The Decision to Bring Students Back to Campus Includes an Inescapable Moral Component

As educational institutions plan to serve students in the fall, the decisions they make must be about more than enrollment and revenue—or even health and safety. Obviously, just about everyone wants things to be “back to normal” as soon as possible. Moreover, some institutions are so financially fragile that operating from a distance, with lower enrollments and decreased revenues from campus operations, creates genuine financial exigency, but even in those cases, the final decisions about where and how to serve students cannot be based solely on financial outcomes. At some meaningful level, the decisions must be based on what is right under the circumstances, even if what is right fails to meet the desires of some constituencies, exacerbates financial challenges, or even puts an institution’s survival at risk.

As Michael Sorrell, the president of Paul Quinn College in Dallas noted in an article in the Atlantic, “If a school’s cost-benefit analysis [about opening] leads to a conclusion that includes the term ‘acceptable number of casualties,’ it is time for a new model.” He goes on to say, “Because we do not yet have the ability to bring students and staff back to campus while keeping them safe and healthy, we simply cannot return to business as usual. To do so constitutes an abdication of our moral responsibility as leaders (emphasis mine).”

Dr. Sorrell’s commentary is one of the very few I have seen out of probably a hundred articles and essays that so straightforwardly addresses the moral imperative that should be at the core of any decision a college or university makes to bring students (and associated faculty and staff) back on campus. And, he wrote his thoughtful treatise back in May, before the recent, predictable, and explosive resurgence of the novel coronavirus. We have seen that even with small student populations on campus during the summer, hotspots have blown up in a matter of days at dozens of institutions across the country, most of which have been driven by students failing to engage in social distancing and mask wearing, particularly in off-campus venues–over 6,600 cases across the country. In other words, young students are behaving precisely the way they always have despite the myriad safety measures that have supposedly been put in place. Even in highly supervised and well-resourced situations such as sports practices, institutions such as Clemson University and LSU had to shut down football practices because the number of positive tests for COVID-19 was so high on those teams.

Due to my consulting work and my 30 plus year network of relationships with many folks across higher education, I have had a close view into the decision making process in many schools around how they intend to operate in the fall. First of all, people are working really, really hard to develop and implement their plans, whatever they are. On the other hand, many of these same folks are very much “head down,” buried in the tactical, and giving little attention to the strategic and the long-term. That is understandable in the context of the overwhelming challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic and crisis. What is less understandable is how many folks are still relying on “magical thinking” as part of their efforts to bring students, faculty, and staff back on campus for the fall term. In some cases, core strategies to keep people safe are simply nonsensical, such as expecting students to limit elevators to four people, while facing opposite corners, or expecting students to get their own COVID tests at their own expense before the term. Even if students did comply initially, which is highly unlikely, those tests will be meaningful for a very short point in time. Other examples I have seen included things such as asking students to volunteer as “safety monitors,” who will supposedly confront other students who are not following the rules and asking students to commit to social distancing, mask wearing, and avoiding interactions with groups while off campus. Good luck with those plans.

In a working paper from Swarthmore College and the University of Pennsylvania, which modeled different infection transmission scenarios at a typical large university, the authors found that even with nearly 100% compliance with the most effective strategies and essentially zero off-campus interactions (impossible), there would still be students and faculty who would contract COVID-19 and the study didn’t even model how faculty might spread the disease to other faculty or staff. And, shockingly, the study found that if no precautions were taken at all, COVID would spread to nearly 100% of the university population before the end of the semester. This is because the “normal” behavior on and off college campuses combined with how those institutions are structured to begin with, create an almost perfect environment for the spread of a corona virus. What we can assume with high confidence is that any institution that brings people back into a face to face scenario in the fall will end up somewhere between perfect execution of, and compliance with, preventative measures, and a total failure to do so. In other words, a typical institution is more likely to experience much less optimistic infection rates. Unfortunately, there is another profoundly important element of COVID-19 response required of colleges and universities which relates to how they support students and other members of a college community once they test positive and are quarantined. This is another place I’ve seen magical thinking, with institutions that have limited or no on-site healthcare resources thinking that they will effectively care for students who cannot leave a dorm room or apartment, on or off-campus, let alone the ability to determine, with any clinical expertise, whether someone is sick enough to require acute medical care.

The reality we are facing today, therefore, is that it is essentially impossible to bring people onto a college campus and ensure that no one will contract COVID-19. To be fair, we could say the same about influenza or mononucleosis or many other contagious diseases. However, addressing COVID-19 by itself, since it is impossible to ensure the health and safety of everyone involved, what is the number of illnesses or even deaths that a college is willing to accept in order to have people back on campus? No matter what other efforts are in place, it is impossible to get around this core question for any institution that intends to have students on campus. And, when you address that question, you have entered the realm of decisions that, as president Sorrell noted, fall under moral responsibility. To be clear, this does not mean that a decision to serve some number of students on campus is immoral. What it means is that such a decision cannot be made without addressing an inevitable moral component. For Dr. Sorrell and Paul Quinn College, their conclusion was that bringing folks back was not tenable.

I’ve been the president of several institutions of higher education and I have personally experienced very difficult dilemmas. As someone once said, being a CEO often requires you to choose between bad and catastrophic. Some days are just brutal. But, if a college president, executive team, or board of trustees cannot look each other in the eye and agree that there is some inevitable number of casualties, and that they are okay with that, then they cannot bring people back on campus for the fall term. If there is agreement on an acceptable number of casualties, then an institution’s leadership is also assuming moral responsibility for the outcomes, having decided that the ensuing benefit was greater than the risk to people’s health and safety. No amount of magical thinking will change that reality.

Wellbeing During Crisis: Taking Care of the People in Organizations

Image Credit: UA Little Rock

We know intuitively that the COVID-19 crisis has posed challenges to our mental health and overall wellbeing, but most of us are not aware of the extent of the problem. Even before the pandemic, we were more stressed than at any time since the American Psychological Association began tracking stress levels among Americans. The combination of mass shootings, climate change, and deep political divisiveness was taking a deep toll. The addition of the coronavirus crisis has presented further challenges and, as noted in a recent report on NPR, “as many as 75,000 more people will die from drug or alcohol misuse and suicide” as a direct result of the deleterious effects of COVID on the mental health of Americans. If you are an executive, you are statistically more likely than not to be experiencing mental health challenges and the population at large has reached out to mental health counselors and therapists at more than double the normal rate since February.

As Dr. Tom Insel, former Director of the National Institute of Mental health noted in a recent Newsweek article,

“We’ve never seen a moment where the demand for mental health care will be as great as it’s going to be in the next few months and next couple of years. If you add the spike in suicides and drug overdoses we are likely to see to those we were already expecting, the psychological toll from deaths of despair in the months ahead could very likely surpass the final mortality numbers for COVID.”

In short:

  • Those who had mental health issues before the pandemic are likely to have deeper challenges now.
  • Many who had no mental health symptoms, now have them.
  • We are spending more time in a fight or flight status, resulting in what is known as “stress response hyperstimulation,” which makes us more susceptible to anxiety and depression.
  • Everyone is stressed out.

So, take a deep breath and know that, one, there are good reasons for feeling how you are likely feeling, and two, you are not alone! Moreover, and this is really important, consciously addressing wellbeing is essential to supporting the viability of organizations themselves. Doing so will build better resilience, dedication, and loyalty among the people that make organizations function, increasing the likelihood that those organizations will survive and thrive going forward.

How does all of this relate to the workplace in general and higher education in particular?

Crisis GraphicFirst of all, the crisis itself is extraordinary. It is severe, long-term, existential, and it will fundamentally change how we work and deliver education long after COVID is resolved. It truly merits the phrase “unprecedented.”

