Visit Modern Campus

Seven Keys to University Flourishing in a New Environment

To flourish in a fundamentally different environment, higher education leaders must identify new approaches to executing their missions rather than relying on a centuries-old playbook.
To flourish in a fundamentally different environment, higher education leaders must identify new approaches to executing their missions rather than relying on a centuries-old playbook.

Universities are large, complex organizations with longstanding—sometimes centuries old—traditions and a strong track record built over the past 75 years. They have enjoyed sustained success and impact that few other industries can claim. Today, universities face a world far different from the past—a world of dynamic change only accelerated by the global pandemic, where complex bureaucracy and vast infrastructures can hinder progress.

To thrive, or even survive, for the sake of their vital educational mission, universities must adapt to this accelerating, radically different environment.

One way to identify opportunities for positive changes is to ask, “If I were starting a university today, how would it look?” Topics could include in-demand education and research programs, leaner organization, student-centered education delivery modalities and infrastructure.

Here are seven approaches that emerged from a planning exercise at Miami University and helped sustain us through unprecedented challenges while positioning us for the future:

1) Bold Investing

With far fewer resources and less funding, especially for publicly funded institutions, universities cannot afford to spread resources too thinly. An institution’s reputation and recruitment success oftentimes depend on a large offering of recognized programs. Targeted investment in fewer strategic initiatives is far more effective than doling out subsistence investments to programs with minimal impact. A university can establish a fund analogous to a startup venture capital fund to make such investments in in-demand and emerging fields for rapid acceleration to best-in-class excellence that elevates its brand.

At Miami, we pooled $50 million into a Boldly Creative fund and invited transdisciplinary faculty teams to submit proposals for investments. Enhanced through peer evaluation, executive-level financial expertise and the discipline of long-term sustainability, this is a model for how universities can leverage limited resources for a larger impact in the future.

2) Wise Budgeting

The strains on universities’ finances, the demands to do more with less and the rapid acceleration of change mean the end of set-in-stone five-year budget plans. The price of success is eternal vigilance. In many ways, an institution must handle its resources like an agile startup. Strategic planning, budgeting, product development and programming must undergo frequent and continuous review to attain greater efficiency each year. Those savings generate the capacity to redirect funds and pivot to vital new priorities.

At Miami, our agile budget was essential to our continued progress during COVID-19. We were able to avoid significant delays on our most important priorities, including the launch of new degrees, departments and programs, as well as major infrastructure projects. In addition to our agile budgeting strategy, we have practiced a Lean approach for more than a decade, sharing best practices annually across campus units, highlighting and rewarding those that work well, and maintaining the mindset that improvement never ends. These practices have saved an estimated $100 million since 2010.

3) Agile Innovation

The university market has changed significantly in recent years because of shifting high school demographics and graduation rates, globalization and societal perception of higher education, among other things. The global pandemic accelerated many of these changes, so universities must innovate to survive. For example, traditional classroom teaching gave way to technology-dependent remote and hybrid learning virtually overnight in spring 2020. That provided an involuntary, intensive laboratory for an already growing approach, revealing both its advantages and the enduring value of the in-person classroom experience.

At Miami, we are leveraging these lessons to open more time for deeper student engagement, such as research and internships, as well as expanding some remote work that improves staff efficiency and allows us to attract the best and brightest candidates. Innovative institutions will also find new resource streams, such as increased philanthropy, business startups based on discoveries and intellectual property, and partnerships with outside organizations. Miami, for example, created our Work+ program in collaboration with local industry partners. This program enables students to work part time at meaningful jobs while in school. So, they receive an income and tuition reimbursement, making way for a debt-free education while graduating with a four-year, high-quality résumé.

4) Active Partnering

External partnerships provide both a potential resource stream and an opportunity to elevate students’ learning and ensure real-world preparedness. Collaborations can include traditional employers, business incubators, nonprofit organizations and intellectual property holders. In the past, universities typically pushed their intellectual properties into the market for others to license and develop. Miami has also adopted a “pull-focused” approach that brings in partners’ idle intellectual property for students to further develop or co-develop through the university ecosystem of entrepreneurship, research and capstone experiences. This hands-on experience empowers students to engage with thriving organizations, contribute to bringing a possible idea to market and experience the impact of their work on society.

At Miami, one partnership with a military base and laboratory provides access to significant numbers of patents that our students and faculty can study and potentially repurpose for commercial applications. Some intellectual property is idle at large companies because it does not promise their desired market volume or return, but it could support a thriving startup. A $10 million market might seem small to a Fortune 100 firm, but it is huge to a fledging entrepreneur. We also have found active partnerships with companies by offering training and upskilling through microcredential programs. Such mutually beneficial partnerships contribute to the student-focused mission and the institution’s long-term viability.

5) Fast-Track Programming

Rapid shifts in both student interests and global and workplace needs mean that universities must create curricula, programs and even departments/centers/institutes much faster than the notoriously cumbersome process of the past allowed. Fast response is vital not only to overcome challenges but also to seize opportunities.

At Miami, we invest our Boldly Creative funds through what we call an academic incubator to help departments and faculty develop high-value degree programs and other credentials. We collaborate to spot emerging trends and market demands, target societal and industrial needs or problems that need solving and identify solutions and resources to address the opportunities. We also streamlined our approval processes while fully engaging shared governance and consultation across our university stakeholders.

6) Creative Collaboration

The complex scope of today’s problems also means that internal university structures should be transdisciplinary; the issues are too big and complex for any one discipline to solve. This landscape of inter-, multi- and trans-disciplinary interactions, accelerating a long trend, means universities must shift organizationally and provide structures to support such activity.

On our campus, we enacted several organizational changes. Entrepreneurship has become its own department supporting nearly all majors on campus (students majoring in any discipline can earn a co-major in entrepreneurship). Our new Department of Emerging Technology in Business and Design (ETBD) offers degrees in the thriving gaming sector and prepares students for the digital business industry. Meanwhile, a new Sports Leadership and Management program prepares students for the business and culture of sports, sport leadership and the burgeoning field of sport analytics. We have also focused on opportunities for co-locating or clustering some academic programs in our long-term planning to stimulate cross-discipline interactions and even serendipitous encounters. For example, we have started by co-locating our health sciences and all our data resources together in their own buildings or “hubs.” 

7) Holistic Preparation

The rise of Industry 4.0 (and approach of Industry 5.0), a fusion of human-machine elements, means the role of personal leadership will be elevated to provide vision and guidance in an ever more complex, technology-rich, data-driven world. This kind of leadership and expertise is broader than once required at universities, where success in one’s faculty discipline could lead to a career track as department chair, dean and other campus leadership roles. Universities are like conglomerates, involved in real estate, sports, security, housing, dining, health care and more–in addition to the academic and student success core mission and the vision to elevate society. As a result, today’s educational leaders must have broader and diverse skill sets, combining entrepreneur, CEO, not-for-profit head, coach and mayor.

We have developed a forward-looking leadership readiness program to fill those roles effectively. The intensive training borrows leadership wisdom from corporate and hospital system CEOs, military officers, coaches, not-for-profit founders, government leaders and entrepreneurs in addition to higher education. 

A Map to Sustained Relevance

None of these approaches disrupts the university’s mission. Instead, they are a logical evolution in response to our changing environment that ensures higher education will continue to flourish into the future and carry out our critical mission even more effectively. Maximizing the impact of resource allocation, applying creative strategies, engaging diverse teams and partners, creating new educational opportunities, fostering collaboration and establishing sustainable leadership will strengthen higher education’s capacity to fulfill its role in our society and the world. 

Author Perspective: