abilities is profoundly limited compared to what engaged and empowered employees can accomplish collectively across an entire organization. This is common sense, but organizations continue to promote and hire “leaders” who are not only not additive, but are detrimental to those same organizations because they confuse confidence with competence. In fact, as noted in the same HBR article cited above, “our human tendency [is] to equate hubris and arrogance to talent.” That tendency is probably the most prevalent reason that so many organizations continue to be headed by ineffective leaders who alienate employees and compromise the human capital at their disposal.

Footnote

I have had a front row seat to many hiring and promotion mistakes, if not disasters, in which organizations have failed to choose candidates that were demonstrably better than the ones hired or promoted. Why is that? Because despite the ability to use the right words to describe the leaders they need, hiring managers, committees, and boards are broadly psychologically unable to align their gut level decisions with their intellectual process. In fact, organizations often hire people because they fail to display the traits that make leaders less effective. Read that last sentence again. In other words, even if we intellectually know that traits such as humility, vulnerability, and integrity are at the core of powerful people leadership, given a choice, we generally pass on those candidates and hire ones who display confidence, or even narcissism, “executive” (authoritarian) decision making, and can demonstrate technical skill in areas of significance to the organization’s business. Or, even more simply, we just hire people who look and feel familiar. We are seduced by individuals who we believe “get things done,” rather than those who empower entire organizations to get things done. And we are all the poorer for it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Higher Education as a Retail Business

Several years ago, I was delivering an all-staff workshop for a large university and I was asked what I thought higher education would look like in the future. My answer was that what we think of as the “higher education industry,” would be smaller with many fewer institutions and that those that survived would look a lot more like retail businesses. Prognosticating about anything is always a little risky, but in this case, I seem to have been right about both predictions (I wish that happened all the time!). Enrollments have been declining now for eight straight years and over 1,200 institutions have closed outright in the last ten years. You can see why here. In fact, there are about 3,000,000 fewer students enrolled in U.S. colleges today than there were in 2014. Since we are nowhere near the bottom of the market decline, when the dust finally settles, the overall higher education system will probably be a least a third smaller than it was in 2010.

As for my prediction about the academy adopting more of a retail model, there are multiple indications to suggest that is happening in fundamental ways. Over the last ten years or so, colleges and universities across all sectors have begun to focus on areas that were previously associated with retail practices and that, in most cases, were purposely avoided in higher education because they were seen as “undignified” in the rarified air of academe. No longer.

As competition for a shrinking pool of students has intensified at the same time that the students who are still enrolling have become very price sensitive, the vast majority of institutions of higher education (IHEs) have had to significantly rethink how they attract students when students have become shoppers and tend to see higher education as a commodity. While there is a small sliver of institutions whose exclusivity ensures that there will continue to be substantially more applicants (who can pay) than available enrollment slots, about 80% of IHEs do not have that luxury. Even institutions that used to be fairly exclusive are seeing their enrollment “yield” (the number of students who are accepted that actually show up) tumble precipitously in the last few years. In short, the structural factors that historically insulated colleges from competition in the past have been breeched and viewing students as retail customers has become central to survival across much of higher ed.

The most obvious and common retail practices visible in the academy today include approaches to:

Marketing (and sales)

Until fairly recently, colleges tended to avoid any direct marketing to students. It is now common via multiple retail marketing channels. Likewise, historically, “admissions” was a filtering process for inbound inquiries and applications. It has broadly shifted to lead generation and outbound sales.

Pricing and Incentives

For most of the last century, higher education was a highly exclusive club with fixed prices for those who could afford it. Although access began to be more democratized in the 1970s, that was facilitated by state funding that kept public tuition relatively low. State funding for colleges and universities has broadly collapsed over the last 25 years, shifting the cost to students and their families. Pricing for most consumers (students) has become inelastic at the same time fewer are willing to incur substantial debt. As a result, IHEs have begun to aggressively compete on price, resulting in the actual price paid by students in private schools being less than 50% of the advertised price!

Amenities

Another practice out of the retail playbook is to incentivize students with amenities. This has led to an “arms race” among colleges whose primary market is young, traditional students. Dormitories now typically include private baths, mini-gyms, climbing walls, baristas, free wi-fi and free streaming services, etc.

Customer Service

Although a very long time coming, many colleges and universities have accepted that students are customers with choices rather than indentured students who are lucky to be there. As a result, IHEs are purposefully addressing the customer experience as it relates both to enrollment and retention. Some have employed customer service experts.