Secondly, the crisis simultaneously turned our personal/family lives upside down as well, creating layers of intense challenges and stress—and for most people, that doesn’t even include the virus itself.

In the midst of this overwhelming reality, virtually everyone employed in any role in an institution of post-secondary education had to completely convert how they teach and serve their students, in many cases in the absence of appropriate technology, training, or time to prepare. On one hand, what was achieved was remarkable—and also unprecedented. On the other hand, this came at no small cost to the people involved—and it only offered a temporary bridge to close out the spring semester—many folks are doing it all over again preparing for the fall semester, but in a more sustainable way. And all of this is happening in the face of severe financial exigency across much of higher education.

Supporting Wellbeing in a Time of Crisis

So, we know what the reality is, but what can we do about it?

Fortunately, as overwhelming as the challenges are, there are best practices for supporting wellbeing and wellness within organizations. We also know what the components are of healthy organizations.

Organizational Health

Organizational health is not about performance, although achieving goals can support morale and community. Organizational health is about supporting the well-being of the people who make up the human element of the organization. Elements of a healthy organization include:

Transparency, honesty, fairness, support, collegiality, shared values and, importantly, recognition and support of the physical and emotional needs of the folks that make up the institution. 

Organizational Culture

As with many other issues, in the absence of a culture that supports wellbeing, new efforts to do so will be compromised and likely not be sustainable. Some simple examples include things like actually believing that people are an organization’s greatest asset and treating them that way, supporting collaboration and collegiality, valuing autonomy and empowerment, and recognizing that in the current environment, there is no clear line between work and home life, so don’t expect it. Since culture is a leadership responsibility, the most fundamental element of wellbeing within an organization belongs to its leadership.


Components of WellnessAlthough there are multiple models for thinking about wellness, a simple one that I have used in the past involves five elements: Physical, Mental, Spiritual, Financial, and Social. We cannot separate mind, body, and spirit, either in our private lives or as it relates to wellness in the workplace.

It is within the purview and capability of leadership in all kinds of organizations to support these five domains and thus support wellness. In some ways, educational institutions are even more amenable than others to purposeful efforts to generate wellness. Assuming that that organizational culture is supportive, there can be policy prescriptions to directly support the domains of wellness described here, which will be discusses later in the article.

Strategies for Supporting Organizational Health, Wellness and Mental Health

Strategies for Organizational Health

Fortunately, the strategies for supporting organizational health are not complicated. Assuming a supportive culture and leadership, the key is simply making the commitment and executing on the effort. In a time of crisis in particular, it is important to conduct non-business check-ins with employees. This can be at the beginning of meetings or through regular outreach, but the point is that there needs to be time dedicated to communicating with employees about how they are doing, separately from their work responsibilities. Other examples include providing time for mindfulness and physical health, without penalty for actually taking the time! It is also important to find opportunities for celebration of things big and small, providing flexibility for “real-life” issues, and supporting social connection even if at a distance.

Strategies for Stress

As simple as it is, one of the most important things leaders can do to help mitigate stress in their employees (and themselves) is to give permission to be human. As Kit Krugman, head of organization and culture design at recently noted, “Until recently, the predominant advice to managing your emotions at work was: Don’t have them….Ultimately, we allowed the guise of professionalism to eclipse the emotional experience of being human at work.” This Faustian pact was not sustainable even before COVID, but now it’s frankly dangerous. Other strategies include finding ways to provide stability and reduce fear and offering direct encouragement. This can be verbally or with written communications. Hand-written notes are very powerful precisely because they have become so rare. Again, success depends on formally building time into the daily schedule to actually engage in these activities.

There are a number of other specific areas of focus to mitigate stress and support wellbeing in the workplace and at home. They include:

  • Adequate Sleep
  • Healthy diet
  • Physical exercise
  • Mindfulness
  • Calming activities
  • Positive relationships (and avoidance of toxic relationships)
  • Limiting social media and news
  • Emotional fidelity (simply allowing yourself to express what you feel)
  • Gratitude
  • Spiritual pursuits

Strategies for Wellness

Based on the five-point model I shared above, there is a very simple process for supporting one’s own wellness, which requires identifying high level strategies for each of the five domains as well as a simple daily activity or two for each domain. It is not necessary to support every domain every day, but your goal should be at least one activity per week in each area. The tables below are an easy, low tech way to do this.

Supporting Wellness

Policies for Wellness

Within organizations, it is necessary to have policies and to devote resources specifically for wellness. It doesn’t work if it’s not purposeful. Some examples include: unrestricted use of paid time off, paid time for wellness activities, i.e., supporting activities during the workday, and dedicated wellness resources such as employee assistance plans and health checks. Again, this is a leadership responsibility.

Interactions at Work

Almost all of us are currently “on the edge.” We are more sensitive to triggers of all kinds, with less bandwidth to absorb negative interactions. Because of this, we all (and particularly managers and leaders) must recalibrate how we engage with others, regardless of the topic. When dealing with a “problem,” we must be even more thoughtful. For example, rather than beginning a discussion right away with the issue itself, 1) start from a place of empathy, being supportive, 2) then solicit feedback from the person about the issue at hand (and genuinely listen). 3) Only then address the problem or issue, with a focus on a positive outcome rather than on what is/was wrong.

The Role of Self-Compassion

Empathy Heart

Something that is rarely spoken about, but essential to wellbeing, particularly during a time of crisis, is self-compassion. This literally means being kind to ourselves. The reason this is so important is because in the absence of self-compassion, we cannot give ourselves the space to be vulnerable and authentic. We are also less likely to directly support our own wellbeing, which will make us much less capable of supporting others. We are socialized to be self-critical and to see self-care as “selfish,” which is disastrous in a time of crisis. You can find helpful tools at

Supporting Mental Health

Lastly, in terms of being purposeful about organizational health and wellness, we cannot achieve high level results unless we specifically acknowledge the mental health needs of the people in organizations, which, as mentioned at the beginning of this article, can literally be a life and death issue. This does not mean that managers and leaders (and everyone else) must play the role of mental health provider. To the contrary. What is required is compassion and a commitment to create an environment that overtly supports mental health. Some key examples include:

  • Destigmatize mental health and put it on the same playing field as physical health.
  • Recognize that wellness (and mental health) cannot be compartmentalized between personal life and work.
  • End the absurdity of productivity (or worse, business) as worth and replace it with sustainable human values such as compassion, kindness, honesty, and integrity.
  • Encourage people to seek help and support them once they do.

What Followers Need from Leaders

In addition to the broad discussion about supporting wellbeing in organizations, there are very specific requirements and responsibilities for leaders. Global research by Gallup found that in times of crisis, in addition to the “nuts and bolts” of solving the problem and getting back to normal, employees have key emotional needs that they look to leadership to meet: trust, compassion, stability, and hope. When those needs are met, employees are much better prepared to accomplish the hard work at hand.

Leaders need to be seen as human themselves and be seen supporting humanity in the organization. They can do so by expressing vulnerability, authenticity, compassion, and empathy. Relative to organizational health and employee wellbeing, emotional intelligence is much more important than “executive” skills.

Doing Right Now Will be Your Legacy in the Future

As truly difficult as the current situation is, including distressingly hard decisions about how to use finite resources, the decisions that leaders make today will inform the organization’s legacy going forward. Those that stay true to core values and put people first will be rewarded in the future. Those that do not will pay a high price. As Mark Cuban noted in a recent interview, “The way companies treat their employees in times like these will be their defining feature in the coming months and years.”


