A Pandemic Reflection Process

To build leadership capacities and institutional resilience, colleges should engage in a process of structured reflection on their own pandemic histories, Suzanne Wilson Summers writes.

March 24, 2022
 
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In the spring of 2020, all of us in higher education watched with a mix of shock, horror and amazement as virtually every college and university in the U.S. shut its campus doors and moved to remote instruction and work. Now, two years later, we may feel a similar gamut of emotions given that the COVID-19 pandemic is still with us and we continue to wrestle with how to respond to the latest variant.

By any measure, the pandemic has proven the most disruptive event in higher ed in memory. The lasting impact remains to be seen, but whatever nostalgia we may feel for the past, most of us recognize that neither we nor our institutions are going back to the before times. Individually and institutionally, we are different for having undergone the trauma of the pandemic. We’ve accomplished the previously unthinkable—a rapid transition to almost 100 percent remote instruction accompanied by most operational functions also making the transition to remote. By any definition, this has been Change with a capital C.

While scholars of higher education attempt to discern the long-term meaning of the pandemic nationally, we face the need to prepare our institutions for the as-yet-unknown crises of the future. For this reason, we should engage in structured institutional reflection in an effort to capture the lessons learned from this pandemic. Given the accelerating pace of retirements of senior leaders, ensuring that this learning is housed within our institutions—rather than in individual memory—will help institutions navigate future crises.

With members of my American Council of Education Fellows 2019–20 cohort, I have written a book that analyzes the response of colleges and universities across the nation to the early phase of the pandemic. Focusing on institutional and functional leadership, it examines the efforts to respond to the multidimensional equity challenges that arose during the early COVID-19 pandemic as colleges and universities sought to balance the sometimes overlapping, sometimes competing needs of students, staff, faculty and surrounding communities.

Based on this research, my purpose here is to encourage college leaders to engage with their campus communities in a process of institutional reflection on their pandemic experience. As our author group interviewed dozens of presidents, provosts and other senior leaders, many expressed to us that these exchanges provided their first opportunity to reflect on those experiences. Given the frantic and grueling pace and intense political pressures institutional leaders faced during the early pandemic response, this is understandable.

Engaging in a structured reflection process offers institutions—not just individuals—an opportunity to capture the thinking behind critical decision points and therefore increase the capacity for change and adaptation. Developing the organizational discipline to engage in reflection is a necessary element in growing institutional resilience, identifying key decision points and recognizing the tensions that arise as institutions try to balance the needs of different constituencies.

One structured reflection process that those of us who have served in the military are familiar with is the After-Action Review. The classic AAR questions are: What happened, why did it happen and how can we do better? Led by trained facilitators, AARs typically occur at the unit level, so that individual soldiers as well as unit leaders participate. The results of AARs become the basis for operational improvements at the unit level but are also shared with higher levels, thus facilitating collective learning across the service. In short, they offer opportunities for individual, unit and institution-level learning. While the AAR process has been adopted by a range of business and government entities beyond the military, other models for reflective practice exist within the fields of organizational development and management.

My purpose isn’t to argue for any one process, but to encourage institutional leaders to undertake the practice of reflection so that the experience of the pandemic isn’t lost to time or limited to those individuals directly involved (in which case, it will be lost to time as they leave or retire). Given the likelihood that crises are likely to increase in number, scope and severity, identifying and sharing the lessons learned is a critical practice for developing institutional resilience and the leadership capacities needed to operate in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous environment.

Who should be involved? It’s important to capture not only the experiences of those in formal leadership positions, but also those across the entire campus community. While the process might begin with the cabinet or senior leadership team, it should cascade down to individual functional units, such as information technology and academic departments. Certainly, you will want to include students, as well as faculty and staff leaders (both formal and informal) and community partners. Institutions who are part of a larger system should include key contacts to ascertain how well information and resources flowed between system offices and component institutions.

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Done well, this process is about identifying what strategies worked, in addition to areas that need improvement. Many institutions, for instance, found that the capacity building they had engaged in prior to the pandemic positioned them well to address issues such as student homelessness and food insecurity as many students and their families faced job losses.

Structuring this kind of shared reflection requires a level of trust, maturity and vulnerability that not all leaders may feel comfortable with. Clearly, leaders need to exercise discernment about how, when and with whom to share the results, but that is no reason to forgo the institutional learning that comes through a structured reflection process.

What kinds of questions might institutions want to ask? With no claims that it is a complete list, here are a few suggestions:

  • Environmental scanning:
    • At what point in time did someone in your college first identify the possibility that COVID might affect your campus?
    • How soon did that information appear on senior leaders’ radar?
    • What sources of information alerted you to that possibility?
  • Response mobilization:
    • What previous experience managing through crises (of any type) did your campus have?
    • Did you already have an Emergency Operations Center and procedures in place? Whom did the EOC include? Were there others who should have been engaged? If so, were they added over time?
    • What pre-existing relationships/communications channels did you have with relevant external agencies?
  • Communications:
    • Had your campus established protocols for internal and external communications to include a designation of those with authority to engage in college communications?
    • How quickly did students, faculty and staff receive notice of an impending campus closure? Through what means?
    • How did leadership communicate care for campus members? What feedback did you receive about the success of those attempts?
  • Care for campus constituencies:
    • How did the institutional mission shape the pandemic response?
    • What initiatives/strategies had you implemented prior to the pandemic that added to your institutional capacity for rapid change and care?
    • What challenges did the leadership team face in balancing the need to care for multiple campus groups: students, staff and faculty? How did your leadership team determine that balance when the interests of campus populations seemed to compete?
    • What challenges did you face in attempting to move students and faculty to remote instruction and faculty and staff to remote work? What went well?
    • In hindsight, how prepared were you for the mental and physical health challenges faced by both students and employees?
  • Diversity, equity and inclusion:
    • Did your leadership team explicitly discuss the differing experiences of student/employee populations when setting policy?
    • Did leaders deliberately solicit this information from those in their units, students, staff and faculty when deciding how to allocate resources?

Institutional reflection isn’t and shouldn’t be about blame. In the midst of crisis, no one made “perfect” decisions. It is about committing to develop and to implement a growth mind-set within our colleges, identifying opportunities to shore up existing procedures and practices and developing new ones, and understanding how we make decisions when information is incomplete and resources are stretched to the extreme.

Bio

Suzanne Wilson Summers is dean of the School of Arts, Sciences, and Education at Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana.

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