The world of higher education is shifting, and many leaders are scrambling to support their institutions, their faculty and staff, and their students. It’s unclear what the ultimate impact will be. One prognosticator, Paul LeBlanc, the president of Southern New Hampshire University, has suggested that COVID-19 may be a black swan event for higher education. That may well be true, as it was unanticipated and its timing and impact will likely have significant consequences for many institutions.
For now, though, many leaders are rightly focused on merely keeping up with a situation that seems to evolve daily, if not hourly. In New York, for example, in the span of about 10 days, we went from preparing for the possibility to actually being a fully online education provider with an entirely remote workforce. This is now the case for much of higher education. What’s more, in the midst of managing these shifts, we are also in the very heart of enrollment season, and the timing probably couldn’t be worse for influencing an enrollment situation that was already concerning.
When I first developed the Six Domains of Knowledge for Higher Education Leaders, the intent was to create a framework to support leaders in making sense of their role and how their work fits within the larger higher education ecosystem. After the crisis took hold, I had the opportunity to give a previously scheduled talk to a group of aspiring leaders on the six domains. Because of everything else going on, I wasn’t able to appropriately reflect on the presentation until I gave it. The result was that some topics, such as student transfer, until recently a critical issue, now seemed less relevant. The six domains, however, remain quite pertinent, as they provide a way to better understand the situation with which many leaders are dealing.
As a dean at a public university in the capital of New York, I’ve found myself grappling with all the changes in the midst of what has quickly become the nation’s epicenter of the health crisis. We’ve been fortunate to be in a state where the governor, Andrew Cuomo, has demonstrated strong and decisive leadership. The other side of that coin is that we have also had to make rapid changes as the directions from the state shift to deal with the crisis.
The six domains have helped me deal with those changes. They can support you as a leader, as well, as you navigate the current situation as well as other challenges in the future. I’ve outlined each of them briefly below.
No. 1: Know yourself. Times of crisis are pivotal opportunities to better understand ourselves. Crises have ways of absorbing all of our time and attention and can be incredibly draining, both physically and emotionally. For the last month, it has felt nearly nonstop from the moment I awake until I go to bed -- trying to make and implement contingency plans and support those around me.
It is important, even in the midst of the crisis, to take time for yourself, whether simply by meditating on your own or connecting with colleagues. I recently facilitated an online discussion of a group of leadership fellows. Reconnecting with each other, albeit virtually, provided them with needed opportunities to reflect, learn and process. Before the event, some people were not sure if they could afford the time. After talking together, they commented on how important it was.
Similarly, a colleague has found himself seeking out the kinship of those from other sectors of his life who share his connection to music -- and making time to work (and play) with them to create pieces that transcend the mandates of social distance. You need such moments to refuel your creativity and problem-solving abilities, as well as to sustain your own mental well-being. While it may seem self-serving on the surface, such time is, in fact, an investment in grounding for yourself and in recognizing the human needs of those you lead.
No. 2: Know your skills. There will be overlap, but the skills you need in crises are not entirely the same ones you normally need as a leader. You’ll certainly need every one of your people skills as you work to bring people together to solve problems and bring order to chaos. And you’ll also need your own personal willingness to learn new skills and try out new ways of doing things, particularly as interactions shift from face-to-face to remote. But you should also be aware of both your strengths and areas in need of improvement. Weaknesses that you have will become glaring blind spots during a time of crisis. Knowing that those blind spots are there -- and having a team around you that can provide needed input and perspective to fill in the gaps in your vision -- is crucial.
Further, research on leading during crisis has found that perhaps the most important skill is communication and keeping people informed. That is why governors hold at least daily press conferences and why I organize virtual town hall meetings every few days for my academic community. Beyond communication, other vital skills certainly include self-control, emotional intelligence and conflict management.
No. 3: Know your team. How we manage our relationships with our colleagues is shifting dramatically. On campuses where work is now remote, the common personal interactions that took place in the hallways no longer exist and, thus, must now be planned. Staff meetings may now occur daily, where once they were weekly. In addition, leaders are having to learn new ways to communicate, as texts, emails, calls and videoconferences replace face-to-face communication.
The team you lead is a critical asset during this crisis, and your role leading it has never been more important. Whether your team includes three people or 100, they are looking to you for guidance, reassurance and direction.
My core team of staff members has had to shift rapidly to confront the crisis and ensure our academic community can maintain its continuity. We meet more regularly and are much more focused on the issues at hand to keep the organization moving forward. Moreover, my team expands and reconfigures in ways not seen in a “normal” time, as we engage different staff from across the university and the external community to confront the changes of the time. Certainly, we need to find new ways to interact and sustain our connections with each other. But we also need to draw in people from other parts of the campus to work with us (just as others draw us into their teams).
I’ve also become much more present and engaged with my extended team of more than 120 faculty and staff, many of whom are part-time and some of whom I’ve never met. Yet it is vital that they hear from me and their department chairs on a regular basis so that they know the facts of what we are doing and that we support them. In such situations, the work of the leader in relation to the team is both practical and symbolic. In the last two weeks, we have had three institutionwide virtual meetings (in addition to much written correspondence) to keep people informed and provide a forum for discussion.
