I’m Goldie Blumenstyk, a senior writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education, covering innovation in and around academe. Here’s what I’m thinking about this week.

The Higher Ed We Need Now

It’s never too soon for a little idealism.

Sure, many of us aren’t exactly feeling rainbows and princesses right now. But as awful as the immediate future looks for higher education — the spring semester a tumultuous mess, fall a budget-squeezed shadow of its former self — we who understand and believe in science know that as painfully real as the Covid-19 crisis is now, it won’t last forever.

On the other side of the pandemic, higher ed will face enormous challenges — and opportunities as well. Society’s needs will be greater and, assuming we don’t forget the lessons we’re learning now, more self-evident. The resources to meet them will be scarcer. Every college will have to respond.

But how? Perhaps by becoming more community focused? More interdisciplinary? More participatory? More socially conscious?

Those are some of the suggestions that resonated with me last week as I took part in a leadership program sponsored by Ashoka, a self-styled “changemaker” organization, plus a follow-up session on innovation that the nonprofit group invited me to host. These sessions were to have taken place in person in Minneapolis, during the annual AshokaU Exchange. I’m grateful that the organizers found a way to present most of the program virtually. I missed out on other planned conferences this spring (SXSW EDU, the ASU-GSV Summit, the Braven Summit), so it was invigorating and even a little therapeutic to spend a couple of hours engaged in conversations with people excited by new possibilities.

For my session on innovation, I stole a framework from The New York Times Opinion section, which has begun a series called “The America We Need.” I asked “What’s the higher ed we need?” Following are some of the suggestions for what the sector should embrace.

A more interdisciplinary approach to teaching, with more community-based internships and practicums. That response came from Trinidad Arguelles, an assistant professor of psychology at Miami Dade College. She also highlighted the importance of communication with community stakeholders.

Before joining Miami Dade, Arguelles worked on social-science projects at the University of Miami, where researchers are typically required to solicit community input as part of their studies. “You have to have the community as a partner,” she told me when I caught up with her by phone this week.

That’s a principle for research, but it doesn’t always carry over into teaching, even in cases where it could and should. In her experience, Arguelles said, the level of engagement can depend on the relationships that professors happen to have with local partners. The pandemic has brought home some gaping holes in meeting community needs — in health care, in social services, in job security. To me, the current situation also heightens the importance of teaching that incorporates community-oriented material and the concerns of real people in those communities, (even if it’s online). The effects of the pandemic show there’s a real value to having institutions that are grounded in their communities. And it’s easier to understand a place when you are part of it.

More applied learning that can be evaluated through guided reflection and mentoring, to prepare students in all fields for careers of purpose for society. That noble notion came from Carey Weiss, chief operating officer at the Martini Education and Opportunity Trust and a former director of the Social Innovation Collaboratory at Fordham University. Along with the need for more interdisciplinarity, she noted the importance of student and faculty diversity.

In higher-ed circles, the call for diversity risks becoming a platitude. But as the pandemic has reminded us, most notably with the disproportionate effect of Covid-19 on African Americans and Native Americans, the “system” still leaves certain groups of people more vulnerable than others. Inclusive policy making can help to fix this, and education is a crucial component. I also appreciate Weiss’s callout for more socially conscious education. I confess, at points as I was prepping for and participating in the Ashoka events, the cynic in me chafed a bit at some of the touchy-feely sentiments I heard. But the idealist in me had to cheer for her idea.

Customized education, leveraging the online environment and technology tools, that is both values-based and experiential. This idea, from Frank Kelley, associate dean of undergraduate studies at the University of Houston’s business school, seems especially apt in this moment. But it has merit for the long haul, too. Colleges have developed capacity for more remote instruction, even if a lot of it is makeshift right now. But even when classes resume in person, college leaders shouldn’t forget the benefits of using technology to foster connections between students and professors.

