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Higher ed is changing. Goldie Blumenstyk, a senior writer and Chronicle veteran, connects you with the people, trends, and ideas that are reshaping it. Delivered on Wednesdays.

From: Goldie Blumenstyk

Subject: The Edge: Will Higher Ed’s 'Culture' Help Colleges Navigate Their Future? Or Make it Tougher?

I’m Goldie Blumenstyk, a senior writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education, covering innovation in and around academe. As the Covid-19 crisis continues, here’s what I’m thinking about this week.

Higher-ed culture is powerful. Will it help or hurt colleges manage through the pandemic?

I’ve never been 100-percent convinced that “culture eats strategy for breakfast,” but with colleges now three months into the pandemic, I’ve been trying to understand what elements of higher-ed culture could help — or hurt — institutions as they go forward into this era of economic hardship and uncertainty.

I also posed some version of that culture question to several of the panelists who have joined me in a series of virtual forums over the past few weeks. Here’s some of what they said.

On the promising front, the dedication of faculty and staff members to the needs of students, the power of cross-institutional collegiality among professionals in sectors like information technology, and the prevalence of a “first adopter” mentality among people in academe all stood out as key themes. On the down side, though, I also heard about colleges’ tendency to compete in ways that drive up costs, resist the expertise that resides within their own campuses, and their tendency to revere process over action.

First, some more about those helpful elements:

Faculty members are “very compassionate about the experiences of their students, so they really want to help them through this process,” said Sharon Pitt, vice president for information technologies at the University of Delaware. One small example: Art professors at her institution sent out fabric samples to students in a textile-conservation class to help them continue their classes and reconceived studio-art courses to be able to continue individualized instruction as part of the spring pivot to remote teaching. “That bodes well for our capacity to continue this” if needed, Pitt said.

The same dedication holds true for college IT staff members, said Sue Workman, chief information officer at Case Western Reserve University. Especially now, she said, “they are all in, all the time.”

Several of the forum guests, including Brad Wheeler, vice president for information technology at Indiana University, also highlighted the power of higher ed’s deeper values as an asset during this period of sudden economic turmoil, while Catharine “Cappy” Hill, managing director of the consultancy Ithaka S+R, cited the sector’s “commitment toward equity and toward educating people and investing in human capital.”

As for the elements that could hurt:

Some of that came from Hill, too. In fact, it was she, a former president of Vassar College, who warned of the risks of colleges’ continuing to try to out-prestige each other. “When we compete with each other, it pushes up costs,” she said. “We do cool things, but it costs more money.”

Hill also cited higher education’s tradition of shared governance (perhaps practiced more in name than in reality) as a potential negative factor for colleges needing to innovate fast for the new era. The approach “slows us down” she said. Wheeler, meanwhile, ventured that higher ed’s sense that “the world has a pause button” that can accommodate the slow pace of decision-making on campuses as a cultural element that could be a hindrance.

I get the critique of shared governance. I also hold out hope that this uniquely precious (in all senses of the word) feature of higher education doesn’t get steamrolled by the demands of the enormous crisis now unfolding. There’s no reason it can’t operate at a faster pace, especially with the entire academic enterprise under duress.

On other matters, Pitt said she worried that higher ed was still so “lock stepped in the semester-by-semester time frame” that colleges wouldn’t be able to consider more creative formats. She said this barely a month ago, and it seemed on target at the time; since then a number of colleges have announced adjustments to their fall-semester calendars. I take this as a sign that academe can in fact change the pace at which decisions get made.

Amy Collier, associate provost for digital learning at Middlebury College, said professors’ traditional reluctance to embrace the pedagogical expertise of instructional designers and others with such skills could be problematic. “We have some ground to make up,” she said,”to make sure those folks are heard.”

Yet a week or so later, Celeste Schwartz, vice president for information technology at Montgomery County Community College, offered a countervailing concern based specifically in the culture of higher ed’s IT professionals. Those folks, Schwartz said, have a tendency to hear about interesting approaches being used elsewhere and then push to bring the changes to their own campuses. “That IT nudging” might be a real positive for an institution, but in stressful times, Schwartz said, “it could also get a little annoying or tiring.”

So many of these thoughts rang true to me. As campus leaders segue to the next stage of this crisis, it seems the biggest challenge will be to channel what’s helpful and downplay the disruptive.

Mark Milliron has worn many higher-ed hats. He just added another one.

The new — and first — executive dean of the School of Education at Western Governors University is Mark Milliron. He’s a familiar face to many in the higher-ed innovation and technology circles from his days at the League for Innovation in the Community College (where I first met him in the late 1990s); the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; the data-analytics company he co-founded, Civitas Learning; and even a previous stint at WGU as chancellor of its Texas affiliate.

With an enrollment topping 27,000, the WGU school is the largest teachers’ college in the country, and Milliron has plans to expand its scope, with more offerings in traditional degree programs and more shorter-term programs in areas such as online teaching and online-teaching support.

“This crisis has laid bare the challenges of digital equity,” he told me. The educational disruptions that students of all ages have faced this year — and maybe next year, too — will also require some new approaches. “We’ll see more transformation in K-12 and higher ed in the next five years than we did in the past 25,” Milliron said. “The crisis will be the mother of innovation.”

Final thoughts.

Short and sweet this week: #StayAtHome when you can, wear a mask when you’re out, and please continue to stay safe, sane, and humane.

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.

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The veteran reporter Goldie Blumenstyk writes a weekly newsletter, The Edge, about the people, ideas, and trends changing higher education. Find her on Twitter @GoldieStandard. She is also the author of the bestselling book American Higher Education in Crisis? What Everyone Needs to Know.