Thriving in a post-pandemic environment means re-envisioning the entire campus service-delivery system as a tightly integrated whole

By John I. Williams, Jr. and Burt Woolf

Leaders of residential colleges and universities face tough decisions about cutting costs. Reductions in staff, facilities and services may address revenue shortfalls, but they could also dilute the experience that a campus provides, leaving residential institutions less able to compete against lower-cost pathways to an academic credential available online or closer to students’ homes.

For residential colleges to thrive in the post-pandemic era, the case for the residential model needs to be strengthened, not weakened. A more productive and resourceful approach is to double-down on the value of residential education by integrating the entire campus experience tightly with the learning and developmental process, and strengthening the case for the lifelong transformative difference made by experiencing campus life.

As the uncertainty of the pandemic crisis gives way to a post-pandemic new normal, presidents and chancellors of residential campuses should be mindful of new ways to distinguish the value of their institutions. Here is a three-step framework.

  1. Integrate the entire campus experience into the institution’s life-changing vision. To thrive in a post-pandemic environment, residential colleges must re-envision the entire campus service-delivery system as a tightly integrated whole. All dimensions of campus life must be organized as a cohesive system intentionally designed to have a transformative impact on all segments of the campus community. Students—as well as faculty and staff—will return to a residential campus if they perceive that every dimension of the experience there delivers a distinctively positive impact on their lives, now and into the future.

  2. Position the “campus life experience” as a core component of educational impact. There are many examples of colleges and universities with educational missions that are intentionally aligned with broad social, civic, economic or religious values—including culturally focused historically black colleges and universities, faith-based institutions, and co-op colleges—and that, by mission, self-identity or population, are more likely to fashion their campus experience holistically. As well, certain collegiate residential systems exemplify some elements of holistic design. Yale’s colleges, Cornell’s West Campus, and Franklin & Marshall’s College Houses in Pennsylvania are examples where academic and campus services are integrated into an overarching and unified experience. So-called auxiliary divisions can also be designed as transformative rather than transactional, such as the top-ranked dining program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, whose mission is to support student success and enhance campus quality of life. Weaving every dimension of the campus experience into a cohesive, transformative whole should be the real goal—where the impact of each component of campus life is measured not so much for its stand-alone quality and cost, but by the collective and inseparable contribution each element makes to the institution’s core educational mission.
  3. Build a transformative culture. To be competitive in the transformative arena, residential campuses will need to excel in three fundamental areas:
    • Leadership: The language, learning and mindset of transformation must become integrated into the management style and decision processes of executive, supervisory and even front-line work teams.
    • Operations: Decisions based on old ways of doing business and prior patterns of thinking are not likely to be effective in the post-pandemic new normal. Operationalizing a culture of transformative impact requires strategic creativity and innovation.
    • Vision: A shift in culture, leadership and strategy toward total-campus transformative impact must be accompanied by a compelling top-to-bottom messaging and communications strategy that conveys the institution’s “making-a-difference” commitment.

As the scourge ultimately passes and a new normal begins to emerge, a window of opportunity will open to recast and reposition the entire residential service-delivery system as a unified educational experience. Such a process will require a sustained, institutionwide effort that starts and is led by the president or chancellor, with strong engagement of faculty as well as senior and mid-level staff, and visible and unwavering support from the board of trustees.

Students—as well as faculty and staff—will return to a residential campus if they perceive that every dimension of the experience there delivers a distinctively positive impact on their lives, now and into the future.

Originally published in University Business, June 2, 2020

 


John I. Williams Jr., former president of Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania, is a partner in the Acuity Group. Burt Woolf is senior executive advisor to the Auxiliary Enterprises Division of the University of Massachusetts Amherst.