Higher Education on the Brink: How the Fear of Change Threatens the Future and What Colleges Can Do about It

By Michael Bills, Ph.D. and Wallace K. Pond, Ph.D. Copyright, 2020

An abridged version of this article is available at the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The Pre-Pandemic State of Higher Education

A great deal has been written the past several years predicting the demise of large numbers of US colleges and universities. Most notably, the late Harvard Business School professor and management guru, Clayton Christensen, predicted that half of American colleges and universities would shut down by 2030. While subsequent predictions have been less dire, to put the situation in perspective, Moody’s determined that roughly one third of all colleges were operating at a deficit before the pandemic. The current reality has created what is likely the greatest liquidity crisis for higher education in modern times.

At particular risk are small, private, tuition dependent colleges where, “having ten fewer students than expected is a serious financial problem. Having thirty fewer is a disaster,” according to Alice Brown, former president of the Appalachian College Association. In the case of private institutions, there is no “faith and credit” of a state government serving as a financial backstop. While many publics are also facing crisis, it is unclear how they “fail” in the sense that insolvency and bankruptcy do not apply in the same way to public entities as they do to nonprofit and for profit corporations. Some may continue to operate as what Scott Galloway at NYU has termed “zombie institutions,” technically open, but unable to fulfill their missions.

The headwinds facing most of higher education, including unfavorable demographics, declining public attitudes about higher education, cost, debt and declining ROI for students, macro-economics, and competition from “mass market” alternatives (both within higher education and externally from industry) tend to pose even greater challenges for small, private institutions, whose value proposition has historically been founded on a very expensive and highly traditional campus-based experience. This presents a double whammy because not only is the student market for that higher education model declining, but the fixed costs of predominantly residential, campus-based operations create structural challenges for those institutions’ financial viability even if they have enrollments close to historical levels.

Our Perspective on the Depth and Breadth of the Challenge

Based on our many combined years in the roles of trustee, college president, and private sector CEO, we feel that the situation may actually be worse than typically understood for three reasons. First, as an “industry,” higher education was in a dramatically weakened state before the COVID crisis. Secondly, despite nine consecutive years of enrollment decline and large numbers of mergers and closures, leadership in the majority of colleges failed to engage in the kind of foundational change that was necessary in the face of dramatically evolving operating environments. And third, institutional boards, which were built to politely oversee status quo realities are ill-equipped structurally, behaviorally, culturally, and from a perspective of expertise to effectively exercise their governance responsibilities during the current volatile, complex, and hyper-change reality.

A business facing environmental changes of this magnitude would be expected to pivot rapidly by entering new markets, developing new products and services, jettisoning legacy systems, engaging customers with new value propositions, and rapidly innovating. Higher education, however, due to both structural and cultural impediments, did not respond even to the severe decline before COVID. Because the shared governance typically found in colleges and universities distributes decision making, it is time-consuming, lacks a sense of urgency, and requires constituencies with competing agendas to come to consensus. It is not an overstatement to say that, in many cases within higher education prior to the pandemic, institutions and the folks within them (administration, faculty, boards, alumni), actually accepted failure rather than choosing to change.

A potential saving grace of the current pandemic for the institutions that survive is that it may finally be what Robert Zemsky has termed a “dislodging event”—something that is so jarring that it forces change that was not possible before. A recent example is faculty who said they would retire before teaching online who nonetheless found themselves teaching through some version of technology mediated distance education because they had no choice! There is also modest evidence that, faced with existential crisis, some institutions are at least entertaining new ways of operating that were off-limits before the pandemic. So far however, those changes are more likely to be related to short term crisis management than genuine transformation.

Why Boards and Governance Have to Change

Based on recent research conducted by one of the authors, it is fairly clear that the failures of the last ten years are broadly leadership failures, both at the executive level and, significantly, on the part of boards of trustees. Although the external pressures on higher education have been serious, most institutions of higher education and their boards, have been remarkably complacent in the face of long-term declines in enrollment and revenues, increasing competition, shifts in post-secondary education from traditional colleges and universities to commercial and industry providers, and increasingly negative public attitudes about the value of higher education. Despite repeated, visible warnings, executive teams and boards broadly clung to the status quo hoping things would just get better.

Why would boards be part of the problem?

First, boards operate in the context of a shared governance model, which itself is rarely amendable to nimble decision making, risk-taking, speed, innovation, or transformational change. Secondly, they operate within a cultural framework in which there is more inertia to protect the status quo than to support transformative ways of being and operating. Although shared governance is broadly understood to have certain guidelines about who has authority over different spheres of activity—thefaculty taking charge of the curriculum, the president conducting day-to-day management of the college, and the boardhaving responsibility for fiduciary oversight, stewardship of the institutional mission, and hiring/firing of the president— in practice, however, this ostensibly clear-cut delineation is not well understood and is often a significant impediment to making decisions and taking action. Instead, it becomes a political process dedicated to balancing competing interests rather than to supporting the best decision making.

Another challenge is related to accountability. According to Jay Schalin, the director of policy at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, most private college and university boards are effectively the “owners” of the institution and legally have the final say, yet they commonly relinquish that authority to the president and the faculty (again, typically for cultural and political reasons). To be blunt, as noted by Brian Mitchell and Joseph King, if an institution is in decline over a period of time, it is the board of trustees that is ultimately to blame, because the board has final accountability for an institution’s finances and its ultimate viability. The research previously cited in this article found that critical issues such as declining enrollments and revenue, liquidity problems, deficit spending, deferred maintenance, etc. were repeatedly discussed in board meetings without the boards asserting their governance obligations, often until it was too late and the colleges were no longer viable concerns.

The very nature of college boards also creates substantial obstacles for the institutions they oversee, some of which are discussed below.

Board Structure and Membership

Private college trustees are nearly universally selected due to their wealth (as possible donors), career success/status, alumni affiliation, former institutional affiliation, and perceived influence. And they are all volunteers. As a result, trustees are generally supportive, if not passionate about the institution, but unlike corporate directors, do not have a direct stake in its success. Because they are not broadly selected for their expertise as it relates to the institution’s operational and strategic needs, the CEO and executive teams do not benefit from needed input nor are they actively challenged relative to planning, decision making, performance, prioritization, strategy, etc. Lastly, the typical college board is overwhelming large with dozens of trustees, a majority of whom are usually alumni. Although such huge numbers of trustees support the goal of broader inclusion, it is highly problematic relative to the board’s functionality and efficacy. And the disproportionate number of alumni, while creating passion for the institution, tend to also create nostalgia and inertia for how things “used to be.”


Typical board cultures support politeness, friendly relationships, political correctness, and respect for the status quo and legacy issues over transparency, healthy conflict, bold thinking, and transformative change. Such culture has been nurtured over many decades of status quo operations, but it is detrimental in today’s operating environment.

Information Asymmetry

Information asymmetry between the administration and the board is common. Because their work is volunteer and part-time, many board members’ awareness of what is going on at their campus and in the broader landscape of higher education comes exclusively through reports and updates provided at quarterly (or less frequent) board meetings. In some cases, the asymmetry of information between the administration and the board is more intentional. Information may be withheld or kept at a superficial level so that presentations and/or decision making is quick, avoiding time-consuming due diligence (and the related accountability that would come with such a process). We have both observed boards receiving information about material, serious, or even existential issues (and even making decisions), with an almost autonomic response.

Problem Blindness

Related to information asymmetry, independent college turnaround consultant, Ruth Cowan, referred to boards either unaware of, or ignoring their problems as “problem blind.”  Decline at a college/university can be more difficult to see than a business.  A college is mission oriented whereas a business is profit focused. Colleges and universities with broken business models can operate years after a similarly beleaguered business would have been sold or dissolved. In fact, when an institution announces a merger or closure, that reality was years in the making, until, despite a range of financial “tricks,” there is simply no more liquidity to operate.

