In an Existential Crisis What is a College President to Do?

Buck Goldstein
Entrepreneur in Residence and Professor of the Practice UNC-Chapel Hill

Last week I heard the CEO of a leading Edtech company predict 25% of US colleges and universities would declare bankruptcy in the next year. At the time I thought that was an exaggeration but in the last five days other higher education leaders confirmed they were hearing the same thing. Unfortunately, universities that are among the most enduring institutions in our society are particularly ill-suited to deal with the immediate and existential crisis. The very structures that make them enduring make rapid changes with imperfect information problematic. Universities are built upon consensus and crisis management is antithetical to deliberate decision making.  

For less than 100 of the most selective and well-endowed colleges and universities in the US, the next three months will be a difficult logistical and financial challenge. Already they are working through alternative scenarios regarding when to start classes, the mix between online and on-campus, guidelines for gap years, the nature of sporting events, and measures to ensure the safety of students and faculty. Hiring freezes, spending cuts, reduced budgets, and in some cases, layoffs have already been put in place. For these schools, the doors will reopen in the Fall, and the changes that have been predicted will all take place at a rapid rate. In a matter of months, these schools will evolve at a rate that would otherwise have taken years or even decades.

For most institutions, the challenges will be more daunting and the stakes much higher. On top of the problems I outlined above, several thousand US colleges and universities will be battling for their very existence. Higher education was in trouble before Covid 19. Declining enrollment, reductions in government funding, burdensome student debt, changing demographics, and new technologies have created a perfect storm. To begin with, half the schools in the country are operating with an unsustainable financial model. As I write this, realistic administrators of traditional four-year institutions expect at least 20% of their student body will not return for the fall semester. In addition, the first-year class will be dramatically smaller than expected and ongoing support from government and income from the endowment will both be reduced. Hopefully, emergency federal funds will be forthcoming to provide some relief, but radical, unpopular measures will be required to keep the doors open for even a year. When the dust clears time will have expired for unsustainable operations.

What is a college president and its Board of Trustees to do when faced with the unthinkable? First, let me say God bless you. You did not sign up to lead in such dire times and, no matter what you do, you may not succeed. You may even successfully chart a path through the land mines and still lose your job. What follows are some suggestions for navigating the next few months and beyond.

A Return to the Status Quo is Not an Option. Your job is not to map a return to a BC (before COVID-19) world. BC will not return and, chances are, BC wasn’t working even before COVID-19. Take business as usual off the table and begin planning for AD (after disease). This is a challenge but also an opportunity to reimagine an institution that can best achieve its mission for the remainder of the 21st century.
An Imperfect Plan is Better Than No Plan at All. The impact of COVID-19 on virtually every aspect of American life has been more profound than any of us could have imagined, and we are far from done. There is no “right” plan. Every institution is different and so is every leader. What is important is to develop a plan that bravely faces reality and creates a sustainable competitive advantage. Merely copying larger and better-endowed institutions will not work anymore.

Get Started Now. Most colleges have already started the process of planning for reopening on some basis in the fall and under normal circumstances that would fill the plate of any leadership team. Unfortunately, that is not good enough. By the beginning of the fall semester, a plan for life in an AD world must be in place largely because your plans for fall will be shaped by your vision of the future. Do not wait for better information. We are all flying blind. Your plan can be revised as conditions change.  

Build a Small High-Performing Team to Help You. This is not a time for committees or endless discussions. What is required is a diverse and highly motivated team that is empowered to be bold without regard to the short-term internal and external politics. It is the job of the President in consultation with the Board of Trustees to provide vision and strong leadership and to sell the plan once it has been developed.  Empower your Deans and other leaders to implement the plan with the knowledge that they have your support in making decisions that will inevitably be criticized.

Make Hard Decisions. Difficult decisions do not get made by consensus or by a team.  Even your most able team members should not be called upon to bet their careers on a plan that can make or break an institution. That is the job of the President. At the end of the day, you must have the courage to do what you think is right whatever the consequences. No good turn will go unpunished.

Tell the Truth and Over Communicate. This is the most difficult challenge you face. You must balance realism and optimism so that the magnitude of the problem is understood but there is a belief that the community can get through it. If you downplay the gravity of the situation it will be hard to sell the measures that are required. If you are too pessimistic, faculty and students will become disheartened and may look elsewhere. Rely on your leadership team to help with small discussions and one on one conversations with key influencers. Do not neglect to pick up the phone and talk to people directly.

Some of the suggestions I have made may seem antithetical to principals of shared governance and academic freedom that make colleges and universities unique. Negotiating the balance between the ideals these concepts embody and the realities higher education currently faces is yet another challenge to leadership in these perilous times. No matter how good your intentions and careful planning, not all institutions will survive, and any realistic plan will come under heavy and often unfair criticism. But the more realistic you are about the threat and the bolder you are in your planning the more likely it is that your institution will come through this crisis in a way that will make your students, faculty, and alumni proud.


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