Institutional transformation in a pandemic


In March, when the Wayne County Community College District (WCCCD) in Detroit was faced with the sudden and unprecedented total shutdown of college operations caused by the onset of the COVID pandemic, the Design Center of WCCCD went into high gear to facilitate and orchestrate the work of district leaders in rapid-fire adaptations and innovations that transformed its programs, services and operations.   

Chancellor Curtis Ivery created the Design Center in 2015 to serve as the district’s innovation and entrepreneurial epicenter, and its role in expediting the achievement of enterprise-level innovations has intensified during the pandemic. During this turbulent period, the center has worked with district and campus leaders in designing and facilitating the building blocks of WCCCD’s COVID-19 comprehensive plan of work. This plan comprised seven stages, from the urgent response, to the abrupt onset of the COVID-19 crisis, to the phased reopening of the campuses and the reimagining of WCCCD’s post-COVID-19 strategies.

Related article: ‘Design thinking’ for large-scale change

At the onset of COVID-19, WCCCD leaders faced and responded to several major challenges:

  • An emergency response to the immediate impact of COVID-19 on students and employees.
  • Orchestrating the total shutdown of WCCCD in a matter of hours.
  • Pivoting quickly from primarily face-to-face modalities of instructional delivery to alternative online and virtual modalities.
  • Developing student and employee health and safety protocols.
  • Dramatically expanding 24/7 online student support services (admissions, advising, financial aid, new student orientation, student life, etc.)
  • Developing a remote management network (leading and working from home).
  • Scenario planning — anticipating the various possible trajectories of the COVID-19.
  • Anticipating the potential losses in student tuition, state aid and property tax revenues.
  • Planning of the phased reopening of campus buildings and operations.

Preparing for long-term changes

In addition to the immediate challenges, WCCCD leaders soon recognized that COVID-19 was ushering a period of institutional transformation that would have a long-term impact on the district’s programs, services and operations. A new balance of online and on-campus learning was emerging, and the expanded use of technology would impact all WCCCD and campus functions. 

Recognizing that the response to COVID-19 required new ways of thinking in all district and campus functions, the executive team launched the New Day, New Way initiative.  In addition to advancing agility and resilience in all college functions, the initiative included a major communications and marketing campaign to assure the students, businesses, and communities served that WCCCD was a healthy and safe place to study and work, and that creative virtual and on-campus approaches were in place for the continuity of programs and services. Chancellor Ivery stated, “The New Day, New Way initiative has given voice to the creativity, resolve and ingenuity of our students, faculty and staff; the entire WCCCD family has worked together to adapt in a proactive way to the new realities we face.” 

What has WCCCD learned thus far from the COVID-19 experience?

  • Leadership matters. WCCCD leaders exhibited the agility and creativity to respond quickly to the urgency of the pandemic. At the same time, leaders were alert to the lessons learned from the crisis and included reimagining WCCCD in the post-COVID-19 era in their comprehensive strategy.
  • Having an enterprise-level innovation resource matters. The Design Center was a key resource for Chancellor Ivery, the executive team, faculty members and the district staff in orchestrating, facilitating, and communicating the district-wide COVID-19 strategy.
  • Shared purpose matters. Regular communications from Chancellor Ivery expressed his appreciation to faculty and staff who were leading and serving WCCCD in these challenging and uncertain times with courage, resilience, agility, a shared sense of purpose and an outlook for a bright future.

About the Author

Gunder Myran
is a senior consultant to the chancellor of the Wayne County Community College District in Michigan.