Deference to the President

Compounding the problem blindness of boards is being overly deferential to the president, which has contributed in some cases to presidents engaging in wasteful, misguided, and risky pursuits. Moreover, Boards’ awareness of what is going on at their campus and in the broader landscape of higher education comes almost exclusively from episodic board presentations. Administrators, on the other hand, are usually long-term academics who are intimately acquainted with almost everything that occurs on their campus and highly informed about higher education in general. It is therefore only natural for board members to defer to the president.

While the interdependence of the board and the president can be a strength of the presidency, it can also lead to what long time college trustee and US Appeals Court Judge, Jose Cabranes, described as “back him or sack him” whereby trustees believe they should unequivocally support the president until he or she becomes objectively and obviously unfit for the position.

Optimism Bias

Optimism bias, fueled by an internally focused view, can lead to a systematic fallacy in strategy and decision-making that Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman calls  “the planning fallacy”. In this dynamic, decision makers tend to underestimate costs, completion times and risks, while overestimating the benefits. The planning fallacy can be mitigated by “reference class forecasting” whereby decision makers find a reference class of similar projects, allowing them to form an “outside view” that is almost certain to be less optimistic than the inside view. The very nature of college/university governance is a breeding ground for optimism bias, due to the aforementioned deference, problem bias, and information asymmetry.

The Pandemic as Existential Crisis

The predictions of vulnerability and mass closings preceded the pandemic and so did the conditions that made it difficult for institutions to make substantive changes in response to environmental threats. As with Robert Zemsky and his notion of a dislodging event, perhaps the pandemic will be the “disorienting dilemma” that Jack Mesirow, the father of transformational learning, said was necessary for critical reflection followed by transformation.  The boards of the institutions in Dr. Bills’ research that successfully reversed their declines and began to thrive, all responded to a disorienting dilemma, usually a threat of foreclosure or loss of accreditation, by engaging in soul searching followed by transformative actions to change the institution. Interestingly, even for those institutions, the threat had to be literally existential in order for the boards to “wake up.” Although the institutions in question faced their moment of truth pre-COVID, it may be that the current crisis will provide a similarly motivating scenario to shake other boards out of their complacency—to prefer change, even change that alters the nature of the institution—rather than riding the status quo to a painful demise.

Whether one agrees with Robert Zemsky or Clayton Christensen about the number of institutions at risk of failing, one-fifth to one-half of American colleges and universities is a big number.  Some institutions’ fates are already sealed, but the good news is that we know what is working in institutions that have found success. Many, even those who are struggling significantly, have the potential to survive and then thrive – and it starts with the board of trustees.

Surviving and Thriving

While there is no sure-fire formula, according to Terrence MacTaggart, “turnaround sagas are remarkable in that they are at once unique and yet much alike. Each change story exhibits strikingly particular features of locale, culture, mission, history, leadership, temperament, resources, and programs. At the same time, each story displays marked similarities.” 

At the highest level, boards have to:

  • Accept that problems are structural, not episodic
  • Hire the right leadership with the right profile
  • Quickly align expense with revenue*

*Generating and operating under solvent budgets are normally the purview of the CEO and her or his executive team. However, in crisis, board intervention to ensure solvency is critical to support the mid and long-term objectives of surviving and ultimately thriving.

Seven Critical Board-Related Success Factors

The characteristics of a change adept board that is prepared to lead a turnaround and/or address an existential crisis are clear. The research identified seven critical success factors that the board must demonstrate in order to successfully transform an at-risk college or university

  1. The board recognizes that a crisis is imminent or looming.
  2. The board accepts that survival will require a departure from tradition.
  3. The board ensures that they have a president suitable for leading a turnaround.
  4. The board partners with the president to support change initiatives and actively works with the president to overcome resistance to change.
  5. The board intentionally recruits and develops board members who will understand and support the turnaround.
  6. The board works with and learns from outside advisors skilled and experienced in college and university turnarounds.
  7. The board uses its authority to take action.

Even in the absence of crisis, institutions who have realized significant success, particularly those that have experienced substantial growth, such as Arizona State, Southern New Hampshire, Western Governors’, Grand Canyon, etc., all had dynamic leaders AND boards that were willing to support transformative change.

Institutional Characteristics that Support Success

In addition to board traits, 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.)


While any change related to any crisis presents significant challenges, higher education has historically been much better at preserving the status quo than embracing transformation, which creates an added cultural barrier to the kind of thinking and action that is necessary today. However, for boards that recognize the sacred charge of their trusteeship and are therefore willing to have difficult, sometimes painful discussions, pursue accountability for executives and themselves, take action that will challenge tradition (and some constituencies), and maybe most importantly, are willing to embrace the risk that might be necessary to trade status quo for relevancy, there is not only a path to survival, but to a sustainable, audacious future.


In our trustee, president, and consulting roles, we have come to understand that even boards that want to fully maximize the impact of their trusteeship, are often not capable of doing so due to a variety of issues enumerated earlier in this article. Whether the challenges are structural, cultural, behavioral, relational or some combination, those problems can be overcome if boards genuinely want to improve their efficacy. If boards are ready to do the hard work, starting with deep self-reflection, openness to objective evaluation, transparency about what is working and what must be different, honest evaluation of their institution’s risk, and acceptance of true accountability for their responsibility, boards can not only be more effective, they can be transformational.

Unfortunately, traditional models of third-party board support are typically inadequate for the complexity of today’s challenges. However, there is a partnership model for guiding boards through the kind of comprehensive work described above. If you would like to learn more, please reach out to Dr. Mike Bills at mike@wasatcheducationpartners.com or Dr. Wallace Pond at wallace@wasatcheducationpartners.com. Either of us would be pleased to discuss what options might make sense for your board and institutions.

Author Bios

Mike Bills, a successful entrepreneur and long-standing college trustee, co-founded Wasatch Education Partners with the goal of ensuring that college boards are part of the solution rather than the problem for institutions that are struggling through very complex and difficult times.

Wallace Pond, a thirty plus year educator, executive, and entrepreneur, co-founded Wasatch Education Partners to ensure that college boards are getting the critical support they need to succeed in today’s volatile, hyper change reality.

The End of Higher Education as We Know It

Image Credit: Money Magazine

I wrote an article before the corona virus pandemic three years ago about the decline in higher education caused by massive disruption to a four-centuries old model, that, unlike almost every other industry had managed to avoid market forces for essentially it’s entire existence. In that article I asked whether or not there was a future for higher education as we know it. It has become clear that for a large chunk of traditional higher education, the answer is simply, “no.”

Over the last ten years a combination of factors including demographics (declining birth rates), increasingly negative views of higher education, unsustainable revenue and financial models, cost and debt, structural changes in the economy, a diminishing return on investment for students, and a growing number of alternatives has decreased college enrollments by well over 2,500,000 students compared to 2010. You can see a comprehensive explanation of each factor here. And that’s just the first wave. 2020 has seen the greatest year over year enrollment declines in the entire 10-year cycle and the disruption from competitors and technology is just getting started.

We are entering a phase in which the effects of an imploding business model that began years ago are being exacerbated by additional disruptive forces such as the de-monetization of post-secondary education caused by shorter, cheaper, industry driven, non-credit, non-degree educational programs. This has been in the pipeline for years, but the blockbuster changes of 2020 are the entry of companies like Amazon, Google, and Netflix into the post-secondary education space, which is simultaneously blowing up the last vestiges of the two, core elements of the traditional higher education model: tuition and degree programs. At the same time, these companies, and many others, are no longer requiring traditional college degrees for employment. While there will continue to be some jobs that require degrees and/or licensure that at this point can only be earned through college programs (think: health care, engineering, high-end accounting, etc.), that will become a shrinking part of the overall employment credential market and eventually even those jobs will be accessible without traditional college programs. In fact, the transition has already begun with computer science and engineering, project management, human resources, business management, numerous vocational jobs, and even lower end allied health positions—all jobs for which the training used to come from college degree programs. A survey conducted during the pandemic found that 63% of adults said that if they pursued an educational program, they would prefer non-degree skills training or certificates rather than a degree program at any level, so it’s clear that given a choice, the student market is moving away from degrees as well.

