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Hidden Benefits Higher Education Gained from the Pandemic

Co-authored by Sally Bryant and Shelli Herman, this article originally appeared in SmartBrief.

The stress of 2020 is evident everywhere. Academic leaders realize now, more than ever, the weight of the decisions they make and how their choices have ramifications on campus and beyond.

We talked with higher education clients and colleagues nationwide to uncover heightened ways of thinking, doing and being. These leaders envision a renewed future that uses technology more effectively and that adapts to new ways of hiring, leading and managing. They also see a return to the fundamentals of ingenuity, resilience and creativity.


Hiring and relocation considerations have been a source of discussion since the first days of the pandemic. Elizabeth Ziegler, president and CEO of Graham-Pelton Consulting, says she has learned about the willingness of universities nationally and globally to accommodate remote employees.

“While lack of willingness to relocate may have been a deal breaker in the past, candidates are being considered with increasing flexibility. Furthermore, there are future-focused institutional advancement offices that are proactively building remote-working plans to be implemented five years out, not just within the pandemic period,” says Ziegler.

“Having been involved in a number of faculty searches during the pandemic, I have not encountered problems with relying on virtual interactions with candidates, as long as videoconferencing is used, but I still don’t prefer interviews that are solely telephonic,” notes David Bailey, vice chair for education and academic affairs (pathology) at the University of California at San Diego. “Scheduling interviews is certainly much easier when candidates don’t have to travel. Interviews also seem less rushed because candidates are not having to leave for obligations at other locations.”

Conducting hiring activity online has streamlined logistics and led employers and prospective employees to get to know each other in a different way. Moira Scott Payne, president of the Kentucky College of Art and Design, says, “We found [by interviewing on Zoom] that an online process vastly simplified the logistics. We also found enormous savings of time and money.

“We had wondered if we would lose the ability to gauge the subtleties inherent in searching for a new colleague that have to do with our valued culture of friendship and care. Much of that occurs through informal personal interactions that take place when a candidate is interviewing in person,” Payne says. “In fact, we found that moving from formal to informal worked easily; we felt we began to know the candidates well. There was something about the online format that really prioritized the words, the answers to the questions in ways that allowed for keen listening, unencumbered by distractions. We also benefited from having larger audiences than usual for the community presentation for each candidate.”

Remote processes will outlast the pandemic

“We are putting into place new strategies for priority hires with the idea of recruiting, selecting, providing orientation, establishing key performance metrics and managing, all remotely,” notes Tom Mitchell, vice president of development and alumni affairs at the University of Florida.

Mitchell also provides a discovery born from necessity, “If we would have had a strategic goal of working remotely before the pandemic, we would have studied a concept, created committees and conducted research. And after a year of study, we would have determined that it just wasn’t possible. However, on March 18, we moved 371 employees to remote work locations within a 24-hour period. We learned that we move quickly — with a sense of urgency and great focus.”

The value of being forced to live, work and think differently has extended to other areas of our professional lives. Our colleagues expanded on activities they would like to see continue after the threat of the pandemic has subsided.

Rhea Turteltaub, vice chancellor, advancement for UCLA, offers, “As much as we are all eager to return to in-person interaction, I hope that when we are beyond the pandemic we remember and retain the benefits of virtual connections. These connections yield opportunities for remote working to afford our staff more flexibility, the capacity of remote learning to offer access to more students and the capability of remote engagement to keep attendance at events, board meetings, etc. at the peak levels we’re seeing today.”

“I hope Zoom meetings will continue,” says Bailey. “They have made us so much more productive. One does not have to allow travel time between meetings. Also, working remotely from home has made many people more productive. That said, some things (e.g., celebratory events like professional school white coat ceremonies and graduations, as well as accreditation site visits) are much better done in person than by Zoom.”

Reflecting on the changed student experience, Payne shares, “We now see clearly the potential for a blended, hybrid learning model and, by having to work at home (often online), students are given that extra time and space for research and the building and development of ideas. Our students are pushing us to change the boundaries, timeframes and parameters of their engagement with the program, while simultaneously recognizing and valuing the importance of a shared studio and community even more. The making, material learning culture is the very heart of an art school experience, but it is not the only way that artists learn.”

Amy Bronson, executive director, advancement resources and strategic talent management with Boston University, notes the pandemic and remote work have affected how people integrate work and personal life. “For our highly collaborative team, I hope that the sense of community continues as we proactively try to engage our remote teams and stay aware of colleagues who may need support during this time,” she says. “We have deepened our own relationships with each other, despite the fact that we are not together in a common space. I also hope that the work/life integration that many have found to be beneficial becomes more widely accepted. We won’t have a choice if we want to retain our best staff. “

Kathi Warren, vice president of development and alumni relations at Rice University, focuses on the ability to engage more alumni and donors in activities, as well as internal organizational culture. “I hope we can continue to leverage virtual engagement effectively to engage alumni and other key constituents globally. I also hope that our ways of interacting, collaborating and sharing information with each other are buoyed by virtual options. This includes the many engagement and communication opportunities to support a healthy organizational culture that we have developed to weather this crisis.”

Finally, Brad Andrews, president of Southwestern College, sums up the resilience of these leaders and their teams. “Throughout these past several months, we have all been called to be generalists. The threats, challenges and opportunities of these times have demanded that we adapt, roll up our sleeves and do what needs doing. The spirit of ingenuity has carried us through. Inasmuch as we are able to apply the same determination and commitment to opportunities and challenges in the coming decades, we will have emerged from this crisis in a stronger place.”

Higher education has changed significantly over the past eight months, and faster than many would have believed possible. The ability of leaders throughout academia not only to adapt but also to embrace and positively leverage these changes is key to a sustainable future.


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