Collaboration: A benefit for colleges during COVID-19


In this abridged transcript of their conversation, TCS President Michael Horowitz, Ph.D., discusses the state of higher ed amid the coronavirus pandemic with Nathan Long, Ed.D., president of affiliate partner Saybrook University, for the university’s Insight podcast.

nathanlongDr. Long: A psychologist by education, a businessman through experience, and a visionary in the field of higher education, Dr. Horowitz has a unique combination of skills, passion, and confidence to bring revolutionary ideas to life. Dr. Horowitz, welcome to the podcast. What got you into higher education? And what are the things that get you up in the morning that excite you?

Dr. Horowitz: By education I am a clinical psychologist. I got my Ph.D. at Northwestern University Medical School back in 1986. There were many powerful impacts in my education there. One was the realization that psychology could offer so much more to the world if it was unleashed beyond the confines of a medical center. In a medical setting, of course, psychology is critical there, but it struck me that there were so many other avenues of the world—schools, or communities, or court systems—where psychology as a profession could advance the public good so much more than that limited context.

drhThere was beginning work at the time in extending the work of psychology and mental health into our communities, and I really was struck by how limited the old paradigm was of one patient, one practitioner, one room. Some of my work during graduate school was in what was called the Emergency Housing Program where we had chronically mentally ill in the community and trying to get them back into the workforce and taking a much broader view of their troubles.

That really got me on the road to getting excited about independent schools of professional psychology, which started in the 1960s and steered my career in that direction, and also the idea that we had to take psychology to a community level to find out what community is needed and wanted rather than prescribing it from a kind of expert platform.

Dr. Long: The emergency housing piece is really fascinating. You talked a little bit about how that bridged into the work and the opportunities you saw in higher education. What was most meaningful about those sets of experiences as you engage with that community?

Dr. Horowitz: The notion that listening could take place at a broader—at a community—level rather than one person at a time, which had been the paradigm. Also, once you started doing programs like that emergency housing program—by its very nature—you learn to cooperate with so many different key players. We were using converted SRO hotels as the housing. You had to coordinate with medical, psychiatric, and psychological staff. You had to coordinate with jobs programs in the city. You had to deal with neighbors who were concerned about bringing a program like that into their community. It was a powerful lesson in what we today call at TCS “radical cooperation.”

I was listening to a news story about how some governments are trying to create kind of an arms race around who’s going to get the treatment and vaccinations for COVID-19 first. Whereas the world’s scientific community is unanimously opposed to that idea and want to advance our global community by sharing scientific experiments and results in real time. I’m certainly rooting for that approach.

Dr. Long: The former only has negative outcomes for millions of people. And to your point, our failure to cooperate will only lead to more suffering and death. I read that same article this morning in the New York Times and was just really profoundly affected by the fact that these scientists are really pushing for that collaborative approach to solving the problem.

Dr. Horowitz: That became sort of the fundamental awareness as I served as president of The Chicago School of Professional Psychology. Just as we were having great success by launching new psychology programs into our communities with community support and input, then perhaps we could change the paradigm of higher ed by linking distinct yet like-minded college communities together to create something much better for everybody. That led to the creation of TCS, and we’re proud to have six outstanding institutions as part of that community today.

Dr. Long: With respect to TCS Education System, the system itself is unique for a number of reasons not least of which is that it’s a partnership model rooted in the idea that through cooperation and collaboration we all do better. All of us doing better ultimately means we’re serving students in the best possible way. What are a few thoughts from you on the system model? What really makes this distinctive from some of the state system models or the nonprofit system models that might be out there as well?

Dr. Horowitz: I think at the moment we’re truly distinct. I hope that many will copy us because I don’t think there’s any harm in having multiple systems like ours. What is profoundly different about ours is that it’s a formally governed model where a college board votes to affiliate to our system, adopts a different governance model using a dual-board structure, and voluntarily chooses to be part of this broader system. It has such great power in so many different ways. Just as you are president of Saybrook University, you’re part of the leadership team of TSC Education System. As we’ve experienced in the last few weeks where we’ve had leadership calls of our Presidents’ Council, we get the benefit of seven presidents—of the six colleges and universities and myself—brainstorming together, working with our other leaders to do the best for everybody.

My observation, having been in higher ed now for a good 30 years, is that when you don’t formalize the structures, when you just say it’s a membership organization or it’s a common interest organization, you can exchange some interesting information, but it really doesn’t create the impetus for that deep radical cooperation. Once you’re all in, you start to exert, first of all, the power of creativity and people being in one family and one community. Those you don’t see on a spreadsheet or a budget, but it’s perhaps the most powerful element of our community.