Everyone has a unique “emotional metabolism,” meaning that we process psychological distress at different rates and in different ways. Having said that, we are now experiencing near universal stress and challenges to our mental health, almost certainly unrivaled in modern times. Because our minds and bodies are inextricably connected, we are also experiencing physical symptoms and illness as well.

While no one would choose to be in the current crisis, it provides an opportunity to think much more boldly and purposely about how organizations can and should support the wellbeing of the people that comprise the humanity in them—and not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it will also support sustainable community after we have transitioned from the heart of the COVID crisis. As Brené Brown has noted, “either invest a reasonable amount of time attending to fears and feelings or squander an unreasonable amount of time trying to manage ineffective and unproductive behavior.” It is my personal hope that this crisis will permanently end the absurd and false notion we’ve lived under forever that being “professional” means giving up our humanity and that our personal lives and work lives must both be our top priority at all times. The Faustian pact was never sustainable. It just took a global pandemic to pull back the curtain on the fallacy.

And, importantly, as I noted in my recent webinar on Leadership in a Time of Crisis, managing crisis includes a moral imperative. Organizations that meet that test will not only enjoy a legacy worth having, they will be populated with human capital that is dedicated, loyal, and resilient, and that is a long-term legacy and competitive advantage that can only be earned; it can’t be bought.

I can assist institutions with recruitment of game changing leadership and with building the capacity to support wellness and overall wellbeing. To discuss what that might look like in your organization, contact me directly at,, or at 303.386.7134.

Leadership During Crisis (and After): It’s Not the Same

Image credit: TeamGantt

As Dr. Martin Luther King once said,

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in the moments of comfort, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

What is required for effective leadership has been evolving significantly over the last couple of decades. Unfortunately, leadership competencies and development have not kept pace. As a result, many organizations, and particularly educational institutions, operate with inadequate and, at times, even detrimental leadership. If we layer a major crisis over the top of the existing challenges faced by leaders every day, the gap between what is needed and what exists grows even larger. Two industries where leadership failures have been most pronounced are retail and higher education, both of which have failed to respond effectively to disruptive change, with many thousands of businesses and colleges closing as a result.

The novel coronavirus pandemic has thrown challenges at all industries that represent a once in a lifetime crisis, but for some, such as higher education, many institutions entered the pandemic in a weakened state, ill prepared to handle the organizational, technological, and financial demands posed by the current catastrophe. Moreover, COVID-19 came at a time of growing social unrest and a demographic sea change in the workforce, with millennials now being the largest group overall and even younger workforce populations growing fast. The “boomer” generation is fading in the workplace and we are now seeing a “bottoms up” influence from employees who have very clear demands (and passion) for what they want to be true in their organizations. As noted in AXIOS AM, “The judgment CEOs feared most in the past was pesky reporters or regulators. The judgment they should fear the most now is idealistic employees on the inside, and the social media warriors on the outside.” As Axios CEO Jim VandeHei comments, “Any CEO who ignores this bottom-up revolution will suffer public backlash, recruitment and retention challenges, and fits of internal turmoil.”

What are the requirements of leadership in a crisis and the “next” normal and how are they different from more typical times?

First, the COVID-19 crisis has accelerated the need for leadership characteristics that were becoming more important even before the pandemic. For example, emotional intelligence and people skills were becoming essential to effective leadership over at least the last couple decades. In the face of existential crisis and deep social change, those competencies are even more critical. Likewise, the ability to navigate ambiguous, complex and even volatile environments was growing in value many years before the novel coronavirus came on the scene.

The Trifurcated Leader

Trifurcated Leader

Relatedly, leaders during crisis must meet the daily requirements of running the business, whatever it is, plus managing the crisis, while also identifying transformational opportunities for the post-crisis new normal—which requires operating across at least three domains simultaneously. It’s what I call the “trifurcated leader. Unfortunately, as noted in a recent HBR article, during crisis, it is typical to over-manage and under-lead, resulting in asymmetry from leaders in both effort and outcomes.

Employee Needs

As shown in the trifurcated model, one of the biggest differences between leading in a crisis vs. “normal” times is the responsibility to meet the emotional needs of people in the organization. Interestingly, international research by Gallup found that what matters most to employees in a time of crisis is that their leaders build trust, show compassion, support stability and provide hope. And they don’t expect leaders to be bullet proof or “perfect,” but they do expect them to be competent, prepared, empathetic, and have conviction about the path forward. One of the greatest challenges for traditional leaders now is that they are also expected to care about and support a purpose as much as the bottom line. If leaders want to have legitimacy they will have to authentically grasp and articulate the moral imperatives related to their roles.

An irony of leadership during crisis is that if often requires a more directive approach than might be normally taken, but execution depends more on others. Relatedly, a leader’s communication skills grow in importance during crisis. The stakes are higher and the environment makes effective communication more difficult!

Importantly, crisis also puts extreme pressure on leaders themselves. As a result, a leader’s own resilience and wellbeing come into play in times of crisis as well. Leaders with self-compassion who are good at self-care are much better prepared to succeed in the face of crisis, because they are more likely to maintain their focus and abilities despite what can seem like overwhelming challenges.

Lastly, leaders who can be vulnerable and authentic in times of crisis and social upheaval tend to be better positioned for success because they are amenable to risk, communicate transparently, tend to be trusted by their followers, and have the courage to make difficult decisions even with limited or even contradictory data. While these traits support effective leadership in all contexts, they are particularly powerful when the people in organizations are feeling increased levels of stress and distress. Moreover, Millenials and Gen Xers have very well-developed crap detectors and are much less subservient than boomers were. The AXIOS Am post quoted above also pointedly notes that, “CEOs are often more cautious and contrived than politicians when it comes to tough staff-wide conversations about race, LGBTQ issues, idealism or topics beyond business performance.” That will no longer fly in organizations in which the traditional power dynamics have shifted and employees care about their ideals as much (or more) than their paycheck.

Unfortunately, many organizations are currently being led by individuals who simply don’t have the knowledge, skills, abilities and traits to effectively lead today or in the coming “next” normal. For those entities that survive, many will need to upgrade leadership to ensure growth and sustainability going forward.


The worst leadership profile during crisis is the narcissist. Whether we are talking about a department, division, organization, municipality, state or even nation, narcissistic leaders are deadly during crisis because their focus on self-aggrandizement and their incapacity for empathy come at the expense of focus on the crisis and the wellbeing of the people depending on them.

COVID-19 Will Fundamentally Change Higher Education with Big Winners and Losers

Image credit: Getty

Higher Education, in the sense of institutions that deliver content for credit, then confer degrees to students fortunate enough to persevere for the length of the program, is in the midst of foundational, forced change, that will result in a new normal that will be unrecognizable for large portions of the industry—and most institutions will find themselves in the new reality by default rather than by design.

Even before the novel coronavirus pandemic, American higher education was in the eighth consecutive year of enrollment declines and 2020 will not only be the ninth year, but will manifest the greatest year over year decline of the entire contraction. If the last decade was death by a thousand paper cuts, COVID-19 is a lethal assassin of the status quo. The challenge for colleges and universities, which applies to organizations in any industry, is that it’s very difficult to manage a crisis and think transformatively at the same time. Institutions of higher education, however, are further challenged by cultures and leadership that are far more effective at sustaining the status quo than thinking audaciously about the future.