Customer Retention

For most of the history of higher education in the U.S., a large amount of attrition was seen as an acceptable and necessary outcome of weeding out students who didn’t belong in college. Like other retail businesses, IHEs have become very focused on retaining existing customers as a business imperative (and protecting them from other institutions—see the note below on the elimination of a competition firewall).

Value Proposition

Historically, higher education did not acknowledge or promote any kind of value proposition for students because the ivory tower assumption was that the value of higher education was intrinsic and that it was a privilege to be a student. In the current high-competition, high-choice environment, as in other retail contexts, a clearly understood and articulated value proposition may be more important than mission and vision for most institutions who need to ask, “Why would a student-customer choose us?”

Direct Competition with Other Providers

For most of its history, higher education operated in a world in which demand exceeded supply and “gentleman’s agreements” generally protected colleges and universities from the messiness and indignity of retail competition. No longer. Existential crisis, which much of higher education is facing, tends to clarify the thinking and open the dialog to previously off-limits strategy and behavior.

Specifically, a previous competition firewall among traditional institutions of higher education was embedded in a “code of ethics” promulgated by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, which until 2019 prevented institutions from “poaching” other schools’ enrollments. In response to a Department of Justice investigation of potential anti-trust violations, NACAC voted in the fall of 2019 to eliminate the protections enumerated in the code of ethics that were targeted by the DOJ.

As noted in Forbes magazine, before these changes were made, member colleges were not allowed to do the following:

  • Offer incentives such as larger financial aid packages or priority housing, to applicants who applied under an early decision program.
  • Recruit a student once they had submitted a deposit to another institution.
  • Convince previous applicants or prospects to transfer to their school unless the student inquires first about transferring.

After the NACAC vote, all of these “protections” were eliminated, and many institutions have already begun to “assertively” pursue students with direct incentives who had previously committed to other institutions. In fact, many have been sending unsolicited communications to students who are already attending other schools to incent them to transfer. In short order higher education may broadly resemble the cell phone industry in its efforts to get “customers” to leave their current provider for a better deal!

What are the implications for higher education as a retail business?

First, students are shoppers who see themselves as customers regardless of what colleges think. They are highly price sensitive and they want value for their money. Outside of the small minority represented by the most exclusive colleges, institutions who fail to see students as customers with many choices, will lose those customers to competitors.

Second, due to the shift to a retail model, IHEs must build competencies and develop leadership teams that support retail practices. And potentially more importantly, they must build culture that supports a retail reality. If your school is still debating whether or not students are customers, you’re probably doomed. If your faculty don’t believe they have a central role in student recruitment and retention, you’re probably doomed. If your institution thinks that consumer marketing is “unseemly,” you’re probably doomed. And if you can’t clearly articulate a compelling value proposition, it won’t be evident to potential customers either.

In short, the old days are gone and whether you use the term “retail” or not, in order to be competitive, institutional structure, operations, and leadership must support students as customers with many choices.

At the same workshop that I mentioned at the beginning of this article, I acknowledged that students are not retail customers in exactly the same way they are in other industries. If you buy a car or a big screen TV, your only obligations as a customer are to pay for the items and use them legally. College students have many obligations beyond paying tuition. In fact, we ask them for more money than many have ever spent on anything in their lives, then ask them to work harder than many of them ever have to use the service they’ve purchased! It is clearly a complicated customer relationship, but it is a customer relationship nonetheless. And interestingly, students may have even higher expectations as education customers than they do in other retail contexts!

What Role Does Compassion Play in Leadership?

Most of the time when we think about the qualities of successful leadership, and certainly when we read about it, we see references to knowledge, skills, and abilities. Even “enlightened” discussions about the requisites of contemporary leadership that include things like emotional intelligence, vulnerability, entrepreneurial spirit, risk-tolerance, etc., rarely broach notions of how leaders can actually make the world a better place through their actions.

While there are critical strategic and operational reasons why all organizations would want to have the most dynamic, Game Changing leaders possible, there are also both pragmatic and altruistic reasons that organizations would benefit from impactful leadership that expresses compassion and empathy toward both internal and external stakeholders.

Why is this?

Within the U.S. and globally, we are experiencing the greatest political polarization since WWII and greater stress than at any time since the American Psychological Association has tracked it. Additionally, Millenials and Gen-Exers have also made it clear that work-life balance, mental health, and supportive work environments are more important than money or status—and Millenials now represent the single largest generation in the workforce! It makes pragmatic sense for leaders to connect meaningfully to the humanity in the organizations they lead because that may trump compensation and benefits relative to employee retention and engagement (50% of Millenials and 75% of Gen-Xers have left jobs due to an unsupportive work environment). It makes sense altruistically since the only thing that will matter on each leader’s final life scorecard will be how the people he or she associated with benefitted from that association and how the world is a better place as a result of his or her efforts. In fact, it is laughable to think that any of the things we usually stress about on a daily basis (KPIs, growth targets, meeting agendas, etc.) will matter at all in the final analysis.

