Marcia Brown Mintz

Marcia Brown Mintz

Senior Advisor

Since March, colleges and universities, out of necessity, have devoted great attention to pandemic operations as their traditional model was upended. To move through and beyond the pandemic and to succeed in whatever is to come, they will next need to consider what elements of the traditional model continue to work and what needs to change, including what needs to change quickly. Leaders will need to turn their attention intentionally to the future and address a host of issues that have come to light against the backdrop of the pivot to virtual instruction and curtailment of on-campus activity. Just figuring out how to sift through the many issues can seem overwhelming. Even if most of the issues are not new, they may now have to be viewed in light of new and different assumptions and decisions. What is new is the complexity that now surrounds the issues along with greater urgency or imperative to act. Moreover, what is often characterized (and rightly so) as great opportunity for change in the wake of pandemic disruption may be perceived in the moment more like imposition and less like a favorable possibility. When so much is in play, one way to get started planning for what comes next is a prelude to planning: an initial sorting of the relevant issues to identify those most salient for a particular institution—recognizing the set of issues and their prioritization may change as plans develop and circumstances unfold—followed by issue mapping that builds from three core thoughts:

  • New and different sets of issues and related assumptions will shape post-pandemic strategic planning because “the future is not what it used to be.”
  • Higher education has just shown that it can adjust and adapt quickly; yet, no matter how urgent or imperative the change to come, institutions need to navigate established governance and organizational structures when making decisions about what comes next.
  • Post-pandemic planning will require greater appreciation for and awareness of external developments and higher education industry interdependencies because, in many important areas, higher education is in effect self-regulated through membership associations and organizations that define the rules of the game for areas of operation within groups of institutions, and some of these have been upended, too.

Ideas, Issues, and Assumptions

Ideas abound about what’s next for higher education, coming from observers and from those dealing first-hand with the pandemic response. There is daily reporting on college and university fall operations and an abundance of commentary, hindsight, and prognostication. Beyond the media, experts are exploring the future of higher education in ongoing and structured ways—conducting research, convening thought leaders, providing funding, and consulting. The range and sheer number of topics attracting attention are good indicators of the challenge ahead. For example, the Association of Governing Boards (AGB) tracks a list of trending topics in higher education shown in first list, below to which we have added more than a dozen. To be sure, just listing topics does not begin to capture the sophistication necessary to address the issues and discern the planning assumptions they represent.

AGB List of Trending Topics

  • Academic Freedom
  • Admissions
  • Affordability
  • Athletics
  • Coronavirus
  • Crisis Leadership
  • Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
  • Finance and Business Models
  • Innovation
  • Risk Management
  • Strategy
  • Student Success
  • Student Well-Being
  • Technology
  • Title IX and Sexual Misconduct

CFAR List of Additional Leading Topics

  • Collaboration
  • Culture and place
  • Endowment
  • Faculty: balance of teaching, research, and service
  • Faculty: mix, course loads
  • Instruction delivery (in-class, blended, online)
  • Internal reorganization
  • International: students, research collaboration
  • Mergers and closures (programs and institutions)
  • Residential model
  • Study abroad
  • Tuition pricing, financial aid
  • Time/number of credits to degree
  • Town gown relations
  • Workforce

Going forward, individual colleges and universities will need to build better understandings of their own institution’s developments, interrelationships, and possibilities as they relate to many of the topics noted above, along with greater attention to and understanding of the related external and industry-level developments, possibilities, and interrelationships.

How to Get Started 

As a prelude to planning, identifying and mapping an initial set of key issues might helpfully orient or frame planning discussions for leaders and boards.

The first mapping activity we suggest is to consider what would unfold or be determined primarily internally and what would unfold or be determined primarily externally. A given institution’s results will serve to highlight the importance of giving attention not only to planning assumptions informed by internal decisions, but also to those informed by an extensive network of external influences and determinations. For the issues that arise and reside internally, related assumptions and decisions can be considered with reference to established governance and organization. Given how urgently so many decisions were made in the past eight months, issue and decision mapping at this time could prove particularly useful. Some institutions might find that their pandemic response aligned with their established governance and organization, while others might learn otherwise.

Second, devoting attention to the contours of the external environment provides opportunity for better appreciating the role and influence of some of the higher education industry-level associations and alliances (e.g., accreditors, athletic conferences, membership organizations, affinity groups) as well as the media (e.g., rankings), and local, state, and federal government. External pull or hold with respect to an individual institution can be surfaced by pinpointing relevant external bodies associated with critical issue areas. Subsets of these issues can be categorized as those to be watched and those to be influenced (through active direct or indirect participation externally). For some within the institution, learning more about the networks and roles of the external actors might be eye-opening and for others an important reminder of external sway and constraint going forward. The external environment is also where colleges and universities can come together to engage with government agencies and regulators, the public, and others who might impose rules of the game—after all, the external environment is where interdependencies and relationships across schools really live.

For colleges and universities to move through and beyond the pandemic—and to better process, absorb, and own inevitable change—sorting and mapping issues will prove an instructive, pre-planning activity. Doing so will inform individual institution planning assumptions and decisions and point the way for the higher education community more broadly to come together for whatever the future holds.