The impact of the coronavirus on higher education continues to grow as colleges and universities make challenging decisions about the remainder of the spring semester, commencement programs, summer schedules, and fall semester deposit deadlines. Institutions have been forced to respond and evolve quickly, as courses move online, residence halls are evacuated, and administrative staff work remotely. Although the environment is challenging and uncertain, there are a number of key considerations for institutional leaders as they continue to mobilize their colleges and universities.
Higher education has a number of critical constituencies central to the achievement of its mission, including students, parents, faculty, and administrators. Institutions face immediate-term decisions related to community health and safety and the continuity of academic and research pursuits. By keeping the needs, concerns, and challenges of these constituencies front and center, leaders will be better able to humanize and ground their discussions, decisions, and actions.
Communication is critical during this time of crisis. Higher education is responding as quickly as possible to the rapidly evolving coronavirus pandemic, but this has meant significant and rapid change for our campus communities. Communication can foster better understanding and support as higher education navigates new ways of operating and educating.
Transparency can also further the sense of community within the institution and create a shared accountability, which supports a greater level of trust, commitment, and understanding. As institutions navigate uncharted territory, there may be some missteps. By driving transparency and deeply engaging the community, institution leaders enable their constituents to become part of their decisions and actions.
Mobilize “Special Ops” Teams
As the educational environment rapidly changes in response to the coronavirus, institutions should consider mobilizing “special ops” teams. These teams should be designed to support constituents’ needs rather than recreate traditional services and organizational structures. Cross-functional expertise may be required in order to minimize hand-offs and provide more comprehensive “one stop” service. Innovative service models—for example, text, chat, and video-conferencing functionality—may also be critical to providing high levels of support to the community.
Teams should have a clear understanding of their goals and objectives and be empowered to drive decisions and implement solutions to best serve their constituents. These teams should also create a strong communication network across levels, functions, and organizational structures in order to drive engagement, transparency, and feedback.
Examples of “special ops” teams may include:
- Online education – technical support
- Administrative student services, including financial aid and student accounting
- International student services
- Counseling services
- Human resources
Analyze, Act, and Continuously Evaluate
Higher education operates in a consensus-based environment where decisions are often made by agreement. Although this allows stakeholders to work together to identify mutually agreeable solutions, it can drive ineffective decision-making or bog down decision makers in times of crisis.
In the current environment, higher education will be challenged to be continuously agile and responsive. Institutions have an opportunity to mobilize cross-functional teams that appropriately engage stakeholders but are able to drive analysis and decision-making. At the same time, higher education also should take the opportunity to make learning a part of the process. Instead of doing a postmortem in the weeks, months, or years following the crisis, maintain an ongoing evaluation of each decision in order to support continuous improvement. Acknowledge the inevitable missteps, learn from mistakes, and keep moving forward.
Institutions and their leaders will continue to be challenged in the coming weeks and months.
But leaders also have an opportunity to mobilize their institutions to maintain and further create community, support constituents to the best of their abilities, and drive responsiveness and continuous improvement.If you have any questions, or want to share ways in which your institution is mobilizing to address the coronavirus challenge, please reach out to Julia Wysocki by email or by phone at (224) 500-7030.