And unlike other industries that have gone through and survived powerful disruption by reinventing themselves, higher education writ large is simply unprepared and incapable of making similar transitions. Of course, there are exceptions, and the best of those will thrive, but broadly speaking colleges and universities are structurally impaired when it comes to transformational change. Examples include the shared governance model, high fixed overhead, a regulatory regime that stifles innovation, organizational and academic culture, inadequate executive and board leadership, and constituencies that are more vested in the status quo than in survival. The good news is that we know what the necessary leadership profile looks like for institutions and boards that are ready to hire those kinds of leaders. Unfortunately, large numbers of colleges and universities were dramatically weakened even before COVID and before the entry of additional disruptive forces. As noted by Moody’s, roughly a third of all institutions were operating in the red before the pandemic. That number is likely to be approaching 50% at this point, as both tuition revenue and state support continue to decline at the same time pandemic expense is increasing.

Relatedly, with few exceptions, traditional higher education simply does not support, and is not capable of supporting, industry in any meaningful way. Before COVID, most industries were abandoning higher ed as an employee pipeline and building their own infrastructure for both entry level and on-the-job training. While the pandemic put the brakes on that in some parts of the economy such as hospitality and aviation, it has dramatically increased in other areas such as logistics, online retail, healthcare, and technology. In short, higher education is quickly losing its long-held monopoly as the path to professional education to companies and organizations that deliver affordable, relevant, “fresh,” just-in-time job skills via programs designed by the employers for whom the students will work!

But it gets worse.

One of the key reasons that there is no future for a large swath of traditional higher education as we know it is because for many students, post-secondary education has become a retail transaction, similar to any other in their lives. This is an existential problem for colleges and universities (regardless of the sector they’re in) because they charge high prices for what is typically one of the highest-friction, poorest customer experiences a student can have, which, by the way, also requires a huge investment of time and effort, for an outcome with a declining (and in some cases, negative) ROI! Moreover, traditional higher education is one of the last, worst adopters of technology as a tool for creating a positive, efficient customer experience. Disruption requires an alternative to the status quo that works better for a large number of consumers and the trend we are at the front end of now will soon be a tidal wave led by disruptors for whom the bar of an easier, better experience and value proposition is already low.

The primary cause, then, that the market for traditional higher education will be so much smaller in the fairly near future than it was even a decade ago, and relatedly why so many more institutions will merge or close, is because colleges and universities are fundamentally unprepared to reinvent themselves at the same time that new providers that understand the retail and service model are aggressively entering the post-secondary market with options that are faster, cheaper, easier and often provide an immediate, high value return on investment.

Moreover, some key factors will continue to present growing challenges for traditional colleges and universities such as worsening demographics, decreased public funding, and further disconnects from industry which has needs that higher ed has broadly failed miserably to meet. The top echelon of the most elite institutions will be able to operate for the foreseeable future much as they have for the last century, but that represents about 10% or less of all of the colleges and universities in the country. Declining birth rates alone will decrease the pool of available college freshman by a fifth or more between 2025 and at least 2040! As the traditional market continues to shrink, the one third or so of institutions that are “exclusive” (they accept fewer students than apply and still fill all their seats) will each become less exclusive by poaching from the layer below them, until there is no layer from which to poach—at least the remaining two thirds of higher education. For post-secondary education, however, which includes every conceivable education program after high school, the market includes everyone from 18 to post-retirement age, who, by the way, will have to continue going back to “school” over and over again for their entire working lives. Declining birthrates are inconsequential for organizations operating in that market.

Because higher education is shrinking while post-secondary education is growing, whether programs are ultimately offered by colleges, industry, or other providers, those who are able to deliver education that customers need and want, when they need it, with a positive customer experience, will be part of the market that is growing. Those who can’t either have to be in the top tier of exclusive traditional colleges, or they will eventually go away.

A Note on the Effect of the Pandemic

I have had direct visibility into dozens of institutions of higher education over 2020 and while they have achieved herculean results managing the crisis, in fact doing things they would have thought simply impossible before the crisis, almost none of them are meaningfully thinking about the future. In part, they have used every inch of organizational bandwidth and in part they are simply exhausted, but I am aware of exactly two institutions out of probably 30 or 40 that are actually thinking in a strategic and entrepreneurial way about what comes next. Most have confused solving really hard crisis-driven operational problems with innovation or planning for the future, and it is neither. And the vast majority of the folks I’m in communication with have no idea of the true disruption that is on the horizon—they think it was COVID. They naively believe that having temporarily solved the problem of delivering education and services remotely has prepared them for the future!

So, when I wrote my first article on disruption in higher education about three years ago, I was aware of all of the factors (other than a global pandemic) which are conspiring today to profoundly disrupt one of the oldest “industries” in America. What I didn’t fully understand at the time was the underlying weakness and lack of resiliency in much of higher education overall and the extent to which many colleges and universities would actually choose to fail rather than change. What makes most other industries different in the face of disruption is their willingness to fight and to reinvent themselves to survive. Because that is broadly not the case in higher education, my sense is that the growing disruption will leave more wreckage in its wake.

On the other hand, disruption always brings opportunity for those who are fully aware of and accept the reality and have the courage to embrace even foundational change. As it relates to higher education, those institutions will have the added advantage of being in the minority and thus more likely to benefit from the courage to reinvent themselves.

To explore what options exist to increase the likelihood that your institution is on the side of the ledger of surviving and thriving this tsunami of disruption, reach out to Dr. Wallace Pond at wkp@wallacekpond.com or https://www.linkedin.com/in/wallace-pond-47b05512/

Surviving and Thriving Through the Current Higher Education Crisis: We Know What Works

Image Credit: VantageCircle

The Current Reality

Higher education was in a nine-year enrollment decline before the corona virus pandemic. As a result, there are over 2,000,000 fewer students enrolled today compared to 2010 and over 1,300 institutions have merged or closed in the same period. While the early years of the decline disproportionately hit for-profit colleges, the last few years, and particularly 2020, have had a greater negative impact on nonprofit institutions. Even before COVID, Moody’s noted that nearly a third of all colleges and universities were operating at a deficit and they now predict five to 10% additional revenue declines for the 2021 academic year.

If the ten-year market decline in higher ed was death by a thousand paper cuts, the pandemic is the grim reaper. What most people don’t realize is how severely weakened most of higher education was before the crisis. And fall 2020 represented the greatest year-over-year enrollment decline of the entire 10-year trend. Ironically, community colleges have suffered the steepest decrease from 2019 at 10%, but the reality is actually worse because first time CC enrollments are down a whopping 23%. Freshman enrollment across all of higher education is down nearly 16% in 2020, with even larger declines among Black, Hispanic, and Native American students. New international enrollments are down an astonishing 43% compared to 2019. Possibly most concerning, this fall, 22% fewer high school seniors enrolled in college than in 2019, with low-income high school graduates failing to enroll at a rate nearly 33% lower than last year. This is one more data point showing how the pandemic has disproportionately hurt the most vulnerable in our society.

So, the situation is bleak and some substantial number of institutions will not survive the next few years. And not just because of the current pandemic, but because students were already moving en masse away from traditional higher education as the return on investment has become simply unworkable for a growing number of students. In fact, the entire credit bearing, degree granting model is at-risk as untenable debt, worsening demographics, and industry players, including really big actors like Google and Amazon take market share in the post-secondary education market. The demographic problem alone will compromise freshman enrollment for at least the next two decades, so this is not a temporary issue.

Despite this fairly gloomy picture, there are institutions that will survive and even thrive going forward. It is true that the overall higher education market will continue to shrink and could be 40% smaller in 2030 than it was in 2010. However, the post-secondary market is growing, and some institutions are actually thriving. The good news is that we know what they’re doing and it can be replicated for colleges that are up to the task.