Importantly, as Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron notes, “Compassionate action involves working with ourselves as much as working with others.” The most insightful leaders of people tend to be those with the most self-awareness and those who are able to be kind to themselves. As Chodron further notes, “You can’t be kind to others unless you can be kind to yourself.”

While you won’t see it in a leadership text or hear it in an MBA seminar, the capacity for empathy and compassion not only sets leaders apart, it supports and empowers the humanity in organizations, which may be the most important thing a leader can do to make the world a better place.

What You Must Know about the Eight Year Decline in College Enrollment

It is not surprising that many people in the general public are unaware of the breadth and depth of the crisis facing higher education, but it continues to amaze me how much ignorance there is within higher education itself about the specifics of the challenges facing academe today. In the last two months I have presented data on enrollment declines, school mergers and closures, and other economic statistics to the membership of two higher education professional organizations. In both cases, the educational leaders in attendance were broadly unaware of even the basic statistics. The same is true for the higher ed institutions with which I consult.

Almost no one knows that 2019 was the eighth consecutive year of enrollment declines across all of U.S. higher education or that 3,000,000 fewer students attend colleges and universities today than in 2010 (including a decline in African American enrollments of 13%) or that institutions of higher education (IHEs) have increased their debt by 64% (and at least a quarter of all private colleges are operating in the red) or that tuition has increased by 40% while wages have stagnated or that states have reduced funding for public institutions by $9 billion dollars in the same period! Likewise, it is news to most that over 1,200 colleges have closed and two thousand brick and mortar learning sites overall are no longer operating across the country compared to a decade ago. These same individuals are also unaware of the geographic distributions of the declines with the worst hit regions being the Northeast and Midwest with decreased enrollments in 34 states overall. While the closures so far have been disproportionate for institutions with a for-profit tax status, most in higher ed do not know that the enrollment declines are spread across all sectors of higher education (community colleges are down 3.4% in the last year alone) with the greatest risk for the foreseeable future being in private, nonprofit institutions with less than 1,000 students.

On the other hand, there is no lack of stress and distress among those same individuals in post-secondary educational institutions and professional organizations, who are feeling the effects of substantially declining enrollments (and revenue), consolidations, layoffs, ongoing expense cuts, closures, etc. They are just unaware of the actual data and the underlying causes for the declines. As a result, their institutions are almost wholly unprepared to address the issues they are facing.

While the Great Recession finally made higher education accountable to market forces, there are five primary external causes of the extended enrollment declines, which have conspired to fundamentally alter the post-secondary education landscape. Those factors are:

  • Demographics (declining birthrates)
  • The Economy (low unemployment)
  • Economics (the cost of education and debt)
  • Societal Opinions about Higher Education (they have shifted broadly negative)
  • Growing Alternatives to College Programs

This article does not allow for an in-depth discussion of how each factor has negatively affected enrollment, but you can see an excerpt of a recent national webinar presentation here that provides much more analysis. In short, there are simply fewer traditional students available, who are less able and/or willing to borrow to pay drastically increased tuition, at the same time that industry is providing many alternatives to traditional higher education programs. Ironically, post-secondary education overall is growing, but traditional degree programs are declining. The value proposition for many students is simply no longer compelling enough to set aside employment or take on debt in order to enroll in a degree program—and the demographic challenges are baked in for at least another generation.

The good news is that despite the deep, structural challenges facing higher education today, we know what the characteristics are of the institutions that are managing to thrive in the current environment. Although every IHE has its own particular challenges and opportunities, there are common threads across the schools that are finding success, one of which is simply that they understand the reality and have a plan to address it. Several common factors are:

  • Dynamic Leadership
  • Capacity to Innovate
  • Deep Industry Collaboration
  • Aggressive Partnerships
  • Alternative and High Margin Revenue Streams
  • Retention of Existing Students
  • Differentiation in the Market (Programs, Services, Delivery, etc.)
  • Customer Value
  • Licensure Programs/Programs Required for Employment
  • Alternatives to Traditional Degrees
  • Focus on Sustainability
  • Finance as a Core Competency
  • Really, Really Good at Basics
  • A Culture that Promotes Success (entrepreneurialism, risk taking, collaboration, etc.)

