August 28, 2020

How Can Colleges and Universities Better Adapt?

Advising Leaders

By Elliot Felix, Abigail Smith Hanby, Adam Griff, and Amanda Wirth Lorenzo

“Nobody can make enough sense of what’s happening to be able to prescribe a way forward.” – Associate Dean


“It’s fascinating to see how fast things change. You can’t plan for the speed at which things are happening.” – Finance and Budget Director

This is how two of our clients described our current moment – a moment that requires a fundamental shift in what colleges and universities offer, how they operate, and how they are organized.

College and universities are among our most stable institutions. At a time when the average age lifespan of a public company in the S&P is now under 20 years according to McKinsey, many universities have been around for centuries. While much has changed, they fulfill the same mission in similar ways. COVID-19 represents a tipping point though.

“Institutions that have been defined by their stability and traditions will now have their fate determined by how well they can adapt to change.” – Amanda Wirth Lorenzo, Director at brightspot

The rate of change is increasing. Online learning was growing at about 10% a year and so many institutions experienced 10 years of change in the 10 day pivot online over spring break. As one Associate Dean told us, “I’m not ready to place a firm bet on what things will be three years from now…” In the last two months, college and university reopening plans flipped from 63% in person to 23% in-person. So, to borrow from the popular “The Hammer and the Dance” Medium post by Tomas Pueyo, as we dance between reopening and closing, prescriptive plans become outdated quickly. What’s needed is a focus on adaptability and the vision, culture, tools, and skills to change – and keep changing as conditions do.

“When you are thinking about 10,000 things at a time, it’s really helpful to have a tool or template that gives you an easy way to focus.” – Research Librarian

Many are realizing that facing a public health crisis, a financial crisis, and a racial justice crisis simultaneously is a marathon, not a sprint. Faculty, staff, and students did an admirable job adapting this spring, but changes are going to keep coming. People are experiencing loss, exhaustion, and uncertainty all at once, but now need to change their programs, student services, spaces, systems, communications, culture, and more to keep fulfilling their mission.

“People are just so fatigued at this point. There is a significant disconnect that most of the administration is just not seeing.”
– Associate Dean

In this whitepaper – drawn from our work with dozens of institutions over the years and conversations with dozens of institutions in recent months – we’ll make the case for colleges and universities to become more adaptable, offer brightspot’s approach to doing so, and provide examples of what and how to change.


Part I: Why Do Colleges and Universities Need to Adapt?

Our whitepaper on what higher education looks like in the wake of COVID-19 identified a series of trends already reshaping higher education that the pandemic will accelerate, such as: online learning, remote work, more flexible programs, decreased state and federal funding, and declining enrollments. We also identified societal trends affecting higher education that will decelerate, such as: corporate funding, endowment returns, urbanization, travel, study abroad, and the closing of equity gaps by race, income, and background.

Accelerating Trends Decelerating Trends
Online/on-campus convergence

Work/school convergence

Declining enrollment, esp.

Decreased state and federal
funding and increased

Increased student diversity

Increased student mental
health issues

More flexible and compressed
programs with
 alternative credentials

Increased competition and transferring

Increased closures and mergers

Increased remote work

More part-time/non-tenure
track faculty

Decreased corporate funding

Decreased endowment gains

Decreased urbanization/densification   

Decreased travel (especially, globally)

Decreased use of mass transit

Decreased study abroad

Decreased coworking

Slower closing of equity gaps

With decreased revenues from a recession and increased healthcare costs, state and federal funding will be in even shorter supply. Enrollment is more uncertain. Students and parents are more price sensitive than ever, scrutinizing every fee and petitioning for tuition reductions that account for the loss of what a campus offers.

“Being student-centered has never been more crucial (Hint: if you are still using terms like bursar, you are not student-centered. No one knows what that means).” – Elliot Felix

A University architect recently captured this change of pace and outlook perfectly: “I’m feeling a profound change in my day-to-day life in terms of the way we think about problems. Typically, we are planning on a much longer time span, but now it’s day to day. The solutions can’t take 6-12 months or 3-5 years. It’s ‘What can we do next week?’”

