As a former faculty member, I wish I’d found Reddit.com’s /r/professors discussion board (“subreddit” in Reddit parlance) when I was teaching. Every day its 47,000 members swap tips and tricks for teaching, reach out for advice about sticky student issues, commiserate and celebrate promotions (or lack thereof), complain about administrators, and support each other in an amazingly (pun intended) collegial way. Browsing its topics and comments is almost like sitting in the middle of the world’s largest faculty lounge, where it’s OK to eavesdrop on conversations.
Because people who use Reddit are more or less anonymous, they tend to speak their minds in a way that is tough to find anywhere else in the profession. Scrolling through the subreddit, you can get a good feel for the attitudes and opinions of faculty members across the globe. And I've got to tell you: they’re not feeling too good about higher ed right now.
As anyone who works in or around higher ed knows, schools weren’t exactly prepared to deal with the coronavirus crisis. Besides many administrations waffling about shutting down or not -- a decision eventually made for most of them by their governments -- schools also had to make the transition to online learning in less time than they usually take to set up a faculty meeting. Most teaching faculty were given all of a week or two to take their face-to-face classes and convert them to online classes. The results ain’t pretty.
“This is a nightmare.” “I am very concerned.” “I’m at my wits' end.” Comments like these are rampant throughout the discussions, as are comments about their administrations’ response to the crisis:
“The president of the college sent out a mass email, late last week, informing students and faculty to wash their hands for 20 seconds and cough into their arm,” reported one professor. “Their own arm or the president's? Would a dean's arm count?” responded another, with the next poster adding, “Better tear one off and carry it around just in case.”
Ahem. Yes, not much love being lost between faculty and upper administrators.
Making the transition to online teaching has been the primary topic on the subreddit for the last two weeks. Technical glitches seem to be rampant, with members reporting on disastrous Zoom videoconferencing sessions, complicated learning management systems and inexplicable takedowns of their pre-recorded lectures from YouTube for violating community standards (“I assume your lecture was NSFW,” one poster responded drily to a mathematics professor’s rant about his YouTube takedown). Many have also expressed legitimate -- but seemingly not considered so by the powers that be -- concerns about students being able to access online content, disabled students being able to learn online and, mostly, their own ability to master the technology in record time.
In short, if Reddit’s /r/professors is any indication, the higher ed response to the coronavirus has been a mess.
Of course, just about everything these days seems to be a mess. Have you tried buying toilet paper? Of course you have. We all have. At least in Australia, the media’s trying to do something about it.
But while toilet paper shortages will certainly become a thing of the past and will be forgotten about a week after we’re all allowed to emerge from our burrows, the impact of how schools handled the crisis may live on a lot longer. Even forgetting about the financial issues many schools are certain to face, the effect of the coronavirus response on their brands -- and the brand of higher education in general -- may linger for a long, long time.
That is, unless communicators at universities start doing something about it now.
Why? The clumsy way many schools have handled the crisis has not only pissed off the professors of /r/professors, but certainly their students as well, many of whom, as they’ve told their teachers, “didn’t sign up for online classes.” If students are mad, you can be sure their parents are, too, especially parents who’ve had to scramble to get their kids home and now have to deal with them attempting to “learn” online from a now-virtual university they didn’t sign up for, either.
Prospective students are pretty upset, too. Based on the hundreds of comments posted to /r/ApplyingToCollege on Reddit about the coronavirus, there are a lot of confused prospects and parents out there. They’re worried about how their forced “corona-cation” from high school will impact how they’re seen by the schools they’re applying to. They’re worried about whether or not they’ll get a decision on time. And they’re really worried about whether or not they’ll have to spend their freshman year as an online student.
There’s no doubt that all of our lives have been thrown into turmoil over the past few weeks here in the U.S. And there’s no doubt that people have been pretty tolerant of the unending wave of disruptions we’ve all had to deal with. But as the weeks drag on and family togetherness starts to wear thin (among other issues), that tolerance may turn to resentment, and people aren’t going to be quite so forgiving about institutions that have let them down -- schools included.
As a university communicator, what can you do to blunt the future brand impact of the coronavirus on your institution? Here are a few suggestions:
- Communicate and be transparent. Your faculty, staff, students and prospects shouldn’t be wondering about your school’s next steps. If you have news, communicate it as soon as you can to everyone you can. If they have to find out about it through other channels, they’re not going to be happy. If they hear it from you first, you’ll have built some trust.
- Focus your communications on your audience needs. They need to know how your news applies to them. Students are going to want to know how the crisis impacts their graduation date. Faculty and staff are going to want to know how the disruptions impact their jobs today and their chances for promotion in the future. Parents are going to want to know about the financial implications of your institution’s decisions. One blanket statement to all your audiences and stakeholders isn’t going to cut it.
- Help leadership be better communicators. Don’t be afraid to stand up and say something when your president wants to do something ill advised or reactive. Help faculty leaders to understand the need for clear, reassuring and focused communication with their faculty and students. Help admissions folks who are now doing interviews and answer sessions on Skype and Zoom and Google Hangouts to understand how to best present themselves and your institution (hint: lighting is very important). Get answers to tough questions from students and prospects and make sure that you communicate them as best you can.
- Be careful not to be perceived as taking advantage of the crisis in your communications, especially your ads. Pushing your virology and microbiology programs in your advertising will probably come off as being in poor taste these days. Ditto for flooding the internet with ads for your medical and/or nursing programs. I’m not saying don’t advertise, but don’t do anything that looks like you’re being a coronavirus carpetbagger.
- That being said, don’t make it difficult for people to look into programs that may suddenly be more enticing to them because of changing circumstances. If the Google Analytics reports we’re seeing on a lot of our university clients’ sites is any indication, health professions and online programs are looking a lot more attractive to prospects these days. Remember: even if we’re all in kind of a nationwide holding pattern, life still goes on, and people who were thinking about school are still doing so, although their priorities may have changed. Make sure your website is primed to receive them.
- This is a good time to review your web content. Use the extra time you may have on your hands to review the content on your website to make sure it’s still accurate. This doesn’t mean that you have to read every single page on your site, but at the very least, make sure that the content reflects the current reality, especially content for prospective students. Make sure that dates of events and deadlines are correct. Add reminders that notify users when it’s clear that some of the information may be subject to change. Be transparent and be accurate.
- Keep an eye on social media. If the comments we’ve seen on Reddit are any indication, out of sight does not mean out of mind. Your constituents are talking about you. Make sure that you’re scanning for any particular problems that crop up, that you’re answering questions promptly and that those who you’re communicating with are getting the right messages. If they’re not, make sure to rectify the situation.
- Reach out your community. Finally, if past crises are any example, the best way for everyone to get through them is to come together. Your school probably has a lot of expertise to draw on and may have a lot of folks who want to help. Reach out to community leaders and community organizations to see if there’s anything your school can do. Not only will you help strengthen ties and build goodwill, but your institution may have the potential to make everyone’s lives easier during these trying times.
Sean Carton is chief strategist for idfive and the founding dean of the School of Design and Media at Philadelphia University.