Serving Underrepresented Communities in the Shift to a New NormalBrent Chrite | President, Bethune-Cookman University
In this crisis, thousands of institutions are losing revenue, and expenses are growing due to education being moved to a new and remote environment. With little to no budgetary flexibility, many institutions are faced with unprecedented challenges as they endeavor to sustain their operations, educate their students and support their faculty and staff. Already having a small budget means that these schools might be more prepared than those who depend on large endowments. In this interview, Brent Chrite discusses how his Historically Black College University (HBCU) is dealing with the pandemic, how they’re preparing to serve their community for an upcoming recession and what the future holds for them as we shift into a new normal.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): Do you think some of the innovations and tools that have been introduced over the last month to support the shift to remote education will be adopted into sort of our post pandemic new normal?
Brent Chrite (BC): I certainly hope that’s the case, because it’s absolutely essential. I look at this pandemic as an important antecedent that can dramatically impact the trajectory of higher education institutions around the world. This gives us an opportunity to reimagine and kickstart the next phase of our institutions’ evolution. We need to take full advantage of this opportunity to leverage the technology and the available resources, to fundamentally alter the way we fulfill our mission. Now that’s easier said than done, but I expect that most institutions will attempt to respond in that way.
Evo: What are you looking at in terms of reinventing the student experience and redefining how the classroom operates?
BC: For context, I went from one extreme end of the spectrum to the other. Previously, I was at a very wealthy, privileged and expensive university. Now I’m at a historically black college in the South that educates some of the most vulnerable kids in the country–many without many options or resources and who come from very difficult backgrounds. So, when I think about pedagogy and knowledge transfer and impact, I want to utilize the same tools that the more expensive schools have. I want to immerse our students in deep, experiential and immersive learning. I want to more intentionally transfer the body of knowledge online and give them an active learning experience on campus.
But that’s difficult because many of our students don’t have access to the technologies that most of us take for granted in 2020. What makes HBCUs like ours special, are the wraparound services and the institutional commitment we bring to serving these students. Our challenge (and opportunity) is to harness this culture, spirit, support, and warmth in a new and distributed environment. We must surround these students with attention so they can succeed and do so in a remote environment. We may not know what that looks like yet, but it is absolutely our intent to create that environment by re-training our faculty and leveraging tools so that when we get back, we can serve them more effectively. That’s our biggest priority, other than trying to stay afloat financially right now. We’re trying to figure out what our new normal will look like, and how we can ensure that our students can thrive in this environment.
Evo: How should universities in general be preparing for the very likely increase in demand that’s going to come with the higher levels of unemployment?
BC: Higher education cannot be viewed monolithically. Elite universities will continue to do what they do. Those knowledge-producing factories graduate students who get jobs, but their obligation is primarily to contribute to a broader global body of knowledge. Those are research institutions par excellence, and that’s what they do.
It would be silly for others to try to maintain similar standards. That isn’t to suggest that we aren’t all knowledge-producing enterprises, but most universities’ job is to prepare students for jobs and markets that don’t exist yet. One of the obligations of universities now in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic is to accelerate–to speed up students’ capacities to gain the skills to enter the job market more quickly. This can be done through certificate programs, co-op-type programs, micro degrees, or through non-degree activities. Our role, in part, is to reduce the cost of access between employers and the next generation of talent. All institutions, including ours, must abandon many of the orthodoxies that have defined the higher education marketplace for so many decades. The post-Covid-19 environment will require us to re-tool individuals for the market with a pace that we’ve not witnessed before.
Evo: Do you think the roadblocks that have currently stood in the way of programmatic innovation will be as ferocious as they have been in recent years?
BC: I think many of those roadblocks will be mitigated, so no, it won’t be as ferocious. The data about our new environment will be unambiguous and most institutions won’t have the luxury to ignore it. Our collective memory is short, however, so I believe college and university leaders and board members will have to be vigilant here. There will be no choice but to adapt this this new reality.
Most institutions like ours recognize that we’re never going to compete on the same merits as elite private universities, and our mission is something else entirely. The business model required to support our mission must too be shaped by this emerging environment. I see advantages for smaller and more agile institutions in this new environment and I’m excited about the future of B-CU.
Evo: How should HBCUs prepare to support their communities through a period of sweeping unemployment?
BC: First is to recognize that HBCUs in general, and places like Bethune-Cookman in particular, are inextricably linked to their local communities. We are engines of economic opportunity in our immediate community while being simultaneously responsible for the creation of intergenerational wealth across tens of thousands of students.
