When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States, most higher education institutions were well into their budgeting processes for the next academic year (2020-21). The pandemic, our collective responses to it so far, and the changes we will continue to make are causing institutions to step back and reassess their plans and budgets. In many cases, this means rolling back to the beginning of the process. COVID-19 has introduced two key uncertainties that will impact the budget—students and money. In the case of money, the key question is how much will there be? In the case of students, there are two questions: how many will there be, and will they be resident on campus or attending remotely?
The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in numerous immediate changes in higher education—online education only, closed campuses, remote work for faculty and staff. While many may hope these changes are temporary and things will go back to the way they were, that is quite likely not what will happen. Pressures have been building for several years to move more courses and programs online. Although many institutions already offer some online learning, it has not been without resistance from various stakeholders, especially faculty.
The COVID-19 pandemic is a natural disaster that has created a crisis for higher education institutions. Perhaps more accurately, COVID-19 has layered an immediate crisis on top of an emerging crisis for higher education. As terrible as the current crisis is, COVID-19 is not the first disaster to hit higher education institutions, and it will not be the last. Many lessons have been drawn from previous crises that can inform our behavior as we face the immediate pandemic crisis as well as the longer-term, growing crisis in higher education.
The current global public health crisis is creating huge challenges for higher education. Colleges and universities across the globe are closing on-campus activities. Classes–and day-to-day business–are moving online. Higher education institutions are scrambling to deal with the day-to-day operational issues of the crisis, and these are, no doubt, huge.
In a recent blog post (Elmore Alexander, “Making IT Departments Part of the Overall University Strategy: CIO-CFO Partnerships and Beyond”), we explored the idea that college and university IT units have the opportunity to move beyond being cost centers to being strategic business units. That is, IT need not be just a necessary, but expensive, unit with no substantial business impact, but can instead become a unit with real impact on the school – how it does business and what business it does.