During the COVID pandemic, higher education leaders have navigated one of the most challenging times in education. To help prepare you for the upcoming school year, we’ve compiled 10 of the best pieces of advice that we heard from college chancellors and presidents.
Reframe Crisis as Opportunity
Change is something that leaders, especially leaders in higher ed, have a lot of experience with. In the pandemic, many of them have reframed the crisis as an opportunity.
1. Michael Sorrell (President, Paul Quinn College), a crisis manager in a previous career, told us, "You have to look at this through very clear eyes and say, 'Where can we improve?'"
2. Ana Mari Cauce (President, University of Washington), formerly a clinical community psychologist, explained crisis theory this way: "When everything is in flux, it creates the real opportunity for change."
3. Ángel Cabrera (President, Georgia Institute of Technology), a higher ed leader since 2000, observed about 2020's national outcry for social justice, "It highlights our mission, our values, our commitments to equity and access; emphasizing that is the most important thing we should be looking at."
Stay Focused on Public Health
Some institutions are fortunate to have leaders with medical or relevant administrative experience. (Even those of us who don't share this background have all seen plenty of gestures toward the common good – and displays of common sense – during the past 18 months.)
4. Samuel Stanley (President, Michigan State University), an M.D. with a background in infectious disease research, admitted, "I probably had a higher degree of comfort in dealing with uncertainty and the potential high impact of my decisions, and I think that’s one of the things that helps me stay relatively calm."
5. Mark P. Becker (Former President, Georgia State University), who served as dean at University of Minnesota's School of Public Health during the 2003 SARS outbreak, recalled, "We did a lot of contingency planning, the sorts of things that every university is thinking about right now."
Embrace the Reality of a Difficult Economy
Colleges are expensive to operate and attend, and many leaders told us that the current challenges are nothing new.
6. Wendy Wintersteen (President, Iowa State University) spoke of her experience during the Farm Crisis of the 1980s. "I saw what it meant to be part of a community that was deeply engaged in helping farmers," she remembered. "Giving up wasn't part of the calculation."
7. Kim Wilcox (Chancellor, University of California, Riverside) spoke about experiencing his sixth budget cut in over 30 years in higher ed. "In every one of those past five cuts," he told us, "we never returned to the same level of funding we had before."
Never Lose Sight of Your Students' Needs
The college-going experience has changed with the culture and the economy, and as many higher ed leaders reminded us, student needs have changed as well.
8. Frank Dooley (Chancellor, Purdue University Global) recognized that a majority of his distance learners are Pell eligible, first-generation women who've been in the workplace for about a decade. "These are seasoned people," he told us. "They're not looking for a dream, they're looking to advance in their career."
9. Alexander Cartwright (President, University of Central Florida) was himself a first-generation student, and he knows what UCF's population is experiencing. He declared, "I want them to recognize that they have all this potential, and a lot of people who are pulling for them."
We'd like to end with a favorite quote that inspires us every time we hear it.
10. Ed Ray (Former President, Oregon State University) succinctly stated: "You should do everything you can to be the leader you wish you had."
Note: The interviews cited in this blog were drawn from the Weekly Wisdom Series and originally aired between April 20, 2020 and May 24, 2021 as part of the University Innovation Alliance’s Innovating Together Podcast, created in partnership with Inside Higher Ed.