As we slog through the pandemic, we will surely continue to learn many lessons about leadership, change management, and ongoing cautions and threats to higher education. What we may miss is the opportunity to be more transparent about processes and decisions made during the pandemic.
Of all the mysteries of higher education administration—typically brought on by personnel and other privacy issues—some of the more visible decisions are made at such a pace and amidst such complexity that the impetus behind those decisions remains opaque.
But the pandemic affected everyone in one way or another, giving us a shared foundation for demystifying those processes and decisions, even if they are revealed largely after the fact. For instance, grounding our decisions in the available research and data was helpful but even as new information emerged (e.g., whether the virus was primarily surface- or air-transmissible) required us to rapidly change our protocols and standards.
One of the most obvious questions regarding the pandemic is ‘who is making the decision(s) and why them?’ Whether the president or her cabinet is driving the decisions, subject matter experts are always needed. In the case of the pandemic, that means physicians and mental health professionals to help interpret medical guidance, data and safest practices as delivered by the CDC, the state’s health department, WHO and other experts.
For instructional changes, our IT and faculty development teams are the key drivers. For student wellbeing and behavior, Student Life and Campus Security, instructional support staff, and advisors for clubs/organizations/athletics play a critical role in decision making. In short, everyone on campus has a role—albeit one that looks and feels different from non-pandemic operations even as it includes those routine operations.
Making and remaking decisions
Some of the more interesting nuances of decision-making during the pandemic help demonstrate why simple answers and procedures typically defy value in a crisis—in other words, the easy answer is almost always wrong. The clichÁ© of building the car as it speeds downhill is more than apt for this situation as new information and data comes in daily and, occasionally, even hourly. Whether it’s about new numbers, new strategies, new guidance or new solutions—just when we are ready to hit “send” on a communication to the campus—new information has us scuttling to revise and amend that message.
To provide more transparency in this ongoing battle, a few key groundings are significant. First, we had to set a tone of seriousness about the pandemic that, in its earliest days was oftentimes portrayed as “just the flu” and then a “hoax.” Those who offered cautions were labeled hysterical, even as horror stories of overcrowded hospitals and morgues, escalating death tolls, shortages of ventilators, restrictions on family visitors, and symptoms of long COVID emerged.
In this early context, we had to decide whether to send students home or keep them in congregant living. Depending on each student’s circumstances (personal health, the health of those at home, resources, access to technology, and more), the matter of safety and health and educational progress could make answering that question dramatically different for each student.
Liberal arts rankings: In Money’s top 50, these are the standouts
As time went by, other decisions had to be made and remade. These decisions provide some insight on the difference between individuals making personal choices or parents deciding for their students versus making decisions for the health and well-being of an entire campus community.
Early questions focused on response to the illness itself, including the conditions under which the illness spreads—surface, airborne, physical contact—and the best means to respond. Should we focus on cleaners? air filters? gloves? masks? wipe-downs? Subsequent decisions revealed the cascading effects of the pandemic:
- Do we require masks? If so, where? (inside, outside, dining halls, athletic events, transportation, classrooms, labs, libraries?) And what kind of mask (Cloth? Disposables? N95s? KN95s? Gators? Scarves?) Do we make these available or hope people can find their own?
- Do we require testing? If so, what kind? (Antigen? PCR? Wastewater?) and with what frequency? (Daily, weekly, after exposure After symptoms emerge? Surveillance?) How available are the tests? And who pays for the testing?
- Do we contact trace? If so, with what personnel? With what instructions for contact? With what confidence in accuracy? Or privacy? And at what cost?
- How do we measure proper social distancing? (6 feet? 3 feet? Front to back? Circular perimeter?)
- How do we secure entry/exit from buildings (One-way? Two-way? Automatic or human door openers?) And do we lay out directional arrows to keep building traffic going in a consistent flow with less chance for airborne spread?
- Should we confront someone who is not following the community standards? How? Are there penalties? Fines? Honor code violations? Send-homes? For how much or how long? Is there an appeal process?
- Do we require vaccinations? Boosters? Do we allow medical or religious waivers? Who determines which waivers are acceptable? What are the consequences or penalties for not following college policy?
- How do we care for students/employees who become ill? How much space do we set aside for isolation/quarantine? How will we check on someone’s physical and mental condition? Do we deliver food? Communicate with family? Protect privacy?
- Do we allow visitors on campus? Trustees? Guest speakers? Parents? Visiting athletic teams? Contractors? Vendors? Can we insist they follow our community standards and if so, how do we communicate those standards to visitors and what are the penalties for violations?
- How do we encourage potential students to come to campus if we are not allowing visitors? How do we show one of our best features—our campus—to potential employees, new partners, and parents?
- How do we graciously cancel event contracts? Weddings? Speakers? Performances? Competitions? And when can we reschedule them? Or start accepting new events? With what rules or guidelines in place?
- How do we redefine traditions such as study abroad, research, internships, community service, and other options that embody the character of so much of what we do?
- How does campus safety secure a once-open campus from a pandemic and these concurrent elements?
- How does our food provider contract for quality and quantity of meals with uncertain fluctuations of students on campus using meal plans?
- How can we project an accurate budget for the upcoming cycle? What financial scenarios are we testing, depending on a 3-month versus 3-year-plus duration of the pandemic? Do we increase or decrease our drawdown from the endowment? The quasi-endowment? Do we initiate a special appeal to donors? To legislators? Do we increase/decrease tuition, room & board?
- Do we continue our building projects? Hiring? Partnerships? Other strategic initiatives?
- How do we recognize and support front-line workers who cannot work from home? How do we ensure fairness for those working from home whose hours dramatically increased or decreased during the pandemic?
- How do we respond to critics who wonder why we aren’t doing what XYZ University is doing down the street or in another state altogether?
When will it be really over?
These questions, of course, are just a glimpse of the questions and decisions that have swirled during the pandemic, and we remain with one of the most stubborn of all: When will it be really over, if ever, or will we have to go back into pandemic-decision mode at any moment? What will we have learned about our institutions, our students, our community, and ourselves?
At the very least, we should learn that crises are not one-size-fits-all events and that they have immediate and cascading effects, and they require careful consideration of data and options even when time is of the essence. They require the trust, even among skeptics, of leaders and colleagues and community. And they require the gracious support and suspension of judgment in the face of unknown variables. Worst case scenario planning is exhausting, but when the consequence is human lives and not just budgets, missions, and wishful thinking, the need for even greater clarity emerges.
For those of us blessed with collaborative teams, gracious communities and their expressions of confidence and gratitude, the pandemic has offered an insight into humanity that far overshadows the awfulness of the illness and divisiveness that has also ensued. As the pandemic continues to change, we realize more than ever that we, too, have the power to change. And being more transparent about those changes—especially when we have some moments to reflect and share that candor with our colleagues—is a critical component of battling the collateral damage of the pandemic: the loss of community.
Jo Allen is president of Meredith College in Raleigh, North Carolina.