Playing the Long Game: Using What We Know to Strengthen Our Schools
We didn’t see this coming. As recently as 12 weeks ago, schools and classrooms hummed with activity and anticipation for the approaching spring. “Social distancing” had not yet made its way into our lexicon. And our growing economic outlook in the U.S. suggested growth, and strong prospects for our graduates.
So much has changed in such a short period of time. Our campuses, our professional lives, our family lives, and the sense of security and routine we take for granted has been upended in ways we did not foresee. Fear, anxiety, and uncertainty have cast dark shadows over every part of our lives.
In my 2015 book, Breakpoint: The Changing Marketplace for Higher Education, I made the argument that significant demographic, economic, and cultural forces converged during the Great Recession of 2008 and the years that followed, that would reshape the future of our enterprises and our leadership. That has proven true. For more than a decade, unrelenting pressure has affected education at all levels, particularly in the areas of accessibility, affordability, accountability, and sustainability.
But all of this is child’s play compared to the tsunami that’s been unleashed in the form of a virus we can neither see nor manage. The tidal forces of change driving our decision-making for the past 12 years offered us at least some advantage of time, perspective, and control. All were forces that historically have defined the vicissitudes of our world and work. However imperfectly, we could reach into the toolbox of experience and the temple of our familiar to adapt and change. COVID-19 defies all of it.
After scrambling to empty our campuses and rotate our learning from on-site to online, what do we know as we look to summer and beyond?
There is no escape. Barring a vaccine, treatment advancements, or better and wider testing than currently available, the conditions that created chaos this spring will exist likely beyond the fall. Flattening a curve does not make it go away. The result is extraordinary uncertainty from which no school is immune. We all must plan for multiple outcomes, often choices we have never had or wanted to consider. For some institutions, this will prove an existential moment. Irrespective of board actions taken before COVID-19, there is no such thing as a budget right now. Amid so much uncertainty, we don’t have the luxury of the kind of single-point planning typically reflected in a standard budget. Instead, we all must develop contingency-based budgets that allow us to pivot in response to a variety of different conditions. We must bring together teams of administrative leaders, faculty members, and trustees to develop thoughtful and orderly contingency plans, including everything from budgets to pedagogy to technology, and even lunch. Our future depends on it.
Nobody knows what will happen with enrollment. Generally, there are two enrollment camps: those fearing the worst, and those hoping for the best. Actual results will vary, likely significantly, by school. We do know, however, that people make different buying choices when they feel good compared with when they feel threatened or uncertain. The economic wreckage will leave a deep mark the longer it plays out. It will constrain choices. Much as we did in the aftermath of the Great Recession, we will again have to significantly boost financial aid spending to preserve access, opportunity, and enrollment. There will be no other choice.
Fiscal and budgetary action alone will not save us. How schools manage and deliver value, especially in the face of extraordinary disruption, also will influence enrollment. Students and families have many choices, and they will continue to choose schools that actively acknowledge and work to meet their needs. Schools that balance plays to value (we are still worth it) with prudent financial management (we need to make hard budget decisions) will fare best. Schools that panic or simply reduce this to a tragic budget exercise will find themselves in a world of hurt. Though it may have worked this spring when we had to quickly and unexpectedly change our learning medium, we cannot continue to lead with a “but we stayed open” argument. We must make and support the claim that we continue to deliver significant learning value no matter how we do it.
A few weeks with distance learning doesn’t make us expert. Given the increasing likelihood that we’ll either begin next fall virtually or need to return to remote learning at some point thereafter, we’ll need to invest time, energy, and resources into improving our distance learning capacity and skill. We will need to ensure that faculty have the professional development resources and support. Their ability to reimagine their courses and deliver learning online will have extraordinary consequences for student learning and enrollment. We also need to remember that most faculty at most institutions did not join the profession to teach in this way.
Both leadership excellence and weakness will be on full display. School leaders are now more visible than ever before. Students, families, faculty, staff, and alumni everywhere are watching for signs of strength, determination, empathy, and compassion. Leadership weakness will not subject schools to linear losses but rather geometric losses. This whole thing will sort out leadership winners and losers. The winners will come from across the education spectrum, and they will find themselves with more post-crisis opportunities than they ever could have imagined.
In an open letter to my students several weeks ago, I told them they had two choices: They could let this moment define them, or they could define this moment for themselves. I encouraged them to choose the latter, to reflect, learn, and grow—and to continue to dream and imagine. The same is of course true for the schools we lead and our own leadership practice.
This is not a time for “gasp and grasp” actions that too often define crisis response. We cannot simply get lost or overwhelmed as we address the issues immediately before us. We instead need to play a long game, knowing that the crisis will end. We must shape our leadership choices and practice in the context of how and where we expect to be at that point. Our students and families will expect as much, as will our faculty and staff. We ultimately will be as strong as the communities we lead. Now is our moment to define the courage of hope, the courage of conviction, and the courage of community.