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| May 5, 2020

by Brian McDonald

[Today’s Tuesday Reading is from Brian McDonald, President of MOR Associates.  Brian may be reached at [email protected].]

During the past three weeks we at MOR have had the opportunity to hear from more than 500 leaders across higher education on the lessons learned from these eventful last eight weeks. This was an extraordinary time when universities had to pivot almost overnight to remote instruction and remote work, moving many schools into the digital age.

The individuals participating in numerous sessions have shared their insights in regard to:

  • Qualities of exemplary leaders in a crisis
  • Transforming from on premise to remote
  • What comes next? The next wave of innovation or retreat to the status quo?

The COVID-19 pandemic is a leadership crucible. These past eight weeks have tested many a leader with some stepping up and meeting this leadership challenge while others were found wanting. There was near agreement across many voices on how the best leaders are acting during this crisis.


Qualities of Exemplary Leaders in a Crisis

These individuals are:


  • Willing to make the call earlier rather than later, taking some risks.
  •  Providing clear direction and setting priorities to focus on what’s most important.

Communicating frequently

  • Demonstrating transparency and clarity, which builds trust.  This includes telling people when the leader doesn’t know.
  • Consistent in messaging, minimizing mixed signals and confusion.


  • The best leaders are aware that their presence communicates a message.  They are calming, reassuring where they can be, and honest.
  • Supportive and empathetic, understanding people are experiencing different challenges and anxiety.

On the balcony

  • Doing scenario planning to anticipate what would be needed “if.”
  • Looking ahead creating contingency plans while others are primarily reacting.


Transforming from On Premise to Remote

Most universities, as well as businesses that could, moved quickly from nearly all activity being on premise to nearly all work and instruction being remote.  This has been a remarkable transformation. A major step toward the digital transformation many have forecast. What enabled higher education and IT to move with such lightning speed?

An overarching goal that was compelling as well as unifying.

An urgency as there was a burning platform, everyone had to be off campus.

An agility to move quickly and easily.

An alignment rarely seen across higher education given the decentralized culture.

An adaptability in adjusting to new conditions.

A bias for action, just get it done, people were empowered to do the right thing.

A readiness with platforms, infrastructure, and tools in place that were able to scale.

A climate of collaboration across the university built trust that allowed people to move fast and make things happen. The relationships built prior to the crisis helped make this possible.

Moving with such speed was a remarkable achievement. This enabled universities to continue to meet their commitment to the students while supporting the faculty and fulfilling the institution’s mission. Will this turn out to be a catalyst for those in the academy to step back and look at implementing on-line pedagogy more effectively? Or will most people revert to the way it was?


What Comes Next?

Having succeeded at meeting the immediate challenges required to keep the university running the question is “now what?” There are those hoping somehow things will go back to the way they were. There are those who are already slipping back into more familiar patterns as they retreat to their silos.

Will IT as a strategic partner continue to support transforming the university?  This could be an extraordinary moment in time for higher education to continue to be innovative. There is an opportunity to seize the opening created by the dramatic changes to date and build on them going forward.  Will IT be seen as a key resource that can help meet the challenges universities face looking ahead at the next year? Can IT identify opportunities to simplify, automate and innovate, especially with overall revenue shortfalls?

Will the academy integrate more on-line learning with the residential experience? Students interviewed 20 years ago at Emory University requested the school video all the lectures so students could watch them when it worked for them rather than sit through a class simply taking notes. Will more faculty learn to teach on-line?  This is different from simply recording a lecture.  It may require new skills and could make the educational experience more engaging by providing additional time for interaction in the classroom.  This interaction could include applied learning that is essential to really knowing how something works, like lab sessions in some disciplines.

Will there be a more agile IT workforce?  Will IT retain the agility to be deployed as needed on high priority initiatives allowing these to be completed in record time? Could there be more flexibility to have staff move to where the work is, rather than remaining in their own functional units while others are over extended?

Will IT find further ways to optimize financial resources?  Can IT create a more integrated service model at a time when financial constraints are onerous? There should be a campaign to minimize any duplication while looking for ways to increase IT’s value proposition.

How will universities write the next chapter? Will this crisis serve as the catalyst for a wave of innovation or will people revert back to the way they were? Will individuals who demonstrated they can deliver continue to Lead From Where They Are?  Exemplary leaders during this crisis are decisive, visible, communicate frequently, and are on the balcony.  Here is hoping you will continue to lead and catalyze needed changes in the weeks and months ahead!


Brian McDonald


MOR Associates