mOp-Ed: How to Move Your University from Crisis to Transformation

by Drumm McNaughton

Coronavirus has essentially canceled the Spring term as envisioned; i.e., on-campus classes were cancelled, and most moved online. There are serious implications for enrollments for Fall term and finances, and many are wondering if there will be a Fall term at all (we think so).

There will be winners and losers. Many will use this time to transform, but others will become casualties.

When the all-clear sounds (and it will), this won’t be a typical “students are back from summer break” event. Think more 9/11 and how peoples’ mental models shifted, and how it gave rise to TSA and Homeland Security.

Current Situation and Going Forward

Now that the majority of institutions have “fixed” the Spring term, institutions must redirect their attention to business matters. We’ll start seeing some if not all of the following:

  • Strategic planning. Throw those old strategic plans out the door. New plans are needed that take into account the new reality.
  • Risk planning will become critical, not only financial, but multiple areas. Tabletop scenario planning will become normal.
  • Boards will be more proactive planning and backstopping administration. There is only so much that the president and his team can do.
  • Board recruiting will focus on recruiting members with broader skillsets.
  • Institutions will continue to embrace distance / online education as a new revenue stream.
  • Accreditors will loosen up requirements for online education, especially now that the DE guidance based on Neg Reg 2019 has been published. New and more innovative ways of allowing DE will spring up, and learning will be improved (hopefully).
  • Closures will mount up – 10-20 percent of higher ed institutions will no longer exist, either through closure or mergers.

Planning and Risk Management. We previously discussed to use strategic and risk planning to chart your course in turbulent times. The lessons from that blog are very applicable right now – looking at the future external environment, building a shared vision through stakeholder input and attunement, and doing risk planning.

Risk planning is going to be critical going forward to learn how to deal with and mitigate risks. Of course, black swan events aren’t necessarily foreseeable, but if risk planning is done properly, you will have threads from other scenarios that can help inform future decision-making.

Alternative Strategies. Institutions should examine alternative strategies such as mergers and acquisitions. This may be difficult for some institutions, as they are perceived as a “last resort” before closure (which is generally too late). This could not be any further from the truth – institutions’ perceptions must change.

Three reasons to entertain a merger:

  • Acquiring new students and/or programs;
  • Acquiring new technologies / modalities of delivery (including online / DE); and
  • Achieving efficiencies that will lead to greater profitability.

NOW is a good time to start looking at either acquiring other institutions or becoming part of another through acquisition.

We’ve written on this a lot – please see the blog series on higher ed mergers (Part 1 and Part 2), and the two podcasts (P011 w Gerry Czarnecki and P031 w Ricardo Azziz). In these, you get some great tips and ideas on what to focus on and how to execute.

Unprofitable Programs. This is a good time to take a hard look at your institution’s “unprofitable” programs. These are tough decisions, but going forward, you must jettison “deadweight” to keep your institution afloat – you cannot be all things to all people.

Staying Online. Many institutions (actually, the vast majority) transformed their traditional on-campus programs to online in a very short period of time. BRAVO!!!

Now comes the real work.

There are number of excellent articles in the Chronicle on transitioning traditional on the ground courses to online, and now is time to go back and make these courses truly excellent by ensuring program and course learning objectives are clear, met, and measured; assessment is built into each course; and faculty and students have excellent training on the new delivery and pedagogy. Just because you rolled them out quickly doesn’t mean that they’re done traditionally.

Your Board. This is a crisis situation and as that, it’s important to make sure that your board is informed and involved. We suggest engaging board committees that look at finances, strategy and risk, academic affairs and university life since this crisis will have wide-ranging ramifications.

Board recruiting for the future is critical going forward. Ensure that your Nominations committee uses a Skills Matrix to understand the skills of your board and what is skills should be recruited going forward.

Crisis Communications. Just because we are starting to see a glimmer of daylight at the end of the tunnel doesn’t mean that the communication to stakeholders should slow down. In fact, we suggest it actually increase.

Your stakeholders want to know how you’re faring, as well as what your future will look like. This is critical from a fundraising perspective – most institutions are not going to have the same robust finances that they have had in the past, and informing stakeholders of how the institution is doing and what you’re doing is important.

For example, one institution I know was looking at a $2 million deficit because of refunds for room and board. They went out to key donors and alumni with a request for funding, and they brought in $3 million, more than offseting the deficit.

This is NOT the norm – this particular institution has a very loyal base – but because they kept their base informed of what was going on, they were able to go out with a plea for help and it was (more than) met.

Summer / Fall Term Student Recruitment. Just because the Spring term is canceled (and there is discussion about canceling Summer term as well) doesn’t mean that the recruitment process stops.

This time is CRITICAL for enrollment, and you must be proactive in reaching out to prospective (and current) students to keep them informed. Obviously, you don’t make a pest of the yourself, but they want to know what’s going on and how the institution’s plans will affect them.

Prospective students are requesting that the “reply date” be pushed back. We recommend you do this. Yes, it puts more uncertainty into the enrollment picture, but (prospective) students are attempting to figure out how they are going to pay for the next year (or if they will even come), and any compassion you show them will help to put money in your bank account.

Check the Culture Pulse. A previous blog discussed how to find out what people are thinking, and proactively addressing their concerns. Smart leaders find ways to get feedback through surveys, or “hanging out” on social media where your students and prospects hang, and integrate what you are hearing in your communications.

This is important for your institutional culture, but especially important for your enrollment going forward. Invite those who have expressed an interest in attending your institution next year (even current students) to “follow you” on social media. Routinely communicate to them about what the institution is doing, and get them excited about attending and/or coming back next term.

Looking to the Future

You may want to use this period of time to look at your institutional positioning. This can be done as part of revisiting your strategic plan and using this “new normal” to identify a roadmap for the future. Do market research to identify ways to attract and keep students. What made Wayne Gretzky and the Soviet hockey teams so great was that they “skated to where the puck is going to be.” Higher ed needs to do this same thing when it comes to marketing for enrollment – where are your future students going to be and how do you reach them.

Wrapping Up

We’re in unprecedented times, and unfortunately, none of us know how long this is going to last. Our best guess is we will be able to sound the all clear for Fall term, but that is a guess. The good news is that it will wind down, and we need to be prepared for that when it comes.

We’ve given you a lot of tips and ideas to be thinking about as you move forward, and even though the times are challenging but if you move forward in a thoughtful, measured and collaborative manner, you can position your institution for the best possible outcome.

In other words, don’t let a good crisis go to waste.


Dr. Drumm McNaughton is a higher education innovator, strategic management pioneer, accreditation / turnaround / mergers specialist, and governance expert. With P&L experience in multiple industries, he has stimulated transformation and propelled double-digit growth at higher ed institutions, startups, and Fortune 500 companies, leveraging his extensive international experience having lived overseas 19 years and worked / traveled in 50+ countries. His change initiatives and counsel have resulted in over $500 million to organizations’ bottom line.

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