Forum: Adapt and Thrive

By William A. Laramee    //    Volume 29,  Number 2   //    March/April 2021

Much will continue to be written about the impact of COVID-19 on higher education. Some will report the demise of higher education; others will report how institutions adapted and thrived. Most all would agree that higher education experienced a tsunami and that what was left on the shoreline exposed clear vulnerabilities and strengths—e.g., planning models that are no longer viable, a capacity or failure to manage ambiguity and contradictory information, a readiness or failure to adapt to new assumptions and pedagogies about teaching and learning, and a readiness and capacity or failure to construct new models of resource allocation and revenue generation.

All the aforementioned required teams of dedicated people giving unlimited hours to plan for an uncertain world and to position institutions for recovery at the other end of the pandemic.

As board members, we were called upon to be partners in a new experiment. Many webinars sponsored by AGB and the Council on Higher Education focused on new and engaging ways for board members to participate in managing and recovering from the experienced tsunami. Finding common ground and a strategic way forward in a shared governance environment was paramount. All stakeholders needed to accept the necessity to move beyond one’s normal contexts, challenge assumptions, and encourage new voices to be heard—all directed to developing essential short-term goals and long-term strategic imperatives. Credo Consulting suggested in a recent book that the capacity to “pivot” in a critical reimagining of how education is administered and delivered is the heavy lifting required of colleges and universities—and this was before COVID-19.

The above actions were heightened when the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement became part of the new and compelling narrative, requiring a reset of priorities and resources of time and money.

In this new, uncertain, and unprecedented environment presidents and board leadership were challenged and somewhat expected to be incubators of inspiration and hope and to direct a way forward that conveyed the art of the possible—even when most everything familiar and certain were now uncertain.

The big four issues driving most all conversations pertained to finance, enrollment, new revenue generation, and academic delivery models that, for many, were untested, not embraced, and in fact, threatening.

All the above issues required, at minimum, the following:

  • A possible reset of strategic imperatives to align all essential horsepower with clear emerging priorities;
  • Developing new protocols for communicating effectively with all stakeholders;
  • Exploring alternative structures for making key decisions in a timely manner;
  • Directing serious-minded and inclusive discussions and subsequent action to help direct programmatic priorities, ranging from academic to possible survival partnerships;
  • A redirected deployment of resources to address the immediate and long-term needs; and
  • A total assessment of the costs of its operation.

Some thought leaders referred to a “flattening of the board” to assist in decision making, while at the same time respecting appropriate degrees of separation between policy and operation. There had to be an honest understanding of the dictum that catastrophe is not inevitable in such trying times, but neither is progress without an honest conversation of where higher education is most vulnerable, some areas of which preceded the pandemic.

Any thoughtful observer of higher education could see that students’ needs and expectations are changing; teaching and learning models needed refreshing; that there is (and has been) an ideological divide on the ultimate purpose and value of higher education; clear and supported desired outcomes and job placement are expected by parents and students; the business model of higher education is simply not sustainable; and technology is increasingly a game changer.

None of the above issues alone meant the demise of an institution, but all represent warning signs that need to be addressed proactively. All represent some unexpected possibilities that can be transformative for an institution. All require new questions based upon a shifting of assumptions.

Clearly, there is a sense of urgency that requires a higher level of risk and institutional transformation. Will change be incremental or disruptive? is a key question for board members, in consultation with the campus leadership.

Board members are in a unique place to both support campus leadership but also to probe in appropriate ways that call into question “givens” or “sacred cows.” Board members can help instigate conversations that stress ideals and values. Boards can also help to reduce barriers to action by showing an openness to change ways to govern and empower others to answer critical questions like these:

  • As an institution, what are we most uniquely positioned to solve?
  • What does the community need to know that we can provide?
  • What risks can we most tolerate?
  • Where must we be innovative?
  • How do we frame a post-crisis strategy?

At the end of the day, however, what is required of boards is not to sway too far from the basics of good board leadership or, as I’ve often said, “To stay near the rail”:

  • Continue to embrace best practices as well articulated by AGB in Trusteeship and other key resources;
  • Continue and possibly expand the use of plenary sessions to address some of the key questions noted above;
  • Review and maintain a committee and governance structure that supports key agenda items and strategic imperatives and that positions the institution for a sustainable future;
  • Monitor the appropriate balance between trustee engagement and strategic needs and direction;
  • Reaffirm communication protocols that are appropriately proactive and transparent;
  • Monitor and support a positive and proactive board culture that does, in fact, provide hope;
  • Be intentional about focused board building—with a special attention to diversity and inclusion, board continuing education, and self-assessment through the governance committee;
  • Maintain a healthy and viable relationship between the board chair and the president; and
  • Instill an urgent and nimble mode of operation that is responsive to key performance indicators and attentive to risk mitigation.

Our institutions’ capacity to adapt and thrive will be largely influenced by how well we, as board members, do the right things well. Doing “well” will require a willingness to step back at times and to be prepared to see the unseen and hear the unheard. In the process, we may come to see things in places where we never thought to look. As Parker Palmer says in A Hidden Wholeness: “Truth is an eternal conversation about things that matter conducted with passion and discipline.” May it be so.

William A. Laramee, EdD, is a trustee and board secretary at Warren Wilson College. 

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