Crisis management was the daily theme for most higher education leaders throughout 2020.The first and most immediate crisis was caused by the coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) and the urgent change to limit or completely restrict in-person activities on our campuses. These changes quickly led to dramatic decreases in income and increases in expenses that produced major financial instabilities at our institutions. And then the murder of George Floyd happened, ushering in a global movement against racism and a racial reckoning throughout higher education. Over the past year, the first cohort of ACAD fellows, most of us new administrators, have had a trial-by-fire experience. We represent a range of different types of institutions and regions across the country. This article is a short summary of the lessons we learned and shared with one another in the area of crisis management; we hope it will provide useful and informative to our fellow ACAD members.
Communication was most effective when it came from the same reliable and official source with regularity and frequency. When communicating, it is imperative to understand existing constraints including things such as state/federal politics, union agreements, and federal grant regulations. These constraints will be different for public and private institutions. We all learned that rather than waiting for complete information, it was important to communicate, “We don’t know yet, but we are weighing these issues and will have an update for the community [on this date].”
Information gathering, from inside and outside of an institution, is central to effective communication. Reach out to colleagues at sister institutions, post questions on the ACAD listserv, and participate in webinars. These are all sources of knowledge and advice that can help inform and shape an institution’s response to a crisis.
Finally, make sure messaging is on point, delivered on time, and on target. Avoid creating a communication vacuum which is a breeding ground for rumor and speculation. Follow up religiously. Finally, remember that faculty and staff always have great ideas. Ask for feedback and remember to say thank you! A word of caution about weekend emails: unless it is a true emergency, use the delayed delivery option to allow people a break from email. Also, well-placed humor can make a stressful situation better. Try it!
Equity, Diversity, & Inclusion
The response to COVID-19 and the sudden shift to emergency remote learning in Spring 2020 exposed and exacerbated the discrepancies between the haves and have-nots on our campuses. Although of course we knew intellectually that our students come from households that span a wide spectrum of family incomes, the crisis made these differences starkly visible. Some of us had students who had access to strong and constant internet access and well-lit, private rooms in which they could comfortably access online streaming course content, and we also had students who could only access the internet intermittently on their cellphones,
sometimes from locations that were not private or secure. It became clear to each of us, as we helped to craft administrative responses and implement policy changes, that attention to equity needed to be central to all conversations and considerations. There was renewed attention on our campuses of the realities of anti-Blackness in response to the “Black Lives Matter” summer of 2020. The movement forced all of us to acknowledge and recommit to the importance of equity, diversity, and inclusion in higher education. The recognition that diversity and inclusion are not enough, and that the goal should be equity and justice, was an important insight as a result. Even though student activism was the spark that lit the fire illuminating attention on these issues, we all need to remember that it is the entire community (students, staff, faculty, alumni, and neighbors) who are affected.
Academic Standards & Student Support
Managing our academic standards and expanding student support in a remote environment were enormous challenges for colleges and universities. We found that centering the guiding principles of student-centered design, trauma-informed pedagogy, and racial literacy helped keep us focused on our priorities in this unique moment. For example, as we all scrambled to amend academic regulations, many schools made changes to those policies with less input from faculty and student leaders than usual. Consequently, some of the policies were less student-centered than they could have been or were hard to navigate. Many universities led professional development on trauma-informed pedagogy and encouraged Universal Design of Instruction methods for teaching and assessment. Some of these efforts were derailed by concerns about cheating, but the shift did help to manage the massive increase in student anxiety and depression, challenges most universities were failing to manage even before COVID-19. As we imagine the future of equity and inclusion work in higher education, an important question academic leaders will ask is, “Which COVID-era changes can we keep in place to ameliorate the consequences of more mundane trauma in students’ lives?”
Managing enrollment expectations, and therefore budget projections, proved to be an iterative exercise in uncertainty. Sector-wide assumptions were upended: Remember when we thought community college enrollment would surge? And new student applications surged in places we did not expect. Many institutions of higher education have seen record levels of applications for Fall 2021. Our collective fear of the demographic cliff took a backseat to a new collective fear: financial collapse, especially for our most tuition-dependent small private colleges. Universities with excellent communication strategies were best able to manage their retention and yield goals, although nothing felt certain until census day in the fall. There are still many enrollment questions as we look toward Fall 2021; for many large schools, instruction will still likely take place in a hybrid format.
Supporting Faculty and Staff
As many institutions moved much or all of their courses online and severely limited or closed physical campuses, several of the concerns already discussed regarding communication, equity, and support applied as much to faculty and staff as to students. In many cases, moving much of an institution’s faculty and staff to a remote work-from-home mode highlighted largely invisible
inequities, including possible lack of technology or connectivity at home, as well as the need for training on remote tools. Consistent communication, transparency, and opportunities for feedback became even more crucial with faculty and staff physically disconnected. With the COVID-19 pandemic extending into the 2020-21 academic year without a clear, definite end in sight, faculty and staff burnout and “Zoom fatigue” have exacerbated the challenges of balancing crisis management with institutional goals. It has been vital to maximize existing resources across the institution (IT, communication, counseling, etc.) not only for students but also for the faculty and staff who continue to serve and support our students.
The last twelve months have been a crash course in crisis management for all academic leaders. Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic will probably not be the last crisis we have to manage. We hope that sharing the lessons we learned will provide an additional set of tools for academic leaders.