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What Is The Future Of Work In Higher Education?


Irma Becerra is president of Marymount University, a comprehensive doctoral-granting university known for its innovative curriculum.

As a technologist and a university president, I often think about the future of the academe. I’ve had many discussions with colleagues, both academics and not, about what the future holds for our sector. Will it remain as we have known it for the past 500 years, or will higher learning be transformed into online education?

Because of my training as a knowledge management scholar, I understand learning occurs not only via students’ listening and internalizing knowledge made explicit by the professor, but also by tacit knowledge exchanges via experiential learning. For students, I’ve found learning becomes “sticky,” meaning it stays with them forever, when it includes student-professor exchanges, community engagement and peer-to-peer experiences.

During the 2020 lockdown, our students, faculty and staff immediately felt the difference in the absence of community. One of my “aha moments” from the pandemic was discovering that our students didn’t like learning remotely. While some students prefer online learning, many students complained about unwanted distractions in remote learning, lower academic performance and a deep feeling of isolation when we surveyed them. Compared to our typical immersive learning environment, those months lacked the space for lively and vital conversations that foster new friendships.

Once students were back on campus, the administration soon faced a new challenge: figuring out the future of work at our institution. The Great Resignation would see a record 47.4 million Americans quit their jobs in 2021, and Marymount University was not immune to this new reality.

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Talent drain is frustrating for any leader, but it brings the added threat of destabilizing an organization during a global pandemic. As remote learning brought difficulties to students’ educational pursuits, so, too, could a campus life lacking in essential staff. Colleges and universities, much like any organization, need to find concrete solutions to retain valued employees while attracting new talent to fill vacancies. How can institutions protect the vibrant and connected community on campus while satisfying new work demands?

As leaders in higher education, we must encourage our faculty, staff and students to accept that radical change is the new normal. The reality is that flexible work arrangements bring benefits and enhance the quality of life for workers while also bringing challenges to campus life. Years ago, when I was a young engineer in industry and a mother, I would have welcomed and never imagined that remote work would be a possibility!

Our new normal is finding ways to get things done, while we grow as a community emboldened in a quest to embrace change. I always remind my students that in every obstacle, there is a valuable lesson. To succeed today, they must learn to meet change head-on and pave their way confidently toward a rapidly shifting global workforce.

With creative and innovative strategies, leaders in higher education can create a community that best meets the changing needs of the students while also supporting employee flexibility. Keeping everyone “in-the-know” in remote environments requires carefully thought out communication strategies, including podcasts, newsletters, blogs and social media; these are all great tools for keeping everyone informed.

Leaders should provide firm guidance and the space needed for students as they take bold steps to propel themselves forward in their quest for knowledge. Additionally, leaders should avoid assuming a diverse student body will experience or react similarly to the new normal. Therefore, it is crucial to provide a range of resources and support services to meet the needs of all students.

I found many students have been vocal about their need for a well-staffed university. Undoubtedly, I believe the college experience is all the richer with the presence of professors, coaches, librarians and a dining hall staff ready to offer support and the necessary services. Fortunately, many of my faculty and staff agree on the essential need to be present on campus. These employees feel that face-to-face communication and personal interactions matter. After all, tacit-to-tacit knowledge exchanges from interactions and collaboration can fuel innovation and creativity. The organic exchange of a spontaneous conversation often leads to new perspectives and discoveries. These knowledge-sharing exchanges propel teams and benefit organizational performance: scheduled Zoom meetings, emails and text messages do not always come close to meeting the crucial need for team communication.

Leaders in higher education must find solutions to keep their talent today. Offering tuition reimbursement or professional development opportunities through webinars, conferences and workshops is a great start. Also, never underestimate the power of encouragement—let your hardworking employees know how much their contributions are appreciated. Leaders must also create an environment that supports creativity and risk-taking, encouraging employees to take on new challenges, experiment with new ideas and develop innovative solutions. Evaluate programs and services, and make changes as required. Embracing new technologies and innovations can help improve workflow and better serve students.

There are many factors to consider when it comes to the evolution of higher education. Leaders must weigh the needs of on-campus students against the desires of workers for flexibility and remote work. While I approach our future of work with great hesitation, I know many positions will require flexibility if we intend to fill positions. We are analyzing which positions will need to be worked in person (e.g., campus safety, facilities management) and which may allow for remote work (IT, online education). In addition, to incentivize new hires and retain our valued employees at Marymount University, we are in the process of designing an in-house leadership program.

Now is the perfect time for university leaders to use your expertise to mentor a new generation of leaders. As employees make strides in reaching their dreams, we will remind them how the Great Resignation turned an obstacle into an extraordinary opportunity for them to realize a better tomorrow.

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