Higher education traditionally does not move quickly when it comes to innovation. However, the current situation with the COVID-19 pandemic is forcing higher education institutions to do just that.

Which is where the University Innovation Alliance (UIA) comes in. UIA, which is led by Dr. Bridget Burns, is a group of 11 universities that are committed to innovating together, scaling up what works and then sharing their efforts. These institutions are Oregon State University, University of California Riverside, Arizona State University, University of Texas at Austin, University of Kansas, Iowa State University, Purdue University, Michigan State University, Ohio State University, Georgia State University and University of Central Florida.

Stemming the Crisis

Up until now, UIA’s focus has been on closing the achievement gap, producing more high-quality degrees and fundamentally changing the higher education sector. Now in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, UIA has shifted to identifying and sharing best practices for the rapidly changing higher education landscape.

For example, higher education institutions need to address the pressing challenges facing the most vulnerable students in real time. Students are hungry, homeless, displaced and dealing with extra circumstances that weren’t anticipated. One institution had to spend an additional $5 million in a one-week period to provide transportation and to purchase housing, WIFI hot-spots and laptops for students who were being displaced. In addition, institutions are facing major unanticipated costs due to transitioning to online education.

To facilitate this, Dr. Burns is currently focused on connecting institutions that are innovating in real-time during this crisis and then sharing their learning. Each institution is advancing in their work to address the challenges, while also being dependent on navigating their state’s policies and the community context. These challenges will continue to evolve and she is focused on helping institutions move more quickly through them.

Stemming the Crisis

Dr. Burns noted that the world is in a different place that it was at the beginning of the semester and communication has increased. Fortunately, there are individuals – such as former Tulane University President Scott Cowen, who led the institution in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina—who have been involved in major crisis situations and can provide counsel. These individuals help remind leaders about how to transition from day-to-day responsibilities and leading transformational efforts to what Burns describes as “rowing in high seas with a squall.” This is a completely different type of leadership, and involves a fundamentally different skill set.

Institutions also are facing additional challenges to decision-making as higher education leaders need to work with state leaders, community leaders, university system leaders and accreditors to navigate this situation. Campus leaders must make brave and bold decisions; they often are also being deluged with negative feedback from online trolls once information is shared.

Higher education leaders currently need to be focused on the daily issues they are facing. The situation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is going to affect different populations, such as vulnerable low-income, first-generation students, in different ways. For example, students who came out s as LBGTQ and were kicked out of their homes; low-income, first-generation students who may be food-insecure or housing-insecure; international students who cannot return to their home countries – these are complicated situations that must be dealt with individually.

Funders who have available resources need to get these money to higher education leaders, who are already identifying how to best use the money to support students, faculty and staff during this crisis.

Crisis-Fueled Student-Centered Innovation

There is also a broader psychic stress in dealing with a layer-upon-layer challenge such as higher ed faces.  Dr. Burns stressed that during this crisis the UIA members are focusing on a student-centered approach, which is not how higher education traditionally has operated. This crisis will change the processes, structures, and how institutions work to focus around the needs of students, as opposed to faculty and administrators.

There also will be innovation in the chaos and crisis – the “silver lining” if you will. Millions of faculty members have had to transition their style to online learning, thus learning how to evolve teaching and assets into this new paradigm. In another unexpected benefit, Dr. Burns believes people will be very grateful to be in school because it will offer a healthy and productive distraction.

Virtual Opportunities

We have long lived in an increasingly virtual world. However, higher education leaders now must learn how to take care of people through a virtual workplace. Campus administrators are used to face-to-face interactions, but now must learn how to manage teams and spot trends from a distance. All university employees are having to rearrange life to be able to work at home.

Additionally, many people are getting laid off. Dr. Burns said she expects some institutions to begin unveiling opportunities for individuals who are being forced to change careers to retool. While it’s too late to start a new term, she suggests that institutions should investigate smaller modules that can serve these potential students, e.g., micro credentials and perhaps stackable certificates. These offer real opportunity, and accreditors will need to flow with this. However, there still needs to be vigilance because some institutions do prey on individuals in these situations. She recommends that potential students only consider attending accredited institutions.

Three Recommendations for Higher Education Leaders

Dr. Burns suggested takeaways for higher education leaders who are dealing with the COVID-19 crisis:

  • Your instincts are solid. You are making good decisions to help students, faculty, and staff make it through this.
  • You do not need to lead perfectly right now. It’s important to show your humanity. People will follow a leader who is also experiencing the effects of this crisis.
  • Take care of yourself. Leaders are older and shouldn’t put themselves at risk.

Bullet Points

  • The COVID-19 pandemic offers an opportunity for rapid innovation in higher education.
  • The most important thing to do currently is take care of the needs of students. This will differ by student group. Be sure to focus on a student-centered approach.
  • Higher education leaders are making good decisions in a time of crisis, even though they are receiving blowback from some.
  • Some decisions have to be slowed due to the need to get feedback from state policymakers, community members, university system leaders and accreditors.
  • Learn from other leaders who have been through similar trial-by-fire situations.
  • This pandemic will speed up higher education’s use of online education and will lead to innovative teaching models.
  • Higher education leaders also will have to learn to manage a virtual office. This again can lead to innovative practices.
  • There also is an emerging opportunity to create modules to serve individuals who have been laid off during the COVID-19 pandemic. These individuals will want to retool their professional abilities.

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