The Conversation Trustees Must Have: Higher Education After the Crises of 2020

By Genevieve G. Shaker and William M. Plater    //    Volume 28,  Number 6   //    November/December 2020

Nearly everyone agrees: American higher education will need renewal, if not a fresh start, as a result of the events of 2020—and the year is not yet over. The COVID-19 global pandemic, the actual impact of remote learning on student success, the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression affecting families and institutions, racial strife recalling 1968 and centuries of unresolved social inequity, political polarization unseen since the Civil War, unemployment, student and institutional debt, and the list goes on.

Even now, the results of an uncertain fall opening for colleges and universities are not yet fully assessed. Yet it is clear that most of American higher education must prepare for transformative change.

Governing boards have a unique responsibility in preparing for change, whatever it may be. More specifically, they have a duty to ensure that changes are for the common good as they address financial, reputational, and moral exigencies. In “Pillars of the Common Good,” in the January/February 2019 issue of Trusteeship, and drawing on extensive AGB resources regarding fiduciary duties, we made the case that governing boards “have a duty to ensure they are operating in the best interest of the public good and are making a positive return on the public’s investment.”

The events of 2020 are piled on top of an already imperiled system of postsecondary education due to enrollment declines, loss of state funding of public institutions, falling auxiliary revenues, and doubts about returns on endowments and investments. Hundreds of nonprofit colleges and universities have been facing existential questions for several years. They are being joined by community colleges, regional public universities, and a variety of for-profits. Even well-endowed and well-secured elite institutions are prearranging lines of credit and loan capacity stretching to a billion dollars or more as uncertainty and unknown liability loom.

Most commentators predict that a convergence of disrupting factors will force individual institutions, governments, and society alike to rethink to some degree the form, financing, expenditures, and very purposes of America’s colleges and universities within the next year or two. If education is the foundation on which democracy rests, as many believe, the issue is much bigger than institutional survival. One of the nation’s most important forces for determining the future is at stake, just at the time when much of America has become acutely aware of how inequitable postsecondary education actually is for many, perhaps a majority, of its citizens. The times call for something more comprehensive than near-term incremental adjustments or a return to the past. How will the reimagining begin?

Planning for Unimagined 

Institutions and their governing boards are in crisis planning mode for the 2020–21 academic year, ideally with flexible and incremental strategies to allow for sudden enrollment shifts and midterm withdrawals as well as mandated closings and ethical choices to go online. Deans, program chairs, and center directors are planning for budget cuts from 5 to 50 percent, usually in increments that reflect the severity of changes in revenue and health risks if conditions worsen.

Despite the many problems and dissatisfaction arising from the sudden forced move to remote learning in spring of 2020, the fact that it occurred so quickly—and mostly well—at so many institutions was amazing. That success, however, uncovered myriad issues to be resolved to ensure wide-spread remote or hybrid learning can succeed—course preparation, faculty development, library resource accessibility, counseling, financial aid, internet access, technical support, equitable tuition pricing, withdrawal policies, and so much more. The spring success was fueled by urgency, a sense of a shared crisis, and a “can-do, make-do” faculty determination to complete the term. That wellspring of emotion and energy is unsustainable.

Governing boards need to step up, building on current crisis planning with longer-term planning for hard choices and planning for the unimaginable. Likely, the conversations are not easy—even for the most secure and resilient institutions. They begin, necessarily, with financial viability, but if finances are the guiding principle and sustainability is the only consideration, the institution may fail its ultimate duty to the common good of the nation.

Scenarios for the Future 

Each institution and each board must tailor its possible futures to the respective missions and circumstances. All institutions share a need to plan for at least the best, the worst, and one or more intermediate stages of change—connecting the near term with an unknown future that may only be a year or two away. Institutions cannot just “wait to see what happens” because there may not be time to adjust. The evolving crisis has to be a catalyst for preemptive action.

There are many models and even more consultants willing to help. Without endorsing any one model, we appreciate the simplicity of the model created by the Deloitte Monitor Institute in cooperation with Independent Sector, the Council on Foundations, the Center for Effective Philanthropy, and others. A report titled An Event or Era: Resources for Social Sector DecisionMaking in the Context of COVID-19, is intended to help leaders of nonprofits, including colleges and universities, think beyond immediate responses—no matter how necessary—to what they call the “cascading aftershocks” that will occur well beyond the next 12–18 months. Their scenario planning is well-suited to public and private institutions—even for-profits. The scenarios suggest anticipating the necessity of embracing reset opportunities by planning for resilience and continuing uncertainty.

It is this point—this is a unique moment to take a comprehensive, totally new look at mission and performance—that we wish to highlight for governing boards, right in the midst of uncertainty and calamity. Some institutions will have to close or merge. We urge those that are vulnerable to plan for the end scenarios. For those who may be vulnerable but resilient and, especially, those that are confident, we urge that scenarios include a principled, visionary restart, not merely incremental adaptation.