As Kelley noted, there’s value in teaching students to work in an online team, a skill that is increasingly expected in work environments (even if we’re all sick of Zooming already). Tech connections remove what he called “the tether” of location, making class attendance easier for many of his students who work or otherwise have difficult commutes to campus in the congested Houston region.

Kelley’s not the first person to suggest that the future of higher education is a hybrid model that mixes face-to-face and technology-enhanced experiences. The trick is to ensure that it also offers personalization and purpose, and that it not become, as he put it, “the ‘factory’ model.”

I know that this was only the first of many conversations I — and many of you — will have in the coming weeks and months on “the higher ed we need.” As your ideas roll out, please share them with me.

Quote of the week.
“In this new environment, higher-ed institutions that are less in love with tradition and more in love with their students will be the ones that thrive.” — Michael Sorrell

Sorrell, president of Paul Quinn College, as quoted in a tweet from his talk during a GSV Virtual Summit Series.

Some thoughts on shared governance in a Covid-19 world.

During my other Ashoka panel, we talked a bit about shared governance, or, as some participants referred to it — in an Ashoka-like way — “shared leadership.” That got me wondering about how colleges and other higher-education organizations have been making decisions over these past seven chaotic weeks.

A fellow panelist, Ilona Dougherty, managing director of the Youth & Innovation Project at the University of Waterloo, noted that this is a time for colleges and other organizations to tap into the natural creativity of young people, with an emphasis on intergenerational collaboration. This period, she said, also highlights the value of upending the usual org charts. “There’s a lot less hierarchy right now. We’re all in our pajamas.” (Was I? I’ll never tell.)

Rarely do I hear of colleges that systematically poll their students about changes the administration is making, and I imagine that few faculty members, never mind students, were consulted as institutions abruptly pivoted to remote teaching this spring. But what now, since the first wave of change is over? How are those constituencies being engaged?

I’ve seen references to colleges that have formed emergency transition committees to help shape immediate, short-term, and longer-term planning, like this faculty-driven approach at Purdue University. Rollins College, too, has brought in faculty members as it sketches out possible scenarios, including the likely impacts on teaching loads, salaries, and benefits. David Lord, a trustee at Rollins who took part in the Ashoka innovation session, said he expected that the period to come will require “a spirit of engagement.” He ain’t kidding.

Will any of this lead to new models of shared governance? Perhaps some might involve staff members more formally in the process, as suggested by another Ashoka participant, Craig Dunn, a professor of business and sustainability at Western Washington University.

Higher-ed leaders will be coordinating more themselves, as this week the Southern Regional Education Board announced that it was creating a 16-state Higher Education Recovery Task Force to support students, safely reopen colleges, and improve remote teaching and internet access across the South. I’ll bet the other regional consortia will soon follow suit.

Meanwhile, I’d love to hear more about other emerging models of leadership and governance in response to the pandemic. Is your institution doing something different? Have some thoughts on what colleges should be doing? Please be in touch.

Also, please join me in a conversation on what innovation will look like in a post-pandemic world.

Can institutions pursue meaningful change when everything around them is uncertain? What does it mean to innovate now? These are some of the questions I’ll be posing to a panel of three creative college leaders on Wednesday, April 29, at 2 p.m. Eastern in a virtual forum. My guests are Rovy Branon, vice provost of Continuum College at the University of Washington; Catherine “Cappy” Bond Hill, managing director of the consultancy Ithaka S+R and president emerita of Vassar College; and Brad Wheeler, vice president for information technology at Indiana University.

These guests are smart, forward-thinking, and plugged into the real-world concerns that colleges face. I can’t wait to hear their perspectives — and your questions — in this important conversation. The event will be livestreamed and available later on demand. Sign up here.

New week, same message: Hope you’re all still staying safe, sane, and humane. And remember: #StayAtHome.

Got a tip you’d like to share or a question you’d like me to answer? Let me know, at goldie@chronicle.com. If you have been forwarded this newsletter and would like to see past issues, or sign up to receive your own copy, you can do so here. If you want to follow me on Twitter, @GoldieStandard is my handle.