In response to crisis, institutions necessarily shift operations to immediate-term problem-solving with incident management approaches. We identify risk(s) and implement plans to mitigate the disruption of the pressing crisis with fast-paced decision-making. This approach is effective and indeed may be essential for short-term health and safety measures, but can actions taken during a crisis also advance long-term institutional priorities? In the frenzy of performing institutional triage during a crisis, we believe an opportunity exists for leaders to demonstrate how short-term actions can serve to advance long-term goals. Actions in a crisis can become more than temporary measures and a campus community can be drawn to its greater purpose.
In response to the crisis of the COVID-19 global pandemic, higher education institutions undertook major changes in spring and summer of 2020, affecting all aspects of their institutions including teaching, learning, residential life, health centers, and governance. How might these changes serve to advance an institution beyond surviving the pandemic? We offer case studies of how two institutions positioned themselves to advance long-term strategic change by directly engaging with the overlapping public health crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic and the obligation to challenge and dismantle systemic racism in this country. Allegheny College and Beloit College each launched initiatives, not only to prepare for the uncertainties of fall 2020, but as investments in faculty development, student learning, and inclusive excellence with the goal to become stronger institutions beyond the pandemic. We use these examples to illustrate how initiatives to address crises can map onto long-term mission-orientated goals and how this can provide faculty and staff with a sense of purpose, showing how short-term intensive work has value even beyond an immediate crisis.
Allegheny College in Pennsylvania and Beloit College in Wisconsin are both residential undergraduate liberal arts institutions. Each institution had already begun to reimagine their learning environment prior to the onset of COVID-19. At the onset of the pandemic, both institutions assessed their ongoing strategic work as they prioritized resources to address immediate short-term needs. Both institutions also drew the conclusion that accelerating rather than pausing certain ongoing strategies would not only meet the short-term needs of the crisis but would enable them to realize long-term gains beyond the pandemic.
For example, Beloit launched a new advising program and modular academic calendar plan for 2020-2021, along with a new career accelerator in spring 2021. At Allegheny, faculty development in universal course design and diversity audits of courses were expanded in spring 2020 and a new winter module was launched. Both institutions also created new social justice learning opportunities and accelerated ongoing work to launch institutional roadmaps to address systemic racism and racial injustice. Collectively, these initiatives (some begun before and others as a response to the pandemic) not only prepared each institution for the remote and hybrid teaching and learning modalities necessary for fall 2020 (and beyond) but contributed to long-term strategies such as building inclusive campuses, student access and success, and post-graduate outcomes.
To extrapolate this approach for broader application, we suggest leadership teams conduct a simple exercise to map short-term action items onto long-term goals. One approach is to construct a grid that lists long-term institutional goals (e.g., rows shown below). Next, list as columns the short-term action items implemented to address immediate needs spurred by adversity, then identify which of these also serves to advance a long-term goal.
We did this retrospectively and used this approach to help those on our campuses gain a sense of the larger purpose to the work at hand; a purpose to advance the institution beyond merely surviving adversity. Looking forward, we believe that such an approach done proactively can help keep a team or even an entire organization focused on its mission during a crisis, providing a sense of mutual support and collaboration toward common goals.
As campus leaders we are asked to inspire and motivate around mission and strategy, a particular challenge during times of crisis. One way to thrive beyond a crisis is to understand how crisis-driven initiatives might support and advance the mission and long-term strategic priorities of our institutions. Our task then becomes that of helping others in the organization to recognize this, showing how short-term intensive work has value even beyond an immediate crisis. On a work-weary campus, understanding the larger purposes of one’s contribution helps us all emerge stronger on the other side of adversity.