Unlike virtually any other sector of the economy, colleges and universities were able to operate for decades with anachronistic, expensive, and institution-centric models that amazingly, until recently, also managed to avoid market forces! The last decade marked the beginning of the end of that dynamic with downsizing, mergers, and nearly 1,300 closures, so the industry was already in decline and many institutions were in a severely weakened state even before the pandemic. A combination of unfavorable demographics, cost, debt, new alternatives, and an increasingly negative societal view of higher education was already substantially decreasing demand while also making college enrollment more discretionary among the shrinking potential pool of students. Despite the “pre-crisis crisis,” colleges and universities were remarkably complacent, if not in outright denial about the structural challenges of the last ten years. Although few institutions are likely in denial about the severity of the COVID-19 crisis per se, almost all are in a very heads-down, transactional mode, unable to see the current predicament as an opportunity for reinvention. While that is not atypical of organizations in crisis, the pandemic ironically presents the greatest opportunity in modern times for colleges and universities to think very differently about how they operate and bring value to constituents.


There are currently about 5,800 institutions in the U.S. that are eligible for federal financial aid (there used to be almost 8,000). About 15% of them are financially sound enough, exclusive enough, and/or have enough political patronage to continue to operate very similarly to how they have in the past—at least for the foreseeable future. As Scott Galloway, Silicon Valley entrepreneur and marketing professor at NYU describes the situation in a recent New York Magazine interview, “The better universities are fine in the short term because they just fill spots from the waiting lists. The kid who’s going to Boston College will get into MIT. But if that snakes down the supply chain, and you start getting to universities that don’t have waiting lists, those are the ones that get hit.” The catastrophic combination of factors created by COVID-19 will reduce applications, and thus selectivity at the top of the higher ed food chain and will dramatically reduce selectivity in the middle. Those in the bottom third, or so, will basically implode. As an example, Pepperdine has dipped into its wait-listed students for regular admission well before their deposit deadline — it’s the first time in institutional memory they’ve done that — and then did it again. And that was more than four months before the fall semester! As Galloway further notes, “It will be like department stores in 2018. Everyone will recognize they’re going out of business, but it will take longer than people think.” Some will hang on for a while as “zombie” colleges, technically open, but no longer viable concerns.

On the other extreme, the rich and powerful will get more rich and powerful. As we’ve seen with retail and banking, for example, those with scale, money, reputation and political clout (maybe 50 to 100 institutions) will get bigger and more dominant at the expense of everybody else. As few as a dozen will be the “Amazons” of higher ed. This group will include both the scions of higher education like Stanford and Harvard, with bold upstarts like Western Governors University and Southern New Hampshire, some unique outliers like Grand Canyon, and a few flagship publics as well. What most Americans don’t realize is that the richest institutions in the country also serve the richest students, perpetuating a higher education caste system that has been almost impenetrable and will remain so after COVID-19. According to a 2017 study by the National Bureau for Economic Research, if students’ parents are in the top 1 percent of the income distribution, they’re 77 times (no, that’s not a misprint) more likely to end up in the Ivy League than they are if their parents are in the bottom 20 percent. Despite massive endowments and yearly eight and nine figure revenue surpluses, these institutions simply do not admit a meaningful number of needy students and that may get even worse after the pandemic subsides.

Outside of this caste system, the reality is that much will change whether institutions play along or not. To be clear, this is not speculation. It reflects changes that were already in play, but that have been catalyzed like gasoline on a fire. What can we be confident about?

In the coming years, higher education will:

  • Be smaller, with fewer institutions overall
  • Be dominated by a rich and powerful “cabal” at the top
  • Be redefined by blockbuster partnerships with industry
  • Include non-accredited post-secondary options
  • Be much more discretionary for a vast majority of Americans
  • Operate with less public funding
  • Be less diverse, with fewer students of color, poor students and international students (African American enrollment declined 13% from 2014 to 2019)
  • Manage finance with actual P&L rather than expense budgets (and move to more variable vs. fixed costs)
  • Be less bureaucratic
  • Be less dependent on tuition
  • Be staffed by even more contingent workers
  • Be market driven and move to more “small bite” programs rather than formal degrees
  • Have less face to face interaction, even on residential campuses for both instruction and services
  • Be less calendar-focused, with more flexible, multiple length academic terms
  • Be brutally competitive in a retail context
  • Be much more open to innovation for those institutions that survive
  • Be customer driven (and dependent on a compelling value proposition)
  • Be in a constant state of flux

The simple reality on the consumer side is that what used to be a compelling ROI for college degrees is now only marginally positive, and for a substantial number of students with crippling debt, actually negative. Families in the 1% will still broadly subscribe to a residential college experience, with the end credential being a degree. Everyone else will look for alternatives that make much more sense in terms of time, money, and a path to employment.

ImprovementsOn the other hand, although the outlook for much of traditional higher education is gloomy, the future for post-secondary education is quite bright. And the future for institutions that have the courage and chutzpa to make really bold bets on a fundamentally different future will not only survive, but thrive. In the process, we will see more disruption and innovation in higher education than ever before in its long and impressive history. The closest industry example may be banking, which has moved to a technology driven, hybrid business model in which the majority of transactions are now initiated by customers using various forms of networked technology, with a modest brick and mortar presence for some services, customer support, and as a means of maintaining brand loyalty.

The Opportunity

As noted previously, the rich and powerful of higher education will broadly get richer and more powerful, and will benefit from game changing industry partnerships, robust revenue streams and access to capital. The elites will benefit from exclusivity and legacy reputations while the “upstarts” will benefit from scale, access, and affordability.

Within the vast remainder of colleges and universities, institutions that choose to see themselves as leaders in the move toward a redefined future, there will be an incredible opportunity to create an experience that is student-centric, entrepreneurial, flexible, driven by compelling partnerships and learning experiences, and based on the needs of customers and employers, rather than on the needs of the institution. And the most successful institutions will be those that can solve the critical challenge of creating a highly engaging, social, and “human” environment in the midst of less face to face interaction (even “residential” campuses will deliver more instruction and services online). As a recent article in the Harvard Business Review noted, “digital transformation is now risk-mitigation.” One other likely change for enlightened colleges will be a move from the “one and done” model of enrolling, completing a degree, and disappearing, to a series of educational experiences that keep graduates connected to their schools through short-term, just-in-time programs over a lifetime. These programs are likely to be affiliated with industry and fall under “demand driven education,” which will, for enlightened colleges, finally bridge the higher education-industry divide.

Although, relatively speaking, those that thrive outside the “cabal at the top” will be niche players, the massive contraction in institutions overall will eventually help to realign supply and demand, creating space for small to midsize institutions who compete on their value proposition and redefined financial models. Three to five years from now it will be basically impossible for mediocre colleges and universities, public or private, to compete. The majority of the student market will pay for remote/online learning or local campus based/hybrid options, but only if it is a high-quality experience and only if it is affordable. They will no longer pay exorbitant prices for mediocrity. Of the pool of institutions that operate today with an exclusive admissions model, i.e., they accept fewer students than apply, roughly the bottom third will effectively become open admissions models and even that will not meet admissions targets for all of them. The middle third will become much less exclusive, and the top third will still turn away far more students than they accept, but their typical student profile will shift from creme de la creme to creme. Only the top five percent or so of exclusive institutions will be able to maintain a similar student profile to what they had in the past, but even they will need to accept students they wouldn’t have before.

Lastly, as simple as this is, regardless of sector, institutions that find a way to offer shorter, cheaper, high quality programs and credentials that lead directly to employment opportunities, will be in high demand over the next several years as we work our way out of an economic depression. The double whammy facing higher education is not just the logistical nightmare of COVID-19 and the sudden crash in value of the educational experience for students; the economic calamity will put any kind of traditional higher education out of reach for tens of millions of families for the foreseeable future. Access will actually increase, but not for traditional, residential higher education and degree programs, as many students shift to more affordable, mass-market options.



New Webinar Series: Stronger, Safer–The New Normal

Image credit: Neil Patel

Register here for free sessions beginning the week of May 11th.

