Amid a pandemic crisis characterized by stay-at-home orders and travel restrictions, the leader of the career center at Stony Brook University describes its fallout with an unexpected word: freedom.

“Think about students who carry all kinds of assumptions about what they’re supposed to be or what they’re supposed to do, whether it’s a parental influence or societal influence,” said Marianna Savoca, assistant vice president for career development and experiential education at Stony Brook, a State University of New York campus located on Long Island. “Disruption means you have a really wonderful excuse to try something different. That’s freedom, and for some students, that can relieve some of the stress on their shoulders.”

The pandemic also has brought some unexpected freedom to the Stony Brook Career Center: freedom to accelerate virtual networking opportunities. To engage employers that seemed out of reach when internships and career fairs had to be in-person. Even freedom to at last get access to Zoom, which had been on the center’s wish list.

At hundreds of higher education institutions around the country, the pandemic emergency forced leaders to realign priorities, invest in technology, rethink academic courses, and reassess how campus services such as academic and career advising would function in the short-term.

But now that postpandemic days are inching closer, can colleges and universities harness those changes to ensure COVID-19 wasn’t just a challenging speed bump, but an on-ramp to a better model for higher education? Can the physical and digital worlds be combined not only for instruction but for student services and the campus workforce as well?

“We’re all trying to figure out how to do more in the same amount of time,” said Jeff Selingo, a New York Times bestselling author and co-author of “The Hybrid Campus: Three Major Shifts for the Post-COVID University,” a new report from Deloitte and Strada Education Network. “And I think this idea of a hybrid education, not just inside the classroom but outside the classroom, can enable us to do that.”

The report presents the challenges of COVID-19 as a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” and encourages leaders to lasso the “burst of innovation” that sprang from the past year. “We’ve got a lot of work to do in breaking down silos,” said Deloitte’s Cole Clark, managing director of the higher education group and a co-author of the report. “Some of that got done as a function of the emergency that we just went through this past spring and summer.”

Selingo and Clark joined institution leaders Maurie McInnis, Stony Brook University president, and Marni Baker Stein, Western Governors University provost, to discuss this transitional time in a recent Strada webinar moderated by Strada Senior Vice President of National Engagement Ben Wildavsky, “The Hybrid Campus: A Postpandemic Vision of Higher Education.”

The report breaks down the shift to a hybrid campus into three main categories: academic affairs, student success, and the campus workforce. It provides nearly three dozen actionable steps institutions can consider as they look toward a hybrid model, presenting the advice not as a prescriptive checklist but as “prompts to drive discussion and new ideas.”

Those steps range from the basic, such as providing greater wifi access on campus and supporting internet connectivity at home, to the broad and strategic, such as re-examining what is “core” to the institution’s function versus what can be outsourced.

Even veterans in all-online instruction — such as Western Governors, which was founded in 1997 — learned lessons during the pandemic. The crisis took a toll on a critical infrastructure Stein called “a 360-degree community of care,” which includes a mentor assigned to each student and a team of academic advisers, student services personnel, and others who work together to bolster student success.

“COVID just hit our community of care hard, and we have learned a lot. There’s still much more that we can do for students as this world that they’re living in becomes more complex, with COVID and beyond,” Stein said in the webinar. “We’ve realized that is really part of the work as well. We’ve really had to even disrupt our own model to figure out what it’s going to take into the future to make sure that every student gets the success that they’re looking for out of their education.”

At Stony Brook, Savoca explained, the career center already was moving toward more virtual events in the months and years before the pandemic, all in an effort to support alumni’s career success and help current students seamlessly network with alumni. “The pivot was so easy — we basically flipped the switch,” Savoca said. “It was like we’d been preparing for this all along.”

President McInnis said she will look to input from Stony Brook students, faculty, and staff to discern where technology enhances their work and where it encumbers it. But she said moving forward with a clear vision for how the hybrid campus of the future will function will require leadership at the top levels of the university.

“We’ve all had the way that we work and engage in our roles turned upside down at this moment — all faculty, all students, all staff, all of us in America. Our lives have been changed,” McInnis said.

“I do think it’s also going to take focused conversation led by leadership to make sure that we know why and where we are going because otherwise it would just be scattershot, and I don’t know if it would have the same impact,” McInnis continued. “I think we need to be clear on what we want to accomplish.”

 At Stony Brook University, the pandemic forced into action many changes administrators had already been considering. CREDIT: John Griffin / Stony Brook University