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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.

Title

Guest Post: The Time for Small Ideas Is Over

Subtitle: Imagining together how to innovate and survive the higher ed landscape after coronavirus.

March 25, 2020
 
 

“There’s no single answer that will solve all of our future problems. There’s no magic bullet. Instead there are thousands of answers -- at least. You can be one of them if you choose to be.” -- Octavia Butler

Higher education was already in trouble. But now the coronavirus crisis has shifted the higher ed crisis into high gear. It is difficult to imagine the condition our institutions of higher ed will be in when we return from quarantine. In a recent column, John pointed out just a few of the threats we are facing. The Chronicle of Higher Ed is running a sobering series about financial implications of the current crisis, asking, “How would universities adjust their budgets if they were to lose 25 to 50 percent of their revenue in 2021?” Massive unemployment and 12 to 18 months of social distancing are likely to lead to a collapse in enrollment and tuition revenue. State budgets will to take a big hit from their tax collections and likely slash higher ed as a consequence.

There is not going to be business as usual. There will be life BC (before coronavirus) and AC (after coronavirus). We all need to change and innovate for survival AC.

The two of us have no more or less wisdom to imagine solutions than anyone else. But that is the point: No one is coming to save us. It’s now our collective responsibility to imagine ways to innovate and survive the new landscape. So here we will outline a few of our ideas to get the conversation started -- and these are only our ideas; we are not speaking for (or to) any institution. But first: two guiding frameworks.

One: we should delineate the two kinds of leadership that need to happen in the coming weeks and months: management triage and innovating and leading transformative change. Triage is necessary but not sufficient. Someone has to be at work right now getting students refunds, figuring out what to do about course evaluations, helping faculty use Zoom, feeding the students still on campus. We applaud those people who are stepping up and doing this work -- faculty members, registrars, IT support staff, dining hall workers. It has to be done (we are doing some of this work ourselves). To survive and thrive in the long run, however, triage will not suffice. We will need innovative leadership for truly transformational change. Crisis will be our exigence, but it need not lead solely to reactionary triage.

The second guiding framework is around how decisions are made. Triage decisions can be based on data and traditional policy and procedure, but that will not lead to the transformation that is needed. For that, we need to identify our principles and guiding mission: Who are we at our core? What are our values? And then we set our intention and make hard choices and take visionary gambles that align with our principles and mission. In the Howe Center for Writing Excellence that Elizabeth directs, and in the English department she is a part of, collectively generated principles are the driving force. They are posted on the wall and website. When decisions need to be made, we return to them in order to decide how to do the right thing. (For example, one of the principles in English is “We value and seek fairness and equity. We strive to share labor in ethical ways.” Enacting this in the coming years might require reimagining our teaching loads). The hardest part of working from principles is creating a process whereby large groups of people discus and agree on shared values and pledge to act from them even when it means that some of us must make sacrifices.

With those frameworks in mind, we want to share a few of our ideas regarding what institutions of higher ed might do right now; you’ll certainly see our personal guiding principles and values at work in these. How could it be otherwise? But we are just starting a conversation; we ask readers to keep in mind science-fiction writer Octavia Butler’s admonition from the beginning of this column. We hope you will add your ideas to ours on Twitter, using the hashtag #InnovateHigherEd.

1. Form alliances and lobby.

United we stand, divided we fall. College and university presidents and provosts in each state might benefit from forming strategic alliances. We are unlikely to succeed by acting alone. The American Council on Education led the way last week by asking for $50 billion in emergency aid to colleges, universities and students. We need to see education as an interconnected ecosystem. Of course, we also need to be accountable for our previous fiscal management and planning. State and federal money should support institutions who already had strong plans for viability.

Most universities have lobbyists. They should all be in D.C. or state capitals right now (at least virtually), working their contacts and explaining the impact of this pandemic on higher ed and what that means. If they don’t have such contacts or can’t persuasively explain the heart and value of higher ed, we need new lobbyists. Also, the way we frame our position matters: We aren’t asking for a “bailout” or a “stimulus package.” We are advocating for investment in the future survival of this country. Who will be creating vaccines if institutions of higher ed are all shuttered?

2. Tenure-line faculty have a responsibility now to stop thinking as independent contractors and collaboratively innovate with all faculty, staff and administrators.

