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Responsibilities and Opportunities for Institutional Effectiveness

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The year 2020 is about half over and the world faces a situation few could have anticipated due to the pandemic. The way we live and work has changed drastically. Yet we in the United States have faced crises before in this century. While there are many new challenges in front of us, this article focuses on core responsibilities and opportunities for institutional effectiveness. Critical thinking and liberal arts are more than traditional general education attributes for forward thinking colleges and universities.

Learning from Past Once-in-a-Lifetime Events in This Century

In 2001, we experienced the crisis of the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent call to heightened awareness. In 2008, and several years following, we experienced a severe recession. These crises also changed our lives. Higher education responded to the heightened awareness of terrorism with new programs to train workers. Community colleges quickly developed homeland security, cybersecurity and emergency preparedness programs. These later became part of the broader range of higher education degree granting programs.

The recession of 2008 changed the face of unemployment. Workers with lower levels of education were still disproportionately represented in the ranks of the unemployed. But this time, high-level managers and executives were new faces in the ranks. Once again higher education responded. Institutions quickly expanding to enroll workers with no previous higher education experience, and retraining those with degrees for high-demand occupations. And colleges have designed new programs emphasizing multiple-skill development.

New Challenges

The coronavirus pandemic challenges us in a new way. With 9/11, we had more tangible threats with a more predictable reach. Acts of terrorism could be projected to have an impact on a select physical Image is a photograph of light bulblocation (major event, airport, Congress). The Recession of 2008 also presented more quantifiable impacts. Specific industries and jobs, and the subsequent collateral effect, were somewhat easier to identify.

The spread of the coronavirus is harder to pin down. Are we asymptomatic carriers?  Does the next person we encounter on our daily walk carry the virus?  How do we identify threats to our health?  What changes in the way we interact with others in our daily lives will limit virus transmission?  Is my employment in jeopardy because of some trickle-down effect of the pandemic?

What strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats in higher education, in particular workforce development and community colleges, should we consider to respond to the current crisis and prepare for future ones? What responsibilities and opportunities lie ahead for campus leaders?


In this next section, responsibilities to communities, and student success as well as higher education’s impact on society, are discussed.

Responsibilities to our communities:

  • Enhance data communication skills in science and technology fields. Scientists need to be able to communicate their highly technical information to policy makers and the general public.
  • Focus on data literacy skills from preschool to higher education, and in continuing education and training outside of the formal systems. We all need these fundamentals to understand and embrace policies and changes in behavior based on data and science. Key professional associations, such as the Association for Institutional Research (AIR) and the Association for Public and Land Grant Universities (APLU) have recently launched an effort to increase data literacy.
  • Expand and enhance critical thinking development. The Internet and the proliferation of social media bring “data” to our fingertips. Yet we must be prepared to discern legitimate information from pseudo information, conjecture, and opinion.

Responsibilities related to student success:Black Pen on White Book Page

Work more closely with K12 to better understand entering students’ preparation and to develop better assessments for admission and course placement. This is particularly important in light of the huge disruption to a full generation of students caused by the pandemic.

  • Consider how to better give credit for life and work experience for nontraditional-age students reentering higher education in response to the pandemic.
  • Reevaluate the student services we provide to better adapt to each individual’s needs and rapidly change the media and methods of delivery.

Demonstrate higher education’s impact and effectiveness in new ways:

  • The debate over best outcome measures needs to continue. A large number of displaced workers who enter or reenter higher education will leave when the economy picks up. Often without earning credentials. Policy makers will want to know how higher education benefited them.
  • Develop more short-term certifications to demonstrate student preparedness in essential skills.
  • Develop widely accepted and used measures of higher education’s impact on society beyond course and credential delivery.

Winston Churchill was famous for suggesting “never waste a good crisis.”  While “good” is not how I would necessarily describe this crisis, it is time to look to the future by learning from it. This next section focuses on possible opportunities; it is not an exhaustive list.

Opportunities for Program and Curriculum Development

  • Analysis of workspace design – with emphasis on adapting physical space. Can work traditionally done in very large spaces (such as manufacturing) be configured differently?
  • Supply chain and logistics analysis – How can we respond more rapidly to disruptions?
  • Retail/restaurant/public space design and analysis.
  • Health and safety protocols for public spaces (e.g., social distancing), design, implementation, and enforcement.
  • Higher levels of training and education for facilities, maintenance and housekeeping staff, including safe and effective use of disinfecting chemicals.
  • Agile and adaptive learning capability for workers to make adjustments to market demand for labor.

And, the opportunity to continue to defend and grow the liberal arts. We learn from history and are inspired to solve problems with new approaches when provided with an education beyond STEM and occupation specific studies.