Noted higher education experts Dr. Wallace Pond, Yolanda Gallegos, and Anthony Bieda are offering a new, free webinar series dedicated to surviving and thriving through the current crisis. The series was designed for higher education, providing content that applies broadly across all sectors of post-secondary education, with a particular focus on private sector schools. Webinars are currently scheduled starting the week of May 11 through the end of June, with more to come after that!

The series covers everything from the nuts and bolts of the CARES Act and regulatory & accreditation issues, to critically important subjects such as change and crisis management, leadership, and wellbeing in a time of overwhelming stress.

You can register for any combination or all of the sessions at no cost, thanks to support from the Kentucky Association of Career Colleges and Schools (KACCS). Each session will be offered twice, on different days and different times to ensure the most flexibility for attendees.

Feel free to share this notice with anyone who has an interest in effectively managing the transition from the acute phase we are in now to the coming new normal.

Profile of Presenters


Wallace K. Pond, Ph.D.

Dr. Pond, Education Practice Partner at Top Gun Ventures and founder,, has been a mission-driven educator and leader for over 30 years. For the last 20 years, Wallace has been a senior leader in higher education, holding both campus and system level positions overseeing single and large, multi-campus and online institutions of higher education in the US and internationally. He has served as chancellor, president, COO, CEO, CAO (Chief Academic Officer), and board member, bringing exceptional value as a strategic-servant leader through extensive experience and acumen in strategic planning, change management, crisis management/turn around, organizational design and development, P&L, human capital development, innovation, new programs, and deep operational expertise among other areas of impact.

Dr. Pond provides thought leadership and high-impact consulting across a variety of educational and leadership topics including strategy, innovation, healthy organizational culture, executive coaching, change and crisis management and other high ROI areas. You can learn more at


Yolanda Gallegos, Esq.

Ms. Gallegos has represented private sector institutions for more than 30 years focused on guiding schools through critical events including governmental and accreditor investigations, corporate expansions and downsizing, and operational adjustments required in response to regulatory changes. She has served as an expert witness in federal and state courts on matters related to the regulation of student financial aid and is a frequent speaker and writer on a variety of regulatory topics affecting higher education including her chapter on the Violence Against Woman Act regulations (Thomson Reuters: Emerging Issues in College and University Security.) She has successfully defended dozens of institutions in program reviews and audits before the U.S. Department of Education. She has extensive experience in accreditation and state licensing. She received her J.D. from the University Of New Mexico School of Law and her LLM in Advocacy from Georgetown University Law Center. She is a member of both the bars of the District of Columbia and New Mexico and is a recipient of the D.C. Bar’s Pro Bono Lawyer of the Year award for her refugee advocacy.

Ms. Gallegos offers professional fee-based consultation on legal and regulatory matters. Contact her at


Anthony S. Bieda, MBA

Mr. Bieda is Ex. Dir. of KACCS and CEO of ASB34 Policy Resources, a public policy and organizational communications firm. He has more than 40 years’ experience in communications and public policy, including telecommunications, proprietary and public higher education and public lands/natural resources. He is former Executive-In-Charge of ACICS; Asst. County Administrator of Lane County, OR; Asst. Vice President for Government Affairs, Arizona Board of Regents; and Director of Public Relations for U S West – Arizona. He earned a B.S. in Journalism from the University of Northern Colorado, an MBA in accounting and finance from Regis College, and completed coursework toward his Ph.D. in public policy at George Mason University.

Mr. Bieda offers professional fee-based consultation on regulatory and accreditation compliance, government relations and organizational communications. Contact him at

Want to Save the Staggering Cost of a Failed Executive Hire? Follow These Best Practices

Image credit: Business 2 Community

Over the last four months, I have conducted nearly 50 interviews with folks who have been directly involved in executive search, in some cases for decades. These include executives, private equity partners, hiring managers, board members, and executive search professionals. Collectively they have hired hundreds of senior leaders across multiple organizational contexts and provide a rich source of information about what has worked well and not so well in the process of hiring executives.

The participants were quite candid, even when discussing the shortcomings in their own hiring processes, both those that were conducted internally and those supported by executive search firms. Those interviews, and my own experience with executive recruitment, have resulted in a fairly comprehensive and accurate picture of what works and what doesn’t relative to making successful hires (and avoiding mistakes). And this is not just an academic exercise. The cost of failed hires, both financial and organizationally, is shockingly high. You can see an analysis of the cost of such mistakes here.

To the question, What works or looks good when a search delivers value? (and conversely what doesn’t work or look good?), I found a number of commonalities, suggesting a high degree of shared experiences despite the diversity of interviewees and the organizations and industries in which they work. The list below reflects a consensus on what factors have supported successful search. Of course, the converse is also true. When these elements are not present or are not fully realized, that compromises the likelihood of a successful search. These practices broadly fall into pre-hire, hire, and post-hire phases.

Best Practices

The hiring organization actually knows what they need.

More people “confessed” to this internal short-coming than to any other problem, but reported when they took the time to figure it out, they were more likely to hire the right person.

The hiring organization devotes the necessary time and effort to the process.

As important as hiring is, it must receive the same focus, time, and resources dedicated to other initiatives.

The hiring organization is culturally ready to hire the right person.

When organizations get beyond their internal inertia, politics, and biases, they are more prepared to hire folks who aren’t status quo executives.

The search partner is an executive level expert in the industry/field in which the hire takes place and is involved from beginning to end (not just for the sale and at the end).

For searches supported by search firms, clients get much better results when the search partner is actually an executive level expert in the area being hired. That sounds obvious, but it’s actually rare.

The search partner is willing to push the hiring committee beyond the status quo.

Interviewees reported that they achieved the greatest results when an external search partner pulled them out of their comfort zone and/or old habits, both in creating spec sheets for a role, and in reaching out to the most dynamic candidates.

The search partner wants to learn about the hiring organization and the role being hired.

The entire process goes better, and the search partner is more effective, when he/she takes the time to really learn about the hiring organization.

Candidates are effectively screened relative to the specs before being presented.

In many cases, search firms do “paper” evaluations, then throw candidates over the wall to the client organization. Searches are much more effective when the search partner does extensive vetting before presenting candidates.

Candidates are thoroughly assessed for leadership style, org fit, etc.

Whether a search is being conducted internally or with a search partner, hires are much more likely to be successful if the vetting process goes beyond interviews and includes high quality assessments of a candidate’s leadership style, fit with other executives and organizational values, beliefs, etc.

Candidates are sourced from a broad and diverse pool, including outside of the industry.

Organizations often fish in the same pond over and over again, limiting the diversity and quality of potential executive hires (this is particularly acute in higher education). When they are willing to look to other industries and contexts, they tend to find the most game-changing candidates.

The search process delivers exceptional candidates that generate significant impact

Searches often only provide adequate candidates, but not game-changing candidates. As obvious as it sounds, successful searches result in hires that dramatically impact critical organizational outcomes.

The search partner can help the committee/board “sell” the hire within the organization.

Interestingly, multiple interviewees reported that a critical value add from search partners is assistance in presenting a finalist in compelling ways that generate broad-based internal support for the hire.

The hiring committee includes operations people, not just HR or hiring manager.

Second only to failure to fully understand what the organization needs in a new executive hire is the failure to include a broad enough set of constituents in the hiring process and decision to effectively assess a candidate’s ability to meet multiple, sometimes competing needs within an organization. When a committee includes internal customers, HR, colleagues, and others with a vested interest, the quality of the hiring decision tends to be much better, even if it takes slightly longer.

Hiring decisions are based on multiple, defensible data points.

