The View from 800 Miles

Larry Schall in sportscoat

I’m about halfway through my NECHE on the Road Trip — 25 stops at colleges and universities across New England, watching, observing, listening, and recording their leaders as they talk about their institutions specifically, and the state of higher education in general. It’s been quite a fascinating and beautiful trip so far. (And yes, observant reader, you are quite correct. I have been wearing the same sports coat the entire time, much to Betty’s dismay.)

These are extraordinary times in America and on college campuses, and leadership has rarely been as necessary — and as challenging– as it is today.

To date, I’ve been struck by three things.

First, the diversity of institutions and the students they serve is incredible, while the disparity of resources among those institutions is astonishing. I’ve visited institutions with 20,000 students, and one with fewer than 100. I’ve been on campuses of community colleges that haven’t seen a renovation or a new building in a long time, and I’ve wandered campuses that rival Oxford. I’ve talked to open admission schools and to the most selective of the select. It’s this diversity of higher education institutions across New England that makes our region so unique. As for disparities, one needn’t look beyond how this pandemic has impacted different kinds of schools inequitably to see that obvious fact. Inadequately funded to begin with, community colleges (and their students) have suffered disproportionately. 

New England barn
Beautiful New England is even more breathtaking in the fall.

Second, it’s rare that educational institutions are perceived to be creative, flexible, or entrepreneurial in the way they operate. Yet everything I have seen on this trip tells me that every institution–regardless of type or size or reputation–is doing business in a new way, and they’ve all turned on a dime to do so. And as the pandemic has continued into the fall, each school has spent gobs of time and plenty of resources to get better at delivering content and serving students remotely. It’s been a remarkable transformation that has literally happened overnight. 

Connecticut River in Hadley MA

Finally, the leaders I have met remain unbelievably positive about the future of higher education and are convinced they will come out of this transformed and stronger. Now it’s true that I have never met a college president who was a pessimist. That said, they are also a realistic bunch. While I didn’t hear anyone tell me he or she thought this pandemic would bring their institution to its knees, a number of things do remain out of the control of any institution.

Fall leaves

A few of the things on every college president’s mind:

When and how will our country find a way to manage the continuing pandemic?
Will the immigration policies of our federal government remain the same?
Will there be a second act from Congress to provide additional aid to colleges and universities?

These are all things that will shape the future of higher education, and only time will tell where we land. 


In a total switch-up, listen to Betty interview me about the trip so far….

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