As the old saying goes, the best way to predict the future is to create it. More than any time since World War II, the future is so uncertain that it can be planned and enacted intentionally within estimable parameters (envisioned in scenarios). When crisis and panic subside, will colleges and universities revert to an adjusted form of their old selves? Or will the multiple crises of 2020 give new purpose and meaning to missions updated to address fundamentally changed conditions?

Out of the reconstructed future, there will be many voices proclaiming what needs to be done.

Who Decides? 

Those with the biggest budgets (state and federal governments)? Those with a personal stake (administrators and faculty)? Those who hope to gain the most (employers of future graduates)? Those who can make the most money (consultants, loan and technology providers)? Consumers (students and parents)? Entrepreneurs and innovators (billionaire philanthropists, foundations,  impact investors, and corporations)?

Or governing boards? With what perspectives? The calls for social and racial justice have again reminded us that far too many boards lack the perspective and voices of women, people of color, millennials, and the economically insecure—the stakeholders to whom postsecondary education has special responsibilities. As mergers and closures loom for a growing number of institutions, how will the student, staff, and faculty voices be heard when the consequences for them are so immediate and personal.

Amidst so many voices, governing boards have the ability to speak, as few others can, for the common good, for society as a whole, for the future of American life, for the ideal that education is for the benefit of everyone. As we argued in “Pillars of the Common Good,” “a shared commitment to the public good is the common purpose across all classifications, governance structures, sizes, prestige rankings, and locations of American colleges and universities.”

As scholars who have studied higher education as a common good of society, we foresee a consequential and defining struggle ahead over the values, principles, and ideologies that will reshape the American system of higher education. This will result from the pandemic’s disruptions coupled with the raw racial and economic injustices revealed in America’s response to George Floyd’s killing and the call to conscience arising from John Lewis’ passing. In the coming debate about the future of higher education, we believe someone must speak for the people as a whole, for the common good, “to redeem the soul of our nation,” as Lewis pleaded.

American postsecondary education adds nearly $600 billion to GDP annually, according to AGB estimates. It is big business and attracts many who wish to influence how that contribution is made and used.

We think governing boards not only have the responsibility but also the most credibility to renew and, in some important ways, restart American postsecondary education as a common good. This good is to benefit the United States as well as the world, based on inclusive decision-making. From our shared, collective “awakened” vantage point late in 2020, it should be clear that few things will be more important to America’s future than strengthened democracy and real equal opportunity. Purposeful postsecondary education is the proven pathway to a just, fair, and democratic future, especially when the deciders truly understand those for whom they are deciding.

The Cliff of Uncertainty 

Prior to the pandemic, a small industry had grown up around diagnosing the ills affecting higher education, with remedies reflecting ideologies, economics, nostalgia, and hope. Now, speculation has become necessity as AGB’s recent report, Top Strategic Issues for Boards 2020–2021, makes abundantly clear.

Winter and spring 2020–21 loom as a cliff of uncertainty even as traumatic changes are inevitable, beginning with finances: lost tuition revenue due to deferred enrollments over fear of the virus or diminished family finances; drops in international enrollments and continuing demographic shifts; reduced public support as tax revenues plummet; endowment fluctuations and declining annual philanthropic support as donors turn to more urgent societal needs; erosion of employer assisted learning; negative student perceptions of the value of online education; and sunk costs of maintaining underused dormitories, classrooms, and athletic venues.

In 2019, before the pandemic, the federal government estimated that nearly 500 colleges and universities were at some risk for closure, merger, or program reduction due to their precarious finances. In light of the pandemic, the consulting firm Edmit estimates that number for private institutions has swelled by 47 percent. Moody’s has downgraded the whole education sector, expecting the pandemic to shutter or combine many public universities and community colleges as well as independent colleges and for-profits.

Uncertainties Beyond Money 

The call for renewal and restart goes beyond money. The ideological divide between progressives and conservatives over the content of postsecondary learning has accelerated with growing questions about the value of credit hours and degrees in comparison with cost and a return on investment.

The emergence of new types of credentials and alternative providers from the corporate and entrepreneurial sectors offer new opportunities for employment based on competency instead of attendance. The decades-long shift in the academic workforce from tenured, full-time professors to a majority of adjunct and part-time faculty has called quality into question—fueled by a rapid shift from classroom to remote learning. And most immediate, the pandemic’s impact on students’ financial aid and colleges’ lifeblood through federal and state funds dramatically highlights the current system’s flaws as student debt hangs as a national and private liability.
The effects are disproportionate for low-income and historically underserved populations.

The protests in response to George Floyd’s killing have now raised moral and ethical perils as well. American higher education currently overwhelmingly favors the wealthy and white segments of society, while the promise of a meritocracy has proven unreliable. Even what has long been considered a fundamental human right of all citizens, at least through the secondary level of education, has proven to fail those most in need.

Conditions Renewal or Restart Should Address 

If America were to use this crisis as the opportunity to reform its system of postsecondary education based on preserving its distinctive role in advancing the common good, what choices would governing boards make to guide a shared vision for a better system, a better culture of postsecondary education? We propose seven key questions to be addressed by governing boards as a starting point for a new vision and a renewed start. These can be a foundation for concrete plans to rebuild American higher education, to affirm the duty of colleges and universities to the common good, and to sustain the specific mission of each surviving institution.

