As higher education moves forward in the wake of COVID, going back to "the old ways" of doing things won't serve students now--or in the future

Destroying the box: Thinking outside of the box is no longer enough


As higher education moves forward in the wake of COVID, going back to "the old ways" of doing things won't serve students now--or in the future

In March of 2020, life as we knew it came to an abrupt halt. At the time, we optimistically thought we’d have “two weeks to slow the spread” and then life would resume more or less as usual. Over a year later, life still hasn’t returned to normal. And yet, life has continued, in a modified form. We haven’t spent the last 12 months in full lockdown. Individuals and institutions have innovated to adapt ways to continue essential activities. From reimagining the way we get groceries to the way students learn to the way our offices are structured, some things may never go back to a pre-pandemic way of life.

Surviving the pandemic has invigorated a creative, problem-solving spirit that’s always been within us. As the pandemic quells, we must resist the allure of the familiar. Defaulting to old ways of doing things is an easy and erroneous strategy. Thinking outside the box used to express expanding our creative outlook. We now know we can—and must—think much bigger.

In order to chart a path forward, it’s important to distinguish between the asset and liability that experience can be. In higher education, just as in many other industries, identity and values are grounding realities. Understanding the heritage of your college will shape how you step into the future. What values drive your activities? What narratives are your touch points? Colleges lose their way when they become disconnected from their mission and values. A mission will be expressed in different ways across an evolving context, but there should be a through-line. Legacy is the positive aspect of experience that should be honored and applied. We must allow our principles to inform our future.

There is, however, a danger to relying exclusively on experience. Inertia is a powerful force. In any given department of any given organization, if you ask an employee why they do something the way they do, far too often the response will be, “because that’s the way we’ve always done it.” Tradition is a precious asset, but not if it becomes an immutable rule that squelches fresh thinking. We must avoid becoming automatons of the past.

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