Commentary: You Don’t Need a Hurricane to Know Which Way the Wind Blows

by Scott Cowen | Chronicle of Higher Education

The call for change in academe has grown ever louder in recent years, with critics faulting colleges for a failure to address crucial issues of accessibility, affordability, accountability, and value, and for a lack of innovation, especially technologically. For those of us who have spent our lives in higher education, it’s a time for soul-searching and reflection, as our institutions face increasing skepticism.

For me personally, 2015, the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, revives memories of a disaster that became, ironically, a catalyst for institutional change. As president of Tulane in 2005, I had to confront a radically changed environment and consequently reimagine the university so that it could survive, and thrive, in a new world.

That defining moment led me to some insights into the question facing us now: How will we reshape our institutions to adapt to a world in flux? One crucial factor is our ability to formulate new, sustainable, and evidence-based models that respond to the demands of a changing environment. Based on my experiences during and after Hurricane Katrina, I propose four basic principles for creating new models at moments of transition or transformation: Understand reality and the external world; contextualize the reality to a particular institution; focus on the possibilities; and cultivate the right leadership.

These were the underlying principles that shaped our actions at Tulane. We quickly recognized that Tulane’s pre-Katrina model could not be reinstated, because of drastically different circumstances confronting the university and the city. We had to ensure that we remained financially viable, maintained the quality and impact of our academic programs, and reconnected in powerful ways with our community.

The questions we asked ourselves in the fall of 2005 were: What deeply matters to us and must be preserved at any cost? What can we sacrifice to meet a new reality? How can we redefine and strengthen Tulane for the 21st century while supporting the city’s recovery?

Our search for a new model culminated in the Renewal Plan, which preserved core programs but eliminated those that were less crucial fiscally and academically. At the same time, we strengthened our mission as an anchor institution in the community by developing a curricular public-service requirement in partnership with a diverse set of nonprofits, locally and around the world. With the Renewal Plan in place, Tulane reopened in January 2006, less than five months after the storm, with 87 percent of our undergraduate student body returning from temporary placements generously provided by colleges all over the country.

Of course renewal comes at a price. Stakeholders in negatively affected academic programs—among them, the undergraduate women’s college and several engineering departments—raised a loud protest, some of it ugly. Needless to say, the more consensus, the smoother the process; however, consensus doesn’t arrive automatically, and change doesn’t result from trying to appease everyone. What I learned in the defining months after Hurricane Katrina was that it is impossible to develop a significant change agenda without a common understanding of reality among stakeholders and without contextualizing needed changes in your own institution.

Though it took Katrina for us to truly transform Tulane, the process of reimagining an institution doesn’t need to be reserved for times of calamity. It’s true that, absent a bona fide crisis, academic institutions have a tendency toward insularity (we aren’t called the “ivory tower” for nothing), and interested parties can be strongly resistant to change. How do you nudge the conversation forward when many people are passionately invested in a model that needs to be altered or discarded in the interests of future growth and innovation?

One way is to scare them to death with the consequences of not changing; another is to ignore or run over them, almost guaranteeing a “no confidence” vote. Another way, by far the best, is to focus on possibilities—developing a vision of, and excitement about, the future. In the aftermath of Katrina, this meant promoting a vision of Tulane as a top research university that was also a strong and committed community partner, highly regarded for developing the next generation of engaged citizens and leaders. All changes were introduced in the context of this positive and vivid image of the future.

One of the great challenges of leadership is balancing hope with reality while moving an organization forward boldly, confidently, and creatively. The best way to build a culture of innovation and continuous improvement is not by fiat, but by continually questioning the status quo and changing as reality warrants, while holding true to a vision of the future.

Examples of this include Tulane City Center—which has built model homes and green spaces all over the city, working also on “water parks,” on the Dutch model—and the Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives, which works with the city’s K-12 public-education system while also tackling the issue of disconnected youth.

An equally important leadership capability for us in New Orleans, and for anyone attempting to negotiate significant change, is finding the right people to help craft and run a new model—people who are resilient and realistic, who address difficult issues, and who have the courage to make principled, difficult, decisions.

Institutions of higher education obviously do many things right: Witness hundreds of years of success and their impact on the advancement of society. But new realities—economic, technological, and global—demand new answers.

Given these contemporary challenges, how should our organizations be governed, and by whom? What is the relevance of credit-hour courses? Where and how should we address the different learning needs of students? Is the tenure system an obstacle to, or facilitator of, organizational change? What are we doing right? What can we stop doing?

There is no one right answer. As I’ve suggested, developing a successful model doesn’t require a set of prescribed actions; rather, it requires certain kinds of action: facing the tough questions that new realities pose, developing models that reflect institutional values, encouraging stakeholders to focus on a vision of the future, and finding people with the resilience, emotional intelligence, and courage to help execute the plan.

If we are too slow to change, foreseeable and preventable crises will become genuine, full-blown ones. It is our responsibility, indeed our obligation, to meet the future with the same pragmatic and pioneering spirit that has shaped our education system from its beginnings.