Leading in a time of change: higher education in transition


This is part two of a six part series.

“We are in a time of change like we’ve never seen before.” Robert Johnson, president of Western New England University.

The foundations of higher education are under pressure and universities must adapt.

Higher education is facing one of the greatest periods of obscurity in recent history. There is not a single aspect of education that has not been challenged by the pandemic. But that is not the only source of uncertainty. Technology is changing so fast that the hard skills we master in school will become obsolete within a few years. Some of the most exciting career opportunities may be in areas that don’t even exist yet, but that face challenges we can’t even imagine.

This is part two of a six-part series on dealing with uncertainty in business, healthcare and higher education. The articles in this series contain a mix of written content and short videos from individuals from different industries. Part one introduced the secret to navigating uncertainty: see change as an opportunity, not a threat. In this article, I will explore how uncertainty forces higher education to evolve.

Higher education must face its own uncertainty, while also teaching students how to deal with the unknown so that they become the kind of workers and leaders our institutions need.

The intersection of higher education and workforce development

How do you train future leaders in a constantly changing environment?

That was the topic of Session 1 of the fourth annual Leadership in the Age of Personalization Summit, held in October at Clemson University’s Wilbur O. and Ann Powers College of Business.

Higher education experts suggest that education should look less structured and make room for more variety: new paths, multiple streams, a wider range of credentials – so that people can upskill as needed and put those skills to work immediately can put.

Robert Johnson, president of Western New England University, kicked off a session devoted to how higher education needs to change to meet this uncertainty in our age of personalization. Watch this short video to hear how he sees the challenges when universities need to teach young people how to use technology that has yet to be developed to solve problems that haven’t even been imagined yet.

Then, a panel discussion included expert insights from three higher education leaders:

  • Daniel Durbin, president and CEO of Second Founding of America. He believes that universities are lagging behind in teaching students the skills they need for their future careers.
  • Nancy Hubbard, dean of the College of Business at Lynchburg University. She said colleges need to do more to make themselves inclusive and welcoming to all students, especially those from historically underrepresented groups.
  • Raghu Krishnaiah, chief operating officer of the University of Phoenix. He founded an institute to connect learning and work and discovered that despite the negative circumstances in the world, most people are optimistic about their career prospects.

How to prepare for jobs that don’t yet exist

The panelists agreed that universities should focus on teaching students how to think conceptually so that they can work well with others. Skills, both hard and soft, are important for success in today’s ever-changing world. But given how quickly our world is changing and how fast technology is evolving, many hard skills may only remain relevant for a few years. That means one of the most valuable skills people can learn is the skill of continuous learning.

In this short video, the panelists talk about soft skills that are essential – skills such as creativity, openness, collaboration and more. They discuss what a new model of higher education should look like to meet the needs of students and their future employers.

They also emphasize the importance of giving students and staff the freedom to question things and participate in decisions.

That last point underscores the importance of another skill I consistently write about: the ability to unleash ourselves and unleash others. The permission to ask questions and the confidence to contribute to decisions both require that one knows and trusts one’s own insights – as well as knowing and trusting that it is safe to share one’s insights at school or work. That is an environment of trust that must be consciously created and nurtured by leaders who know how to do it.

Having that confidence yourself and giving that confidence to others is a skill that our workplaces desperately need. I’ll explore that topic further in part three of this series, where we’ll look at the impact of uncertainty in the workplace.



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