To make this rate of change more concrete, let’s think about what’s changing – and how fast. We went from 17% of students enrolled online to effectively 100%. We went from 10% of faculty and staff working remotely to everyone remote except essential workers, or at least 62% if aligned national averages. We went from institutions renovating or reconsidering a handful of classrooms each summer to touching every room in the portfolio, with new signage, layouts, plexiglass barriers, and more. In response to the growing anti-racism movement, over 50% of college presidents report they are implementing changes in curriculum, mandating diversity training for employees, and adopting new diversity goals for faculty and staff hiring.

Where will america’s colleges close their doors – by Metro Area. To access our interactive Tableau Dashboard, click here

While summer melt is already an issue affecting as many as a third of students, this may be the worst season yet. We’ve doubled the percentage of institutions that are at severe risk of closure; and if these forecasts of up to 20% closing are correct, that would be about 600 public and private non-profit institutions closing in comparison to the roughly 150 that have closed in the last five years.

“You have to make the best decision you have with the information you have at the time. We really have to be nimble.” – AVP Student Life


Part II: How Can Colleges and Universities Better Adapt?

There are many ways to think about becoming more adaptable – or agile or responsive or any of the other terms du jour. The two most common camps are to solve the problem of adaptability from the perspective of people and culture or to solve it from the perspective of systems and structure.

At brightspot, we don’t think either of these is sufficient alone to enable institutions to change. Instead, we are inspired by MIT professor emeritus and organizational guru Edgar Schein’s “process consultation” approach. He simply and powerfully defined the core functions of any group as aligning internally and adapting externally (paraphrasing a bit). He outlines how groups manage their boundaries, accomplish tasks, and interact from the perspectives of their content and ideas, their processes, and their structures.

So, learning from Schein and bringing together people and culture with systems and structures, we use a more holistic approach to organization design that has five core components all working together.

We consider the roles people play, the structure that connects those roles, and the processes used to fulfill the roles — all working together to achieve a purpose and supported by a platform of information, tools, and skills.

brightspot’s Approach to Organization Design

“We made our goals completely transparent to the whole organization so everyone knows what the goals are. We are being open and inclusive in sharing what the focus is.” – Associate Dean

Whether a university, a department, or even a team, each has these five components and so, at each scale you can look at adaptation from these perspectives. So, institutions, schools, and teams can reflect on what’s changing and consider these aspects of their organization to better adapt.

“Adapting is about how the work gets done. So the team is the unit that has to learn to adapt, starting with defining their operating principles – what we believe about how we should work.” – Mark Raheja, Founder of Plural and brightspot Advisory Board Member

As you move up in scale, the goal is to move stuff out of a team’s way and equip them to succeed. Roadblocks might be unclear priorities, layered decision-making processes, siloed/outdated structures, cumbersome budgeting processes, or outdated technologies. Then, teams need new tools, skills, and practices to keep up – and the right metrics for their success since what’s measured is what improves.

“It’s difficult for large institutions to make adaptations and changes. We often wait for smaller universities to make a bold move to try something different and hope to learn from them.” – University Architect

Adapting is continuous. It’s unhealthy in any kind of relationship to suppress what you really think and feel because it ultimately gets expressed, and often at the worst time, in ways others can’t understand because they didn’t know what was pent up. Organizations are the same way. If they aren’t continuously redesigning themselves, they accumulate change debt that ultimately surfaces as a crisis instead of incremental adaptations.


Part III: What Should Colleges and Universities Change, and How?

Who doesn’t love a good framework, especially a triangle with “purpose” at the center of it? But what makes it real are the tactics colleges and universities can use to change once they understand how the parts relate to the whole. So, we’ll share some ideas that have helped our more than 90 higher ed clients transform their programs, places, and people. We’ve summarized these at a glance below, and then unpacked them in more detail with an example and a tool or resource for each to help you get started. Along the way, we share quotes from our clients on adapting to COVID-19 to spark your thinking, like this one:

“We’ve defined principles to improve work/life balance and make everyone’s life easier because we are all being pushed and pulled in so many directions right now. Everything from when we meet, to the technology we use, to how we make decisions.” – Operations Director

Purpose: Be truly student-centered using the Student Experience Canvas and focus on closing equity gaps using the Access and Awareness Matrix

