August 5 2020

In recent weeks, our team wrapped up a Leading Through Disruption interview and survey series with college presidents across the country. Collectively, these leaders serve nearly 70,000 students in 19 states at a range of independent institutions in urban, rural, and suburban locations. This content series focuses on what we heard from them.

In the year of COVID-19, there is no normal, there is only what’s next. What’s next right now is, of course, fall term, in some combination of return-to-campus and virtual learning. Leaders on campuses all over the country are navigating an extraordinary complexity of decision making, with constituents asking for certainty where there is very little to be found. With new variables entering the fall equation every day, we heard three guiding principles for those leading colleges and universities through disruption:


“The health and safety of our students, faculty, and staff and the long-term stability of the college are at the forefront of every decision. Our student body has kept me focused on the bigger picture—our ability to transform the lives of students.”

– Leocadia Zak, President, Agnes Scott College

Placing students at the heart of every decision keeps the central focus of our work front and center. The right balance of well-being, health and safety, and effective learning is delicate and nearly impossible to achieve, but the needs of students and their families as the primary consideration in planning and execution should guide the conversation.

Courageous Leaders are asking:

  • Are we doing our best to serve our students and their well-being?
  • What are our students and families asking and where are their anxieties?
  • How have student and family expectations changed?
  • How can we continue to use relationships as a driver for learning in this new environment?
  • What will our students and families be able to pay for?
  • How does our curriculum need to change to meet student needs?
  • How can our campus spaces adapt to new health and safety needs?
  • How will student engagement change outside of the classroom?
  • How can we use this time of uncertainty to nurture a new generation of change-resilient leaders?


“Students, faculty, and staff have shown resilience, grit, tenacity, and creativity. We are hopeful – and this is primarily due to the fact that everyone is pulling together and believes in our mission, more than ever. This is remarkable, given the uncertainty and ambiguity we are all experiencing.”

– Brian Bruess, President, St. Norbert College

Our colleague Matt Trainum said in his recent blog post, Strategy in the Summer of COVID, that strategic thinking this year “is about bridging from the near term to the long term, from the survival decision of the week to the vision for the years to come.” Even in a crisis—often especially in a crisis—people need to be reminded by their leaders where they are going, to be able to see the forest for the trees. Intentionally, consistently, explicitly aligning decisions and actions to core values, mission, and your institution’s strategic future reinforces your “why” and creates continuity for your community.

Courageous Leaders are asking:

  • How are our values and mission reflected in our response, day by day?
  • How does each decision ensure the future of our mission?
  • How can we fulfill our mission and remain financially viable?
  • Are we balancing immediate crisis response/recovery with long-term strategic positioning and innovation?
  • Is our strategic plan flexible enough in its goals to accommodate these unprecedented events? If not, how can we level it up?
  • How will we take the lessons learned during COVID and inform our future planning?
  • How can the Board of Trustees be more generative than ever before?


“There is no going back to whatever was normal. It is imperative we fight muscle memory and allow our institutions, encourage our institutions, to evolve.”

– Richard Dunsworth, President, University of the Ozarks

In “Pivot: A Vision for the New University,” Joanne Soliday and Mark Lombardi said, “We bear a responsibility to the families and students investing money in their hope for the future to steward their dollars with care. College and university leaders must explicitly, unequivocally embrace an entrepreneurial business mind-set... Without nurturing a level of financial health and sustainability that allows for strategic, ongoing reinvestment in the core of our work, institutional mission will not be achieved.”

The stewardship of institutional resources to ensure long-term viability takes center stage as the pandemic disproportionately affects high-residency colleges and universities with significant annual revenues from room and board. Following the mid-term campus closures of the spring and the threat of repeats in the fall, leaders anticipate more administrative and academic prioritization, collaborative outsourcing for back-office college functions, creative partnerships among institutions (like those featured in our recent Partnerships & Mergers blog), and a push to encourage donors to give unrestricted funds to help create more flexibility in the bottom line.

Courageous Leaders are asking:

  • What is our contingency plan for a 10%, 20%, 40% drop in or loss of revenue in the coming year?
  • Are we operating as efficiently as possible in all areas, in and beyond the academic unit?
  • Does our structure contribute to financial flexibility (schools, colleges, org chart, administrative expenditures)?
  • What is truly sacred to our mission, and where can we be more open to change?
  • What is the right balance of programs to engage our mission and drive appropriate levels of marginal revenue?
  • What will the market need most coming out of the health crisis and recession? Where are we positioned to provide most value?
  • Are there alternative business models, delivery models, and pathways for students who can no longer be served by a traditional four-year campus setting?

Read more about financial health and sustainability in the PIVOT blog series installment, No Margin, No Mission.

In all this challenge, there is extraordinary opportunity to recalibrate and reemerge as leaner, more relevant, more flexible entities that can continue to provide whole-person learning to all types of students. It is in circumstances like these—yes, even a global pandemic with high levels of uncertainty around what is to come—that independent higher education can exhibit a nimbleness that allows for rich transformation, if its leaders so choose.

“Immediate crisis can prompt change in ways that longer-range challenges do not. Once we are not ‘in the moment’ of the crisis, how will we reflect on this time?”

– Elizabeth Paul, President, Nazareth College

We know that leaders in today’s higher education landscape must be comfortable with disruption, adaption, and “failing forward fast.” As you are growing in or into a leadership role or developing a team, how would you rate your readiness or abilities around five key leadership indicators?

Read about these 5 Ways to Activate Leadership and download your accompanying leadership chart.

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