What is Working

There are some high-level commonalities within institutions that were doing well before the pandemic, despite the industry-wide declines, and those same characteristics are proving valuable in the current crisis. In fact, many of these approaches apply outside of higher education as well. As simple as this sounds, it starts with fully acknowledging the reality and being transparent about the implications for the institution. Denial is a big problem in academe and institutions that have been brutally frank and open about their challenges have a head start. Relatedly, colleges and universities that are prepared to make foundational changes in order to meet the challenges head on have demonstrated that they fear change less than failure. Remarkably, many institutions are so wedded to the status quo that they have actually closed rather than reinvent themselves.

What Market Are You In?

The most successful institutions over the last ten years are those that clearly understand what their market opportunities are even if that means doing things they’ve never done before. That may mean shifting delivery methods or moving from credit bearing to certificate programs for from traditional curricula to competency-based education, etc. And to be clear, it is not just about adding new programs. That often creates more fixed cost. The gold standard is a market driven product strategy that supports itself with things like shared curricula, program verticals, and at least some high margin elements. As noted earlier in this article, the reality is that post-secondary education, everything after high school, is growing even as traditional higher education shrinks.

Institutional Characteristics and Culture

Not surprisingly, the most successful schools don’t look or behave much like traditional institutions. They support innovation and an entrepreneurial spirit. They embrace risk and invite change. They are comprised of staff, faculty, and management that are empowered to experiment, collaborate, and meet customer needs. They are less bureaucratic and more nimble, acting quickly to take advantage of new opportunities as they arise. They tend to partner aggressively in the interest of efficiency or revenue generation or growing market share. And possibly most importantly, successful institutions have, above all else, created a compelling value proposition for their student-customers and a financial model that includes alternative and high margin revenue streams. With very few exceptions, it is nearly impossible to run any institution of higher education today with only a traditional tuition-based revenue stream. And all of this happens because they have enlightened, game-changing executive leadership and trustees. Colleges and universities with status quo leadership, particularly if they are experiencing material enrollment declines, are frankly in dire straights. You can see a likely view of higher education’s future here.

In short, there is no secret or mysterious formula for surviving and thriving through the decline and current crisis. Although higher education has the structural problem of more supply than demand, the good news for institutions that have the courage to engage in the practices noted above is that very few of their competitors will actually choose to do what’s necessary or be capable of it even if they would like to, so those that do will have minimal competition for growing market share. Moreover, as additional institutions downsize and close, the supply-demand gap will also decrease, at least for institutions that have affordable options beyond traditional degree programs. If you would like to discuss how we can help with building your organization’s capacity to survive and thrive, including ensuring that you have adequate leadership, please click here or contact us at wkp@wallacekpond.com or 719-247-0486.

2020’s Silver Lining: We’re Finding Our Humanity

One of the legacies of 2020 will be how governments, organizations, and individuals responded when the stakes were high and decisions were hard. Did we “circle the wagons” and act selfishly or did we work for the greater good? Did we act out of fear or out of compassion? Did we follow our professed values or did we make short-term decisions that benefitted a few at the expense of others?

One of the reasons that 2020 has been so emotionally devastating for so many people, apart from the pandemic itself, is because it has highlighted just how ugly human behavior can be. However, we have also proven that we are capable of grace and nobility. Some governments, organizations, and individuals chose the right path, even when it was harder. In the workplace, for those of us fortunate enough to be employed, we’ve seen the human beings behind what used to be a workplace façade. We’ve seen into their dining rooms and kitchens on Zoom calls. We’ve heard the noises of their everyday lives. We’ve shared the vulnerability that human beings always experienced, but that traditionally was unfortunately left at the office door. We’ve had to completely redefine concepts such as “professionalism,” whose historical definition actually devalued us as human beings and often put us in untenable situations. We’ve been pushed to the breaking point, and amazingly, kept putting one foot in front of the other. “Frontline” workers—the ones who keep our grocery stores stocked and deliver goods and provide care to the sick—have continued to report to work in the face of significant risk to their own health and wellbeing.

2020 has given us permission to think very differently about what matters to us and how we live our lives. Crisis can be devastating, but, not so ironically, it can also be liberating, because it takes us to places where the very calculus of our decisions has changed. What we thought had to be true in terms of how we make a living or where we live or what we can live without, or even what makes us happy, necessarily evolves when the very foundation of our lives shifts. When we’ve been pushed beyond normal boundaries, we become emboldened, whether that relates to our own life choices or lending our voices to advocate for others.

We know that the multilayered crises of 2020 have resulted in greater mental health challenges, for more people (adults and children), than at any other time in modern history. The economic devastation wrought by the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has put tens of millions of Americans and hundreds of millions of people world-wide in a precarious situation related to employment, food, housing, and health care. On the contrary, we also know that this same crisis has done more to mitigate the stigma against mental illness than any previous period in modern history. Literally millions more people in the U.S. alone have sought professional care for mental health challenges in 2020 than did so in 2019. And maybe most encouraging of all, the devastating challenges of 2020 have validated the approach to life that many millennials and GenXers were presciently advocating even before the multiple existential crises of 2020. Once criticized for valuing time and purpose and relationships over soul crushing work, money and status, it turns out these young people were far wiser than their elders, who now, in their older years, wonder where the hell their lives went and what they were thinking dedicating decades of 50 and 60 hour weeks to material pursuits, that, in the end, will be of little value to a life well-lived.

Another key lesson of 2020 is: How we treat one another is a choice. We have seen people at their ugliest and their most noble over the course of the year. Stress pushed some people to be their worst selves and others to a place of grace, but in the end, we humans are capable of acts of kindness, generosity, and agency. We are also capable of shifting our focus to things that support better, more sustainable lives for ourselves and others. It is unfortunately true that we crossed many lines of previously unacceptable behavior in 2020 and it will take a long time to recover from that, but we also achieved new levels of enlightenment. In the darkness, we are finding our humanity.

What Recent Research Tells Us Are the Two Most Critical Factors for Colleges Surviving through Crisis and Thriving in the Future

Image Credit: NBC

Recent research and work in the field have confirmed multiple factors correlated with the likelihood that a college or university will survive an existential crisis and thrive afterwards. These elements range from financial models to product strategy to organizational culture among other areas, but in virtually all cases, for institutions facing existential challenges, game changing institutional leadership and effective board engagement are unavoidable requisites for success.

While growing numbers of colleges and universities have become highly stressed and distressed, in a trend that began over a decade ago, the COVID pandemic has pushed, and will push, many more into insolvency over the next few years. Even before the pandemic, nearly a third of all private and public colleges were operating in the red, relying on layoffs, consolidations, deferred maintenance, delayed accounts payable, credit lines, and mergers to stay afloat. For many, those “tricks” have been exhausted and their fates are already sealed. For others, with enough liquidity to operate for the next two or three years, it is possible to survive, and ultimately thrive, but only under certain conditions. The two most critical are:

  1. Game changing executive leadership that is capable of running the daily business, managing through crisis, and laying the foundation for a very different future all at the same time.
  2. A board that is capable of recognizing even painful realities while fully leveraging its trusteeship obligations to support transformative thinking and action.

And, critically, both the institutional leadership and the board have to fear failing more than they fear change—even foundational change that might alter the nature of the institution itself.

Fortunately, in addition to what we know at a high level, the research identified seven critical success factors demonstrated by boards whose at-risk college or university was successfully transformed:

  1. The board recognizes that a crisis is imminent or looming.
  2. The board accepts that survival will require a departure from tradition.
  3. The board ensures that they have a president suitable for leading a turnaround.
  4. The board partners with the president to support change initiatives and actively works with the president to overcome resistance to change.
  5. The board intentionally recruits and develops board members who will understand and support the turnaround.
  6. The board works with and learns from outside advisors skilled and experienced in college and university turnarounds.
  7. The board uses its authority to take action.

Importantly, even in the absence of crisis, institutions that have realized significant success, particularly those that have experienced substantial growth, such as Arizona State, Southern New Hampshire, Western Governors’, Grand Canyon, etc., all had dynamic leaders and boards that were willing to support transformative change.

