As the United States looks to the post-pandemic era with COVID-19 cases declining and vaccinations being administered to millions, higher education institutions have started conversations about what our institutions should look like in the future. The pandemic has taught us valuable lessons and created opportunities to improve services, add value, and address inefficiencies. How do we prevent ourselves from slipping back into the same kinds of behaviors which caused roadblocks to agility and relevance?
There are three steps that institutions of higher education should take to sustain the innovation trajectory that the COVID-19 lockdowns propelled.
Form a Post-Pandemic Steering Committee
The committee, made up of stakeholders from across the university, should examine every area of its operations including curriculum, student services, physical operations, risk management, finances, and information technology. This committee should help the university reimagine itself to stay relevant and add value for our student community, just as it did during the pandemic.
There are many forces in play that challenge the value of a four-year university education including short-term skill building and badging programs that are attractive to employers who need specific skills and are short staffed. The university of the future should build strong relationships with industry so we are offering programs that are relevant to this economy. The university also should continue to distinguish itself in the areas of research and innovation that continue to propel our economy forward.
Put Safeguards in Place to Prevent Innovation Reversal
When students, faculty, and staff come back to campus in some form this fall, there will be opportunities and the temptation to go back to the pre-pandemic “normal” and fall back to how the university has always operated. Paper-based processes that have not been used in a year, in-person meetings and sessions that are less efficient and more time-consuming, and meetings that are not needed are some examples.
Everyone should be intentional in their efforts to continue the efficiencies we have achieved and put in place safeguards to prevent slipping back into the comfort zone of inefficient operations. Services that were offered online should become the norm, and face-to-face interaction should be pursued only if it will add value to the service.
Set up Internal Triggers to Continue Innovation
The pandemic acted as a trigger for innovation. The university community rallied around systems and processes that would allow instruction, services, and support to be offered in a virtual format. Innovations were accelerated due to the need to continue to operate and provide services in the virtual format. To avoid the post-pandemic slump when everyone returns to campus, we need to create triggers that will continue to keep us at the edge of innovation. We need to relentlessly pursue efficiency and improve student, faculty, and staff experiences at every level. We need to create mechanisms to continue to discover the world of our students, faculty, and staff and how technology can help them achieve their goals.
Among the most valuable lessons the pandemic has taught us is to operate in the midst of uncertainty and a changing landscape. Almost every month in the last fourteen months something has changed with the pandemic that has forced us to innovate and redefine the way we operate. Allowing ourselves to be agile and expect the unexpected in the future will keep us from doing business as usual!