Team PRG marks its fourth anniversary September 1. In previous years we have paused to raise a toast in celebration, but as one of our clients recently wrote, “This is a time like no other.”
When we founded Peterson Rudgers Group in 2016, we wanted to be thought partners with university leadership teams on big-picture strategy, planning, communications and leadership development. Higher education was already a sector in the midst of significant disruption, and our many years as senior in-house strategists had honed our skill sets for the work. We’ve experienced tremendous growth since we launched four years ago, and the work has been deeply rewarding as we partner with college presidents and leadership teams across the country on some of the weightiest strategic decisions they will ever make.
In some ways, curiously, it is as if the experience of our first three-and-a-half years in business was preparing us for the disruption we could not have predicted: the pandemic. Now it is clear that higher education is in the midst of massive reinvention—not around-the-edges stuff, but fundamental and foundational change. These last few months we have been on overdrive, helping our clients navigate the leadership paths, decision-making and communications so critical at this time—yet with so much unknown and never-before tried.
As we reflect on PRG’s four years of experience, including six months of sector-altering cyclones, here are the interrelated priorities we see as critical, gleaned from clients and our ongoing scan of the sector, if colleges are to emerge successfully post-pandemic.
High-functioning executive leadership teams
Higher ed leadership teams across the country are flat-out exhausted. The strain of multiple scenario planning streams, campus safety precautions, last-minute pivots and financial duress has taken its toll. Amid the overload, vulnerabilities such as miscommunication, lack of coordination, and misaligned interests become magnified. Our institutions need high-functioning executive teams to stay focused and drive the changes necessary in the midst of such substantial disruption. Now is the time to reinforce the guiding principles that strengthened your team in the first place: collaborating respectfully, placing institutional above individual interest, considering long-term consequences in addition to short-term need, coordinating effectively, taking all stakeholders into account, and sharing goal setting and decision-making. In addition, people are sorely in need of camaraderie, humor, and the permission to take regular breaks.
Transparent decision-making and effective communication
If we’ve learned anything in the last six months, it’s that transparent decision-making and open, frequent communication must go hand in hand. In surveys regarding how universities communicated planning decisions, students gave their institutions poor marks. Many faculties and staffs have voiced concerns that decision-making has been opaque, or missing altogether, and leaders have not been listening. But we have also seen stellar examples of outreach, including information-packed webinar sessions for students and families and employee surveys to gauge sentiment and better identify needs. Transparency and inclusivity in decision-making builds trusts and can support the case for change. And the exchange goes in both directions: An intentional communication-and-feedback loop is more necessary than ever before to help cultivate a culture of mutual purpose and engagement.
Our community members are worn down and worried. (More on that below.) Expressing shared emotions and acknowledging stakeholder concerns demonstrates understanding, and fosters a more relatable and humane connection. With the gaps this pandemic has created, it’s more important than ever to meet people where they are emotionally. And it’s perfectly fine to say you don’t know the answer to something, or are worried too.
Honed planning and change management processes
Buckle up. The pace of change is and will be on overdrive. “New normal” doesn’t even begin to describe it. Much of the way higher education has traditionally operated will need to be reimagined post-pandemic, with substantial changes on tap to the way we teach, how we deliver value to students, how we work. It’s not all crisis management; this moment abounds with opportunities as well. Strategic planning and change management processes will need to be faster, clearer, and bolder than we are used to if institutions are to emerge stronger from this crisis. Give stakeholders a clear, honest appraisal of the situation. Listen to as many voices as you can, but don’t try to please everyone. Distill your options into plain language and make real choices. And at every step, tell your stakeholders how you got there, what the decisions are, what the rationale is behind them, and what comes next.
Valuable value propositions
For many years, the media has been full of stories pointing to the erosion of higher education’s perceived value for students and families. Now, questions about cost and value have been intensified by what is perceived as inferior online classwork and drastically altered residential experiences (if any at all). In this pandemic academic year, colleges will have to focus on academic quality in virtual and hybrid delivery models. They must give equal attention, too, to the totality of the student experience—curricular and co-curricular programming, student leadership and community engagement opportunities, and career development—so students can stay on track toward their goals. The long-term questions are existential ones: Is the residential educational experience worth its cost? How can we deliver demonstrable value, without reducing college to a set of transactions? This is where the strategic planning and change management processes noted above will be most necessary.
Faculty and staff wellbeing
The sector’s earlier fragility coupled with COVID-19 has left faculty and staff stressed and anxious about the future. Furloughs, layoffs, salary freezes or cuts, and erosion in benefits loom large. And with so much of our community now working from home, the daily Zoom fatigue and juggling of family life add to the burden. Organizations that focus on community wellbeing, and attending to what faculty and staff most need to do their jobs effectively in the midst of such dramatic change, will strengthen their ability to fully realize institutional goals and aspirations.
For leaders in higher education, battling through a series of urgent crises that never seems to end, these imperatives can seem daunting. There are a lot of days we see real exhaustion. But for many leaders, we also see a new kind of energy as well. Because even as the pandemic makes some things impossible, it makes other things possible. It forces—and allows—leaders to reconnect to the missions they serve and the reasons they got into higher education in the first place. And, four years in, it reminds each of us at PRG how fortunate we are to partner with people who are doing some of the best work of their lives.