Institutional Characteristics that Support Success

Assuming capable executive leadership and an engaged board, the two most critical requirements at the institutional level for surviving and thriving through crisis are 1) ensuring a compelling value proposition for students (they have to have a reason to choose a given institution over another and stay there), and 2) a financial model that delivers revenue from diverse sources, with at least some high margin revenue streams.

As with board characteristics, in addition to the two high level realities noted above, we know what the traits 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 in addition to dynamic leadership, value proposition, and a workable financial model are:

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

A simple and more eloquent way to think about what’s necessary comes from Michael Sorrell, president of Paul Quinn College, who said, “In this new environment, higher-ed institutions that are less in love with tradition and more in love with their students will be the ones that thrive.”

In short, despite an overwhelming, unprecedented, and existential crisis, the good news is that we know what schools have to do to dramatically increase the likelihood that they will be among the group that survives and thrives post-COVID. You can see a comprehensive example from a webinar I delivered on the subject here.

What We Have Learned So Far from the COVID Pandemic

Image credit: Getty

We are approximately nine months into the COVID-19 pandemic and a number of things have now become fairly clear, both in society at large, and in the workplace. In addition to widely accepted observations, my executive search firm, Top Gun Ventures, conducted multiple executive roundtables, which we called “GameChanger Dialogues,” with executive level leaders across multiple industries (including higher education) and regions across the globe. We learned a great deal from those sessions about how different companies and organizations are navigating what are broadly understood to be unprecedented challenges, some of which I’ll share in this article.

Starting from a high level first, however, it is evident that the pandemic has served as both a cause of change in its own right and an accelerant of already existing trends. The most salient lesson has probably been that given the right circumstances, we can change the way we do almost anything—and relatedly, what we thought was “sacred” and untouchable before the pandemic became negotiable in the face of an existential crisis. What has also become evident is that some things will not go back to how they were even after we are ensconced in the next normal. Some examples likely include less business and recreational travel, and continued working from home, hybrid education (even on campus), telehealth, and low or no contact shopping and dining. 

So, what are some of the other significant takeaways so far?

In Society

Inequities that existed before COVID have been exacerbated by the crisis (for individuals, families, communities, and organizations/businesses).

The pandemic revealed that the “recovery” from the 2008 recession was both uneven and fragile for many people and businesses. Tens of millions of people were pushed into the gig economy, working for less pay and no benefits[1], and many “essential” workers make the lowest salaries and earn the weakest benefits in the workplace. Many millions also lost homes and businesses in the last recession and never recovered previously held assets and wealth. Access to healthcare, education, and full-time employment with benefits was already declining for many people and, as noted by the Federal Reserve, nearly half of Americans had greater monthly obligations than income before COVID. The crisis has made clear that many children and families do not have the technology resources or internet access to engage in education or telehealth, further separating them from the “haves” in society. One of the most glaring examples of inequity so far relates to the fact that about 10% of the population has grown more wealthy during the pandemic due to holding 92% of the equities in the stock market. The top 1% of Americans now hold half of all the equity in the stock market.

Political polarization has penetrated something as seemingly straightforward as public health policy.

Political polarization, particularly over the last several years, is not new. However, the politicization of something as basic as public health policy has resulted in greater COVID-19 infections and deaths due to the lack of a centralized policy and support structure, as well as turning preventative measures into an individual rights issue. As we head into fall and soon winter, we are already seeing daily infection records in many parts of the country and world, and that is before what is likely to be significantly worse infection rates in the winter season in the Northern hemisphere. A telling example from earlier in the summer was the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, in which, despite local opposition and public health recommendations against the rally, roughly half a million people descended on the Sturgis, SD area. Because of nearly non-existent contact tracing, it is impossible to know how many infections came directly from the rally, but it is clear that the infection rates in surrounding states surged dramatically in the two weeks following the event, tripling and then quadrupling in South Dakota. Willful disregard for the wellbeing of others is not new in the human condition, but it is relatively new at such a large scale in American society. Interestingly, the same people who choose not to follow public health guidelines because they believe it is their right not too, still follow many other “rules” that are designed to protect others such as buying liability insurance for their vehicles and not driving drunk.

Our collective mental health has worsened over the course of 2020.

According to the American Psychological Association, Americans in particular were more stressed in 2019 (before the pandemic) than at any time since the APA began surveying stress levels many decades ago, primarily because of political divisiveness, climate change, and mass shootings among other issues. By October of 2020, a global survey conducted by Oracle found that an astounding 78% of respondents claimed that the challenges of 2020 have made their mental health worse than it was in the previous year. The National Institute for Mental Health has also found that anxiety and depression have increased significantly over the course of 2020 and that mental illness related mortality may equal or even exceed the deaths caused directly by COVID-19!

Our behavior directly impacts the ebb and flow of the virus itself.

Although there was some confusion early in the pandemic about transmissibility and best practices for prevention, it has been clear since at least late spring that three simple behaviors dramatically reduce the transmission of the virus: wearing a mask, maintaining modest physical distance, and good hygiene with the hands and face. The epidemiological science is clear that where these behaviors are practiced, by individuals and groups, infection rates are very low. Where they are not practiced, infection rates are high. In countries that were very disciplined early on (South Korea, China, Singapore), life is nearly back to normal. In countries such as the U.S., Russia, and India where the public was not disciplined, infection rates are as high or higher than at any point during the pandemic. The head of the CDC has said that if everyone in America wore a mask and washed their hands every day (in the presence of others outside their immediate family) that the pandemic would be effectively ended in roughly eight weeks, yet substantial numbers of Americans simply won’t do that and, as a result, the pandemic continues unabated.

In Organizations

It’s really hard to manage a crisis, run the daily business, and strategize for the future all at the same time.

As we discovered in our GameChanger Dialogues, it is very difficult for leaders and their organizations to do three difficult things at once. Although it’s possible, it is rare, and we found that most organizations are still mostly focused on business continuity relative to the crisis rather than actively seizing opportunities for the future. While this was common across industries, it was even more prevalent in higher education, where leadership teams seem to be confusing the efforts and changes related to crisis management with planning for the future. Not so ironically, those leaders who were focused on future opportunities reported that their employees were less stressed out by the crisis itself and saw the focus on the future as a competitive advantage that will pay dividends going forward.

Leadership practices that worked at least reasonably well prior to the pandemic are much less effective now—and some are simply counterproductive.

Although “traditional” leadership profiles were becoming much less effective before the pandemic, the crisis has quickly separated the wheat from the chaff when it comes to leaders that are capable of leading through the crisis vs. those who are not. The need for people leadership skills and traits that make leaders accessible and trustworthy to their followers have been drastically amplified through the pandemic, in which organizations need leaders who are compassionate, authentic, and vulnerable, but who have a plan and can instill hope and stability. In short, what we’ve learned is that people don’t need their leaders to know everything or be bullet proof. They do need them to be honest and genuine. They also need them to have the integrity to make decisions based on deeply held values rather than fear or short-term thinking.

Leadership matters: Within organizations, communities, and government

Relatedly, it has, not surprisingly, become very clear that leadership matters in the face of crisis. Prior to the COVID pandemic, many entities were benefitting from a high tide that kept most afloat regardless of the quality of their leadership. What the crisis has made clear is that regardless of the kind of entity or organization in question (municipality, company, university, or even a national government), those with high quality leadership have fared much better than those without. As noted above, basic things such as honesty, transparency, compassion, integrity, care for people, having a plan and clear communications about the plan, etc. have been critical to those entities that have survived and even thrived through the pandemic. On the contrary, ego, dishonesty about the breadth and depth of the problem, competition over collaboration, short-term gains over values, concern about image over people, etc. have been detrimental and even lethal in worst case scenarios.

