Applying Agile to Higher Education

July 14, 2020

America’s higher education system, like industry around the world, has been dramatically hit by COVID-19. With decreased fall enrollment, cuts from state and federal funding, even lawsuits being levied by students demanding refunds, universities are scrambling just to survive. The thought of higher ed in a tailspin was unimaginable just a few short months ago. With such unprecedented challenges, it's time for higher ed to look at new ways of making decisions for a more rapidly and more drastically changing environment. 

Growing Storm Clouds

While the pandemic has come up seemingly out of nowhere, storm clouds have been brewing for quite some time. Questions over the value of higher education have been growing well before the pandemic. A 2018 study by Pew research found that 61% of adults polled said that higher education in the U.S is going in the ‘wrong direction’. 85% of adults believe that tuition costs are too high and 65% believe that students are not getting the skills they need to succeed in the workplace. These beliefs have merit. The same study finds that between 1988- 2017 tuition prices of four-year public institutions have increased by a whopping 213%! This increase comes with very little foundational change in classroom standards. Having a near monopoly on higher education for decades and absent of a major global crisis, colleges and universities have had very little incentive to make major changes. 

Enter a Pandemic 

COVID-19 has exasperated these foundational issues. According to UNESCO, more than 1.525 billion learners have already been affected due to school closures, and 192 countries have implemented nationwide closures, thus impacting 99.9% of the world's student population. Consider the tough decisions students and families have to make in wake of this crisis. According to CNBC

  • 51% of colleges expect a 5%+  decrease in enrollment for the fall 2020 semester
  • 4 in 10 parents now say the Covid-19 crisis may prompt their children to delay going to college
  • More first year students are considering starting at community college closer to home rather than a 4-year institution 

Social distancing will become a new reality for a long time, affecting the sudden shift in our educational institutions. Managing expectations of stakeholders will be a daunting task. How are these institutions going to adapt to the world’s ‘new normal’? Is there the correct digital infrastructure to accommodate a large influx of online classes? Are professors prepared for new challenges and demands of their classes and students? How do standards of teaching and assessment adapt to the changes forced upon institutions? How do universities march forward with significant cuts to revenue? Perhaps most importantly, how do institutions bring back their furloughed faculty and staff? Are they prepared for changes in duties and responsibilities? 

Did world-class and capital intensive institutions have actionable plans to deal with a global crisis? Colleges teach ‘Strategy’ in classrooms, yet have been brought to their knees in the face of a strategic challenge

Unlocking the Power of Shared Governance

Such challenges leave for difficult solutions. But the answers lay not only in what the decisions are, but also in how those decisions are made. When faced with a challenge, it is natural to look to the institution’s president for guidance. Yet Higher Ed has a wide range of stakeholders from the Boards, department heads, faculty, and students. While the president may rest at the top of the org chart, the true power is dispersed. Unlocking that power is vital, which is why applying Agile leadership is crucial. 

Agile is a management style that leverages small, continuous change that quickly improves projects and fosters innovation. Rather than having top-down leadership, Agile is a decentralized decision making process. An Agile manager is an ideal leader for a shared governance model. Rather than dictating decision making, managers inspire team members to overcome challenges together. Higher ed institutions are already organizations of peers, so Agile lends itself well to making decisions in this environment and acting on them.

Agile also includes all stakeholders throughout the entire process. Historically, higher education has a reputation for being bureaucratic, top-down, and slow-moving, and these are precisely the kinds of organizational issues Agile was created to correct. By making sure all stakeholders—whether that’s faculty, staff, students, or the community—are brought in along the way, universities can continuously adapt to the changing world. 

Implementing Agile

  • Increase transparency
    Creating a framework that provides transparency helps institutions see interdependencies among departments that otherwise function relatively independently and allows the team to see where they have conflicting or duplicative work.
  • Embrace hybrid learning
    Leveraging hybrid learning allows institutions to better adapt to changing circumstances as part of its Agile management. Switching among online and in-person learning as needed provides flexibility colleges need when they cannot forecast the next few months or weeks.
  • Create a culture that is tolerant of failure
    Having a culture that not only accepts but embraces failure is what keeps organizations innovative. Creating systems to continuously assess which changes are improvements will continue to make American universities the best in the world.
  • Utilize the right technology
    Standardized management software allows tracking of communications and tasks in real time. This helps support educational organizations in reacting more quickly and providing transparency. Such software is helpful in implementing new projects, such as listed above.

How to Organize Lasting Reform

As previously discussed, higher education’s power structure makes Agile management a natural fit. Faculty and department heads can work together with leadership to agree on necessary changes. The problem that these leaders face, even before COVID-19, is implementing their agreed plans. Too often the work that goes into creating, negotiating, and finalizing reform gets lost because of a lack of understanding in how to implement their work. To remedy this issue, institutions must bring in Project Managers (PM) that understand decentralized decision making. 

Project Managers are the ultimate change agents. Equipped with a broad set of tools and skills, PMs are able to connect each part of the project and keep all wheels moving in the same direction. They bring structure and facilitate each phase of the project. Having a third party guiding the process alleviates stress from faculty who can then focus on their own priorities. Much more, PM’s ensure that each actor is responsible for their own contribution, and ensures that the project is implemented on time and as intended. 

Embracing Disruption 

As former Mayor of Chicago Rahm Emanuel famously stated, “never let a good crisis go to waste.” The surprise pandemic has uprooted society and has presented an unprecedented challenge to higher education. But as previously discussed, the industry has had a list of challenges growing well before COVID-19 and has had little incentive to make major improvements. By embracing this disruption, higher ed can bring in sweeping changes and usher in greater innovation that will benefit all parties. 

There is a brilliant light at the end of this very dark tunnel. By choosing to follow it, we can improve not just the lives of students, but society as a whole. 

Written by
Jake Hannigan

Jake Hannigan is the Business Development Strategist for Van Allen Strategies. He has spent his career growing and developing start-ups in the education and technology industries.

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