Dr. Long: It strikes me that, especially in the day and age of COVID-19, you mentioned the President’s Council. That’s what we call the seven presidents and leaders and the very talented team of direct reports that you have at the system. How would you describe those interactions over the last three weeks in responding to this pandemic as it’s impacting or affecting our six institutions on the ground?

Dr. Horowitz: I’ve been so impressed with your leadership and that of our other presidents. Our community has been such a comfort. I have colleagues that are working in singular institutions without that community. It’s isolating, and it’s leading to huge levels of anxiety and sometimes panic.

We have been able to take our nearly 9,000 students and keep them humming, first of all, because of the great history and experience we have with distance education. But in many cases, we had ground programs where our community was able to quickly mobilize to a video option. We’ve been able to take 100% of our employees remote. When we get all together in a council, we’re 15 people all rowing in the same direction, sharing best practices. We have one IT leader that is collecting the issues and problems nationwide, so he in turn can mobilize his team of nearly 50. I think we’re just so far ahead of institutions that are operating on their own. My observation is our colleges have been able to move more rapidly over the time they’ve been in the system. Now it really pays off in a crisis.

Dr. Long: We’re starting to see institutions close, talk about closure, scrambling to get things online. In many respects, not all but many are really struggling to figure out how to make their way through this. From your perspective, what’s been the biggest takeaway regarding the impact COVID-19 is having on higher education in these first few weeks of the crisis?

Dr. Horowitz: I’ve seen so many institutions caught flat-footed. It’s impossible to shut your eyes to the outside world. I really learned that. That the more we can be outwardly focused, when you’re in our system model, we’re looking at each other in real time.

I see in a lot of higher ed now the reluctance to evolve, and boards and leadership teams having their head in the sand. So I think it’s going to be another round of shakeout. The institutions that embrace innovation in learning, use of technology, and hybrid education are going to keep advancing. Those who have learned to adopt a quicker pace are going to keep advancing, and others are going to fall away and contract.

Dr. Long: Do you have any predictions for the future of small colleges around the country? To the point  you’re making around failure to adapt or slowness in responses—will these colleges that are kind of borderline make it or not? Where do you see the impact going into the next year?

Dr. Horowitz: I think in the end of 2020 and early ‘21 we will see the rate of closures increase. This was a crisis that was already underway, and I think higher ed had the sense that it was immune to factors that impact the rest of the world. There are going to be many organizations—nonprofits and for-profits that close in all lines of business, but higher ed is going to see a quickening of consolidation and of closures.

Dr. Long: Saybrook, as many know, has been an online distance learning model for 50 years. We’re always thinking of ways to be innovative in the learning space and the teaching space. From your perspective as an academic leader, where do you see the biggest opportunities for innovation in online learning for our students going into the next year, especially with this pandemic? What kinds of things could open up that you see are really possible?

Dr. Horowitz: I hope that this is going to put the accelerator on for all faculty across higher ed to get comfortable with basic use of technology platforms. So many faculty—I don’t think at our institutions but in others—are still fearful about it, don’t have basic use. I think there’s going to be greater comfort.

I know we trended toward the asynchronous model because it works to coordinate across time zones and so on. I’m hoping that with some of the more creative use of synchronous education we will start to learn how to have interactive space and dialogue using these online platforms. As we noted with our Presidents’ Council, we had no choice but to facilitate an interactive meeting even though it’s taking place online. So I would start with those basics, and I’m hoping that the talented people that work for our system in instructional design and that who work at these software companies will increasingly give us better and better ways to interact. Certainly, I came from knowing nothing about it, so when it’s working well does seem like magic—the fact that we can quickly facilitate group meetings or video, that we can share information that students can record, programs that they can be given, exams to check their knowledge. All that is really good, and I hope that we see more and more.

Dr. Long: As we all know, what makes up higher education—our colleges and universities—are the people that come in every day to learn, to teach. What advice do you have for students, for our staff members, our faculty who might be suffering from anxiety given all this really seismic change that’s happening, not just nationally but globally?

Dr. Horowitz: You can’t discount the anxiety. I would say that in this tough time, don’t be deterred about continuing to study, learn, teach, and be connected. Don’t go down the rabbit hole of just looking at all the bad news. Keep your studies and your learning up and your connectivity, because we do have that to offer each other. And particularly for Saybrook and our other institutions, we have the ability to sustain our community.

Don’t let the pandemic stop you from advancing your education. This is going to pass, so this is the time to keep taking your courses, to keep planning next steps.

The world needs so many more of our graduates. Just think about Saybrook—whether it’s psychology, counseling, nutrition, social change agents. These are wonderful disciplines that, if anything, the pandemic is going to create a demand and need for more graduates of ours. I think in the face of crisis, let’s band together to keep our education going as strong as possible. That’s my commitment.