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A Way of Working in Higher Education: Partnership between Academic and Operational Leadership

Effective higher education requires strong collaboration among administration, leadership and academia. Involving everyone at an institution ensures the right tools and resources are developed and used to everyone’s benefit.

As thousands of higher education leaders witnessed first-hand during the peak of the pandemic, crisis can inspire leaders from disparate parts of large organizations to pull together in common cause. In these moments of great uncertainty, mission-driven teams are often at their best, breaking through longstanding barriers and innovation as never before.

Like so many other college and university teams nationwide, we worked hard to meet this moment and help our students stay on their pathways to possibility through meaningful education programs, even during the national shutdown and beyond. But we also took on the added challenge of fully merging two universities: National University and Northcentral University. To say this process taxed our organizations would be a massive understatement. However, coming out of this process, we have embraced a way of working together, particularly with academics and operations, that is showing real promise.

Ways of Working

The deans of our seven colleges and schools across NU are charged with engaging with their faculty to build programs that are academically excellent, where students learn well, finish strong and launch effectively onto their personal and professional pathways. However, as leaders of our largest and most mission-centric operational functions, they must also be deeply mindful of sustainability. Academic purpose and passion without solid sustainability strategies form a recipe for disaster and a lot of conflict. As we looked to the future, we decided we needed to embrace a both/and strategy.

To be blunt, far too many institutions infantilize their academic leaders. They tell them what their budgets are, rather than engaging them in the difficult decisions related to running a truly sustainable educational enterprise. Not wanting to bother academics with the details—or do the hard work of engaging—they defer sustainability strategies to finance or central administration, leaving deans both frustrated and ineffective as resource managers.

We’re determined to challenge this all-too-common paradigm. We want our deans to be the drivers of sustainability strategy, including how they pull their teams together to offer in-demand programs, improved student performance, diverse and solid revenue streams, effective expense management and more. This desire is driven by NU’s Ways of Working. Our Ways of Working are a shared framework used across NU that is predicated on the idea that, at our best, we work to (1) champion student success, (2) build trust, (3) advance inclusion, (4) embrace accountability and (5) make things better.

We love the last one in particular. Making things better can include big ideas and innovations as well as small moves and moments. Indeed, a small fix of a problematic drop-down menu or a broken link on an LMS can often make all the difference for a striving student. So, how do we make things better regarding academic excellence and sustainability strategy? We created the Office of Strategy and Sustainability (OSS) to equip deans across the university with the tools they need to be successful.

The Office of Strategy and Sustainability

OSS is made up of four key foundational areas that help support deans and overall leadership in their decision making. 

The Strategic Intelligence and Innovation (SII) office is where new program ideas are created and existing ideas are vetted. While faculty and deans may have many good ideas for new programs and certificates, it helps to have an independent office identify the key trends in the education sector and what the university should do to address the trends, such as how to take advantage of artificial intelligence and virtual reality. In addition, SII provides program- and portfolio-level strategic insights to help the academic leadership make optimal program decisions. These insights include market viability, employer demand and competitive intelligence to assist deans in making critical decisions such as which programs to add, update or sunset. Lastly, SII runs an Innovation Lab that allows the University to quickly test potential software tools to determine if they could or should be deployed in day-to-day operations. The Innovation Lab assists with design thinking and a quick testing processes to help ensure optimal decision making.

Where SII provides strong support to assist deans in determining their external position in the marketplace, the Financial Decision Support (FDS) team supports the deans and academic leadership in determining financial, operational and student performance metrics. FDS provides monthly data and financial insights to support the dean’s monthly and quarterly operating reviews. FDS creates models forecasting key metrics including student enrollment, revenue trends and faculty needed (both full and part time) to support program operations. This information is essential when making academic sustainability decisions such as program viability, lifetime value and return on expenditure modelling. Essentially, SII determines if the program is externally viable, while FDS determines if the program is operationally viable.

The Project Management Office (PMO) supports deans and academic leadership by providing institutional-level portfolio management to ensure decisions are made holistically. Essentially, academic affairs cannot operate without the support of marketing, information technology (IT) and operations. A a neutral entity outside academic affairs (i.e., PMO) should coordinate this support to ensure programs are updated on a regular and timely basis. For example, before a new program (determined to be externally and operationally viable) is launched, marketing must be informed of all program details, IT must be ready with necessary support software, and operations must be ready to admit, advise and support new students. The PMO coordinates all these activities. One other area that often lacks consideration is risk management. What is the impact to the university when a program or a unit does not deliver as promised? Here again the PMO manages all key cross-functional projects to ensure timely delivery to minimize risk. To make the entire process more manageable, the PMO provides a strategy documentation tool that deans use to show their key tactics and results to support achieving their annual operating plan which supports the institution’s strategic plan.

Strong Organizational Health (OH) is critical to every unit within the organization. The OH team supports deans and academic leadership by regularly delivering institution-wide organizational health surveys and mindset workshops to understand how our staff and faculty feel about our Ways of Working. These surveys provide an Organizational Health Index (OHI) that informs the unit leaders about the current health of the unit as well as institution-wide health trends. The OH team uses these results to develop organizational health initiatives that leaders can use to address health deficiencies within the unit or the overall organization. In addition to initiatives, the OH team will work with and train the leaders on change management plans for large-scale changes.

Catalyzing and Cascading Academic and Sustainability Strategy

The OSS is now partnering with the provost’s office and deans to catalyze and cascade the work of our five-year strategic planning into each college or school’s annual operational planning, which then drives their budget development. From here, our monthly and quarterly operating reviews take over, with the deans and OSS meeting with student support operations, marketing, IT, finance and more to ensure we’re on track in terms of student progression and success data, sustainability and financial data, and strategy shifts. These joint meetings powered by shared data empower deans and functional leaders to see their operations in context and problem solve in real time.

While we still have good work to do to refine our data systems and reports, build our operational rhythms and learn so much more about each other’s work, we already see the green shoots of this shift. The cross-university teams are learning much more about the diverse academic programs and related strategies and needs, and deans and their academic teams are learning much more about the levers driving operational and sustainability dynamics. Lots of good work to do across all our ways of working here, but we’ve been mighty encouraged by the collaboration thus far.

While nothing outlined here is radical, and many colleges and universities have their own method of bridging the academic and operational divides, we’re sharing our strategies to hopefully start a conversation with like-minded institutions embracing similar strategies. We’re committed to empowering our academic leaders and better informing our operational teams about the exciting and life-changing work our academic programs do. Our hope is that this collective learning becomes the foundation of a strategic and sustainable system that powers the difference-making work we do with students for years to come.

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