Looking Back to Move Forward

You may remember academic year 2008-09. If you worked in higher education then, you may recall that enrollment was gaining ground, money seemed abundant, recruitment and capital campaigns were robust, life was pretty good on campus. We were listening to concerns about a housing bubble bursting and watched banks begin to crumble. The more we stepped off campus, the more we were struck by realities that disruption was on the horizon.

Now think about the following year, 2009-10. Budgets were frozen, panic set in, employees were let go, CFOs took on more oversight of operations, goals were missed, conference agendas focused on recalibration and re-invention.

At RHB, we planned our first client conference for early 2009. Conditions were so good and interest in the conference was so high in 2008, that we reserved rooms at the Four Seasons in Scottsdale. It was going to be an awesome few days. That is, until travel budgets were frozen and attendees were forced to back out. We were left with a bunch of awesome hotel suites that I couldn’t give away though I tried and tried. In early 2010, no one could pay for the airfare and no one wanted to be seen at or associated with the Four Seasons in Scottsdale. It simply looked bad in the midst of financial crisis.

And now get a picture of the following couple of years: greater investment and creativity in digital communications, less reliance on print, scrutiny over travel, fewer high school visits, more emphasis on major donors, less interest in direct mail, budget belt-tightening.

But also, Salesforce gave more attention to higher ed as a viable industry, Slate became available beyond Yale to the rest of us, we saw greater use of data and analytics, the emergence of Tableau, the re-imagination of student search as something more than capturing names, best practices in using social media (and listening) and emerging technologies (texting!), better planning based on patterns of available information, adoption of alternative delivery methods (online learning) found in more catalogs and deeper understanding of the role of marketing on campuses (naming CMOs, for heaven’s sake).

I don’t know about you, but the last year or so has felt eerily reminiscent of a decade ago. As POTUS kept pointing to the growth of the economy, I felt like I’d been here before. Things were pretty great for some of us at the end of 2019. But the start of this second decade of the 2000s has felt more wobbly. And now, here we are. A “moment” as Mr. Trump describes it.

We are indeed having another moment in higher ed, and we’ve likely got many more of them ahead. Before panic slips in, let’s remember some things we learned a decade ago. Our memories are short, so you may have to think about this a bit. Let me help you get started.

  1. We were forced to let go of some practices past their prime of relevance.
  2. “We’ve never done it that way before” became a motivation for invention rather than an excuse for inaction. Those who were willing to try new ways won.
  3. Creativity opened doors to better practices and outcomes.
  4. Re-alignment of structures, investments and responsibilities can lead to improvements.
  5. You move forward, perhaps not the same as you were.

In just the past three days, campuses across the country are experiencing upheaval. Campuses are extending spring breaks. Students are vacating residence halls. Online learning is being introduced on campuses where a month ago it would have been anathema. Commencement exercises this spring may become virtual events.

You have been here before. Maybe not right here, but close. Your school survived. Not every campus did. Some failed to adjust to new circumstances. Some had insufficient footing. You, however, made it.

If you were working in higher ed a decade ago, you were just finally recovering last year and starting to feel like life could be good once again. You may have only begun to sigh with relief and feel glimmers of hope. Still, you probably fell into some ruts (though you like to call them “patterns”) that felt comfortable, reassuring and “spot on.” After all, your endowment was on the rise.

You’re likely disappointed by events of the past few weeks. You’re threatened once again; you’re not even sure that you have what it takes to stay in higher ed. But you do. That is, if you can raise your right hand and commit to the following:

Willingness to face the truth found in forecasting.

Welcoming data that contradicts your beliefs.

Imagination to seize opportunities (perhaps some not to your taste).

Confidence to overcome paralysis. Even if it feels like bravado for a couple of months.

Appreciation for your teams and the mindfulness to learn and make the most of difficult circumstances.

Empathy for the families you gracefully serve, whom will have new questions, patterns and behaviors for you to honor.

You’ve got this.

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Rick Bailey

Rick is the Principal and founding partner at RHB.