Actions taken over the next six to 12 months will determine future winners and losers

Although a few industries have actually benefitted from the pandemic, most have experienced a continuum from modest challenges to existential crisis. In some industries such as dining and hospitality, hundreds of thousands of businesses have closed and millions of employees are out of work. In higher education, about a third of all colleges and universities were operating at a deficit before the pandemic and many will not survive into the near and mid-term future. About 250,000 employees in higher education have been laid off since February and it will almost certainly get worse in the coming year as institutions, both public and private, realize that their expense is still materially greater than their revenue. For the survivors, the actions they take now and in the next 18 months in terms of preserving liquidity, developing alternative revenue streams, strengthening the customer value proposition, increasing efficiencies, opening new markets, etc., will determine whether or not they have a future. More importantly the extent to which they make decisions that create a legacy they want to have, will be remembered by employees and customers for a long time. As Mark Cuban recently said, “The way companies treat their employees in times like these will be their defining feature in the coming months and years.”

So, we’ve learned things from the COVID crisis that are encouraging and we’ve learned some things that give us pause. As with any crisis, there are challenges and opportunities. Some people rise to the occasion and some fail—and many of the failures are backfilled with new, entrepreneurial approaches that present openings that would not have been possible in status quo times. One encouraging result of the pandemic is that we are collectively accepting things that we didn’t in the past. We are seeing each other as actual human beings, even in work contexts! We are accepting change, even dramatic change, that would have not been possible prior to the crisis. We’ve learned that we can be more flexible, and at times, more empathetic than we realized. And maybe most importantly of all, the COVID crisis has peeled back deep, problematic realities in society that have long been ignored such as systemic inequity and systemic bias. As brutal as the pandemic has been, with nearly ten million known infections and nearly a quarter of a million deaths in the U.S. alone, not to mention the worst recession since the great depression with tens of millions of people out of work, and rapidly declining mental health, this global crisis also represents opportunities to finally address critical, structural issues we have declined to effectively tackle in the past such as adequate health care, deep economic inequity, systemic racism, quality education for all, and adequate housing among others. As someone who was born in the last year of the Baby Boomer generation, on the early edge of Gen X, while I have little faith in people of my age, I am heartened by what I see from young people today. It is clear that younger Gen Xers, Gen Y, and even Gen Z, who have inherited the worst deal of any generation since the depression, are much more open, less biased, more socially conscious, and less selfish than their elders. They are the ones who will build a better world, and the pandemic of 2020 may just have broken things enough to allow the new construction to begin.

[1] The current unemployment numbers are significantly under reported because they do not include the many millions of people who were working as “independent contractors” in the gig economy before the pandemic struck.

New Webinar: How to Ensure that Your College or University Will Survive the Current Crisis and Thrive in the Future–Oct 28 and 30

In partnership with the EdUpExperience!


How to Ensure that Your College or University Survives the Current Crisis and Thrives in the Future


Higher Education was in the midst of an extended, eight year decline even before the COVID crisis. As a result, the industry was in a weakened state previous to the pandemic, which has pushed many institutions to the brink. The good news is that there are strategies for surviving and thriving and we know what they are. For institutions that are prepared to accept the challenge and take the necessary steps, there is a path forward to a bright, relevant, and sustainable future.


Dr. Wallace Pond, Education Practice Partner, Top Gun Ventures

Oct 28th Noon EDT Registration https://us02web.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_eE0bMmQjTjKhnwkaaXZ_Aw

Oct 30th 3 pm EDT Registration https://us02web.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_LJlghWMlQJeiDUh6kX4psg

Equity, Diversity and Inclusion: No More Excuses

Image credit: GRESB.com

Setting the Context

Everyone has felt excluded at one time or another. The difference for people who are the targets of institutionalized and structural bias is that the exclusion and discrimination they experience cause deep, life-long disadvantage. As employers, there is clearly a role for organizations to play in ameliorating this disenfranchisement. In fact, there is no longer a defensible argument in any organization for not actively supporting equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI).

Yes, there is a business case for diversity, and many publications have laid out the bottom line benefits, but that is probably not the primary reason any organization should support EDI. Make no mistake, this is not only a business decision, it is a moral imperative. Diversity and inclusion should be a sacred, strategic initiative because it is one of the most righteous things an organization can do to support humanity as it exists, both internally and externally. As the world-famous advocate for victims’ justice and holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel so eloquently and powerfully said, “Always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.”

Before we get into the how, the what bears some discussion. We tend to throw the word “diversity” around pretty casually or we think about it from a compliance perspective, i.e., federally protected classes of employees (race, sex, age, religion, etc.). For the purposes of increasing diversity to the benefit of an organization and the people in it, however, I would argue that we have to think much more broadly. Examples include culture, language, mental and physical abilities, neuroprocessing and cognition, gender identification, mental health status, and even political views and ideology. Acronyms that are often used in discussions of diversity include BIPOC (Black, indigenous, and people of color) and LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and queer). These are helpful acronyms, and I’ll use them here, but as noted, true diversity goes beyond racial, sexual, and gender categories. One other note is that I will use “race” as a social construct rather than a biological or genetic concept, since there is no compelling evidence that race exists as a biological phenomenon.

And to be clear, no “diversity initiative” can work without a deep, concomitant commitment to equity and inclusion, which is about ensuring that people feel welcome, valued and respected for who they are. In fact, many diversity initiatives appear to have initial success, then wither on the vine, because folks effectively recruited into the organization do not feel welcome, included, or respected once they’re there.

So, what fundamental things have to be true for diversity and inclusion initiatives to have a chance of success?

First of all, as the author Joseph Conrad said, you cannot fix what you cannot face. No matter what else we do, it starts with acceptance of the reality that the reason we need active initiatives for equity, diversity, and inclusion is because many opportunities in society are not, in fact, open to all and many people in society and in organizations do not regularly experience equity and inclusion. Once we face the reality, there are a number of process requirements that also must be true. Examples include:

  • Executive leadership has to believe it’s the right thing to do and that it is equal to or more important than other strategic initiatives.
  • EDI has to be a long-term commitment (not the initiative of the quarter), with the goal of permanently altering the organization.
  • The effort has to be supported from the top down and as a grass roots project as well.
  • The organization has to support transparency and be prepared for difficult, even painful conversations and realizations.
  • The organization has to encourage and validate minority viewpoints.
  • People do not have to be diversity and inclusion experts across the organization, but they have to approach the effort with empathy, an open mind, and a willingness to learn.
  • Probably most importantly, in the spirit of Conrad’s observation, there has to be nearly unequivocal acceptance that concepts such as systemic racism, unconscious bias, patriarchy, and privilege exist and are insidious. The reason this is critical is because in the absence of such acknowledgement, it is not possible to address the systemic and structural realities within organizations that mitigate against diversity and inclusion.

Relatedly, concepts such as intersectionality and micro-aggressions are also real and ignoring them has been a significant barrier to supporting success for BIPOC, LBGTQ and other diverse populations. This is a critical point. For example, people can believe that systemic racism doesn’t exist in the same way they can believe climate change doesn’t exist, but by definition they cannot be part of the solution and it isn’t productive to attempt to change their views. As this relates to discrimination, however, “non-believers” still must be held accountable for behaviors that perpetuate the oppression of others. Ignorance is not a free pass. This is one reason that EDI efforts are often so fraught within society and organizations. It’s not just about equalizing opportunity. There are inevitably people with privilege within the human hierarchy (and the organization) who will see increasing opportunity for diverse colleagues as a threat to their own place (and their privilege).

In her new book Caste, Isabel Wilkerson frames the four-hundred-year American history of sometimes brutal repression and subjugation in the context of a caste system, whose very existence is for the sole purpose of preserving privilege within the hierarchy. Her book is a helpful way to think about the structures and behaviors that preserve privilege and fossilize the place of most people in the caste into which they were born. Of course, there is socio-economic mobility up and down for individuals within any group, but broadly speaking there is very limited upward mobility for traditionally disenfranchised groups because the social institutions that support mobility such as education, housing, employment, healthcare, etc. are less available or of lower quality than for those from more privileged groups. And the criminal justice system, rather than protecting diverse populations, particularly those of color, often compromises opportunity through disproportionate arrest, prosecution, and incarceration. To be clear, the point of EDI efforts in organizations is not to redress 400 years of discrimination and subjugation. However, such efforts need to acknowledge the history in order to have credible context.

