The COVID-19 pandemic is a natural disaster that has created a crisis for higher education institutions. Perhaps more accurately, COVID-19 has layered an immediate crisis on top of an emerging crisis for higher education. As terrible as the current crisis is, COVID-19 is not the first disaster to hit higher education institutions, and it will not be the last. Many lessons have been drawn from previous crises that can inform our behavior as we face the immediate pandemic crisis as well as the longer-term, growing crisis in higher education.
We can start by looking at some of the disasters that have impacted higher education in the past. Many disasters are focused and tend to impact only one campus at a time. Shootings on campus—not only colleges but elementary and secondary schools as well—have been happening in the United States since the 18th century. At first infrequent and involving few victims, they have become much more frequent and larger in recent years. We all can remember the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007 which resulted in 33 deaths. Beyond the immediate crisis of stopping the carnage and mourning those lost, there are continuing issues of stress, reputational damage, and assuring it does not happen again.
Gross misbehavior by members of the institution’s community is another source of crisis. Faculty publishing articles with falsified data; senior administrators making obscene phone calls from their offices; students creating a sexually violent or racially discriminating campus culture; faculty selling admission to elite institutions; alumni, donors and/or board members landing in legal trouble for their activities (think of Bill Cosby, Bernie Madoff, or Adnan Khashoggi). All of these have created reputational crises at the institutions involved.
Natural disasters generally impact more than a single campus. Flooding leading to temporary campus closure has been an issue in many parts of the country, and a recurring issue along the Mississippi River. Hurricane Harvey closed many campuses in Houston for a week or more at the start of the 2017-18 academic year. Of course, the most devastating flooding of university campuses took place in New Orleans when Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit in August 2005, closing the entire city until early 2006.
We are currently experiencing the broadest, farthest-reaching disaster impacting higher education in anyone’s memory.
All of these disasters have a financial impact beyond the immediate physical and psychological impacts. We are currently experiencing the broadest, farthest-reaching disaster impacting higher education in anyone’s memory. The COVID-19 pandemic has created physical, psychological and economic impacts for virtually all institutions—educational and beyond—in the United States and around the world. The full extent of the impact and the length of the crisis remains unknown, as this disaster continues to unfold. Even while this crisis is unfolding, institutions need to begin addressing it and what they will do when it is over.
Fortunately, much has been written by those who have lived through previous crises, and the messages are remarkably consistent.
Keep the Team Safe
The team—students, faculty, and staff in the university—may be in both physical and psychological danger in any disaster. The first order of business for the leadership group is to focus on the team and take the actions needed to keep them out of danger, protect them from further harm, and promote healing of any wounds they have suffered. The team is critical to the institution’s survival, and their feeling secure is critical to their functioning effectively.
Keep the Health of the Institution in Focus
Every disaster has the potential to destroy the institution. The leadership must always keep this in mind. If the institution does not survive the crisis, the entire community—the team members and beyond—are likely to be harmed. At times, the leadership will have to make decisions that will cause immediate harm—e.g., loss of employment—to some team members, but will save the institution in the longer run.
Perhaps the greatest source of stress to community members in a crisis is uncertainty. When will it end? How will it end? What should we be doing now? Will I have a job when this is all over? Frequent, transparent, truthful communication is critical to reducing that stress, keeping the team together, and moving forward. Leaders who have led an organization successfully through a crisis always highlight the importance of communication. It must be demonstrably truthful, even if the message is not pleasant. It must assure people that the leadership is in control, plotting the path forward, even if they are not yet certain what that path will be. To the extent possible, communication should be face-to-face, though this is not always possible as in our current social distancing situation. Communication may need to be differentiated for different parts of the community who have different concerns or priorities.
Accept the New Reality
Disasters result in changes. They may be short-term or long-term, but there will always be changes. It is often tempting to wish things will return to the way they were and to delay doing anything. This is an error. You need to accept that the situation has changed and begin the process of dealing with the new reality. This does not mean you need to take sudden actions. It does mean a thoughtful process of examining the situation must begin, assessing what has changed and what has not changed, and determining what should be done in the light of the changed situation.
Related to accepting the new reality, there will often be difficult decisions to be made. Some of those decisions—major budget cuts, closing programs, dismissing personnel, etc.—will have painful consequences. These decisions should not be made lightly, without considerable careful thought; but, they also should not be put off. It is natural not to want to make these tough decisions but delaying them does not make the problem go away, and the situation generally gets worse while you delay.
Be Flexible—Adjust Quickly to Changes on the Ground
Some disasters are discrete events. A tornado hits, but then it passes and the situation is stable, though different from what it had been. The current disaster impacting higher education (and everything else), the COVID-19 crisis, is fluid and evolving. It is not clear when it will end nor what the situation will be when it does end. The situation on the ground keeps changing. Our best forecast of what things will look like when the crisis ends may change from day to day. We must continually monitor this changing view of the future and adjust our plans accordingly. This may mean that a leader will at times have to change positions or courses of action. This is appropriate, and it highlights the continuing need for clear and honest communication.
Plan for the Worst, Hope for the Best
A disaster inevitably changes the situation and makes existing plans untenable and likely irrelevant. New plans are always needed, and as discussed above, those plans must often be formed without a clear view of what the future will look like. People who have successfully led organizations through previous crises talk about the need for extensive scenario planning, which is developing plans for a range of possible futures.
A common bit of advice is to plan for the worst, hope for the best. It is critically important to consider what the worst outcomes could be and to develop plans for dealing with them. In the current situation, what will your institution do if the campus cannot reopen for the fall semester? What if fall enrollment is down 25%? These are not pleasant to think about, but failing to do so, failing to have a plan of action if this does become the reality dooms the institution to fail.
We also need to pay attention to the other half of the phrase, to hope for the best, and to plan for that as well. We have often heard that the Chinese word for crisis, 危机 (weiji), is formed from two characters meaning danger and opportunity. Crises, including the current pandemic, always offer opportunities, and it is important to look for and plan for these as well. In the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Tulane University went through a substantial restructuring in order to survive. That restructuring included closing the school of engineering, thus eliminating multiple departments. They saw the opportunity, however, to develop a more focused school of science and engineering, which was subsequently extremely successful. There will no doubt be many opportunities for institutions to change—to eliminate some activities or programs and to build others—as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic. In an upcoming blog, we will focus on the current opportunities related to remote work, online education, and technology infrastructure.
Every higher education institution in the United States is dealing with our immediate crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the leadership of every institution needs to be focused now on surviving this crisis. It is equally critical that the leadership of every higher education institution is looking forward to the longer-term, broader crisis facing higher education. We need to have plans for dealing with the next crisis, not just the last one.
This is part of a series of blog posts meant to outline strategies for dealing with the mid-term and long-term implications of the Coronavirus crisis and our changing higher education environment. Let us know what questions and challenges you have about the future either by leaving a comment below or by contacting our principal consultants directly.
Our next blog will focus on scenario planning and the new opportunities emerging in higher education:
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