The surprisingly positive recent report of college business officers (CBOs) raises a thorny issue - is inertia creeping back into higher education's consciousness? During the pandemic and the incredible changes it forced on colleges and universities, many said that a transformation of higher education was underway or on the horizon. Thirty-one percent of CBOs now say that "Return to normal" is what they expect for their institutions in the coming year.
The "return to normal" perspective may be the result of good work within institutions, while some credit the Biden administration for helpful intervention. A return to normal may also reflect the optimism that many institution leaders will want to model as students return to campuses across the U.S.A. By contrast to "return to normal," 39% of CBOs replied that the pandemic would usher in a period of transformational change that would allow them to prepare for a more sustainable future. I'm with the 39% and hope that this proportion increases as the reality of the 2021-22 year unfolds.
Somewhat countering the optimism of business officers, trends hitting higher education include declining enrollment, increases in on-line learning, and employers turning to alternative credentialing. Oh, and then there's the impact on individuals who have had COVID and continue to fight the long-term impact of the virus.
The report of business officers' views included other evidence that supports transformational change. Ninety-six percent of CBOs agreed or strongly agreed that the pandemic forced their institutions to think out of the box and 78% said that positive, long-lasting changes have been implemented. With 93% indicating that their institutions will keep some of the pandemic accommodations, and 68% saying that their their institutions have the right mind-set and 62% indicating they have the right tools and processes, it appears that higher education business leaders see the post-pandemic era as holding great potential for improvements in higher education.
One of the keys to success will be the ability of institutions to strategize in the face of uncertainty. Welcoming uncertainty and using it to devise new futures has been demonstrated by successful organizations outside higher education. Blurring the boundaries of secondary and higher education is one proposal that defines a very different future for some institutions. Incorporating intergenerational deliberation about critical global issues that must be addressed is another. Tensions over what is taught - whether it is critically informed perspectives that advocate greater diversity, equity, and inclusion or encouraging students to celebrate advances of the modern era - will be one of the more interesting issues to negotiate.