To give a glimpse into the virtual meeting rooms of college leaders responding to the new coronavirus, Larry Ladd, a senior consultant at AGB, laid out a hypothetical.
“Let’s say you’re a president,” he said. “You have to keep the urgent and the important both balanced in your head -- and that’s not easy to do.”
“Urgent” matters, according to Ladd, are decisions leadership teams have to make within hours or days, such as determining where students will ride out the remainder of the semester, migrating classes online or canceling them outright, managing staff and payroll, and monitoring liquidity.
“Important” decisions, relegated to tomorrow or coming weeks, include refunding room and board costs, planning for summer terms, nailing down fall enrollments and hiring for open faculty and administrative positions. Very little can be tabled indefinitely.
“There isn’t much that goes on at a college or university that isn’t related to the financial condition of a place,” Ladd said. In other words, if any thread comes loose, the entire institutional fabric threatens to unravel.
It’s been about two months since the first cases of coronavirus were detected in the United States. Since then, most colleges have either suspended classes or moved entirely online. Some have shut down campuses entirely, while others are operating essential services only. Questions about room and board and tuition refunds are beginning to be answered, and job security for college employees, particularly hourly workers, is up in the air at many institutions.
In the past months and still today, college leadership teams have been working long hours to tackle the next most important thing.
Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education, broke down leadership’s priorities into three groups: student and personnel safety, systems resilience, and continuing the work of the college.
“This is the Maslow’s hierarchy of disaster recovery,” he said.
Student and personnel safety drove the decision for many colleges to close or move to remote teaching. Systems resilience includes bringing large-scale communications software online and making sure students, staff and faculty members are equipped with phones, computers and internet access. Now, many leadership teams are tying up loose ends in step two and moving into step three to determine how to keep the college operational through the duration of the outbreak.
At the University of San Francisco, “The president's cabinet has been meeting by Zoom every day,” said Donald Heller, vice president for operations and former provost at the university.
Prioritizing issues is like “trying to juggle all of the balls [at once],” he said. “You can’t just put a bunch of things aside and focus on just one thing.”
‘A League of Its Own’
Scott Cowen, former president of Tulane University and senior adviser for Boston Consulting Group, saw Tulane through the storm and aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The new coronavirus is nothing like a natural disaster, he said.
“This is in a league of its own,” he said. “A natural disaster like Hurricane Katrina, for example, is localized in one part of the country. [In this case] everybody is going through the same thing, so no one is going to have a competitive advantage because everyone is suffering.”
The University of San Francisco pulled together a COVID-19 response team from already existing infectious disease and emergency management teams.
For most colleges, planning for outcomes is difficult because there is no precedent, according to Ladd.
“There are no models, there’s no historical experience,” he said. “You compare this to a traditional recession like we had in 2008, Hurricane Katrina like we had in 2005 … but in all of those cases, you knew when things were going to get better.”
Mitchell says there’s little across-the-board guidance because every institution will approach their responses differently.
“As much as we and other people would love to be able to put out a kind of checklist … you can't do that,” he said.
All Hands on Deck
As campus operations slow or close, some colleges are reassigning employees to areas with greater need at the college.
“Admissions people don’t have anything urgent in respect to current students and faculty, so you can have them planning” for different contingencies, Ladd said. The CFO may be tasked with worrying about liquidity and revenue, while budget teams are building out financial models for a variety of scenarios in the coming months.
Libraries at the University of San Francisco are closed, Heller said, and the university is looking at how librarians can help out in other areas.
Some colleges, particularly large universities with research hospitals and other services, may be staffing up to sanitize dorms and campus buildings.
“For some institutions there have been hiring accelerations,” Mitchell said. “We’re seeing a lot of institutions spending more money keeping people safe and sound.”
Financial Aid Needs Ratchet Up
A recent NPR/PBS NewsHour poll shows that 18 percent of adult respondents -- excluding those who were not employed or retired prior to the outbreak -- said that they or someone in their household has been laid off or had work hours reduced as a result of the coronavirus outbreak. Twenty-five percent of respondents making less than $50,000 a year said the same.
“Family incomes are going to plummet for a large number of families,” Ladd said. “Suddenly, students or parents are going to the financial aid office right now and saying … ‘I need help.’”
Colleges could recover some financial aid costs that will no longer be applicable after room and board refunds, but likely more students will need additional aid.
“We are absolutely concerned about that,” Heller said. “And we’re concerned at what impact this will have on our fall enrollments, particularly because we’re so dependent on international students … We don’t know if they’ll be able to come, if they will be able to get visas to get on a plane.”
The University of San Francisco is tuition-dependent, and 13 percent of undergraduates are international students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Room and board refunds will leave a multimillion-dollar hole in its operating budget, according to Heller, and an increased need for student aid will pile on financial pressure.
What’s Being Set Aside?
It’s likely more and more colleges will implement hiring freezes in the coming weeks. Brown University announced Tuesday that it would suspend faculty and staff hiring for the current year and the fiscal year beginning July 1, effective immediately.
Heller said USF has introduced a hiring “slowdown.” Mitchell said he’s seen searches for senior-level positions, including presidencies, put on hold.
When asked whether colleges would kick capital improvement down the road, Ladd, Heller, Mitchell and Cowen each chuckled and said, “Yes.”
“Cash is king,” Cowen said. “You want to stockpile as much cash as you need in reserves because you don’t know how long this will last.”
New development on campuses is a low priority at the moment. It may be one of the few areas of campus operations that can be set aside.
“When you get into the big-ticket items that were on the drawing board … they may gather dust for a while,” Mitchell said.
Presidents and other college leaders are not immune to the human impact of the coronavirus.
“Our presidents are running on adrenaline,” Mitchell said. Their commitments to their institutions are “driving people, keeping them up for the 24-hour cycles that they need to be up. But everybody’s tired, everybody’s fatigued.”
On Tuesday, Harvard president Lawrence Bacow, 68, announced that he and his wife tested positive for the virus and are continuing to isolate themselves at home. John Garvey, 71, president of Catholic University of America, said he tested positive on March 19, and he is quarantined at home with no symptoms.
The University of Texas at Austin's president, Greg Fenves, 63, said his wife, Carmel, tested positive on March 13. He also announced last week that Brent Iverson, dean of UT Austin’s school of undergraduate studies, tested positive for coronavirus.
When asked how the University of San Francisco leadership team is holding up, Heller said that “morale is pretty good.”
“Certainly people are stressed out, and it’s challenging to work remotely and not be able to see each other face-to-face,” he said. “Everybody realizes … that this is the opportunity to step up and do everything we can to protect our students and protect our staff.”
Cowen hopes college leaders will learn from the outbreak and therefore be better prepared for the next one.
"Out of every great tragedy, everyone has an obligation to somehow get lessons learned," he said, "and to respond to those in such a way to make the institution, the United States and the globe better."