Organizations as a Reflection of Society

If we think of organizations as societal microcosms, then we have to accept that in order to grow diversity, and in particular to achieve inclusion, we have to dismantle the structures that promote privilege and disenfranchise those who are outside the “mainstream.” Just as in larger society, the objective is not to weed out the “bad apples” who act inappropriately. The objective is to address the systemic realities that perpetuate discrimination and mitigate against genuine equity, diversity and inclusion.

Similarly, EDI must be supported by organizational culture or it will fail miserably for the same reasons that anything not supported by culture will fail. It is culture that ultimately determines how people behave in organizations—not rules or proclamations, or management directives.

Moreover, diversity and inclusion efforts have to be long haul initiatives dedicated to making diversity the norm. They have to transcend time and leadership, which is why culture is so critical. The values have to be deep and invulnerable to changing budgets, leaders, competitive environments, external political realities, etc.

The Basis of a Plan

The first requirement of a plan is to elevate diversity and inclusion to the same level as other strategic initiatives with the same tangible treatment (financial resourcing, performance metrics, accountability, etc.). And ensure that it is not just an “HR initiative.” It must exist in the organizational mainstream with accountability for functional areas and business units.

The Role of Leadership

Acknowledging and addressing racism and other institutional systems of oppression are core

leadership responsibilities. Leaders cannot equivocate when prejudice rears its head. As the remarkable Elie Wiesel said, “Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” Leaders must also consistently model desired behaviors, including zero tolerance for bias. Zero tolerance means that no case of discrimination or bias can go unacknowledged and or unremediated. Every example is a “teaching moment” that doesn’t necessarily end in disciplinary action. In fact, enlightenment is a better objective than punishment.


Policy must support diversity and inclusion. This includes recruiting, compensation, job descriptions, performance evaluations, benefits, bonuses, scheduling, training, promotion, discipline, etc. Talking directly with BIPOC, LGBTQ, and other diverse employees about how policies directly affect them in problematic ways is a good place to start.

The Whole Organization

Executive sponsorship can support compliance and even culture, but ultimately commitment has to exist at all levels for equity, diversity and inclusion initiatives to grow and prosper. One key strategy for achieving this is to ensure that all levels and parts of the organization reflect similar diversity. Since that is a longer-term proposition, in the interim, policy that supports and incentivizes EDI is essential. Relatedly, social structures within the organization, whether work or non-work related, must facilitate integration and inclusion so that traditionally excluded populations can benefit from the informal systems that support success.

Education and Training

Any EDI plan should include educational components on how bias impacts BIPOC, LGBTQ, and other diverse populations and how privilege impacts everyone. Organizations should make this commitment in the same way they would commit to learning anything else folks need to know to do their job well. Individuals do not need to be experts in every esoteric issue connected to race or gender or ableism, etc., but they must approach these issues with a sense of humility and empathy commensurate with their privilege.

The Role of Diverse Employees

While it is critical to give voice to diverse employees, EDI efforts should never require that marginalized employees do the heavy lifting. BIPOC and LBGTQ employees can certainly play a role in supporting diversity and inclusion, but they cannot be tasked with enlightening everyone else or carrying the message of why diversity and inclusion are necessary. It is not their job to dispel ignorance or motivate others.

Support for Diverse Employees

In addition to changing and creating policy that supports the needs of BIPOC, LGBTQ, and other diverse employees, purposeful support systems such as mentoring (by both similar and mainstream mentors), training to mitigate skills gaps (technical and soft), and possibly most importantly, letting BIPOC, LGBTQ and other diverse community members be different and search out “their own kind.” Success cannot come through forced assimilation. It can only come from genuine acceptance and respect, which includes ensuring that typically disenfranchised employees are not only free, but encouraged to speak up and speak out.

Moreover, once people of diverse backgrounds are successfully brought into the organization, it is crucial that it is a place they actually want to be. Businesses and institutions do not have to be perfect, but they do have to feel safe and marginalized folks have to believe that the organization’s efforts to make them feel welcome and included are genuine. It is also essential that BIPOC, LGBTQ, and other diverse individuals believe that they have the same opportunities as their mainstream colleagues—this does not mean special treatment—it simply means a fair shot.

Undoing Systemic Bias

EDI efforts also require undoing structural barriers and replacing them with support systems that help to mitigate centuries of systemic bias and related disenfranchisement. Many of the most diverse (read “different from the mainstream”) people in society, and thus in our organizations, have been structurally disadvantaged relative to education, healthcare, housing, criminal justice and other institutions, in many cases generationally, and as such, often come into organizations (if they’re recruited at all) with life experiences and frames of reference that are quite different from their mainstream colleagues. One terrible reality of living through structural bias is the affect it has on certain mindsets such as fear, confidence, and self-efficacy. Being marginalized does not affect intelligence or innate ability. It can, however, compromise traits that in privileged employees are often associated with success such as risk taking, having strong opinions, communicating in “standard” language, dressing “appropriately,” etc. That is why it is critical that EDI initiatives, at their core, include a commitment to deconstruct systems (hiring, promotion, compensation, scheduling, etc.), that rely on criteria that fundamentally disadvantage non-mainstream employees (and perpetuate privilege for mainstream employees). A good example is the fact that organizations have long blamed their failure to increase diversity on the claim that they simply cannot find qualified minority (both racial and other diverse characteristics) candidates. While it is true that there are not enough traditionally credentialed applicants to meet the needs of every organization in a given industry, there are plenty of candidates for the organizations that truly want them and even enough for all vacancies if HR departments and hiring managers are willing to think more creatively about what “qualified” means—and what support they’re willing to provide to new hires. Not so ironically, it is often true that the very requirements written into job descriptions that make diverse candidates “hard to find,” reflect the systemic bias that makes the same organizations both impenetrable and unwelcoming to BIPOC, LGBTQ, and other diverse candidates. This is a complex and difficult process because so much of the systemic bias in society and in organizations is “unconscious” (or even denied) on the part of those folks most in a position to make positive change. It requires discipline, humility, empathy, and an open mind.

Assessing the Effort

As noted early in this article, in order for EDI efforts to get traction and be sustainable, they have to be treated and supported in the same way as any other critical, strategic commitment, with concomitant objectives, metrics, and accountability. One key factor, however, is that determining the success or failure of EDI initiatives must include the opinions of BIPOC, LGBTQ, and other diverse individuals in the organization. In the same way that systemic bias is often “invisible” to those of privilege, so are the outcomes from commitments to improve equity, diversity, and inclusion. For example, people in the mainstream (at all levels of an organization) are much more likely to see numerically increasing diversity as “success,” with little or no insight about improvements in equity or inclusion, which must be judged by diverse employees themselves.

EDI Initiatives Headed by Privileged, Mainstream Leaders

Can a privileged, White male lead a diversity initiative? Of course. In fact, in most organizations, the most senior executives are almost all going to be White males, so if the C-Suite is going to be involved, it will require leadership and commitment from White men. Of course, this presents an interesting dynamic in which a campaign to permanently increase diversity and inclusion is driven by someone who, by virtue of his privilege, likely has little or no direct experience with overt discrimination, micro-aggressions, racism, sexism, etc. On the other hand, with the right education, coaching, empathy, and commitment, folks with privilege, even significant, intersectional privilege, can be highly effective advocates for the kinds of change necessary to support diversity and inclusion—mostly because they have power. Over time, if the change is systemic and includes the necessary support systems, senior and executive management ranks will reflect the same diversity seen across the organization and leadership will reflect the important perspectives of those previously disenfranchised.

