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

Nine months of a pandemic have taught us some lessons about resilience.

Has something changed? Back when the pandemic was just dawning, I asked you all what makes for a resilient institution. The answers were mostly in the realm of the tangible, like a strong, secure, digital backbone; systems to help students obtain food and other basic needs; and effective, frequent communication with all constituencies.

When I posed the question again a few weeks ago, the tone of your replies sounded different. They focused much less on policies and practicalities and were more attuned to institutional mind-set. When it comes to confronting a crisis, readers seem to be saying that culture can be a — if not the — make-or-break factor.

To be honest, that wasn’t what I was expecting, and at first, I didn’t buy it. Higher ed confronts its biggest challenge in a century, and the main lessons are gooey sentimentality about leaning into the mission? Really? But the more I thought about it, and followed up with a few of the folks who wrote in, the more that made sense. Or at least some of it did, but not always in the most obvious way.

Here’s some of what I’m now taking away about institutional resilience.

A culture of frugality can be an asset. Pat McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University, reported that it is “faring pretty well,” especially compared with larger, wealthier institutions around Washington, D.C., that are struggling with budget deficits in the tens of millions and the complexities of managing big-time athletics programs and large-scale Covid-19 testing operations. “So many higher-ed commentators have spent a lot of time predicting the demise of the small, undercapitalized institutions,” McGuire wrote. “But what those commentaries miss is the fact that, at least for some of us, our cultures are ‘lean’ in a good way, and so when there’s an economic challenge, we are able to manage through, as a matter of habit.”

Pre-pandemic survival strategies that emphasized flexibility are paying off now. Nicolet Area Technical College, in northern Wisconsin, isn’t seeing the steep fall-off in enrollment that two-year colleges elsewhere are facing, and its president, Richard Nelson, attributes a lot of that to changes made five years ago. That’s when the college began to shift its attention and policies toward enrolling more older students and those who weren’t necessarily seeking a degree, but might still want a credential — or to work toward a degree in a self-directed, competency-based system rather than on a traditional semester schedule. At the same time, Nelson said, the college also encouraged faculty and staff members to propose new ideas and approaches without worrying about “false starts or failures” along the way. “Creativity lives everywhere on the org chart, not just around the executive table, so we set about promoting a campuswide entrepreneurial mind-set.”

It was that culture, Nelson said, that powered the college to distribute its Cares Act money so quickly last spring. And its range of new offerings is keeping enrollment from sinking.

Campus values really can influence behavior. The University of Dayton prides itself on embracing “community” as a shared value, one that “comes to us from our Marianist founders,” according to the president, Eric Spina. When he first responded to my question, Spina wrote, “If you don’t have that sense of community ahead of time, if it isn’t already built into your campus culture, you don’t get that degree of cooperation from students, faculty, and staff, and the willingness to go above and beyond on a daily basis.”

As lovely as that sounded, I wondered how it actually played out. So I asked. Spina replied that from the start, Dayton’s messaging on Covid-19 safety protocols had “emphasized that ‘this is not just about you, this is about you protecting your roommate, your community, your favorite professor.’” Even so, cases spiked, threatening the in-person semester.

When the university raised its alert level, he said, “unprompted by the administration, both individual students and key student groups focused on peer influence by leaning into this notion of community. They emphasized caring about each other so that they could stay on campus.” Within a few weeks, he said, the level of infection came down and stayed down.

Resilient colleges , like resilient infrastructure systems, need continuous attention. This comes from comments sent in by a longtime professor of civil engineering and a former provost of the University of Vermont, David Rosowsky. (He wrote a longer version in the summer issue of Trusteeship magazine, which is available to members of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges.) His premise is that resilience doesn’t just happen; it needs to be nurtured and invested in, much the way governments (and colleges!) need to continually maintain facilities to keep them from falling into disrepair.

In his article, Rosowsky does identify several practical traits of a resilient institution —14 of them, in fact, including keeping financial reserves, cross-training top leaders so they can step in for one another in an emergency, and recognizing the mental-health needs of students and employees. But what really struck me was his notion that sometimes the most resilient response isn’t to build back what was there before, but rather to adapt systems to new realities. (Ah, so maybe “Build Back Better” isn’t only a slogan for a winning presidential campaign.)

A little humility never hurts. Some colleges that confidently declared that they would open in person this fall ended up reversing course even before the semester started; others (looking at you, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) went remote within weeks of reopening. Some places started in person amid self-righteous statements that it was their responsibility to students, only to see their campuses break into acrimony over safety concerns — and perhaps contribute mightily to community spread of a deadly and debilitating disease (even if their own people emerged relatively unscathed). By many accounts, Covid-19 rates are surging in college towns.

Kevin McClure, an associate professor of higher education at UNC at Wilmington, said he saw a “certain arrogance” to the decisions some colleges made to open in person this fall, which he said reflected their inability to imagine operating any differently from how they derived their prestige. “To do something different was a form of giving up,” he said, even if it meant higher Covid-19 rates in the surrounding area. Meanwhile, some institutions that stayed remote this fall explicitly said it was because they wanted to “prioritize the health of their students, faculty, and community.”

It’s probably too early to know the full public-health impacts and possible political implications of colleges’ decisions to open in person — and I’m sure there will be a lot of second-guessing of those that stayed remote, too, as college towns come to grips with the financial hit. But McClure’s comments do make me wonder how much blowback institutions might face, and whether those that were more cautious may end up stronger in important ways.

Updates on the news.

The new U.S. Naval Community College has named five colleges that will offer courses to a group of several hundred service members, testing how a new collaborative model could work. The colleges were chosen from a pool of 115 based in part on their records serving students online, their military-friendly credit policies, and “competitive pricing,” according to Randi Cosentino, the community college’s first president. After this pilot stage (which I first described in an April newsletter) the college plans a second phase that will enroll up to 5,000 students from the enlisted ranks of the Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard.

The deal between the University of Arizona and Zovio Inc. (formerly Bridgepoint Education) converting the former Ashford University into the University of Arizona Global Campus was finalized on Tuesday, following approval by the accreditor of the change of ownership in mid-November. (Note: The University of Arizona Online, which was chosen to offer data-analytics courses through the Naval Community College, is separate from this institution.)

An effort to encourage four-year institutions — even liberal-arts colleges — to embed coursework into their curricula to allow students to earn industry-certified credentials along with their degrees seemed like a no-brainer to me a year ago. I still think that. So I was glad to see an update on this effort published on Tuesday — especially the examples, like IT and software courses at Felician University leading to a certificate from the DevOps Institute, and engineering courses at Ohio University leading to the Association of Technology, Management, and Applied Engineering’s Certified Manufacturing Specialist certificate. This effort began long before Covid-19, but as its backers note in this week’s report, the pandemic has made it even more relevant, as millions of people look for new pathways out of the financial troubles they face.

That’s it for this week. Stay safe y’all, and please, continue to #MaskUp. It makes a difference. Just ask science.

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, find them here. To receive your own copy, free, register here. If you want to follow me on Twitter, @GoldieStandard is my handle.

Goldie’s Weekly Picks