A surprising number of hires end up being “gut level” decisions despite the huge financial and organizational implications. While intuition can be an element of the hiring decision, the most successful hires are based on a combination of data points such as interview ratings, psychometric and organimetric assessments, reference conversations, etc. as they relate to the position specifications.

Part of each interview was dedicated specifically to the participant’s experience with search firms and most (including those from search firms!) did not hold back on discussing what “bothered” them. At a high level, although most interviewees understand the retained search model, they don’t necessarily like it because they often felt taken advantage of by large firms that sold a customized, concierge product, but delivered a cut and paste commodity. The list below represents another area where there was consensus.

What bothers clients who contract with a search firm?

  • The dog and pony show at the beginning, delivered by the heavy hitters, who then disappear, handing off the search to “junior” staff
  • When search firms sell themselves instead of selling solutions to client needs
  • When search firms sell sizzle (or past success) and forget the steak
  • When updates and communications are with junior employees
  • When search firms use templates rather than custom materials
  • When search firms present candidates that have failed elsewhere
  • When search firms don’t take the time to learn about the client organization

Lastly, the interviews also provided some commonalities related to problems that consistently crop up in executive searches. These can occur in both internal and retained searches.

  • Committee/Board isn’t strong enough to go a new direction
  • Search specs don’t align with internal politics/culture or don’t include a broad enough perspective
  • Daily grind gets in the way of both careful due diligence and future/strategic thinking
  • Search firms are too busy/have too many clients
  • Organizations feel obligated to hire someone even if none of the finalists meet all the requirements

In short, there was a fair amount of shared opinion across the folks I interviewed, with common experience around the factors that lead to good search outcomes and those that compromise good outcomes. Whether a search is conducted internally or with the assistance of a search partner, when it fails, it is painfully expensive, in both time and money, to all involved. Fortunately, there are some hard-earned lessons shared in this article that we can use to increase the likelihood of getting the right execs in the right roles. The most critical are: Knowing what you need; dedicating the necessary time, care, and resources to the search; hiring partners that are executive level experts for the role being hired (and who won’t pawn the search off on junior employees); and being willing to hire non-status quo candidates who might require the organization to stretch, but who will return high-impact results.

A Note for After the Hire

Although this was a less emphasized element of the interviews, best-practices don’t end when a candidate signs an offer letter. To the contrary, it is actually one of the more critical phases of hiring. For example, the folks I spoke to said that one of the most important elements of hiring a new executive is an effective on-boarding process. However, almost all said that their own organizations fell short on this count! Other opportunities include executive coaching, which is separate from on-boarding, and an evaluation of the hiring process itself. It is a perfect opportunity to assess what worked well, what can be improved, etc., while the process is still fresh in the minds of the hiring committee.

The New Normal

While much of what was learned from the many folks who contributed to this article still applies in the context of the COVID-19 crisis, there are clearly a few “curveballs” that have to be effectively addressed. One is the difficulty in conducting face to face interviews. Another is simply hiring in the midst of a crisis, which will require candidates who are a good match under the circumstances, not just for “normal times.” It may very well be that some organizations will have to make hiring decisions in the absence of meeting candidates face to face, or possibly the in person interview is reserved only for a finalist as a means of confirming a de facto hiring decision. In either case, hiring organizations will need to leverage tools that provide deeper insight into candidates than under the “normal” conditions of the past. Examples might include using particular psychometric and organimetric instruments and/or more creative use of existing due diligence processes. For example, rather than the customary (and often superficial discussions with references), a hiring organization or partner search firm might conduct a 360 review with candidate evaluators comprised of previous colleagues and supervisors. Regardless, successful executive recruitment will require new thinking.


Because most of my experience has been in the education space, I have some additional insights to executive searches in those institutions. As it relates to traditional higher education, executive hiring decisions tend to be far more driven by politics and culture than in private sector companies that tend to be more agnostic about a candidate’s background, while being evangelical about desired performance. Colleges and universities are unfortunately often more concerned about checking all the boxes related to optics and varied constituencies, even at the expense of future performance on the part of the executive. As a result, they are generally good at creating the appearance of a thorough process, with broad-based input and “proper governance,” but such searches often sacrifice best practices behind the scenes, particularly when they involve traditional search firms, which are often co-conspirators in preserving the status quo.

What Higher Education Executive Teams Need to Know and Be Able to Do in Order to Survive and Thrive

Image credit: Industry Week

Over the last few months I’ve been engaged in conversations about higher education leadership with board trustees, recruiting firms, executives, accreditors, professional organizations, and others with a vested interest in the effectiveness of executive leadership in colleges and universities. There is a strong consensus that the last decade has produced significant failures of leadership across higher education, but there is even stronger consensus that most college C-Suites are woefully unprepared for the challenges presented by the current COVID-19 crisis. Ironically, traditional leaders are really good at “emergency” measures like cutting budgets and laying people off, but they’re lousy at building sustainability through transformation.

Before the Corona pandemic, colleges and universities needed dynamic, game-changing leaders who could empower entire organizations to innovate—to shift from the traditional “fail-safe” cultures of the last century to “safe to fail” environments in which an entrepreneurial spirit prevailed and status quo gave way to transformation. Now, of course, colleges need all that from their executives (and trustees) AND the ability to skillfully navigate an acute, existential crisis. To mix metaphors, if the last ten years were death by a thousand paper cuts, the current state will be a ruthless “culling of the herd,” with the weakest institutions failing to open again in the fall or next spring and many others closing or merging in the next few years.  Executive teams that have never had a meeting on “cash management,” are now doing so daily. Previously “exclusive” institutions who turned away students will find themselves in a de facto “open enrollment” world in a scramble to hit admissions targets, without the normal systems and resources required of that more challenging student demographic. Worse, they will find other institutions poaching both their existing and new students.

Importantly, the current reality requires that we think not just about the knowledge, skills, abilities and orientation of the CEO, but of the entire executive team, and how they work together.

So, what does a high performing university or college cabinet look like in the current circumstances?

First, it absolutely must be a high functioning team. As Patrick Lencioni discovered in his work with senior teams in thousands of organizations, teamwork may be the single greatest competitive advantage any organization can have. It can’t be commoditized and it can’t be bought. As I’ve noted in a previous article, healthy, high functioning teams, even if comprised of lower caliber members, will consistently out-perform even the most capable individuals.

Second, the executive team must collectively meet all of the leadership needs of the institution. It ultimately doesn’t matter which team members have which profiles (the Game Changer Index is a good model), but it is essential that together, an executive team operates without major blind spots and that each member plays to her or his strengths, being supported by others where their interest or aptitude is less pronounced.

Within given roles, the kinds of skills and abilities that produce outsized results in hyper-change, complex, and ambiguous environments, are not what they were, even ten years ago. At the executive level, all leaders must have at least some strategic insight, financial literacy*, and must be able to, if not lead, then at least support, change. Executive level leadership today also requires the ability to leverage human capital, to achieve success through others, to embrace innovation through risk and entrepreneurialism, and it really helps to have some meaningful level of passion and energy. In the context of the current COVID-19 crisis, it is also essential that executives have a plan and speak with one voice. What employees need during a crisis is somewhat different than during “normal” times and executives must be able to instill trust, show compassion, project stability, and offer hope, all in addition to running the daily business and managing the extant crisis!

*Unfortunately, very few college executives are skilled P&L managers. In fact, most CEOs confuse budgets (and expense management) with P&L. In the current environment, any institution whose cabinet level executives understand and can manage profit and loss are at a significant advantage to those who cannot. I have led training exercises with executive teams in which not a single person other than the CFO had ever received any instruction on P&L.

The table below is an incomplete list, but illustrates a number of competencies and orientations that are critical, but rarely exist in college cabinets today. Each column represents the executive leader of that functional area.


