How higher ed leaders can use tragedy as an opportunity to re-imagine institutional mission
- In the aftermath and the financial damage of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Tulane University in New Orleans president at the time, Scott Cowen, told University Business Magazine in an interview that he had to "really rethink the entire institution," searching for answers to "what was our strength and what was our identity?"
- Recognizing that if Tulane were to reopen the institution the way it was prior to the Hurricane, it would cost around $100 million in deficits per year, Cowen said he focused on eliminating a number of departments, reorganizing schools and "putting in the next part of our core curriculum — community service." He said, though, all these steps were made strategically and came from "thinking about who we are as an institution, what we stand for, what's important and what's not."
- This reasoning is part and parcel of being an institution president, Cowen said, because leaders have to deal with a world in which "technology and social media—and society in general—has become very difficult." It's hard to affect significant change, he added, unless there are things like "a Katrina or a financial crisis," so these can be opportunities to focus on the institution's mission and how problems are being solved.
When it comes to instances of tragedy on campus, institution leaders serve a dual purpose of not only having to consider the financial integrity of the operation, but also serving as students' point of contact and solace during difficult times. Just like Cowen had to consider Tulane's mission when pondering next steps post-Katrina, former Borough of Manhattan Community College President Antonio Pérez focused on what he could do to best serve the interests of the campus community members while keeping the school open when one of the institution's buildings fell during 9/11.
"Our success is success for our students. They are our customers; if we had closed the doors, then the consequences are societal," said Pérez. "We have individuals that made sacrifices to get an education, and we need to be able to provide that for them. ... I believe that has a greater impact than profit or loss, because you're impacting peoples' lives, whose futures depended upon our building reopening."
The best advice for campus leaders, he said, is to anticipate instances of difficulty for the institution and think ahead of time what solutions work best for the school and its members.
"We try to determine who are our customers, what do they want, and what are they like, so that we can respond and find a way to reach them," said Pérez. "I think its critical businesses are projecting, and forecasting with regard to their customer and delivery of their products."
- University Business Magazine Mastering mission creep in higher ed
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