As higher education institutions transition into a post-pandemic period, many will still face the challenge, now more acute, of keeping the lights on. And predictably, many leaders and boards will reengage in “faster horse” strategies to sustain their institutions, cutting more costs and trying to do the same stuff more efficiently. I suspect that some leaders and boards will discover that their horse can’t run any faster.
A realization that this intractable institutional challenge was immune to the COVID-19 virus will nudge some leaders to search for a less congested market niche. It is increasingly difficult to compete in the crowded higher education marketplace with whats (degree program portfolios, online learning platforms, high-end student dormitories, and recreation centers) and hows (scholarships and tuition discounting). During this refractory post-pandemic period, some boards and academic leaders may instead seize the opportunity to ask why questions (Sinek, 2009) to steer their campus into a more tranquil market: Why does this campus exist today? Why is it special, distinctive, and exceptional?
Asking why questions shifts one’s thinking. It got me to think differently about how to launch the University of Minnesota Rochester (UMR). My thoughts were no longer fixated on how to assemble resources or amenities to compete in the marketplace with whats and hows. My thinking shifted toward how to compete by establishing its why—its distinctive campus purpose.
During its embryonic days, UMR was out of sight, out of mind, and not immersed in a university culture of its big sister campus in Minneapolis. UMR obeyed the rules of the distant big campus and tapped into their back-office administrative services to provide essential operational support. But UMR guarded its cultural autonomy. This genesis of UMR created an openness to new ideas and an opportunity to think differently about the purpose of the campus.
For established campuses, often conversations about a campus purpose become bogged down in administrative mechanics, which is not surprising since the bulk of the interactions within a campus community center on policy, process, and organizational structure. In any analysis of campus purpose, institutional stakeholders must shun the ghost of the university past to fully tap into their imagination and innovation. Otherwise, they risk reproducing the status quo.
The advantage of starting something new was a freedom to think broadly. It was easier to assemble people who were open to new conversations and not entrenched in higher education policy and process. It was natural for the group to ask, “Why does this campus exist today?” And the faculty, enabled by an openness to new ideas and by the invitation to unleash their creativity and innovative acumen, created many “aha” answers.
The exciting “aha” answers did not address the campus purpose per se. Rather the “wow” happened in creating a structure to execute the campus purpose. The inventive administrative and academic practices catalyzed UMR’s distinct purpose.
The lesson is that a campus should not differentiate itself in the marketplace only by designing innovative practices, such as new online learning platforms, digital badges, and gamified learning. It should differentiate itself by its answers to why questions and by its design of an imaginative structure and practices to execute its distinct purpose. This purpose, along with a tailored organization and complementary practices, is what sets a campus apart.
A campus purpose may be honed or updated, but its core must be immutable. By contrast, designing structure and practices are never-ending. Students are changing. Revenue sources are changing. The creation and dissemination of new knowledge are changing. Learning is changing. The administrative structure and academic practices must change in parallel. An adaptive organization must be constructed to accommodate recurring structural change—a continual examination of institutional policies, practices, and organization to ascertain the best ways to achieve the campus purpose.
A stability of purpose should anchor an ongoing verification of structure and practices. Unfortunately, the reverse is true for much of higher education. Campus mission and vision statements as expressions of purpose are typically malleable and fuzzy, and the campus administrative structure and academic practices are rigid with deep historical roots.
Higher education had to improvise and operate outside its rigid comfort zone to endure the pandemic disruption. As a campus plans for its recovery, don’t return to pre-pandemic habits and focus only on operational efficiency and budget cutting. Leverage a new institutional mindset and an openness to new ideas cultivated by the pandemic. Start the planning by asking why questions, which will fashion a new way of thinking about the whats and the hows. What is your why? How can the campus use its why and the aligned whats and hows as differentiators in the competitive higher education marketplace? How can the campus optimize its why with its tailored whats and hows given the current fiscal realities?
Different campuses will generate different answers to why, what, and how questions. Crow and Dabars (2020) characterize this strategic questioning as a choice between isomorphic replication and self-determination (pp. 106–107). David Staley (2019) states that higher education’s hesitancy to address why questions has led to a deficit in differentiation (p. 216). I believe that this strategic approach is a healthier way to reshape the higher education landscape than all campuses competing for survival with price and commodity manipulations.
As campuses transition into the post-pandemic period, academic leaders and faculty have a short-lived opportunity to supplant the victim-laden, budget-cutting conversations about keeping the lights on with empowering, investing conversations that address the question, “Why does this campus exist today?”
Crow, M. M., & Dabars, W. B. (2020). The fifth wave: The evolution of American higher education. Johns Hopkins University Press.
Sinek, S. (2009). Start with why: How great leaders inspire everyone to take action. Penguin.
Staley, D. (2019). Alternative universities: Speculative design for innovation in higher education. Johns Hopkins University Press.
Stephen Lehmkuhle, PhD, was the inaugural chancellor for the University of Minnesota Rochester between 2007 and 2017. Prior to 2007, he served for a decade as the vice president for academic affairs at the University of Missouri. Dr. Lehmkuhle has published widely in visual neuroscience and is the author of Campus with Purpose: Building a Mission-Driven Campus (Rutgers University Press, 2020).