2020-2021 Series Foreword

by Barbara K. Mistick, DM

Posted on August 24, 2020

Recently, I had the opportunity to engage in a turnaround of a small college. What I learned along the way was that fiscal stress is debilitating. The stakes are high, and you can’t think about much else. Innovations that occur are focused on revenue. Then one day you finally get to the tipping point when all of your community’s resolve is rewarded and you can start looking forward to sustainability—fiscally and otherwise. Which brings me to the introduction of this volume of President to President.

Disruptions beyond our control, such as economic downturns and a global pandemic, can make even the best leaders feel vulnerable and anxious. The resulting stress has led the presidents in this volume to seek meaning in the crazy and intense times in which we are living. The challenging economic and social disruption cycle in which we find ourselves has created a tough leadership test where we must not underestimate the amount of restructuring that will need to happen on college campuses—and in society as a whole—to prepare for the phases of our pending “new normal.” 

“Far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.”
— Theodore Roosevelt, 1903

Over the years, I’ve been blessed to not only work with some of the finest leaders in the world, but some of the most creative and resilient human beings. At this unpredictable moment, taking stock of the challenges and opportunities ahead is both timely and important. The practices presented here will help you stay true to your institution’s mission, prepare for the unexpected, embrace opportunities to change, and rebound from institutional challenges and crises, including the coronavirus pandemic. 

By adopting a way of thinking that focuses on the meaning or the broader purpose of their work, every president in this series has shifted their thinking to emerge resilient despite our current realities. Recently, I came across a McKinsey & Company framework1 describing a glide path to a stronger “post-COVID” world, one that incorporates what we have learned as a result of the pandemic and ways to reshape a “new normal” to better address the obvious issues that were highlighted by the COVID-19 crisis. The five stages of the framework are: Resolve, Resilience, Return, Reimagine, and Reform. 

The framework’s stages are a good foundation for fostering a culture of innovation and demonstrating that, as Theodore Roosevelt wrote in 1903, “Far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.” In these times, when some are questioning the value of a college degree, it is refreshing to see the efforts underway to safely reopen campuses this fall. The effort to reopen is driven, in part, by presidents hearing loud and clear from communities, elected officials, students, and employers that education matters and especially the residential college experience. 

As we consider not only the short-term re-openings but also look further out on the horizon, presidents must consider how to help advocate for ways that as a society we can best assist students and families in reaching their educational goals. Simultaneously, we must also determine how colleges and universities can emerge stronger, more adaptable, and more responsive to the needs of current and future students, faculty, and staff. With astounding speed and flexibility, this past spring the entire higher education enterprise was able to turn on a dime and continue to educate students in an online academic experience. While not perfect, the efforts where focused on delivering on the hallmark of our mission to help students maintain momentum toward their degrees. It was hard work for everyone involved. But it was definitely work worth doing. 

It will take more resolve and reform of federal policy to continue the momentum begun by Congress in the CARES Act for colleges and universities. Significant challenges in broadband access, safety and security for our campus community—both online and in-person—and federal student aid must be addressed and adequate funding provided. Institutions will not be able to go it alone. The voices of college and university presidents, the trusted public intellectuals of our communities, will be critical to a greater understanding of the challenges of our higher education eco-system. 

To do this we must shift our mindset away from competition between public and private colleges and universities and work together to enable more students to attend and graduate from college. In 2019-20, the maximum Pell Grant covered just 12 percent of average tuition, fees, room, and board at private, nonprofit four-year colleges and universities and just 28 percent of average tuition, fees, room, and board at public four-year colleges and universities. 

We must not miss the opportunity to reach beyond the immediate crisis to reimagine how we can help families make the college experience affordable and attainable. Ideas like doubling the maximum Pell Grant award and increasing the other proven federal student aid programs which work together to ensure that qualified low- and middle-income students have the same opportunity to get into college, persist, and complete their degrees as students with greater resources should be made policy priorities. 

At a time when so much is changing, yet so much still remains unknown, we should be thinking about whether this is an opportunity to reimagine our partnerships and relationships with our communities and how we can make them stronger, more inclusive, and yield greater societal dividends. Whether you are in the first year of your presidency or the twenty-fifth year, the offerings in this volume can change your approach to how you handle the responsibilities of your position. I find myself engaged, challenged, and provoked in my thinking by the compelling premises offered. I hope, too, that as you think about your institution, you will also consider reforms that could once and for all tear down the divide between public and private education to realize that in order to meet the needs of all Americans, we need all of higher education to thrive and succeed. 

Again, it will be hard work. But once we get started, I know with certainty that it will be work worth doing.