by Robert A. Scott
Over the past year, institutions of higher education in the U.S. have seen freshman enrollment fall by 16 percent and overall enrollment decline by over 560,000 students. Budget deficits total more than $120 billion, and over 500,000 employees have lost their jobs. Many others have had their salaries cut or experienced furloughs. Colleges and universities have eliminated degree programs and departments. Some have suspended admission to doctoral programs. Still more have closed their doors and others have merged. The compelling question is, what next?
The road to recovery and renewal will be challenging, to be sure, and will not result in the resumption of some earlier status quo. Too much has changed. The pandemic revealed the weaknesses in our institutions and accelerated the need for changes in our systems of governance and leadership. This has consequences for boards, presidents and other senior leadership, faculty and faculty participation in governance, relations with the administration and staff, and institutional approaches to health and safety. Concise and accurate communications with students, faculty, staff, families, alumni, neighbors, and key external constituents proved to be essential.
One result of this institutional trauma has been that boards have met more often and become more involved in decision-making. With accreditations and bond ratings in jeopardy, boards have paid closer attention to management decisions. While this is not a good idea for the long haul, it became necessary due to the nature of the decisions to be made.
Drawing on the experience of Adelphi University emerging from crisis in 1997, when the State of New York removed the board of trustees and installed a new board, I can outline five stages of recovery and indicate the roles of the board, campus administrators, and faculty leadership. These stages include:
- The board assumes some management responsibilities
- The board becomes more supervisory than managerial
- The board becomes more advisory than supervisory
- The board becomes more of a governing board than an advisory board
- The board assumes governance and strategic oversight
The number and timing of the stages will depend upon the circumstances of each campus and how steep a hill must be climbed.
The first stage followed the installation of the new board. Their first action was to fire the president and name the provost as acting president. They then sought an interim president who would preside over the campus while they searched for a permanent president. This president stayed only ten months before announcing that he had accepted another position. The board chair became acting president while the board searched for a new president. I became the sixth president in three and one-half years.
During this period of turnover, the board had to manage the finances, correct the enrollment decline, address campus morale, reconnect with alienated alumni, and strengthen the relationships with the Middle States Commission on Schools and Colleges and bondholders. New admissions criteria were instituted, and tuition was stabilized. The board discussed the closure of academic programs, a merger with Long Island University (LIU) was explored informally, and the idea of renting empty residence hall rooms to Polytechnic University’s Graduate Center on Long Island was explored.
In the next period, the board met less often and became more supervisory than directly involved in management. We instituted academic program and administrative unit reviews with outside consultants and began a campaign of communications on and off-campus. The Village of Garden City as well as campus neighbors needed to be assured of the university’s ability to survive and alumni were called upon to help plan for the future. President’s Advisory Councils and academic unit advisory boards were created in order to strengthen planning and communications.
In the next stage, the board was more advisory than either supervisory or managerial. After successfully moving through this period, the board functioned as a true governing board with ownership of the goals and strategies. The board provided strategic oversight over academic, financial, student life, and fundraising responsibilities.
Nothing is inevitable. Sound plans must be executed. In the same environment in which Adelphi strengthened finances through growth in revenue and expense control, started new academic programs, and generally found its footing, both Dowling and Briarcliffe Colleges closed, LIU sold a campus, and Polytechnic University became part of NYU.
The examples from rebuilding Adelphi following a period of decline are relevant to institutions today. There are lessons for campuses striving to gain stability after a difficult year, including lost enrollment, increased expenses, and a major shift in the teaching and learning environment.
The recovery from the challenges of 2020 will require planning and resilience. Renewed attention must be given to risk management. Questions must be asked. What can be learned from the past year in order to be ready for a future shock to the system? What new staff and faculty training is needed? The pandemic prompts thoughts about opportunities as well as corrective actions. Can the institution survive alone or should a strategic partner or even a merger be explored? What assets could be sold in order to pay down debt? These and other financial considerations may be urgently needed.
The board of trustees holds the institution’s charter in trust for the public. It is the singular fiduciary responsible for tangible and intangible assets. During a period of recovery, the board may have to become more involved in campus affairs and meet more often. Quarterly meetings may not suffice, given the depth and breadth of problems. The board will need to take on these duties fully aware of the unusual arrangement and the desirability of assuming a more governing role. Nevertheless, accrediting bodies, financial institutions, bond-rating agencies, and state officials will want to know who is steering the ship. This is especially true if circumstances require a change in executive leadership.
The board obviously needs to have confidence in the president and his or her senior team leadership. If there is a new president, is he or she in an interim position expected to serve a year or is he or she expected to stay for a longer period? Interim presidents are often hired for a year to manage an institution while a search is being conducted for a more permanent leader. However, if the campus is struggling with enrollment, finances, and morale, and the interim president is expected to take corrective actions, it may be unrealistic to expect much progress in only one year. This is especially the case when the campus knows that the person who is expected to make, what may be controversial, personnel and financial decisions will be gone in ten or twelve months. Some may stall and attempt to wait it out. If it is necessary to engage the interim president for major restructuring, a longer term may be required.
The one thing that is certain in times of crisis is that governance and leadership, including faculty participation as partners in the enterprise, is essential.
Part II will focus on the questions to be asked and the actions to be taken during the period of recovery and renewal.