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Assessment in the Next Normal: Part II

Part of an Ongoing Series by Jack Calareso, Hyatt-Fennell Executive Search

In my first article on assessment, I argued for the need of a different approach to assessment. I believe that the current environment, the next normal, requires new and pervasive assessment programs and procedures.

Since publishing my first article on assessment, my case has been made even stronger by the news reports regarding the status of colleges and universities. Have you stopped reading the depressing news in The Chronicle of Higher Education yet? Recent featured stories included the following: “Undergraduate Enrollment Picture Worsens as Pandemic Drags On,” and “Colleges Have Shed a Tenth of Their Employees Since the Pandemic Began.”

And while many in higher education were relieved by the presidential election results, the positive feelings were short lived with this feature story a few days later, “Election Results Spell Bad News for Higher-Ed Innovation When It’s Needed Most.”

I confess that I subscribe to the daily reports from McKinsey & Company for a more global perspective of the pandemic. I was impressed with a recent report entitled, “When Nothing is Normal: Managing in Extreme Uncertainty.” Here is their summary: “In this uniquely severe global crisis, leaders need new operating models to respond quickly to the rapidly shifting environment and sustain their organizations through the trials ahead.”

I believe that this applies to higher education. I believe that this applies to you.

In my previous article I argued that a pervasive and regular assessment program will support better decisions about reductions in programs and services as well as layoffs of personnel. If you need to reduce staff by the predicted 10%, how will you do this? I realize that decisions based on a solid foundation of assessment data will not necessarily be easier or more popular, but they will be more defensible, more equitable and will better serve each institution’s mission and goals.

There needs to be a complete assessment program at every institution that applies to all personnel (faculty, staff and administrators), all programs and services, and all curricular programs and students. And if presidential assessment is not of the same rigor and intensity as all other assessment practices, then presidents are obliged to challenge their boards to develop assessment programs that are robust and transparent.

Key elements that are essential for effective assessment define your leadership style, or at least they should. Your new normal assessment needs to be...

- ongoing, not annual or biannual

- constant and part of day-to-day life

- connected to goals and priorities, which will change quickly and frequently

- directly connected to the strategic and operational plans

- transparent, fair and equally applied

While your new normal assessment programs need to fit your institution, here are some important guidelines:

1. Assess the overall condition of the institution. It is imperative to assess both the individual components as well as the whole. For example, I spoke with a CFO recently who shared that the president was relieved that enrollment in Fall 2020 was consistent with pre-pandemic projections and budget goals. But the CFO had to explain that the institution was on track to experience a $7 million deficit, because a majority of students chose not to return to the campus residence halls. Loss of room and board revenue was the specific factor driving the economic challenges.

2. You cannot change the institution without changing programs, services and perhaps even people. You need ongoing assessment of programs, services AND people. The key questions are:

a. Do you have the right programs and services? If you have clear outcomes, assessment will

be straightforward.

b. Do you have the right people to achieve the outcomes?

c. If the outcomes change, do you still have the right people?

3. Assessment measures must be specific and quantifiable (“measures” means measurable)

a. You should have short term and long-term goals and measures.

b. Assessment needs to be data driven.

4. Assessment should be decentralized.

a. Every “leader” needs to be an assessor.

b. If a leader lacks the experience to properly assess, teach them how do it … and support their


c. If a particular leader is still challenged in assessing adequately, find someone who can.

d. You cannot afford to be “nice” in assessment … it’s more important to be “right” on behalf of

the institution.

e. No one in your institution can or should be protected from accountability.


a. You need to share what is going on, and it is even more important to listen.

Higher education is dealing with a challenging environment. The next normal is not normal to most people. Faculty, staff, students, trustees, alumni and you in your leadership role, are all experiencing a sense that the institution you all know (and love) is at risk, and in a state of flux.

I have described this as a feeling of disequilibrium. But it might be better described as grief. You cannot change the reality of the pandemic and its impact on your institution. But I believe that a pervasive assessment program is a constructive approach to moving away from grief to shared (i.e., servant) leadership. In a recent article, Charles Dhanaraj and George Kohlrieser of the International Institute for Management Development addressed this issue. They described the need for “Responsive Leadership” and wrote, “By recognizing how the pandemic is fueling such feelings (of grief), leaders can take steps to transform grief into a creative force that turns loss into inspiration. There is life after grief, fueled by a strengthened sense of purpose.”

The leader’s role and responsibility are to inspire. The leader’s role is to lead the institution through this normal, the next one, and the next … until you achieve stability and prosperity. There are many strategies in servant leadership. One strategy that I recommend is integrating an assessment program that inspires your community as you work together with a common purpose and a shared mission.

Jack P. Calareso, Ph.D.

Senior Consultant