To be clear, all executives would benefit from high levels of expertise or orientation in all areas. Having said that, within a given functional domain, for political/cultural/operational reasons, leaders will achieve greater success if they can leverage given competencies more relevant to those respective functional areas. For example, both Provosts and Admissions VPs would benefit from strong business development skills, but that is likely to be more critical for a provost.

In short, required C-Suite skill sets, experience, traits, and aptitudes are not what they used to be—even before COVID-19. And the extent to which a given institution will survive and thrive going forward is inextricably tied to the quality of its collective leadership, which can either be developed or hired, but it cannot be ignored.

The Leadership Crisis in Higher Education

Image credit: CEO Magazine

As I have written in previous articles, higher education in the U.S. was in the midst of an eight-year decline in enrollment, which had precipitated nearly 1,300 closures, many mergers, and a situation in which over a quarter of private, nonprofit institutions were technically insolvent, even before the wrenching COVID-19 crisis. The Corona virus pandemic will accelerate the decline and increase institutional failures across higher education over the next couple of years. Even in the short term, some material number of schools simply won’t reopen their campuses even when the current crisis subsides, and those who thought they were on solid footing, will suddenly realize they are at risk in the new normal. In short, as the weakest institutions fall off the bottom of the list, the deck will reshuffle with previously less vulnerable institutions facing their own existential reality. Most all colleges will become less exclusive, which is probably not a bad outcome.

It is clear that the precipitous, nearly decade long, contraction of higher education, both in terms of the size of the industry and its relevance in the public eye, has been driven by multiple external factors beyond the control of college and university administrations, including everything from demographics to economics. But it is also clear that generally speaking, higher education has suffered from a collective, catastrophic failure of leadership. Although there are exceptions, both the executive and board leadership in a majority of American institutions of higher education, regardless of sector (public, private, community college, career college, etc.), have broadly failed to respond to, or even understand, the fundamental market, political, financial, and demographic changes that have wreaked havoc across most all of American higher education. While college and university leaders have dottered around the edges of incremental change, addressing symptoms rather than causes, the sands under their feet have shifted so dramatically that much of what exists in terms of financial and operational models in many IHEs today is wholly irrational and unsustainable. The COVID-19 crisis has revealed, with ferocity, the underlying weakness and neglect that was already present. An analogue is what happened in retail, with thousands of retailers simply going away in the face of changing consumer habits and disruptive competitors.

How could so much of higher education leadership fail so miserably?

First, even worse than retail or other industries, the culture in higher education has never supported transformative thinking or change and the leadership typically incubated by colleges and universities has never developed the skills or attitudes required to lead in complex, hyper-change environments. Even basic concepts like return on investment or P&L or urgency or accountability are often foreign to higher education, let alone the requisites for surviving and thriving through paradigm-shifting change such as innovation, entrepreneurialism, quick action, risk-taking, emotional intelligence, empowering human capital, etc. In fact, with the exception of a handful of institutions (ironically, mostly large and public), leaders who have the abilities, skills, and orientation to lead effectively in complex, ambiguous, and even volatile environments are deeply threatening to typical higher education institutions which are heavily invested in the status quo and anachronisms that support institutional priorities rather than students, who, by the way, are increasingly seeing college as discretionary. Everything from class schedules to curriculum and degree requirements to faculty rank and tenure to research agendas to the absurd inputs that drive university rankings have almost nothing to do with market realities or value proposition or learning theory or supporting diversity and inclusion or social mobility for students or even graduation and employment!

In most cases, the profound leadership failures in the C-suites of higher education over the last couple of decades are not a result of malfeasance on the part of executives. They are the result of leaders who are simply ill-equipped to meet the challenges they actually face vs. the leadership challenges that academic leaders were groomed to face from a previous era. Evidence of this fundamental mismatch can be found in the implosion of the average president tenure just 15 years go from about 12 years to less than six today, with the number being closer to three if we include interim placements. Unfortunately, the traditional executive search process makes the situation worse by regularly delivering candidates with anachronistic skills and wholly inadequate leadership profiles.

And this failure to acknowledge and address the profound challenges that IHEs have been facing for years includes typical college boards as well, whose membership is rarely based on the experience, skills, and orientation that would actually benefit the institutions they oversee, but rather on cozy relationships, politics, fund raising, favors, political appointments, program affiliations, alumni status, etc. Even the most loyal and dedicated trustees (and there are many) are simply not capable of bringing value to the hard and critical conversations around strategy, accountability, transformative change, redefinition, alternative business models and revenue streams, etc. that, for the most part aren’t happening anyway! In short, most boards, even if they do possess relevant expertise on the part of some trustees are either too polite to engage in tough discussions or too dysfunctional to embrace healthy conflict. And because most boards have a preponderance of “insiders,” it is almost impossible for them to break the “group think” dynamic that allows so many institutions to weave their way down the road to oblivion. Interestingly, research on successful turnarounds in higher education suggests that such turnarounds are almost impossible using the same leadership that was in place during the decline. While not surprising, boards rarely pursue the kind of leadership that is necessary (and very different) from the status quo they are used to even when their institutions are in crisis.

The leadership failure that is compromising higher education in general is also exacerbated by a triad of regulatory and accreditation oversight that also values predictability, control, and the status quo over innovation, creativity and transformative change. In fact, it is very difficult for colleges and universities to experiment even in limited ways with the “sacred” in higher education such as how credit is awarded and transferred, how students demonstrate subject mastery, what qualifies for financial aid, new delivery models and even true absurdities such as “contact hours” vs. competency. It remains to be seen if some of the regulatory breakthroughs necessitated by the COVID-19 crisis will be sustained in the new normal or if regulators will go back to the century old command and control structure on which oversight has been based (and which has crippled innovation).

It also remains to be seen if the current crisis is the “dislodging” even that Robert Zemsky at the University of Pennsylvania suggests is required for fundamental change in higher education. The eight-year decline and over 1,200 closures was not enough to jar the complacency that was still in place across much of higher education just a few months ago, so we shall see. Unfortunately, the weakened state of many institutions before the COVID-19 crisis will create overwhelming leadership challenges going forward, even for those leaders and boards who would otherwise be up to the task–and for leaders whose boards cannot or will not support change, their chance of success is close to nil. While it’s impossible to know what number of closed institutions would still be open or what number of those that will not survive going forward would have been saved had there not been such egregious failures of leadership, what is clear is that higher education is already bifurcating and the institutions that were thriving despite the eight year contraction all have one very critical thing in common: Executive and board leadership that had the vision, capacity, and perseverance to meet foundational challenges head on with innovation, courage, and a willingness to question even the sacred in the interest of creating a sustainable future. They all have also figured out that student enrollment decisions are discretionary and that the value of choosing their institution over another must be compelling. The value proposition does not have to be the same. It just has to meet the needs of a large enough part of the market such that whatever challenges a given institution faces, meeting sustainable enrollment targets isn’t one of them.

On a sobering final note, the impending collapse of state funding will render many public institutions not only insolvent, but unable to deliver even basic services. Although public institutions have escaped outright bankruptcy and closure over the last decade, that will change with the COVID-19 crisis as we begin to see the first closures and continued mergers within public systems. Many states, as their tax receipts fall well below even the levels of  the great recession, have already begun to “claw back” previously allocated funds for the current fiscal year. In the coming year, many state universities (particularly mid-tier institutions) and community colleges will see the greatest cuts in funding in their entire histories and will simply be unable to operate in any way approximating “normal.” This reality will exceed the capacity of even the most capable leaders and the priority will shift to mothballing facilities, eliminating academic majors and sports teams, shuttering learning sites, and in some cases, entire campuses. The saving grace for some flagship universities is that due to declining funding over many years, they have built revenue models that are far less dependent on actual state appropriations. Some of these universities received less than 10% of their operating budgets from state legislatures even before the current crisis. While they will also struggle significantly, the threat for them will be less existential, though no less challenging for their leadership.


