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Strategic Initiatives

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Transformation on Fumes

Colleen Carmean


We’re seeing much lately on the Great Resignation finally trickling down to awareness on campuses. Although the service industry was hit early and hard, EDUCAUSE tells us in their recent poll regarding higher education staff that “55% of respondents are leaving, considering leaving in the near future, or planning to retire soon.” In their poll of faculty and staff, Academic Impressions found half of respondents reported feeling clinically meaningful levels of burnout,” and that higher education’s unique mission toward common good “is no longer enough, by itself, to attract and keep talent.”


Add to this the extended focus of The Chronicle of Higher Education has provided on faculty exhaustion and despair and it looks like much of higher education is moving toward a world of hurt. The pandemic has clearly taken personal toll on all of us: students, faculty, student services, and support staff across the institution. Even more seriously, it simply accelerated a crisis in the making.


In their new book “Transforming for Turbulent Times, Strategic Initiatives principals (Don Norris, Tim Gilmour and Linda Baer) make the case that we were already in a time of unparalleled turbulence and few campuses will survive unless they’re willing (and able) to embrace a new digital ecosystem of global knowledge, work, and learning. We were losing students, now we’re losing faculty and staff.


The pandemic didn’t create a new ecosystem, it presented clear evidence of the need for change, ignored for 50 years, and showed us that when needed, we ARE capable of rapid transformation. That’s the good news. The bad news is that across the landscape we’re hearing chimes of “return to normal.”


Certainly the Ivies will do well in their return to the way things have been done for hundreds of years: young students on campus, in dorms, filing into sports arenas: the stuff of histories, stories, and myth. But evidence is clear that this isn’t working for the “new traditionals” who make up the majority of college-going students. On my campus, online courses fill on the first day of registration. On the other hand, the majority of the faculty are exhausted from two years of learning new skills and coping with new challenges. They are determined to bring students back to the way we were - in class, faces forward, struggling to stay in school.


As a consequence, evidence is strong that enrollment will continue to drop, young men will continue to drop out, and The Chronicle will continue to report on disengaged students and frustrated faculty. One who wonders would will suffer the most in any return to traditional, campus-bound models. Scott Galloway predicts that in the next five years there will be two women graduating for every male. Shirin Ali at The Hill reports that pandemic losses in enrollment hit Black and Latino students the hardest, continuing the inequity in graduation rates, with no reason to believe we will get these students back. Pew Research reports that only 20% of first-generation students (parents with no college experience) will complete a degree. Change is hard, but when it’s the only right thing to do, how can we shirk our responsibilities?


Most leaders know that transformation will take an innovative and increasingly digital institution and can’t succeed without a data-engaged leadership committed to student success and social justice. They also are aware that it is crucial higher education doesn’t lose the transformative momentum or the knowledge that the pandemic showed it was capable of. Back to normal won’t work for the majority of students now at our doors, for those dropping out, or for those that have now given up on the dream of a college degree. They deserve transformative practices and a learner-engaged institution, and if we accept them onto our campuses we owe them the opportunity.


So what is the aspiring transformative leader to do? My next blog on Transformation on Fumes will provide additional suggestions.