Within the few months since coronavirus cases have been traced in the United States, we see new challenges. Our response as a society requires understanding and sifting through the huge amounts of information available. The proliferation of social media and internet resources in the past decade give us unprecedented access to data. Workers need new skills to be more flexible in social distancing work environments.Drawing of a Lightbulb on a Sticky Note

Critical Thinking Skills Are More Than Critical

With its strong commitment to lifelong learning, higher education has a responsibility to strengthen critical thinking. Toilet paper hoarding, using garlic or hydrogen peroxide as preventatives, the belief that some people are immune to the virus and other responses to the virus spread on social media. True information and pseudo information abound in these times.

The Internet, social media, and other innovations in information technology provide the platform to push out or simply make available incomplete information and opinions presented as fact. Did advocates of these behaviors know how to check the validity of the claims?  Higher education must continue to emphasize critical thinking and to reach out to K12 to ensure a coordinated development of skills all along a student’s educational journey.

Higher Education’s Future Role

Higher education has the responsibility to help society consume and present information. Policy makers stress the need to use data and science to make decisions in the face of the pandemic. However, scientists and data experts are more focused on the technical details of their work. Communicating their research to the general public is usually secondary. Should communication strategies for common use be part of the curriculum in STEM fields? Those who are not scientists or data experts could benefit from data literacy education.

After 9/11 we saw changes in the way we traveled and attended large gatherings, such as sporting events and concerts. Security screenings have become an accepted part of our routine. These screenings and background intelligence continue to evolve with a skilled workforce trained to spot threats and minimize them. With the coronavirus pandemic, we see the need to address how we interact in much smaller settings. How do we design and effectively establish social distancing and health protections in grocery stores, retail outlets, restaurants, and other places that were not the focus of post-9/11 analysis?  The design of safe spaces in our more everyday life, and the maintenance of this safety require workers trained at all levels.

With the pandemic, we are experiencing supply shortages. This includes shortages of critical medical equipment, medicines, and PPE, as well as food and cleaning supplies. Major manufacturers were asked to pivot their large-scale production facilities from, for example, assembling automobiles to medical equipment and personal protection equipment. Suppliers to restaurants and large-scale food delivery operations, as well as restaurants, caterers, and other entertainment venues are struggling with the logistics of changing packaging and delivery methods. How can industry become more flexible and agile without workers who are educated in problem solving and ability to quickly learn new skills?

Future Graduating ClassesBlue diploma, mortar board and tassel resting on grass

The classes of 2020 through 2032 (yes, that is the class of students enrolled in kindergarten this year) will all have at least one year of interruption in their traditional education. How will this disruption affect their preparedness for college?  How will the changes in K12 education delivery affect their expectations of education delivery in higher education?

As happened in response to the 2008 recession, will we see a large number of those without college level credentials return to higher education?  Probably. In Michigan, the governor has proposed a program called Futures for Frontliners. In that program, the federal economic stimulus and relief monies will be used to fund education for essential workers who have not yet earned a degree. Yet, as in the case of those who returned to or began in higher education in the No Worker Left Behind programs after 2008, these students bring a wealth of work and life experience. How can we build on this experience? How can we strengthen past experiential learning credit?

New Wave of Accountability, Metrics, and Outcomes

When the economy picked up after the 2008 recession,  many students left higher education for newly available jobs. Higher education’s accountability focus relies on tangible outcome measures, such as degree completion and cost. How will higher education demonstrate the impact on those students who choose to leave for newly available jobs without completing a degree?

Higher education, in partnership and cooperation with accrediting agencies, needs to take a hard look at the time required to develop accredited degree programs. And assess how long it takes to develop short-term credential programs providing the new skills needed for the major changes affecting life and work. Most short-term credentials available document competency in occupational skills. New short-term credentials should also address achievement in competencies such as critical thinking.

New Pathways Through Liberal Arts?

The emphasis on career/technical and STEM programs will probably continue. However, higher education cannot neglect its ongoing commitment to the liberal arts – this too is a responsibility and opportunity. I think of history, in particular. Students of history look back and learn from the past. They explore the crises that challenged the world or a nation – wars, the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, the threat of nuclear war, polio, 9/11, the Great Depression, and on and on.

Who could have imagined a pandemic such as COVID-19?  But then, who could have imagined smartphones, hoverboards, driverless vehicles, and air travel before they were a reality?  Scientists and innovators developed them, but writers described them in various media long before they became available. Think of Gene Rodenberry’s “communicator” in Star Trek (smart phone), the actual hoverboard in the Back to the Future movie series. Problem solving requires the creative thinking enhanced by a good liberal arts education. The Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U) recently released a report entitled, What Liberal Education Looks Like (free download), “describes the learning all students need for success in an uncertain future and for addressing the compelling issues we face as a democracy and as a global community, regardless of where they study, what they major in, or what their career goals are.”

Higher education is both a responsibility and opportunity. It is a hope that brings us forward.

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Eileen Brennan

Eileen serves as a Business Intelligence Systems Analyst at Henry Ford College.