Roles: Make it easier to navigate services using the Service Center Canvas and support change champions using our communications best-practices 

Process: Define operating principles and apply to the Adaptive Campus Planner and have people shape their future by leveraging  design thinking for innovation

Structure: Align structure with services using our organizational design framework and co-locate groups to collaborate using our tactics to student service collaboration

PlatformLearn service design thinking by applying our service design principles and practices and prototype spaces and services by applying our prototyping best practices

Here is a more in-depth look at this framework:

Use your purpose to focus and inspire: Portland State University set out to “build the best student experience” and “reduce barriers and improve services to help students graduate.” This guided our work together to identify student pain points like transfer students coming in with a hodgepodge of courses and credits, and then to propose solutions like interactive degree-mapping to better chart a path and measure progress. brightspot’s Student Experience Canvas is a great way to identify current pain points on the student journey from applicant to alum considering academic programs, student services, technology, campus facilities, and community.

“We are working together – not as offices, but functions – efficiently and effectively filling gaps in communications beyond academics by checking in with students: ‘How are you doing?'” – AVP Student Affairs

brightspot’s Student Experience Canvas

Increase the equity of awareness and access: Student services are often designed assuming students know what help is available (wrong) and that they will ask for and can access the support they need (also wrong). In our work with SUNY Fredonia, we identified changing student needs, determined what supports were needed, and rationalized how/when/when to provide them. One way to make this clear is  our service access and awareness matrix so institutions can see how well they are serving non-traditional students.

“Non-traditional students now make up the majority of students. So how long until we lose the ‘non-traditional’ label?!” – Elliot Felix

Define roles to help people navigate: Higher education tends to be additive. New centers, services, and offices are added to meet new needs. Things are almost never taken away. Though they should be, a quick way to adapt in the meantime is to define a role that helps people navigate. In our work developing an instructional technology service model for NYU, we defined a navigator to help faculty enhance their teaching with technology. Our Service Center Canvas is a great tool for rationalizing services and defining who’s providing them.

“You have to make the best decision you have with the information you have at the time. We really have to be nimble.” – AVP Student Life

Identify and support champions: Change never happens if it’s only top-down. Everett Rogers long ago mapped out how ideas are adopted, demonstrating the critical role peers play in influencing each other. In our work with the University of Minnesota to create a new flexible work program, we identified, trained, and supported a champion in key areas of change like technology, storage, moving, and communications. Our best practices in communicating change explore the role of champions further.

“With the financial uncertainty that we have looming, how do we have transparent conversations about the possibilities ahead while also managing people’s anxiety and mental health and being honest about the road before us?” – Associate Dean

University of Minnesota Alternative Workplace Strategy Workstyles

Define operating principles: In times of uncertainty, principles that help distribute authority and enable improvisation are much more valuable than prescriptive plans. In our reopening planning with Emory University’s Campus Life division, we defined student personas and operating principles so staff know who they are serving and what the priorities are. We are applying these to brightspot’s Adaptive Campus Planner to then think through offerings like housing, dining, student health, and community and belonging and how the places, policies, processes, products, and platforms will change for each offering.

“We are working on how to make decisions quickly, but also inclusively.” – AVP Student Affairs

brightspot’s Adaptive Campus Planner

Enable participatory transformation: Giving people a chance to shape their own future results in better ideas and better implementation. In our work with the University of Michigan Libraries, they embraced service design as a tool for organizational transformation. After developing a service philosophy and service portfolio, we guided staff along a service innovation roadmap to prototype and pilot new ideas. We then ran a variety of workshops using this case study to help other institutions use these service innovation tools.

“We’ve changed our meeting culture. Even though we are separated, we’re spending more time together, with more spent in dialogue and less in presentations. This created more opportunities to participate and more cross-pollination between groups.” – Associate Dean

Align your services and structure: All too often people are grouped in ways that don’t correspond to the services they deliver, meaning that the organization pulls itself apart as it operates (and requires additional coordination and process to hold it together). This was the case for Miami University where we developed a new library service model then reorganized the staff to align with it. Crucially, we moved the decision criteria from “perfect” to “safe to try” in order to open minds to a new and more flexible structure. This post outlines how to align services and structure.

