Thriving post-pandemic calls for rejection of the normal

Kintsugi is a style of Japanese pottery in which broken shards are glued back together with lacquer and gold, forming shimmering threads in the design where the pot or plate had once been broken.

Chief executives of post-pandemic forever universities can be compared to Kintsugi artisans. These leaders have taken the broken parts of higher education, apparent during and after the pandemic, and moulded their colleges and universities into educational institutions that are fundamentally more resilient, creative, inclusive and able to effectively and efficiently manage change.

Post-pandemic forever universities are led by executives who have taken the lectio magistralis of the pandemic and with determination and imagination have led their schools in new directions. They have rejected the usual and the normal in favour of the re-imagined.

A forever university is the by-product of transformative leadership that has made it possible to create innovative internal infrastructures and improve channels of communication.

In a 2 May 2022 article for EdSurge, the columnist Kevin R McClure quoted organisational psychologist Scott Sonenshein: “If you’re going to come in and operate your business like it’s February 2020, you’re going to get crushed.”

Forever universities will not get crushed by unforeseen difficulties. Their chief executives will take the cadence of disruptions caused by COVID-19 and create a different and distinctive educational experience for students, faculty and staff. They will create an educational experience that can withstand future disruptions to higher education.

Five characteristics of a post-pandemic university

Although there are many more characteristics of a forever university, this article will focus on five.

Vision planning

Most colleges and universities create strategic plans in five-year increments. As former United States president Dwight Eisenhower wrote: “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.”

Few colleges have vision plans, outlining not only what they do but why. If you look up Google’s vision statement, it reads: “to provide access to the world's information in one click.” How many colleges and universities worldwide could summarise a vision for their students’ educational experience in a single sentence? How many schools could clearly articulate why they do what they do?

I am not suggesting that strategic planning should be abandoned. But I am suggesting that without a clear vision of why a college or university exists, the roadmap of how to execute the educational experience for students will be difficult to follow.

Different administrative structures

Perhaps the most fundamental characteristic of a forever university is a re-imagined administrative structure. Most colleges and universities have a president’s council or cabinet, most likely consisting of the institution’s top executives. Many decisions are made during executive meetings and communicated down to faculty, students and staff.

In addition to the ‘usual suspects’, in a forever university the following are also members of the leadership team:

• The admissions dean and a first-year student who just completed the admissions process;

• The registrar and a fourth-year student who registered for the last time;

• The academic deans and students enrolled in their courses;

• The chief information officer and a student who has enrolled in online and in-person classes since the beginning of the pandemic;

• The career counsellor and a student who recently completed an internship programme;

• The financial aid officer and a third-year student with a significant amount of debt;

• The alumni officer and a recent graduate as well as an alumna who graduated a decade ago;

• The dean of students and a second-year student who has not been able to connect with any club or organisation;

• The international student advisor and a third-year international student.

And sitting next to the mental health counsellor is a student who recently used the services of that office.

How such a large group is organised and how often they meet will be determined and shaped by an institution’s vision plan. But dialogue, rather than talk, and asking the right questions, instead of focusing on the right answers, are fundamental characteristics of the meetings of this forever university committee.

The committee embraces governance by consensus, rather than top-down directives. And the guiding force behind all decisions and outcomes is acknowledging the values and expectations of the student-consumer and the well-being not only of students, but of faculty and staff.

Different acceptance procedures

After an applicant has met the criteria for admission, an acceptance letter is mailed (immediately) with the following information:

• Preliminary estimate of financial aid assistance and-or scholarships, if financial data was submitted;

• List of all first-year courses;

• List of all courses needed to graduate in four or three years and the proper sequencing of those required courses;

• Name and contact information of academic advisor;

• Name and contact information for the registrar, dean of students, counselling office, career office, financial aid officer and, if applicable, the international student advisor;

• List of area alumni with contact information.

The forever curriculum

Before applying, enrolling and graduating from most colleges and universities, information on the courses offered and the courses necessary for graduation are readily made available to students.

In addition to providing that information, the forever university outlines a forever curriculum and provides a list of courses that are available to graduates whenever they wish to enrol. And at the time of graduation, a student is given the opportunity to take one course, free of charge.

This makes lifelong learning a reality for graduates of the forever university and has the potential of connecting the graduate with the forever university for an indefinite period of time after graduation. The implications for alumni involvement and fundraising are obvious.

Social and environmental activism

Forever universities have recognised the need to embrace the Sustainable Development Goals adopted by the United Nations as well as the challenges outlined in the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development, a document that outlines ambitious plans not only for climate change strategies but also for developing a creative approach to meeting the global challenges faced by colleges and universities worldwide.

Forever universities have embraced UNESCO’s ‘Roadmap to 2030’, a document that, according to UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Education Stefania Giannini, calls for change, transformation and for shifts in mindsets and behaviours.

The inevitability of disruption

Amazon chief Jeff Bezos said: “If you are leaning away from the future, the future is going to win every time.”

Forever universities are resilient and embrace change, realising that at any time geopolitical tensions or another pandemic can disrupt higher education worldwide.

Their chief executives have prepared for the inevitability of future disruptions by doing the hard work of changing the way their schools are governed, how information is communicated and who is involved in making decisions.

Colleges and universities seeking short-term solutions to the problems caused by COVID-19 have little in common with the mindset and vision of the forever university.

Winston Churchill said it best: “It is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

Marguerite Dennis is an internationally recognised expert in international student recruitment, enrolment and retention. She has more than 25 years of experience consulting with colleges and universities in the United States and around the world. This is the last of three articles on the long-term higher education changes associated with COVID-19. The first can be found here and the second here.