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  • German A. Ramirez and Monica L. Gonzalez

What Higher Ed Leaders Can Learn from the Stoics

“What is the fruit of these [Stoic] teachings? Only the most beautiful and proper harvest of the truly educated-tranquility, fearlessness and freedom.” Epictetus

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to pound the world, individuals and organizations struggle to discern what the final impact on higher education will be. To grapple with such uncertainty, we suggest tapping into the rich source of wisdom coming from Stoicism—the Greek action-oriented philosophical school whose practical lessons have stood over time. Its ageless insights can be a source of inspiration for academic and business leaders who are facing intense pressure while trying to keep afloat their institutions. We believe that individuals in leadership roles will find in it the serenity, self-knowledge and reliance to continue navigating through these turbulent times.

And although the teachings of Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus and Seneca are mostly relevant at the individual level, its applicability can also be extended to organizations at large. We think that the following pointers—selected and freely adapted from the main Stoic masters-- can contribute to lasting personal balance and institutional success.

  • An institution’s path should be both self-coherent and virtuous. The emphasis placed on being true to the mission, vision and values that inspired its creation, while always aiming at society’s highest good. Afterall, colleges and universities are unique assets that transcend its formal ownership structures and “belong” to the communities they serve.

  • Reexamine and reaffirm your guiding principles—the distinctive set of values that sets apart your institution in the marketplace. They have likely contributed to reaching the position you are at today, and will likely continue to do so in the future. Don’t forego them unnecessarily because of fear and pressure to survive.

  • Constantly read the environment and validate your assumptions. The landscape is changing fast in unseen and unpredictable ways, so it’s imperative to stay attentive monitoring all the pertinent signs coming from its constituents, regulators and the market in general.

  • Recognize and value the affinity of the different parts to the organic whole and its mutual interdependence. Colleges and universities are complex, multidimensional organizations. If properly harnessed, the talent and creative energy of its core constituencies— faculty, staff, students and alumni—can contribute to successfully overcoming the crisis and emerging strengthened from it.

  • Be disciplined and follow a plan, but allow for enough flexibility in light of uncertainty. Aim at fully understanding the situation, specifically your institution’s current status and foreseen trajectory. In case of noticeable deviation versus plan, be ready to create alternative paths that are consistent and coherent with the desired objectives.

  • Prior to taking action, model your proposed course of action and closely monitor its expected results. Take advantage of all available data and analytics tools to simulate scenarios and decide upon those that may yield the most beneficial outcomes.

  • Define clearly what you desire and what to avoid. Normally opting for the best alternatives available when facing unavoidable trade-offs; for example: Keep or cancel non-critical capex projects? Maintain or close one or more programs, departments, schools and campuses? Keep or let go faculty and staff? Stick to traditional classroom instruction or implement blended, hybrid or fully online teaching models? Keep in-house or outsource non-essential services?

  • Assess what is inside and what is outside of your control, and act accordingly. Things beyond your influence, simply are and shouldn’t be a source of anxiety. You can’t direct what happens; you can only manage how you respond. And it is plenty!

  • Be attentive, diligent and sober in allocating your valuable resources of people, time and capital. In this unchartered territory, where nothing resembles what it used to be, no one can say “…been there, done this.” The unquestionable abnormality of the circumstances most institutions are facing, highlight the need for being, at the same time, careful and open minded.

  • Even though strategy is paramount, execution and follow up are crucial. Focus on the here and now, and particularly on what needs to be solved urgently. Make every hour and every day count. It will ensure you are not overrun by an unsurmountable list of pending issues.

  • Cultivate your key constituencies- faculty, staff, students, alumni and community. They are all an intrinsic part of the organization. It is particularly during prolonged challenging times that you’ll be fortunate to count on their loyalty and support.

Nota bene: Regardless of the circumstances, we must all keep going, and as Marcus Aurelius points, “...straight for the finish line, unswerving.”

Photo by Mark König on Unsplas

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