As leaders, we also have to be aware that members of our team are facing incredible stresses outside of the workplace. That may come in the form of becoming the primary teacher for their children, caring for a sick spouse or supporting aging parents. These are not necessarily new responsibilities, but they foster even greater levels of anxiety during a time of social distancing and being homebound. As leaders, we must model the qualities of flexibility and empathy required during this time.
No. 4: Know your students. As a leader, you also need to understand the specific circumstances of your students, which can vary widely. For some students, the current situation is an inconvenience -- they would rather be back on campus with their friends but have the cultural and economic capital needed to adjust. For others, being displaced from campus may mean going back to being homeless or exacerbating their food insecurity.
The crisis is also deepening the digital divide on our campuses. Some students will have multiple computers/tablets, while others may not have access to any or may have to share one with their children, who are also trying to learn remotely. While the accessibility of Wi-Fi has significantly improved, Wi-Fi or high-speed internet is still not available in many regions. And as social distancing has closed many public spaces, like coffee shops and libraries, the availability of the internet has decreased.
As we’ve shifted to remote learning, one of our key concerns has been to make sure that students do not fall through the cracks and that we find ways to ensure and support their continued learning. That might mean loaning out a laptop or helping them secure a temporary Wi-Fi hotspot so that they can be connected and engaged. At my institution, we’ve asked each instructor or adviser to reach out to every student and to let their department chairs know if they haven’t been able to make contact, so we can try other ways to connect.
I also kept a regularly scheduled meeting with my student leadership council as a way to maintain connectivity and learn about issues facing our students. As the rest of the student programming was canceled for the semester, we brainstormed with them about how to keep students engaged in co-curricular events. They developed great ideas about how to move our annual awards and scholarship ceremony to social media and to shift a fundraiser for one of our student organizations into a virtual space. One of the clear messages that they shared is the need to continue to have such events to foster community and give them something to look forward to, particularly since so much of their college experience has been disrupted.
No. 5: Know your institution. In our book, Academic Governance and Leadership of Higher Education, my colleagues and I write that successful colleges and universities need to be mission-driven and adaptable to changing contexts, as well as willing to embrace democratic partnerships -- to work collaboratively with each other to advance the institution. These tenets become even more important during a time of crisis, particularly a rapidly changing one like this. As we make decisions that dramatically affect the lives of students and colleagues, we must stay attuned to our mission. Whether it is explicit or not, we all have missions to protect and a duty to support the students we serve, and we must consider ways we can continue that, particularly for those who are in the most vulnerable situations. Keeping an eye on the mission -- even in the midst of chaotic change -- helps us make more informed and targeted decisions.
That does not mean being stuck doing things the same way you always have. The world has changed and will continue to, and it will require you to adapt quickly to the new environment. For example, medical centers and public health schools have shifted to researching the virus and caring for the ill. Our school of education, where I’m dean, is a national leader in online education, so our faculty and staff are focusing on providing resources and support for K-12 schools moving to remote learning by launching a new website, RemoteED.org.
You should also quickly identify what institutional processes need to change, such as shifting advising entirely online and moving to virtual transmission of forms and approvals. Even such processes as those related to promotion and tenure must be reconsidered. Do student teaching evaluations from courses that were quickly moved online still count? Do we allow pretenure faculty to delay the clock as their research and teaching were disrupted this semester? How do we shift meetings on personnel decisions to online environments and still ensure confidential votes?
Most important, recognize that you cannot do the work alone. Leaders have to move quickly and decisively, but they do not have to operate in a vacuum of information. I talk with university leadership regularly. I bounce ideas off, and seek input from, other deans. I engage my department chairs, staff and faculty when making big decisions so that we can predict, to the extent possible, the implications of those decisions. This work becomes even more difficult as we work remotely from each other -- and yet it becomes even more important.
No. 6: Know your context. In the matter of several weeks, our context shifted in unbelievable ways, and yet it seems that we’re still very much at the start of this crisis, with little clarity on when it might end. We are thrust suddenly into wild rapids that we hadn’t expected. In many ways, leaders have been focused on making it through the spring semester with the implicit idea that the world will right itself afterward. The rapids will end, we’ll enter calm waters and our customary paddling will resume. But now we are beginning to see campuses cancel spring commencement and summer sessions or shift online, and it’s possible that the virus could remain a threat in the fall. There are lots of questions that do not have answers. Are we entering a recession? Will more students look to stay closer to home? How many students will show up in the fall? Will students want to study abroad next year? What will be the impact on institutional budgets?
What is clear in all of this is that our context on the other side of this will be very different than it was a couple of weeks ago. We just don’t know what the waters will look like.
More than 100 years ago, a famed researcher of higher education, Abraham Flexner, said, “The modern university is not outside but inside the general fabric of our era. It is not something apart, something historic, something that yields as little as possible to the forces and influences that are more or less new. It is, on the contrary … an expression of the ages, as well as an influence operating upon both present and future.”
Like society, higher education will look different on the other side of the crisis. Leaders, like you, will help it survive and thrive.