“We are developing a work from home policy that doesn’t fragment the organizational culture which thrives on spontaneous interactions.” – Library Dean

University of Michigan’s Service Innovation Roadmap

Co-locate to collaborate: Students get the runaround, physically and digitally, as they are bounced from one place to another in search of help. It’s not effective for students or efficient for institutions. In a fast changing environment, bringing services together makes coordinating and collaborating easier, and this was the impetus behind our work with University of Virginia to support their total advising initiative to bring together academic, career, and personal support services under one roof – the library’s in order to meet students where they are. That project brought together a couple dozen partners to share space, ideas, data, and services, and this post provides tips for collaboration across partners.

“We truly are global now in the way we are operating. We’re now getting all of our stakeholders to understand that we have people in so many different countries and this will come with its own work-life balance issues for our staff and stresses for our faculty and students.” – Associate Dean

Learn service design thinking: Systems and structure can’t do all the adapting. People and culture play their role too. So, people will need new skills to change as their users’ needs do. We’ve done a number of bootcamps and training projects with institutions like Stanford University and Florida International University to teach staff and faculty the principles and tools of service design such as personas, journey maps, and service blueprints. This equips them with the tools they need to better understand their users, evaluate their services and processes, and improve them. This article outlines how service design can transform higher education, including with this sort of training.

Florida International University Service Blueprinting Workshop

Prototype ideas to enable quick change: In a sector that’s resistant to change but must do so, prototyping is a near panacea. It enables you to try out an idea to get feedback, gather data, build momentum, and make the case for broader change. For example, we created a pop-up service desk with Adelphi University to address uncertainty about a one-stop-shop model for technology support, research support, and the checking-out of both books and technology. A one-day, pop-up created using temporary signs, foam core mock-ups, and movable furniture answered many questions, set many minds at ease, and got great feedback from users in real-time. This post identifies five best practices for prototyping.

“We had a pilot space open this summer that we learned a lot from so we knew what to expect this fall.” – Public Services Librarian

Adelphi University Service Point Prototyping


Part IV: How to Get Started Becoming More Adaptable

Colleges’ and universities’ strengths have been their stability and traditions, but their fates are now a function of their adaptability. As you think about how your purpose, roles, process, structure, and platform must change, here are some ways you can get started:

  1. Focus on a purpose with inspiring impact, clear priorities, and metrics. Complement this with a culture that combines personal accountability with collective responsibility.
  2. Create roles that increase access and ease navigation. Then identify and support champions for bottom-up change so people can be influenced by peers.
  3. Make sure your processes, policies, and systems are student-centered and simplify how you allocate resources, make decisions, and measure progress.
  4. Combine units to enable co-location and collaboration and think about structure much more flexibly so teams can form and reform without a lot of approvals or coordination.
  5. Develop people’s empathy, comfort with ambiguity (i.e., do a lot of scenario planning), and prototyping skills so you can easily develop, test, and get feedback on ideas that are part of the platform that supports your people.

Three final bits of advice as you move ahead:

First, don’t think of whatever changes you make as an add-on to people’s day-to-day work because people are already facing burnout. Of the time you do take, make sure you identify processes, services, and activities to stop doing to create a sustainable workload. Identify and solve the problems that staff see as wasting time or causing anxiety. Create space for people to inspire each other by sharing stories of invention and adaptation. Keep the meetings short and interactive, with something to read in advance instead a presentation to sit through. 

Second, shift your orientation as a leader to be about progress rather than critique and approval. Go into a meeting asking what can I help move forward? Look for ways to differentiate people coming to you for approval versus advice – then minimize the former and maximize the latter. Making progress – even on a small scale – is what drives people. So be an enabler, not a barrier. 

Third, as authors Richard Pascale, Jerry Sternin, & Monique Sternin note in The Power of Positive Deviance: How Unlikely Innovators Solve the World’s Toughest Problems, “It’s easier to act your way into a new way of thinking, than think your way into a new way of acting.” So, don’t overthink it. Try some stuff, then see how it goes. If it works, do more. If it doesn’t, do something else, but do something.