The Challenges of Writing a Book in the World of COVID-19

Roger H. Martin gives comfort to those who were in the process of writing a book or long article about higher education but must now reconsider almost everything in it.

May 28, 2020

Like many who have spent a lifetime in the academy, I frequently write about higher education, often for Inside Higher Ed. Because I’ve been involved in the field for almost 50 years (20 of them as the president of two liberal arts colleges), I have given considerable thought to the subject of higher education leadership at both the board and presidential levels.

In light of COVID-19, the purpose of this essay is to give comfort to those of you like me who were in the process of writing a book or even a long article about higher education but now need to reconsider almost everything you have written. Considering the tragedy and terrible challenges many people are experiencing, I recognize, of course, that this is far from the biggest issue in the world right now. But for scholars and others who have put lots of time and effort into preparing their work for publication, it is certainly a disappointment and rather frustrating.

The book-length manuscript I recently completed has the working title How College and University Presidents and Boards Work Together. In November I submitted a final copy of my manuscript to a major university publishing house, which then sent it out to external readers for review. Unfortunately, because of the COVID-19 crisis, much of what I wrote in November 2019 quickly became irrelevant two months later. Had the manuscript actually been published by this press, it would have almost immediately been out of date. In many ways, I am fortunate that my manuscript is now in writer’s purgatory. And, at least, I haven't had to cancel promotional tours and interviews like many other authors probably have had to do.

My manuscript comprises four chapters written for presidents and the boards to whom they report. They focus on how presidents are hired, how presidents work with their boards once they are in office, how presidents eventually leave office and, finally (written at the excellent suggestion of the university press’s editorial director), what higher education leadership will look like 15 to 20 years from now. Post-COVID-19, one can immediately see the problems with my manuscript.

For instance, the first chapter includes information about the presidential search process and how interviews are conducted. But because of the social distancing that is now mandated by law and may become more common in the future, interviews must be done very differently than in the past, when it was almost taken for granted that finalist candidates would appear on campus in person before large and small community groups. Now finalist interviews must be conducted using distance technology like Zoom, and interviews involving faculty, staff and students must be arranged taking this technology and social distancing into consideration. Such a rethinking of the interview process has caused at least several pages of my manuscript to be incomplete and out of date.

In the second chapter, I share my views with new presidents and their boards concerning governance and management issues, and I include a large section on strategic planning. Altogether missing from my manuscript is planning for a catastrophic event, which, in light of COVID-19, will somehow have to become a prominent feature of the strategic planning process for all institutions.

In the third chapter -- the one about leaving or retiring -- I assume that if a president has served his or her institution well, they will retire or move on naturally after 10 years or so. But with all the new and seemingly impossible challenges presidents will now have to face post-COVID-19, I fear we will see widespread burnout and many more premature presidential retirements than we have in the past. Had I been aware of COVID-19 and its consequences, I would have said much more on that subject.

But it’s my last chapter on the future of higher education leadership where I’m in deepest trouble. What I am beginning to understand is that, until we have fuller knowledge of this terrible virus -- how it spreads and how it will impact the economy -- it is almost impossible to do accurate higher ed forecasting even one year from now, let alone 15 or 20. Let me illustrate from the final chapter in my manuscript.

Based on the so-called birth dearth caused in part by the 2008 great recession I, along with many other observers, forecast that future presidents will face severe enrollment shortages by 2025, especially involving non-Hispanic whites. I predicted that these presidents will have to do much more to accommodate a growing number of low-income, underrepresented minority, first-generation students, who will need more financial aid, more support services and different kinds of academic programs.

Today, I still believe colleges will face enrollment shortages, but I now fear that COVID-19 will have a disproportionately negative impact on lower-income families. And because many of these families will have lost almost everything as a result of this virus, and because their children will have to help support them financially, many might not be going to college at all.

In this last chapter on the future, I also touch on the continuing impact of technology on higher education -- but not adequately enough in light of COVID-19. As we are seeing, the use of technology in remote learning as well as in admissions and other administrative areas has increased exponentially. But it’s too early to know whether and to what extent in the aftermath of COVID-19 this use of technology will permanently alter how colleges and universities operate. Finally, with 25 percent of American independent colleges and universities operating with a deficit before COVID-19, according to Moody’s, how many will even be in existence a year from now, let alone 15 or 20? No one knows, but the answer is probably not encouraging.

I am, of course, disappointed that my book will be delayed and will have to be revised significantly in order to finally be published. But given all that’s been happening to higher education and the world around us, I’ve come to terms with this inescapable fact. Consequently, my advice to fellow writers is for the time being not to obsess over that which we cannot control, to focus instead on getting ourselves and our families safely through this crisis and, finally, when this crisis is over and we have more information -- hopefully sooner rather than later -- to update what we have written in light of the brave new world we will all have to face. Doing this will make our manuscripts even stronger and more relevant than before COVID-19 -- and keep us sane in the process.


Roger H. Martin is the author of Racing Odysseus: A College President Becomes a Freshman Again (University of California Press) and Off to College: A Guide for Parents (University of Chicago Press). He is the former president of Moravian College and Randolph-Macon College and is currently a senior consultant with R. H. Perry & Associates, an executive search firm in higher education.


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top