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Most research in crisis communications and management is retrospective, looking at how things unfolded, said Brooke Fisher Liu, a professor of communications and associate dean of the graduate school at the University of Maryland at College Park. Most research in the field also focuses on corporations and governments, rather than other institutions. The COVID-19 pandemic and its effect on higher education offered a team of researchers an opportunity to further explore crisis communications practices in real time and study colleges and universities as they were responding to a crisis.​

Liu, Matthew Seeger, a professor of communications at Wayne State University, Timothy Sellnow, a professor of communications at the University of Central Florida, and their team of graduate students went about doing just that by looking at how college presidents and other higher ed administrators across the country communicated with students, parents, faculty and staff, and even residents living near their campuses, as the public health crisis unfolded. 

Initial conclusions from their interviews with 37 college presidents, provosts and other leaders suggest that how crises are planned for may need to be reconsidered. Leaders could expand both collaboration with people inside their institution and communication with their students, while focusing on mental and community health.

The study confirmed what many observers in higher education have suggested -- that university leadership was not prepared for a situation like COVID-19, despite the fact that they had crisis plans for infectious disease outbreaks.

“We talk about crises being highly uncertain events, and that was to the extreme in this crisis,” said Liu. “We have extensive literature and we teach our undergraduates how to develop crisis plans, how to do exercises and simulations to test and refine those plans, and none of our participants used their plans, even though most of them had a plan for an infectious disease crisis.”

“Our participants said they feel like they are building the plane as they fly it,” said JungKyu Rhys Lim, a graduate student at Maryland.

Though some interviewees advocated for more robust and complicated plans, most others said they believe developing guiding values and statements of ethics could help institutions better navigate the ethical tensions in a crisis.

“That’s a very different approach to what we have currently in our literature about having a very concrete plan,” Liu said.

Though university leaders in many cases collaborated with medical and public health faculty at their institutions when they could, the researchers believe bringing in further expertise in other subject areas could be helpful.

“Very few of our leaders took advantage of their internal social science expertise,” said Liu. “Only a few had social and behavioral science advisory committees. They have folks like us, crisis management, psychology, anthropology, sociology, and those experts know a lot about how people behave in response to adverse events like this.”

Those experts could help leaders understand why students may not be complying with guidance.

“There is a very robust body of knowledge about how individuals respond to these particular events,” said Seeger, who is also dean of the College of Fine, Performing and Communication Arts at Wayne State. “You hear people say, ‘We didn’t want to say this to the student body or the public because we thought they might panic.’ Well, we know from 40 or 50 years of research that panic is largely a myth. It’s much harder to get people to comply with our recommendations than to be concerned about panic.”

The research team conducted 55 interviews with the 37 institution leaders from May to October. Their research has not yet been published or peer reviewed.

The sample included in the research ranged from leaders at community colleges to those at large public research institutions. Obviously those institutions behaved a little differently from one another when it came to managing the crises. Large institutions often have more diverse student bodies to think about, said Duli Shi, a graduate student at Maryland, but also more internal expertise to consult. Community colleges and smaller institutions were able to be a bit more personal in their efforts to support mental health.

“They were doing really caring things like writing handwritten notes from senior leadership and presidents to students, pairing faculty with students over the summer and having movie nights and paint-by-numbers nights and doing all these really, really creative things in an online environment to help maintain that kind of community,” said Liu. “I think that the larger institutions could learn a lot.”

But community colleges weren't able to offer as much flexibility to their students as other institutions were. Many community colleges could not offer pass-fail or other binary grading options to students, and they had less freedom to structure their curricula, especially those associated with certification programs.

Many participants in the study recommended expanding communication with students, faculty and staff, even if that meant repeating messages. Furthermore, as college and university leaders faced a summer of protests against racism and police violence intersecting with the pandemic, leaders found that racial and ethnic diversity within their teams was helpful in communication with students, said Khairul Islam, a graduate student at Wayne State.

Ronisha Sheppard, a graduate student at Wayne State, and America Edwards, former master's student at University of Central Florida, also contributed to the research.

The researchers did highlight some limitations in the data.

“We likely have a somewhat biased sample. If you’re doing a horrible job responding to COVID, you’re likely not going to respond to our interview invitation,” said Liu.

Over all, the researchers said this crisis was unlike so many before it.

“It really speaks to the power and resilience of universities that they have been able to remain functional,” Seeger said.

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