A Way to Think about Supporting EDI

Long before I was a senior leader, let alone a CEO, I was a schoolteacher. I taught mostly at-risk youth from bilingual kindergarten through high school.  Whether I was working with migrant children, kids from socio-economically deprived families, BIPOC students, or privileged, mainstream youth, as educators, we had to accept students where they were, not where we wanted them to be (from our mostly privileged perspective), and figure out what interventions were necessary to facilitate their success. Even the most prejudicial people would be unlikely to say that non-mainstream children don’t deserve to go to school and achieve to their potential. Certainly, we can say the same about the workplace (and other organizations). In the same way that culture, language, sex, gender-identity, “race,” financial means, cognitive processing, and other factors impact the way children engage with and are served by schools, a similar dynamic applies to organizations comprised of adults. If we believe that everyone deserves an opportunity for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and I hope we all do, then we should also believe that the opportunity to achieve those goals should also be available to everyone. In order for that to be true, organizations can no longer justify any reality related to equity, diversity, and inclusion that disenfranchises anyone due to their uniqueness. Period.


Although I have been a personal advocate for diversity and equity for as long as I can remember, I also represent the pinnacle of intersectional privilege. As a result, despite my extensive experience in places in which I have been a “minority,” in terms of language, culture, race, and religion, I have never been disenfranchised by structural bias. Ever. Even though I am probably more “woke” than most White, male, English speaking contemporaries, my privilege still creates massive blind spots and there are some things I can only infer or imagine. One of the most important, recent factors in my own enlightenment was the book, So You Want to Talk About Race, by the author Ijeoma Oluo. Oluo is a queer, female, black immigrant (not necessarily in that order), who also recognizes her own privilege where it exists, and who is a profound thinker and great writer on the subject of racism and other examples of bias. If you are a privileged, mainstream person who would like to quickly be enlightened about the differences between disenfranchisement and privilege, told from both a scholarly and very personal perspective, I strongly recommend Ijeoma’s book.


This article refers to many interventions for ameliorating bias and disenfranchisement of BIPOC, LBGTQ, and other diverse individuals, but does not provide many specific details. For example, it is essential that policy supports EDI, but the article does not provide examples of hiring policies that disadvantage diverse applicants (or policies to support the hiring of diverse applicants), which is beyond the scope of the article. However, for any reader who would like to see specific examples, or simply discuss the content of the article in further detail, please reach out to me directly at wkp@wallacekpond.com.

Additional Resources

So You Want to Talk about Race, by Ijeamo Oluo

Caste: The Origins of our Discontents, by Isabel Wilkerson

Eight Best Practices for Changing Culture

Diversity and Inclusion Practices for 2020

What Meetings Tell Us About Organizational Culture

Image Credit: Susan Beaumont

I have done a lot of work related to healthy organizational culture, both as a CEO and consultant, mostly because it’s so darn important for success—and so detrimental when it’s unhealthy or just disregarded. Ironically, despite the centrality of culture to just about any positive outcome, it is one of the most ignored areas of focus by executives. One reason it is frequently ignored is because it is foreign and mysterious to typical leaders—they’ve simply never been led to believe it’s of value nor tutored on how to support it. Secondly, it’s time consuming, complex, and requires a long view commitment. Most executives got to where they are because of their ability to deliver short term “results,” even at the expense of the development of human capital and long term sustainability. Organizations and the people in them suffer as a result. And ultimately, so do the leaders who’ve ignored the role of culture in their own organizations.

Even though there are a number of characteristics we can safely ascribe to healthy culture in typical organizations such as transparency, honesty, care for people, teamwork, accountability, etc., the reality is that what ultimately matters most is the extent to which culture is rational. In other words, do the values, beliefs, and behaviors in organizations support the achievement of stated operational and strategic goals? This is so critical because ultimately, it is organizational culture that determines how people behave over time—not proclaimed values or mission or management directives.

Interestingly, meetings are a great microcosm of organizations that can tell us a whole lot about culture!

Meetings are often the punching bag of water-cooler talk (or whatever the remote working analogue to that is). There is frankly a lot of disdain for meetings, but that is not because meetings are inherently bad or a waste of time. There is disdain because meetings are frequently used for the wrong purposes and often reveal the worst in organizational culture.

Let’s take a look starting with “bad” meetings.

At their core, meetings typically reflect the hierarchy in organizations, because by design, one person controls the participation and time of others. In fact, when folks get double booked, the decision about which meeting to attend rarely has anything to do with which one is more important. To the contrary, it is usually governed by which meeting is led by the person higher up in the org chart! At its worst, organizational culture relative to meetings completely ignores the opportunity cost of making people attend a meeting simply because it was called by someone senior to them, rather than considering the value of what the person might be doing differently at the same time. The more traditional the organization, the more common this dysfunction is and it’s a good lens into whether the culture values autonomy and the ROI on peoples’ time or, to the contrary, values hierarchy and ego.

Another example of bad meetings and dangerous culture can be found in “artificial harmony,” which causes more long-term damage than even unhealthy conflict. At least conflict, even if somewhat driven by hidden agendas, bad faith, or ego, results in challenges to accepted ideas, plans, etc. It generates dialogue that represents differing opinions, objectives, and values, which challenges pre-existing conclusions. And, to be clear, artificial harmony leads to conflict anyway because it is based upon a false commitment to what was “agreed” in the meeting. This happens almost immediately as people find ways to share what they really think in a hallway conversation or text message, etc., sometimes before they’re even back in their office! There is nothing worse than passive acceptance of a plan or strategy that some number of people don’t actually agree with (but didn’t say so), because when that happens, the organization commits resources and focus to a path that key people don’t actually support with their actions, or worse, may sabotage behind the scenes. And on top of that, the organization incurs the opportunity cost for the path not chosen! I personally believe that artificial harmony (and false agreement) result in more failed initiatives than the quality of the initiative itself. Even good ideas need full, shared commitment and effort to succeed.

Bad meetings also tend to be for poor reasons such as reporting mundane information that can be easily shared through other means, addressing trivial or pro-forma issues, confirming things that have already been addressed/decided, stroking the leader’s ego, because it’s on the schedule, or, for the worst purpose of all, which is calling people out publicly. Meeting agendas and behavior can tell us a lot about cultural values.

In contrast, in healthy organizations (and meetings) the desired outcome is not unanimous agreement and certainly not “false” agreement. The desired outcome is thorough due diligence in the decision process, with full participation, contribution, and hopefully disagreement by all involved, about issues of significance. When that happens, there is likely to be much deeper commitment to a better final decision, even by those who would have chosen a different path, because their opinion and input were carefully considered as part of the decision process. Simply being heard often offsets the disappointment of having a viewpoint that did not carry the day. Moreover, the active, even passionate sharing of multiple viewpoints inevitably results in positive modifications of the chosen idea, thus making it better than it would have been without contrasting input. And, of course, such meetings show alignment between healthy cultural values such as respect, collaboration, transparency, safety, and teamwork among others.

Good meetings:

  • invite the right people.
  • ask important questions about things that matter.
  • encourage and validate the contributions of participants.
  • involve robust discussion and even disagreement about those questions.
  • are non-hierarchical (expertise and commitment are more important than where someone is on the org chart).
  • result in allocation of resources, expertise, etc. to support agreed upon activities.
  • result in high-quality decisions that align with espoused organizational values.
  • include follow up for what was discussed/decided

When we see these kinds of interactions and behaviors in meetings, we can have confidence that organizational culture is relatively healthy—and probably more importantly—that the efforts of those involved are more likely to lead to positive outcomes.

You can see a good resource for conducting better meetings here.


In my CEO roles I have always given my senior managers the autonomy to engage in another activity at the time I’ve called a meeting if they believe the alternative will support more important outcomes. I’ve rarely been taken advantage of and if my meeting is worth attending, people will typically be there. When given the chance to use their own professional judgment, in my experience, the choice to be somewhere else doing something else supporting a more important outcome than would come from attendance in “my” meeting is almost always the right decision. BTW, this is leadership 101. If a senior manager is not capable of making a decision about attending a meeting, she or he is certainly not capable of the senior manager role to begin with.