We will not get through this if the most secure among us focus solely on our own research and our individual classrooms, or ignore the fact that we are part of an interdependent ecosystem. We can’t afford to simply react (usually defensively) to the ideas of our administrators, and to remain willfully and blissfully ignorant about what it takes to run large institutions -- how budgets work, where funding comes from, what health care costs, how much it costs to keep the lights on, etc. We need to find ways to educate ourselves and pool our intellectual capital to imagine new solutions. Being reactionary and protecting our own turf will not suffice.

3. Tap the innovators.

Provosts and presidents and deans can ask chairs and program directors who the innovators are among the faculty, staff and students. They can convene think tanks of innovators, share with them the looming problems and invite them to imagine what our future could be -- in terms of pedagogy, nimble processes, etc. Innovators who have never been in administrative roles will need some background knowledge on budgets and accreditation and state mandates (this is why we need to include innovative staff in those think tanks as well -- and actually listen to them). Think tank participants might have ideas and methods for changing old procedures, but they can’t innovate ideas that are tenable without understanding the playing field as it currently exists.

If presidents and provosts don’t tap the innovators, then faculty and staff can form innovation groups on their own. It bears repeating: no one is coming to save us. We can lead from the bottom up as well as the top down.

Adrianna Kezar’s How Colleges Change is some good background reading. There are also a lot of people who specialize in innovating and incubating good ideas -- for example, The Innovation Lab at AdventHealth, or Stanford’s D School.

4. Tell our story in compelling ways to change public conceptions.

Higher ed has a terrible track record of persuasively explaining what we do. It has never been more important for us to hire communications experts who are able to shape public conceptions about the value of higher ed. We may need to hire new teams with experience in industry and politics. Hiring may seem counterintuitive in the current crisis, but long-term survival depends in large part on lawmakers, parents and the public in general understanding and valuing what we do. Here, too, we could help ourselves by thinking across institutions about how to communicate to the public in order to change conceptions about higher ed over all.

5. Make our business processes nimble and functional.

A lot of processes don’t work very efficiently at universities. If we are serious about fixing them so that they are functional and nimble, we need to ask the people who use them -- namely, our administrative assistants and staff. Typically, universities demonstrate a lot of class elitism in how they treat staff. Academics tend to believe that only people with advanced degrees have something useful to say. But we could learn a lot by listening to the people who order books, put in purchase orders, try to transfer money from one campus to another and so on. We would do well to check our egos at the door and ask our staff what is broken and what they would do to fix it.

We can also learn from what groups of small businesses have done and share costs with other schools. We could have consortiums for everything we purchase, from software to paper to health care. This is especially true for health care and employee benefits: Can we buy these together as a collective across institutions? This seems to be the biggest single cost in higher ed right now. If we can lower the costs of health care and benefits, perhaps we could then see our way clear to solving some of our labor problems.

Forming such consortiums would also prompt us to inventory contracts, licenses and existing software, eliminate duplications, and consider where we are not getting a good return on our investment.

6. Decide what we value; ensure cuts don’t harm the core mission; spread the pain to those who can absorb it.

Across-the-board cuts hurt everything equally, even core parts of the mission that are necessary for our survival and growth. A liberal arts school can’t let the across-the-board cut hurt its general education program, for example. Ask our innovative think tanks to imagine solutions that proceed from mission, vision and guiding principles, not an ethic of austerity or a misplaced idea of fairness that cuts every effort equally. Cutting strategically requires us, again, to identify our shared guiding principles and act from them.

We might also consider (short-term?) pay cuts to highest-paid administrators, tenured faculty and coaches -- or pay cuts to people who earn above a certain amount. If we embrace the fact that we are an interdependent ecosystem, the most secure and highest-paid people will have to absorb cuts to support the system upon which we all depend. We know this suggestion will be highly unpopular. For example, higher-paid people in pension plans like the one in Ohio will suffer because their pension is the average salary of their last X number of years working. But the facts are bleak: if the entire system falls, no one will receive a pension. There won’t be salaries for anyone. So back to principles 1 and 2: we have to start thinking as though we are interdependent if we are going to survive -- and even thrive.

Change is long overdue in higher education, and the moment has arrived when crisis will drive real innovation and change -- or we risk disappearing. It’s time for us to transform.

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Elizabeth Wardle has directed writing programs at three different types of institutions and served as department chair. In a prior life, she was a fundraiser and grantwriter for nonprofits.

Nkosi Shanga has worked in IT at a private and public university, in a large health-care system, and for a start-up company that developed network security products.

Their views are their own, not those of their employer.

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