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Lessons from higher ed on organizational strategy

Learn about the 4 pillars of organizational strategy that TCS Education System relies on and what higher education -- and any organization -- can learn from them.

5 min read

EducationEducational Leadership

Photo of a classroom for article on higher ed organizational strategy


America’s higher education sector faces enormous and well-documented challenges that have only been exacerbated by the pandemic. Declining enrollments, growing financial stress, the move to remote or hybrid learning and shifting cultural mores among students have meant that innovation and transformation are required for many struggling colleges to survive and thrive.

And yet, while the stakes have never been higher, the willingness among many leaders to embrace new models remains a barrier.

Like most organizations, the TCS Education System community has faced new challenges at a previously unimaginable scale in recent years. Our central core value of radical cooperation was pushed to its fullest expression as we worked to equip our leaders with the tools and resources necessary to advance institutional and student success.

With the risk of higher education burnout and leadership turnover continuing to rise, a strong organizational strategy and shared-resource model is a proven way to empower college leaders to focus on supporting the needs of their faculty and, in turn, their students. Let’s look at four areas.

Radical cooperation

Our experience shows that higher education institutions can succeed by breaking down silos and coming together to share institutional wisdom and resources.

The TCS system was conceived around the idea that collaboration, not competition, is the key to institutional success and sustainability. Under the TCS model, we offer shared resources to our member colleges for enrollment services, academic operations, strategic planning, marketing, IT and more, so that they can focus exclusively on optimizing student outcomes and success.

In turn, each college brings its own unique institutional perspective to the system, making us all stronger.

The results speak for themselves. During a period when many colleges have been cutting back or even closing, our System has grown. This collaborative model was also instrumental in helping launch the Kansas College of Osteopathic Medicine, the first and only osteopathic medical school in Kansas, which will open its doors to students this fall.

Our team’s expertise in building local partner collaboration and overcoming financial and regulatory hurdles was key to bringing this longstanding vision to life. KansasCOM will positively impact the national health care landscape by adding to America’s pool of much-needed physicians while also benefiting the Kansas health care system and the state’s rural communities for decades to come.

Risk mitigation

Anticipating and responding to risk is an essential leadership attribute during periods of intense change, and it’s important that as leaders, we embrace problem-solving by leaning into our collective community of experts. Organizations can reduce their risk by building a culture that fosters sharing of wisdom and expertise by internal leaders.

At TCS, I host weekly one-on-one summits with our presidents to review the near-term challenges they’re facing and discuss ways of addressing them. In addition, our college presidents meet regularly to share perspectives about how they are responding to common challenges.

These processes enable us to foster a collaborative culture that strengthens each college’s ability to be sustainable and adaptable in response to a rapidly changing landscape.

Continuous improvement

Many college administrators do not take sufficient time to sit down and examine their organizations through a critical lens. At TCS, we follow a disciplined process of evaluating the performance of every president, including myself, as part of our annual goal-setting project for each college and the system overall.

My role as president is tied closely to organizational strategy outcomes, and we’re constantly evaluating our performance against our ultimate vision and strategic plan. The board plays a functional role in this process as well.

This focus on continuous improvement — grounded in measurement, benchmarking, auditing and re-evaluating, ideation and innovation — creates an architecture for operational excellence that yields significant rewards.

Leadership continuity

Changes in leadership within any organization can put institutional knowledge and cultural stewardship at risk. Within higher education, where college presidents might remain in their role for 10 years or more, it’s an even greater potential for detrimental outcomes.

At TCS, we have built an organization based on vertical integration, in which next-level leaders work closely with those above them, gaining significant exposure to senior-level priorities and learning ways of working.

This model recently benefited the organization when a senior officer at one of our colleges announced his intent to leave. Our system’s chief academic officer was able to immediately step in and assume the role in a seamless fashion on an interim basis.

When the stakes are as high as they have ever been for many organizations, sharing resources and coming together as leaders to support each other helps push everyone to their fullest potential and ensures a more resilient organization.

I challenge all organizations to consider how they can structure themselves to build on the collective expertise of their leaders and benchmark their performance against measurable outcomes.

Michael Horowitz, Ph.D., is the president and founder of TCS Education System, an integrated, nonprofit system that works collaboratively to advance institutional sustainability, student success, and community impact. TCS’ educational partners include The Chicago School of Professional Psychology, Pacific Oaks College & Children’s School, Saybrook University, The Colleges of Law, and the Kansas College of Osteopathic Medicine. In the TCS model, each university maintains their unique identity but also benefit from the larger network of support, a true “Community Solution.” 

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