The fact is that we are no where near the bottom of the higher education shake-out. The mismatch between supply and demand, the financial exigency that many IHEs are already experiencing, demographics, industry alternatives to higher education, etc., are all going to make the situation worse before it gets better. On the other hand, opportunities for those institutions that have many of the characteristics noted above and that define what they do as post-secondary education writ large rather than higher education, are likely to survive and even thrive.

While building a firewall against obsolescence is a complex and long-term project, the first step for at risk IHEs (which is most of higher education) involves self-education on the current reality and elimination of all denial about that reality. Whether an institution pursues a facilitated process or handles the process in house, it must be approached as an exercise with existential implications and a willingness to make even foundational change, cultural and strategic, in the interest of long term sustainability.

Supporting Employee Engagement Is Critical for Your Own Success As a Leader

In previous articles I have discussed how the requisite skills and traits of contemporary leaders have evolved in fairly profound ways, to the extent that more traditional methods often not only don’t work, they can actually be detrimental. One example has to do with behaviors that support or mitigate against employee engagement. In fact, research by Gallup suggests that only about a third of employees in the U.S. regularly display behaviors associated with “engagement.” This matters, of course, because engaged employees are far more productive and the work they do tends to result in greater performance, particularly around outcomes that are most important to the organization. They also tend to be more resilient in the face of challenges, have a greater sense of their own efficacy, are able to work with less direct supervision, manifest a more internalized sense of accountability, and are more likely to feel that they are an important part of the organization.

What is the relationship between managers and employee engagement?

Further research by Gallup found that roughly 70% of employee engagement is tied to management variables. In other words, the extent to which employees are highly engaged is more influenced by management behavior than employee variables. Any employee can be engaged at some level, but the depth of engagement seems to be more tied to what managers and leaders do or don’t do.

Traditional managers, for example, tend to be more transactional, i.e., they give the employee a discreet task, usually with narrowly defined outcomes, resulting in a “you do this and I’ll give you that” dynamic. As one can imagine, this situation tends to result in employees doing the minimum and rarely taking initiative on their own, because such transactional arrangements leave accountability with the boss, while also keeping the employee dependent. Incompetent managers are, of course, much worse. A recent Harvard Business Review article pointed to research that suggests, “Incompetent leaders are the main reason for low levels of employee engagement, and the prevalent high levels of passive job seeking and self-employment.”

Leaders with the ability to succeed in contemporary environments, on the contrary, tend to function more as coaches, providing the support and resources that allow employees to expand both their abilities and their sense of ownership and accountability. They do not micromanage the “how,” instead focusing on a shared understanding of desired outcomes, with the specific intent of empowering employees to work and succeed based on their own efforts, insights, and motivations. One key element of engagement is being able to do the job in ways that feel right/rewarding and play to the individual’s strengths. A traditional, transactional approach is often deadly for engagement precisely because it restricts those very things!

What does engagement look like?

There are traits and behaviors associated with engagement, which can be observed in both employees and leaders. They include things such as intentionality, planning, collaboration, internalized motivation and accountability, resilience, and a tendency to play to strengths to get the job done—including accepting challenges that stretch one’s capabilities. Engaged workers are also comfortable working for extended periods without supervisor feedback, but do not hesitate to request input when they believe the boss might have an insight that would be helpful. In other words, they don’t reach out to a supervisor for approval or permission, they reach out for support.

What manager/leader behaviors support engagement?

Fortunately, supporting engagement in one’s employees is not complicated, but it does require a contemporary leadership frame of reference. For example, in order to support engagement, leaders must surrender control to employees, they must see themselves as coaches and facilitators whose success broadly comes from others rather than technical experts who closely manage employee activities. As an example, an engagement-creating leader ensures that employees have clarity around expectations and the necessary resources to succeed rather than explicit instructions on what to do or how to do it. Engagement-oriented leaders welcome and honor employee opinions and choices, trust their judgment, and de-stigmatize “failure” such that it represents an opportunity for learning and a course change, rather than a mistake to be avoided. Without this approach, employees will limit risk-taking and experimentation and the organization will suffer. Of equal importance, the most engaged employees have managers who ensure that their reports are likely to feel the greatest sense of purpose, with a good understanding of why their efforts matter.

In short, the difference in value between engaged and disengaged employees is not trivial. Both the performance and attitudes of engaged employees bring significant direct and indirect benefits to organizations that go well beyond work or project tasks and impact things like dedication, loyalty, advocacy, and ultimately turnover as well. Because, on average, only about a third of U.S. workers are regularly engaged, it also represents a substantial opportunity in many organizations. As a leader, your success in supporting engagement is central to your own success as well!