Although I have written articles (and a book) that have been critical of American education, this article is the most direct critique I have written about the broad-based failure of leadership in higher education. I would add that it is also a moral failure as well. Both executive leaders and trustees, entrusted with the responsibility to protect the institutions they lead, have, in thousands of cases, been unable to find the courage to abandon the familiar and embrace the bold, audacious thinking that is required of transformative change. I wish to be clear that my critique is in no way a personal attack on the thousands of individuals who have, in some cases, dedicated their entire professional lives to serving educational institutions and the people in them—as I have. One can be well-meaning and even passionate, and still unable to meet the huge leadership challenges presented by shifting paradigms and crisis. And for those higher education leaders who were “brought up” through the ranks of traditional colleges and universities before becoming a president or chancellor, you were set up. Your leadership development was wholly inadequate for the challenge of today’s reality. Lastly, and unfortunately, many capable leaders have been ill-served and even sabotaged by boards who themselves did not have the vision or the courage to support an entrepreneurial spirit, risk-taking, and innovation, let alone the kind of transformational change necessary to survive and thrive in the recent past and current reality.

The last decade was a slow drip decline. COVID-19 will be quick, ruthless and indiscriminate in its remaking of the higher education landscape. Although there are many unknowns about the future of higher education, one thing is indisputable: The quality and effectiveness of leadership itself has become an existential issue (and competitive advantage). To thrive in the new normal, institutions must have leadership, executive and board level, that is up to the task.

What to Expect in the Fall For Higher Education and Its Students

Image credit Gerd Altmann

While heads are still spinning from the acute onset of the COVID-19 crisis, it is already time to be thinking about the coming fall semester. It seems likely that colleges and universities will stay closed for on campus/face to face activities through the summer, but some kind of transitional operations may be possible in the fall. Maintaining closures through the summer may actually be a blessing, allowing maxed out staff, faculty, and administrators time and space to better prepare.

A way to think about the process is that we are currently still in the acute phase of the pandemic, which will be followed by a transition phase and finally the new normal. That applies to the pandemic itself and to how we live and operate as well.

So what can we expect between now and early fall?

  • Some institutions, who were already experiencing financial exigency, will not re-open.
  • Virtually all institutions will experience steep declines in revenue and similar declines in enrollment.
  • All will have incurred new costs.
  • Some material number of students will continue to go to school, but will shift to less expensive, more flexible, and more efficient options. Many will choose local and online options–and that will extend far into the future.
  • We may see the end of the traditional (agrarian) academic calendar, with shorter terms, late starts, etc. That wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

We’ve also been able to identify the likely characteristics of institutions that will successfully manage the crisis, which means getting through the acute and transition phases and still be around for the new normal. Some short, mid, and long-term examples are below.

Short to Mid Term

  • Can limit attrition of existing students
  • Can Limit misses to new enrollment targets
  • Establish a much leaner expense model (based on values and strategy)
  • Are highly effective with cash management
  • Have reprioritized necessary vs. discretionary
  • Plan for worst-case, with optimistic fall-back options (it is quite possible that the fall term will also be fully delivered at a distance)
  • Have leadership that instills confidence

Long Term

  • Have a clear value proposition that differentiates them from the competition
  • Have preserved or established a deep sense of community
  • Can pivot from initial crisis management and transition to new normal operations
  • Have maintained or adopted values driven decision making
  • Can implement transformative change even if that means abandoning what once was “sacred” in the interest of survival
  • Have leadership that instills confidence

The most important key for success will be the ability to create an educational experience that is engaging and productive for students regardless of the delivery method. In other words, for almost all colleges and universities, post COVID, there will be far more instruction and services delivered remotely than before the crisis. Those that can make that increasingly hybrid experience user-friendly, social, engaging, rewarding, etc., independent of the mode of delivery, will attract and keep students.

For mid-tier, less exclusive, poorly endowed, broadly tuition-dependent institutions—which represents most of higher education—thriving in the new normal will require audacious thinking and a willingness to completely redefine themselves. That is not a strength of higher education, but the existential nature of the situation will push some fortunate institutions with the right leadership in that direction.

Even those institutions who do all the right things will have to start from a viable place. In other words, institutions who do not have the liquidity to bridge the gap, simply won’t survive regardless. Just last week we’ve seen announcements from half a dozen schools that are implementing teach-outs and will not reopen. And schools who thought they were operating from a position of strength, will have that notion challenged as their relative exclusively declines, gross applications decrease, and “yield” declines as well at the same time that endowments implode and new philanthropic giving evaporates.

We can also expect that “post-crisis,” a material number of students (and their families) will still choose to pursue a college education, but will no longer pay for an expensive residential experience, particularly if we don’t get to a new normal quickly that looks and feels close to what students got in the past. Even if that residential experience is close to what it used to be, many traditional aged students and their families will have reprioritized what matters to them. For many, an expensive college education will have become a highly discretionary expense. We can expect to see a fairly dramatic shift to other forms of post-secondary education such as industry-delivered training, boot camps, certificates and shorter length programs in general, which will put extreme pressure on small, liberal arts colleges and mid-tier publics in particular. It remains to be seen how community colleges will fare, but they could be the sector that benefits most if they can solve their long standing and near scandalous problem with program completion rates—and don’t go broke when state appropriations shrink dramatically, as they will for at least the next couple of years.

In short, the COVID 19 crisis will do with ruthless efficiency what the market could not. Despite the ongoing eight-year, slow drip decline in enrollment, very little of higher education has evolved in transformative ways. As a result, we will see a bifurcation of survivors. Those who have built the capacity to scale, serving large numbers of students at a reasonable cost, particularly at a distance, will fill one camp. The other, will be comprised of those institutions that have the financial and/or political resources to continue to serve a smaller, but still existing population of students who want a traditional, residential experience. A big swath of higher education in the middle is in for the greatest existential crisis since American “higher education” began in the 17th century.


There are also some “wildcards” to consider as institutions begin fighting for survival. There is no doubt that we will see institution level behaviors that we never have before (it’s already happening). Fierce competition from schools that aggressively market and discount in order to “poach” new and existing students will become common as restrictions on those behaviors were lifted just last year and colleges fight for every tuition paying student. The “gentlemen’s” agreements that were common in the past will evaporate as schools move into an era of “retail competition.”

Students can also expect:

  • Larger class sizes
  • More online/remote content
  • Difficulty getting classes they need for their majors
  • Entire programs being discontinued
  • Faculty and staff layoffs
  • Decreased hours and access to campus facilities and services (if you’re on a campus)
  • Increased fees

In short, as institutions move from the acute outbreak phase through a transition period, and ultimately get to a new normal, there will continue to be significant disruption. Some things will never go back to how they were, but schools that have the necessary leadership to engage hard decisions and transformative change, will be far more likely to still be around in some form for the new normal than those who do not.

An Important Note on Leadership

It is almost certain that the most successful passage from the acute phase, through a transitional period, then to the new normal will require highly effective leadership. And, while impactful leadership in crisis shares some elements of high level leadership under “normal” circumstances, the needs of employees are not the same. As research by Gallup reveals, what followers need most in a time of crisis are trust, compassion, stability, and hope. In the face of something as destabilizing as COVID-19, it is absolutely essential that leaders be as purposeful about meeting the emotional needs of their communities as they are about their operational interventions.