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Say Goodbye to Best Practices in Higher Ed

Tomorrow's Academy

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To be successful, higher education leaders will need to transition from the current stressed practices to “What Comes Next?” decision‐making.



The posting below argues for replacing backward looking “best practices” with a ‘What Comes Next?’approach to dealing with the crisis in higher education brought on by COVID 19. It is by Josh DeSantis and Stacey Dammann* and is from the National Teaching and Learning Forum, Volume 29, Number 5, September 1, 2020It is from a series of selected excerpts from the NT&LF reproduced here as part of our "Shared Mission Partnership." NT&LF has a wealth of information on all aspects of teaching and learning. If you are not already a subscriber, you can check it out at  The on-line edition of the Forum - like the printed version - offers subscribers insight from colleagues eager to share new ways of helping students reach the highest levels of learning. ©2020 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. Published by Wiley Subscription Services Inc., a Wiley Company, 111 River St., Hoboken, NJ 07030-5774 Reprinted with permission.




Rick Reis

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Say Goodbye to Best Practices in Higher Ed


Best practices are the standardized lessons from the decision‐makers that came before us. Higher education leaders borrowed the term from the business world and have adopted it in the last few decades. Best practices now exist for nearly every process in higher education.


Enrollment teams apply them to enhance undergraduate retention. Academic affairs leaders deploy them to make scheduling decisions. Faculty and instructional designers use them to guide online instruction. From the library to the lecture hall and from the bookstore to the business office, best practices are available to help make nearly every decision in higher education.


Each president, provost, dean and director is faced with their own challenges. Best practices offer solutions to leaders that have worked for others in comparable roles who faced similar concerns. Best practices save leaders from “reinventing the wheel” and ground decisions in proven methods used previously. Due to best practices' roots in industry, announcing “This is a best practice” lends an air of business wisdom to the decisions we make. Best practices help rally support for initiatives and, occasionally, stifle dissent.


For better or worse, best practices have become irrelevant given the unprecedented challenges faced by leaders in higher ed today, as they are based on past experiences and are mostly ineffective in addressing the challenges posed by the nationwide lockdown caused by COVID‐19.

Now's the time to bid farewell to best practices in higher ed.


Unprecedented Challenges


Higher ed has never faced challenges like those we face today. The only historical experience akin to COVID‐19 was the influenza epidemic of 1918–19. The landscape of higher education, of course, has completely changed in over 100 years. College enrollment is just one example of the profound differences between then and now. Fewer than 5% of college‐aged Americans were enrolled in a higher education institution in 1917. College attendance has skyrocketed since then. The higher education leaders who navigated that crisis are long gone. Their best practices are forgotten.

There's no precedent to draw from when making decisions in today's pandemic crisis. Higher ed leaders who rely on best practices make two potential miscalculations. First, the backward‐looking nature of best practices leads to solutions that have worked previously but are inappropriate for solving today's problems. Second, relying on them stifles creativity in finding solutions.


‘Stressed’ Practices


The COVID‐19 epidemic forces higher education leaders to make dozens of impactful decisions each day. These decisions frequently center on preserving the health and well‐being of their campuses and require immediate implementation. There is frequently little time to reflect. We are now in an era of “stressed” practices.


Most institutions closed their physical doors in March, but this was only the first in a series of stressed practices. Some institutions paved the way, closing their doors early on in this crisis and utilizing digital learning management platforms already in place within their institutions. Others held emergency leadership meetings to determine how instruction would go forward and when students should be sent back home.


The difficult choice to suspend face‐to‐face activities was followed by the hundreds of additional decisions necessitated by the closures, including: How do we provide instruction to students no longer on our campus? What happens to students' internships, co‐ops, student teaching and clinicals? How do we weather the economic impact of closing our doors to students? and How can institutions ensure equitable access to learning for all students?

There are still important decisions to make about staffing and future instruction. Unfortunately, there are no best practices to guide leaders in this new higher ed landscape.


‘What Comes Next?’ Practices


Rather than relying upon previous best practices, successful higher education leaders will need to make future‐oriented decisions. Even potent new predictive analytics are less relevant today. Like best practices, they draw their power from data gathered before the COVID‐19 epidemic. To be successful, higher education leaders will need to transition from the current stressed practices to “What Comes Next?” decision‐making.


This will not be easy. Leaders—who possess the foresight to reimagine their institutions in a post‐epidemic landscape—will have to make decisions that increase their institutions' chances for survival. They'll have to answer these key questions: How will the national lockdown affect college students' expectations for their learning in the years to come? How can institutions retool to provide programs and experiences that meet those expectations? How will higher education help the country regain its economic footing? Leaders who tackle these questions will give their institutions the best chances for success.


These odds can be improved if leaders are willing to be creative, flexible and humble. The solutions to today's challenges are not likely to be discovered by any one individual. Leaders who can crowdsource solutions from their communities, build consensus for applying new approaches and be flexible to changing conditions are more likely to help their institutions weather this storm. Successful leaders will also encourage the development of new ideas.

Above all, effective leaders will not fall back upon best practices. Doing so suppresses creativity and works against the future‐oriented decision‐making approaches we need today. Leaders understand and accept new realities will help their institutions face the challenges of today with a better set of practices for the future.


No institution of higher ed will survive unchanged by the COVID‐19 pandemic. The most successful leaders will realize this and make decisions with the future in mind rather than rely on no longer relevant best practices from before.



*Dr. Josh DeSantis is the director of graduate programs in behavioral sciences and education at York College of Pennsylvania, and Dr. Stacey Dammann is dean of the School of Behavioral Sciences and Education, also at York College of Pennsylvania.