Elaine Maimon considers the fundamental shifts necessary for higher education to survive the devastating effects of COVID-19 in our latest Q & A. For the last 24 years, Dr. Elaine Maimon has led three public university campuses–Governors State, University of Alaska-Anchorage, and Arizona State University West. Today she serves as Advisor at the American Council on Education (ACE). She is a recognized authority on change leadership, author of the book Leading Academic Change: Vision, Strategy, Transformation (Stylus 2018), and author of the recent Inside Higher Ed article From Triage to Transformation.


With many universities and colleges making significant budget cuts and others on the verge of closing under pressure from the pandemic, how is transformation possible?

Elaine Maimon: Times of upheaval can and should accelerate transformation. As we deal with the trifecta of disease, racial reckoning, and economic crisis, we have to seriously examine doing things differently. They say doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is a sign of insanity. We need to reform and revise. “Revise” means, literally, to see something again in a new way. Now is the time to take a new look at health care, media, hospitality, grade school education through grad school — you name it. 

What is the first priority for change in higher education?

Elaine Maimon: Universities and colleges across the nation—elite privates, public flagships, regional publics, and community colleges—must recognize that we are educating a New Majority—first-generation, students of color, adults, and military veterans. This New Majority includes rural students, most of whom are included in the first-generation category.

As an aside, I’ll always remember a conversation with an Illinois philanthropist on the morning after the 2016 election. He asked, “Elaine, what are you doing for your rural students?” My answer: “Clearly not enough.”

I see universities and colleges planning layoffs based on the diminishing number of traditional-age, middle-class urban and suburban students. That population is decreasing and will continue to decrease. On the other hand, students who are the first in their families to aspire to college, many of whom are students of color, are growing in number. Millions of adults have some college and no degree. Military veterans have acquired new skills during their national service and want to integrate these learnings into formally recognized degrees. All these groups have been traditionally marginalized. They are now the majority of college students—a New Majority. We must find ways—and find them soon—to address their needs. The most important reason for doing so is to stop squandering human capital. The nation needs this New Majority in our civic and cultural life and in an educated workforce. For colleges and universities, there is also a pragmatic reason for better serving the New Majority—increased enrollment. It’s time to expand investment from the usual competition for middle-class traditional age students to active, imaginative recruitment of the New Majority.

What is a specific strategy for this new approach to recruitment?

Elaine Maimon: One highly productive idea would be a new way of thinking about partnerships between community colleges and four-year institutions. Vast numbers of first-generation, students of color, adults, and military veterans begin higher education at their local community college. Most aspire to transferring and completing a four-year degree at a university or not-for-profit private college, but only 13% make it through. Universities and four-year colleges continue to think that articulation agreements are enough. No doubt these paper pathways are necessary, but they are not even close to being sufficient. A major culture change is necessary. Universities must connect with students while they attend community colleges. And that connection should be focused on students’ best interests, advising them on identifying and fulfilling their educational goals, rather than on university recruitment. The community college partnerships that I have designed and implemented encourage university advisors to provide information about several four-year options, helping students decide on the institution best for them. That may seem impractically altruistic. But I always reference the famous scene in the classic Christmas movie “Miracle on Thirty-Fourth Street’’ in which Kris Kringle sends families to Gimbels when Macy’s doesn’t have the toy. Macy’s doesn’t lose from that. Similarly, when university advisors listen to students and provide multiple options that fit their needs, the university employing those advisors does not lose.

What are the chances that these kinds of university/community college partnerships will happen?

Elaine Maimon:  There’s good news and bad news. The bad news can be summed up by what I call The Maimon Hierarchical Fallacy. It goes like this: If I work at a university and you work at a community college, I must be smarter than you. That snobbism runs deep and gets in the way of true partnerships. It’s important for university and community college faculty and staff members to develop respectful relationships. That can and should start now. 

The good news is that we can learn from excellent models. I refer readers to this guidebook on developing partnerships.The Kresge Foundation sponsored publication of the guide and the forward-looking partnership program it represents. It’s a high priority at Kresge to scale these kinds of partnerships nationally. The American Council on Education (ACE) also is demonstrating national leadership on the issue. The ACE Task Force on Transfer on rethinking transfer from community colleges to universities and transfer in general. These national organizations highlight the special importance of engaged, cross-institutional advising and peer mentoring. We also are seeing national leadership on encouraging community college students to complete the associate degree at the community college before transferring. What used to be counter-intuitive is beginning to be seen as one of the best ways to develop clear pathways to a bachelor’s degree. Research is mounting to show that community college students who complete associate degrees are more likely to complete bachelor’s degrees.

What other reforms are necessary as higher education battles the economic impact of COVID19?

Elaine Maimon: Higher education must develop new ways of defining leadership.  Rethinking remediation is vital. Educators should strive to build on the success of writing across the curriculum by integrating racial understanding into the entire curriculum. Ph.D. programs in the humanities must be radically revised so that we do not continue to grow our own problems. I address these challenges in my book, “Leading Academic Change.’’

You may also like...