Time for campus leaders to reflect on and learn from pandemic

College officials are still determining how to reopen—but they can also consider future operational changes based on lessons learned during closures

As higher ed leaders continue to face all-consuming, daily challenges about the weeks and months ahead, they must still carve out time for strategic reflection, advises one campus HR expert.

It’s something very few are doing: “thinking about what we have really learned during this era about ourselves, about our ability to change and be nimble,” says Scott Nostaja, National Human Capital Practice leader and senior vice president at Segal. Nostaja, formerly chief operations officer for the University at Buffalo, consults with higher ed institutions of all sizes and types.

In phase one of the crisis, the primary focus was on making sure everyone was safe, closing down campuses and moving to online education. Phase two, which occurred almost simultaneously, involved preserving the financial health of the institution came into play. And phase three, for close to 70% of colleges and universities, is looking at resuming operations for the fall, he says.

Over the next 30 to 60—or in some cases, 90—days, Nostaja anticipates more conversations will evolve on big changes that can be made in light of what institutions have experienced these past few months. This fourth phase—which will include asking questions such as “What have we learned about technology?” and “How can we use that to think about reimagining our operations in the future?”—should really be starting now, he says. Besides technology, changes are expected to occur with process, policy and organizational design.

Resource: Segal’s COVID-19 response framework for colleges and universities

Nostaja acknowledges that the impact of COVID-19 on enrollment is still to be determined and that a lot will be dependent on what happens, since tuition revenue is so crucial to institutions’ budgets.

But that doesn’t mean it’s ok to wait to reflect. “The advice that we’re giving is to accelerate your [strategic] thinking,” he says. “Try to bring it into your discussions. Now is the time to think about longer-term structural changes to your colleges.”

Melissa Ezarik is senior managing editor of UB.

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