Staying Ahead of the Curve: How to Respond to the Heightened Challenges Facing Colleges

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Susan Llewellyn Deniker

Member, Chair, Labor & Employment Department

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May 3, 2021
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One need only pick up the latest copy of any higher ed industry publication to know that times have changed. Colleges and universities of all sizes are facing unprecedented challenges. For some institutions, the future appears deeply uncertain.
 
In a lively program devoted to helping college and university leaders navigate emerging challenges, a panel of legal and communications experts offered key takeaways drawn from their work in higher education. Among the insights offered were these key observations:
 
Top Five Takeaways
 
1.  Proactively Examine Strategic Opportunities – Mergers, strategic alliances, or program reductions may all offer benefit to struggling institutions, but they must be considered early. The longer an institution waits to make critical decisions about direction, the more likely it is that strategic choices will be lost.
 
2.  Communicate with Precision and Purpose – In the face of significant institutional challenges, communication is critical. However, not every group should receive the same message. Tailor communications and use varied delivery vehicles, beyond merely email, to convey messages.
 
3.  Avoid “Toxic Positivity” – Avoid overly optimistic statements that may be interpreted as being disingenuous. Communications should be both transparent and strategic, providing a realistic assessment of the situation and the path forward.
 
4.  Consider All Contractual Responsibilities – If staffing reductions and program eliminations are being considered, it is vital to understand the breadth of contractual obligations. Especially for faculty, institutional obligations may be drawn not just from an annual contract, but also handbooks and other institutional documents. Exit incentive programs may offer a tool to avoid contractual disputes.
 
5.  Maintain the Institutional Mission –The best path forward for any institution must be grounded in the fulfillment of its core mission. Regardless of whether the circumstances require staff reductions, program restructuring, or even a financial exigency declaration, decisions centered on institutional mission will best serve all stakeholders (students, employees, and the community).
 
The panel included: Erin Hennessy, Vice President of TVP Communications; Susan Deniker, the Chair of the Steptoe & Johnson PLLC Labor & Employment Department; and Jim Newberry, the head of the Steptoe & Johnson PLLC Higher Education Team. You can view the discussion here.
 
If your institution is contemplating a strategic shift, contact the Steptoe & Johnson Higher Education Team.