In the midst of crises, when most individual board members typically spend fewer than 100 hours in a typical year on institutional business, time to discuss and reflect before acting will be precious. Moreover, meaningful inclusive decision-making will require boards’ engaging unfamiliar participants in untried ways. Without these perspectives, however, decisions may tend to recreate a past already lost, and with clear flaws. These questions may at first seem abstract or philosophical with little to contribute to immediate financial imperatives, but they are functional, structural, and pragmatic, addressing mission validity and organizational viability:

Mission Validity

  • How will affordability, equitable access, and inclusive engagement be assured for all citizens? Can there be common prosperity and genuine democracy if all Americans are not included, albeit in many different ways?
  • How will the costs of postsecondary, lifelong education be reconciled with the forms of financial support for students to achieve genuine equitable access?
  • How will quality, learning outcomes, the integrity of research, and accountability for resources be assessed, validated, and made transparent to the public?
  • How will the goals of education for employment and for citizenship be integrated as the shared foundation for personal prosperity and societal advancement?

Organizational Viability 

  • How will traditional disciplines and organizational structures be reimagined to achieve greater efficiencies, ensure a qualified academic workforce, translate research into application for the common good, and responsibly use technological innovations?
  • How will credentials, units of measured attainment, and competency be defined, standardized, and updated by providers and learners who share the responsibility for the accuracy and integrity of their learning records?
  • How can a system of postsecondary education be reconceived as a collaboration among partners spanning the government, business, and nonprofit sectors across national, income, generational, political, and precollegiate levels?

These are framed as questions for America as a society to answer, but all are directly relevant to each governing board’s fiduciary duty to restore and renew the institutions for which they are responsible. In rebuilding after the crises of 2020, higher education must not only survive but prepare for the next convergence of crises—for they will surely come. As the bulwark of democracy, American higher education has to be prepared.

Too Big to Fail 

Given political divisions, the increased commercial appeal of higher education as a sector to be developed (if not exploited), the financial ruin of many colleges in the wake of the pandemic, and the probability of increased costs with reduced access for many, who has the credibility and integrity to ask the hard questions and to challenge past conditions that have brought American higher education to the brink? Who has the moral authority and ethical integrity to address ingrained and systemic social injustice?

Clearly many do, and the responsibility of addressing the many social injustices evoked during the crises of 2020 belongs to everyone. As the late John Lewis wrote to the nation just before he died, “Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America.” While everyone has a role to play in reimagining American higher education, trustees, listening to the extraordinary visions of others, can act more directly than most. In Lewis’ immortal words, they can “do something.”

Supported by presidents, chancellors, faculty, deans, staff, alumni, donors, consultants, governmental commissions, think tanks, associations, accreditors, and myriad stakeholders, governing boards will need clear principles and values to guide them in rebuilding and reshaping their institutional means of fulfilling mission—means that may not take the forms of past centuries. And they will need the visions of others to build the scenarios that can enable institutions to regenerate and gain the trust of the public of ordinary people.

Traditional brick and mortar campuses may not be the best way to deliver on mission. Technology will be ever more important, but the forms it might take with advances in artificial intelligence are unknown. Expertise will remain essential, but academic workforces may look nothing like the faculties we have known for centuries. The tradition of unique institutions may give way to partnerships and affiliations blending private, for-profit, and governmental enterprises. The forms of change will be many. Governing boards will have to hold on to their institutions, like Proteus of mythology, until the future reveals itself in a new form.

Beyond postsecondary education’s enormous economic impact, its approximate 17 million students, its over 5,000 institutions, and the $1.5 trillion in outstanding federal student loan debt, American higher education is too big to let fail for another, more important reason. It is the single most important means of ensuring America’s economic and social future, including its survival as a democratic nation still working to form a more perfect union.

That still noble work will depend on the values that guide the renewal and rebuilding of America’s system of postsecondary education following the crises of 2020. We urge each governing board to begin its own work by answering each of the seven questions here and by listening to people who are often not invited into the room where it happens.

Genevieve G. Shaker, PhD, is an associate professor at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at IUPUI.

William M. Plater, PhD, is the vice chair of the Antioch University Board of Governors and chancellor’s professor and chief academic officer emeritus of IUPUI. 


  • Following the crises of 2020, American higher education must prepare for transformative change, whether it be a renewal or reinvention of higher education as we know it. Governing boards are largely responsible for managing these changes and ensuring institutional responses to crises align with institutional missions and support the common good.
  • Crisis planning for the 2020–21 academic year must be flexible and incremental to allow for the unimagined. Governing boards must step up and plan for the hard choices to come. Preemptively strategizing responses to the best- and worst-case scenarios for the future leads to nimble yet decisive decisions when the time comes.
  • Asking the authors’ seven questions on mission validity and organizational viability is directly relevant to governing board’s fiduciary duty to restore and renew the individual institutions under their respective responsibility. These questions are functional, structural, pragmatic, and lead to meaningful inclusive decision-making.
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