I have every expectation that our students should be fluent in the same technical and adaptive capacities that embedded in some of the country’s wealthiest institutions. The opportunity – the magic – of places like B-CU is in how we deliver these outcomes in starkly different environments with profound resource constraints. This is the beauty of what we do.
Our institutions need to reframe – reimagine, really – how we do things. For example, when I talk about the need to accelerate the academic experiences, it’s important to note that we’re not a trade school. We’re a liberal arts university. To suspect that we can continue to educate our students the way we’ve been educating them would be short-sighted, irresponsible and unsustainable. For us, the key is to immerse and engage our students in the local community and across the world as a means of immediately contextualizing what they learn. This requires a sea-change in many ways, and that’s what’s both exciting and scary about where we are.
Evo: Are there any lessons that we can draw from how the 2008 recession went and how we as an industry responded to it?
BC: There will definitely be some parallels for sure. We know the inverse effect of a struggling economy and business school enrollment. Business schools and other professional programs at the graduate level will begin to see an increasing trend in applications because people are out of work.
But in terms of how the crisis shapes undergraduate institutions, it could be much more permanent because it’s difficult to imagine this world ever getting back to pre-COVID levels of interactions. The ways we considered 250-person lecture halls, and the way we brought students and faculty together pre-COVID, are likely not returning any time soon. This is going to be a new normal. It requires all of us recognizing that this crisis is going to change the way we operate as an industry and as a country. Those of us who can adapt will survive, and those who can’t will struggle and ultimately die.
Evo: How is this experience affected your approach to crisis management or has it at all?
BC: This has been traumatic for our institution and our stakeholders, obviously. B-CU is in a rather unique position in a couple of ways. When I arrived last summer, the university was already in crises. Our regional accrediting agency, SACSCOC, had put the university of probation, our balance sheet was a mess, enrollment was suffering and our success was not guaranteed – it was a very interesting leadership challenge. With incredible support of our faculty and staff, an engaged and committed board and an incredible leadership team, we balanced our budget, exceed enrollment for the year, reduced our budget by $11M and overhauled key leadership positions. So we’ve been in crises management for a while and Covid-19 represents a new and different crises. The same approach, laser-like focus on the balance sheet and cash flows, critical analysis of the teaching and learning enterprises and figuring out how to maintain the health and safety of our community will be among the priorities. I would also add that for B-CU, resiliency is part of our DNA. This institution was born of struggle and it has survived for 116 years and I have no doubt that our best days are ahead of us.
Evo: Is it possible to adapt and scale online learning approaches, or will we need different and creative solutions to ensure underserved communities have access to the programming they need?
BC: I think it’s the latter and that’s what we’re struggling with. In regard to tools, we know that there are scalable, transferable platforms, but how they’re employed for this community requires consideration and an approach that is not yet fully baked. That’s where the opportunity–and the excitement–is for us.
There’s nothing more important than giving the community we serve the tools, resources and abilities to become value creators in this new economy. We believe that part of the foundation for Bethune-Cookman University moving forward is the creation of an entrepreneurial ecosystem.
But this isn’t just an entrepreneurial ecosystem that has a center for “entrepreneurship” that helps students write business plans and test ideas. What we require is a living ecosystem that serves this community and our students, offering our faculty and stakeholders a platform for development.
This university was built on what used to be a city dump. It is poor, crime-ridden, and services like health, education, and the economy operate well-below the median even in the best of times. It’s just that kind of area. So, we can’t be a great university without thinking about enhancing the surrounding community’s viability and competitiveness. In doing so, we exponentially enrich our students’ capacity to enter a marketplace that is increasingly defined by the convergence of digital and physical technologies.
Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add on how institutions can prepare for the recession on the horizon?
BC: There’s a need to move away from the traditional revenue model, which just doesn’t work for us. Our students can’t pay the kind of tuition that we require, and we’re never going to be able to raise the money to compensate for it. Even now, if I could, I would have reduced tuition at B-CU. The reality is that we could likely not survive the COVID-19 environment if we reduced tuition. Eventually we’ll get there because of our commitment to reinventing the business model at Bethune-Cookman and to reducing the cost of access to this institution. That’s what we must do, and I think most universities are going to have to reflect on such scenarios.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Editor’s note: This interview was recorded on April 17, 2020.