Four Tests You’re Taking Right Now

Talk about tests seems to be overtaking our conversations: the availability of COVID-19 tests, the time it takes to read them, the delivery options (drive-thru!) and the accuracy of the results. In higher ed, we’re talking about the value of standardized testing, the delay of testing and the consideration of optional submission of scores for admission evaluation. And students are talking about testing in remote learning options considering issues of fairness, relevance and the implications for pass/fail grading shifts.

While you consider all this test talk, let me suggest that you are now in the midst of some of the most testing times you’ve encountered in your higher ed career. You already feel that.

Here are four tests you are taking right now. They’re all pass/fail.

1. Agility test

We (by “we” I mean most everyone) have historically complained about the slowness of higher ed. Encumbered by shared governance, community mores and a calendar all its own, higher ed is rarely characterized as being quick on the draw. Yet, in the past few weeks, higher ed has demonstrated a capacity for nimbleness. In the course of two weeks, many campuses abruptly shifted long-held delivery preferences in order to continue to meet the needs of students. Granted, those pivots may not have been perfect, but that too is a test of the ability for perfunctory I’m not discounting myriad meetings and sleepless nights, but those without the ability to shift from first to fifth gear in short time are discovering the taxing nature of this test. This is a huge test for colleges and universities; it’s not over.

2. Mission strength test

Adherence to the core of your being as a college or university will test your relevance, your raison d’etre. One of the measures of coherence is your elasticity (see The Five-Minute Coherence Test). Does your mission hold up under pressure? Will it stretch sufficiently in difficult times and maintain its shape after a crisis? Or will it stretch so far out of shape that you become unrecognizable? Your mission should be specific and compelling enough to withstand any pressure. The present circumstances certainly provide the opportunity to measure its power. As an institutional leader, are you letting your mission influence your actions? With your mission as it stands, how will you respond in a way that is consistent with its prize?

3. Positioning test

If you’ve identified and articulated a clear position in the market (e.g., your one place in the universe), even pandemics cannot threaten you. That is, if you determine to address your response to change in a way that supports that position. If, by example, you are #1 in career placement, how are you changing in a remote environment to maintain that position? Or if you are known for highly personalized education, how are your transmitting that position in your customer service at distance? Or if your faculty are your mark of leadership, how are you equipping them to connect meaningfully if physical office hours are impossible? What you determine to do right now will either cement or extinguish your position. This is no time to decide to be something you are not. In a world of new rules, college presidents are faced with the enormous task of leading in ways that are consistent with the market position you owned before the crises. Stay on course, but modify in such a way that your constituents will still know it’s you. If you need an exercise to ignite your thinking, choose a well-known product brand (say, Oreos) and ask, “How would Oreos behave/adapt/pivot in this circumstance and still be Oreos?” It may seem strange, but this will jolt you into thinking differently about how you can maintain ownership of your market position.

4. Strategic test

When crises like pandemics and economic downturns befall you, knee-jerk responses may seem compulsory. They don’t have to be. You can be strategic in the middle of the disaster. Pivots aren’t necessarily “about faces.” Nor are they occasions for short-term abandonment of your strategic plans. Interruptions to the best-laid plans can be only that—a setback to the goal or timeline. If a crisis or two causes you to collapse, you may have chosen inadequate building materials. And, as the leader of your institution, you have the responsibility to patch or repair leaks and broken parts immediately. And, if you cannot or do not know how to fix the problem, call in expert contractors now. Listen to them. Rally your colleagues around them. Don’t wait. You know the problem will only get worse—or spread.


If you are a leader on your campus, you’re likely someone who looks challenge in the eye and screams, “Bring it on.” That’s how you became a leader. You don’t back down. And you’re bright enough to fight your way through (this crisis or any danger). Even so, most of us experience a faster heartbeat when someone suggests we’ll take a test whether it’s to diagnose a virus, evaluate our intelligence, or demonstrate capacity to lead through a crisis. It’s natural because we’re unsure about the outcome: Will I be sick or die? Will I get into my first-choice school? Will we survive this?

Not knowing must not consume you. Uncertainty must not paralyze you. You are stronger than these tests. Be strong. Be diligent, be mindful. Be aware that you are being tested and pass each test with intention and flexibility. This moment will not last forever. When it passes, come out to meet old friends, and meet the future knowing you can, and always could, withstand the worst and embrace your best.

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Rick Bailey

Rick is the Principal and founding partner at RHB.