College Presidents Must Get the Conversation Started

By Zachary A. Smith, Ph.D.

WittKieffer’s education team recently had the pleasure of engaging in a lengthy Zoom conversation with Robert Zemsky, a Penn professor and noted voice on the future of higher education. Zemsky is co-author of the book “The College Stress Test,” which many institutions are using to help gauge their general health and reimagine their enterprises.

What the Pandemic Taught Leaders

COVID-19 strained institutions that were already feeling immense pressures, Zemsky told us. These leaders learned about several new realities when the pandemic hit the U.S. in early spring:

  • Executive decision-making is a critical skill. Presidents had to act extremely quickly, and some made the decision to go to remote learning in a matter of days. This meant they couldn’t check with their boards and leadership teams on every issue. “In some cases it was better to ask for forgiveness rather than permission,” they learned.
  • Scenario planning has its limits. Many presidents became embroiled in imagining, and trying to manage, every potential scenario that could unfold. This often resulted in exhaustive meetings and limited their ability to make quick, smart decisions.
  • You can’t be in charge of everything. Presidents and their institutions learned that they couldn’t always control their own operations and campuses, as they were often subservient to the edicts of local health commissioners and politicians regarding whether to stay open or not.

Essential Qualities for the Post-COVID Era

Most colleges and universities will come out of the pandemic just fine, Zemsky says. Their brands and reputations are such that students will continue to pay for what they are offering. But this is a rich-getting-richer phenomenon, he says. For those institutions bound to struggle, he offers the following advice: Start the conversation! The higher education presidents and leaders of tomorrow must be those who are “skilled at convening conversations that can generate trust, connection, and fresh ideas for revolutionary change—most particularly the kind of curricular change that will rejuvenate the nation’s colleges and universities.”

As executive recruiters, my colleagues and I must help our clients to select campus leaders who are conversation conveners. Playing off of Zemsky’s thoughts, I see the following critical qualities for today’s and tomorrow’s college presidents and top administrators:

  • Courage. Presidents and other leaders must have the courage to make tough decisions in an environment that is unforgiving, knowing that failure is a real possibility. When the stakes are this high, courage is critical.
  • Decisiveness: Historically, presidents and academic leaders have had the luxury of taking their time with decisions, usually within a shared governance context. This is no longer always the case, and so it is essential to make quick judgments with incomplete information and significant unknowns about the future. Decisions can’t always be made with the luxury of forecasting and forethought. Shared governance is still important, but in times of crises presidents must weigh the costs of a lengthy deliberation process against the immediate needs of the institution.
  • Ability to pivot: If a decision turns out wrong – and inevitably it will – one needs to be able to acknowledge it, assess the situation and change course quickly. Sometimes it’s okay to stay the course; but today’s environment often requires one to pivot.
  • Comfort with ambiguity: Even as the COVID-19 pandemic plays out, uncertainty will remain and the next crisis may be just around the corner. Now is a time for leaders to embrace the unknown.

The above qualities have always been valuable for college presidents and leaders. In the COVID era, however, they are indispensable.

Featured Author