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The Reimagined University Amid COVID-19: An Interview with Marguerite J. Dennis

Just days ago, Marguerite J. Dennis witnessed the virtual graduation of her three-year-old grandchild. “She probably thinks there isn’t anything wrong or different. She has a brother who attended a real graduation and knows the difference,” she says.  


Ms. Dennis, who has a rich 25-year career in international student recruitment, reveals over the course of the interview the scale and depth of her concern: “I wonder what’s going to be the residuals. It’s not just higher education students we have right now, but also younger generations coming up.”


MSM Reporter had the privilege of interviewing Ms. Dennis as she works on her pioneering research on the reimagined university, and how it can be a key for colleges and universities that seek to rise above the current global pandemic. 


Would you consider that university administrators, chancellors, presidents, and other leaders were well-prepared or ill-prepared for the pandemic?

MD: We can take it well out of the higher education range – I think no one was prepared, from world leaders to economists. We could say now that we should’ve seen it coming. There were things that were coming out of China and coming out of Europe that we should have been alerted to, yet we still don’t know enough about the virus.


Administrators are focused on September, getting the classrooms COVID-ready, and creating some semblance of normalcy in our academic environment. Do we teach in person? Do we teach online? Will the students come back? Do you bring these kids home after they have already arrived on campus?


The research I am doing, and the luxury that I have because I am no longer responsible for the fall and spring enrollment terms, is more about what higher education is going to look like in the near future. What are the residuals or opportunities that are going to be part and parcel of the way we deliver our services and live our higher education lives?

How did you come up with the reimagined university, and what’s the context for the whole thing?

MD: We live in extraordinary times. After seeing the pandemic hit, colleges and universities were scrambling and I understand why. They have to do something creative for the September and January terms, but I believe that this virus will be here for a while and that tweaking the margins won’t be enough. In my opinion, there will never be the new normal because there will only ever be the normal. That is what we have.


So when I consider reimagined higher education, I think of the reimagined university taking everything that we do as college administrators, as faculty, as presidents, as vice chancellors, and looking at how we conduct everything. There’ll be a lot of pushback because there always is in higher education an administrator or aspect that does not welcome change. I think that a lot of good can come out in the circumstance that we find us in.

“The institutions who are still working on the margins without figuring out the next semester are going to have to create a new structure. If there is resistance to the reimagined university, administrators who think they can simply rework or tweak their system will be, I think,

the biggest losers.”

In the reimagined university, you talk about the critical role of a chief innovation officer. How does someone like this work in HEIs versus in the corporate world?

MD: Well, many of the people reading this interview have all participated in strategic plans one through 10, which to me are archaic now. They have no value. The chief innovation officer is somebody who is not necessarily part of the strategic planning but is part of and heads what I call the vision planning committee. They can think out of the box and without a box because of something that I call horizon thinking, who can take the current trends and project how their particular institution can get ahead of those trends and somebody who brings in a disparate route of college administrators into a vision committee.


I say this to schools as I’m consulting with them: think from the end. What do you want your institution to look like at the end of this pandemic? Or maybe not even at the end of this pandemic. Again, I believe that there are always these residuals with this virus among us. How we manage them is something else entirely, but the chief innovation officer should always be looking ahead, looking for new trends that can be translated to market value for the institution.

What is the chief innovation officer’s likely background?

MD: It is a person who is considered, up to this point, too erratic or unfit for the mold of the typical administrative person. Somebody who, when they speak, doesn’t just parrot the party line. But they are also either a teacher, a researcher, or an administrator who is constantly looking ahead and coming up with recommendations that their chief officer can take up to the chain of command and, eventually, reality.

Do you think every campus institution has it in them to actually innovate in different ways possible? Is there room to be innovative, especially in the time of crisis?

MD: What is happening right now will get the presidents, the chancellors, or vice chancellors to do something dramatic. There’s a wonderful quote from T.S. Elliot: “Last year’s words belong to last year’s language. And next year’s words await another voice.” The time has come for the reimagined university to become that new language. We can’t go back to what was because it doesn’t exist anymore.


Do I think every school has that ability? I think every school should, but do I think all of them will? No. It could only happen if CFOs start saying so, and we’re now seeing that happen more and more. I keep a list of schools that are furloughing employees and budgets. That list includes schools with large endowments like Stanford University in California, and it’s inevitable.


I find it kind of foolish when I read the international student population will be down by 25 percent by fall. How do we know that? Where is that number coming from? Where is that percentage coming from? Here’s a percentage that I pay more attention to: the IMF said that the world’s economy would shrink 4.9 percent. Now, what does that mean for higher education? There will be less money floating globally and in people’s pocket books and less desire to send students thousands of miles away to an expensive school, college, or university. That’s the statistics that a chief innovation officer would tell their researcher.

Many lower middle class families from developing countries have turned into single-income households because of the pandemic. Do you think these students have a chance or predisposition of returning to their host countries?

MD: I do, I really do. I wouldn’t paint it with a broad brush, but I believe a great percentage of Indian students are saying they will wait for a year and take their courses in India while seeing how the situation will get resolved. 


The problem with student mobility is not new, but right now, the shifts are happening for a number of reasons. Asian, sub-Asian, and African countries have been spending a great deal of money on educational hardware and infrastructure, and it’s starting to show.


Those countries are rising in all of the rankings, especially with what’s happening in a lot of Western countries. In the UK, you have Brexit that has decimated, to some extent, the amount of money that the government has put on higher education. In the U.S., state governments are at their limit, so what are they doing? They are giving less and less money to their flagship public institutions. 


In recently published rankings, the U.S. went down a number of places because of the lack of funding and research. How can they compete with one quarter of the world where education is getting better and better?


It is also getting safer to be in one’s home country or close to one’s home country, especially compared to the amount of money that has to be spent going to the West. So, if I were a student in that situation, I would choose to hunker down for a year and see where things are at the end of it.

How essential is technology for survival and growth in the post-pandemic higher education environment?

MD: You can’t manage without it, and that was already true before the pandemic. Technology has changed the way education will be delivered forever. Forget about the negatives about moving courses online; online education, for any kind of student, will play a significant role. It will not be the same as traditional classroom settings, but given the circumstance, technology is a worthy companion to our current educational paradigm.

Have you always been a believer of the wonders of online instruction?

MD: No, not at all. There’s a lot of controversy about the quality; you simply can’t put online what you offer in person. It’s a different experience, but given the time we are in, doesn’t it make sense to combine online and in-person learning rather than do nothing? 


Here’s a good example: Pennsylvania’s Haverford University, which I’m very fond of, has decided to open in the fall with very innovative plans. It’s a small school, so they plan to socially distance kids in the classroom by only bringing in the freshmen and the seniors on campus, while the sophomores and the juniors have their classes online. I think that is very creative because it captures that incoming class who have said, “We accepted Haverford, but we thought we were accepting an in-person experience.” They’ve found a way to still do that. Next to the freshmen, the seniors also want to get out. They need to successfully become alumni and work on getting into graduate schools or the workforce.


There’s another area where I think online can be helpful. A gap year with an attached internship can help students earn academic credit while waiting to see what happens with the virus and school acceptance. That way, they can get work experience and move forward academically, if their school is organized enough to bring in accessible career counselling.

“Students are going to be telling you what they want …a personalized service that will be radically different from what we know.”

As for student experience, how will it change and what can we do to salvage the best parts of it from before the pandemic?

MD: Students will be the greatest beneficiary of the pandemic because schools will be forced to truly customize their educational experience, from admissions and registration to financing. In my opinion, academic programs and schedules have not been enforced with the student in mind, rather the convenience of the faculty or classroom use. It is time to start treating students as customers, which is a whole different mindset.

Are programs in the post-pandemic world going to be led more by supply or demand?

MD: I think they are going to be demand-led and students are going to be telling you what they want. They will go to the schools that meet their needs and will not go to the schools that do not meet their needs.


Imagine this scenario: you have an applicant with all the qualifications for admission. Why should that applicant have to wait until later to find out if they have been accepted? Why can’t they know as soon as they complete the process? Then the registrar comes in to present freshman courses, followed by the financial aid person who talks about scholarship and grant eligibility depending on the requirements.


The process is long and often requires many officials, but always to minimum results from students. What I’m trying to convey is a personalized service that will be radically different from what we know. 

Are Asian universities, with their increasing quality and global rankings, a threat to the international enrollment of Western universities?

MD: Absolutely, that’s where things are currently headed. As the years go on and educational infrastructure improves in Asian countries, it is only going to get more pronounced that there are better universities in different parts of the world. 


Right now, the U.S. has 22 percent of all the international students in the world. The UK has 11 percent while China has 8 percent – but even then, China has half a million students studying in their campuses right now, and that success was earned over years of work. Singapore, Malaysia, South Africa, Taiwan, and South Korea all have excellent international educational structures, and they can offer students something that Western countries currently cannot. 

Within the context of innovation, adapting, and welcoming change, who will be the biggest casualties in higher education?

MD: The institutions who are still working on the margins without figuring out the next semester are going to have to create a new structure. If there is resistance to the reimagined university, administrators who think they can simply rework or tweak their system will be, I think, the biggest losers.


The second biggest losers would be schools with little or no endowment. The third will be institutions with little to no brand recognition. The fourth biggest losers will be institutions that have faculties and administrators who are rigid and unwilling to aim for something other than the past. Ultimately, the losers are those with the inability to be strategic and flexible.


And another thing: we can no longer dictate customers. Right now, they are dictated to by the virus, and we need to listen to them. We have no control like we used to because they are needed more than ever. Things like structure class schedules from Monday to Friday and SAT and ACT tests are all done, and I don’t think we will ever require those again. 

How should institutions seek opportunities presented by COVID-19?

MD: Political and economic disruptions are going to impact international student mobility, and they will be forced to abandon archaic business models and be less dependent on the international student supply chain. It takes courage and the right leaders to empower a chief innovation officer to come up with new ideas into plausible programs.


Look at different models, such as your students who never graduated. Why not contact them about whether they would want to continue and finish their education? Perhaps they’ve been working at a particular job for a number of years, and you can reward some academic credit based on that. Who would have ever thought of that?

About Marguerite J. Dennis

Currently running her own consultancy, she  started a stellar career in international recruiting at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. and then at Suffolk University in Boston, Massachusetts. During that time, she established a branch campus for Suffolk in Dakar, Senegal, and Madrid in Spain; grew its international student population by up to 193%; signed agreements in as far as Vietnam, Hong Kong, Kuwait, and Argentina; and tracked the institution’s recruitment programs in 20 countries. Ms. Dennis is the author of six books on higher education, two on its trends, and more than 200 articles on higher education. You may reach her at margueritedennis@gmail.com.


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