Published on 2020/03/17

Crisis Leadership and the Higher Education Response to the COVID-19 Outbreak

The EvoLLLution | Crisis Leadership and the Higher Education Response to the COVID-19 Outbreak
Higher ed officials must work quickly and communicate efficiently in order to offer their students the best learning experience in light of the current COVID-19 virus outbreak.

The COVID-19 outbreak has seized the attention of senior leaders and emergency management teams of colleges and universities across the country. The recent headlines are staggering:

  • World Health Organization declares coronavirus a pandemic.
  • 10,000 coronavirus cases now reported in Italy.
  • Coronavirus: Up to 70 percent of Germany could become affected.
  • Congressional doctor predicts 70-150 million U.S. coronavirus cases.
  • America shuts down.

In my research on crisis leadership in higher education, I define crises to be events or situations of significant magnitude that threaten reputations, impact the lives of those involved in the institution, disrupt the ways in which the organization functions, have a cascading influence on leadership responsibilities and obligations across units/divisions and require an immediate response from leaders (Gigliotti, 2019). We now find ourselves at a defining crisis moment. Although the long-term impact on colleges and universities is unknown, the short-term impact of the pandemic is significant, including the cancellation of in-person classes and university events, dramatic shifts to fully online instruction, and restrictions on student, faculty, and staff travel. In the flurry of activity, questions are rightfully being raised about digital inequality and the effect on students who lack access to the technology required, the challenges facing students who are homeless or food insecure, and the financial impact on hourly workers across our institutions. The timing of the crisis is most damning as institutions consider alternatives for admitted student sessions, commencement activities, spring athletic competitions, and other end of year programs — what would otherwise be an enlivening and energizing time on our campuses.

For most of us in higher education, we tend to experience crisis from a distance, monitoring institutional and environmental crises that could potentially disrupt the operations of our department or school, and deferring to senior leaders and emergency management experts in providing guidance on how best to maneuver through these difficult situations. In many ways, dimensions of this public health emergency mirror those of past incidents, including a great deal of stakeholder uncertainty, a reliance on partnerships with regional and national health officials, and the design of formal and informal campaigns across campuses to encourage healthy habits. Yet there are many dimensions of this exigency that feel quite different. As suggested by the WHO director-general, Tedros Adhanom, on March 3rd, “This virus is not SARS, it’s not MERS, and it’s not influenza. It is a unique virus with unique characteristics.” The uniqueness of the virus and the uniqueness of the crisis have the potential to paralyze institutions of higher education; yet, from what we have seen across our higher education ecosystem, the response has been encouraging.

In short order, we have witnessed the exchange of ideas and best practices across our networks of collaboration in managing this public health crisis. Formal and informal leaders across institutions have demonstrated a willingness to support one another in moving to a virtual delivery of university curriculum. And despite the potential impact on short and long-term reputations and the financial bottom line of our institutions, the general response to the crisis has focused most centrally on the health and well-being of our communities. We can take pride in these values-based responses to an otherwise troubling and disorienting event of great magnitude.

As I write in my book on Crisis Leadership in Higher Education, crises shift the national and international spotlight to the leadership decisions and actions at our institutions. As we continue to wrestle through the uncertainties and fears of this current moment, below are some guiding principles that can help orient us in productive and forward-moving directions:

  • Adopt an agile stance. By design, colleges and universities are often slow-moving and deliberative entities. This fast-moving situation requires a careful and coordinated response from central emergency management teams, and ongoing, frequent, and concise communication in response to these changing conditions will be critical.
  • Centralize communication efforts. Senior leaders from your institution are likely engaged in routine dialogue with health officials and have access to information that might not yet be broadly known. Regardless of one’s official role, direct students, colleagues, and outside stakeholders to one central source for crisis-related information, and ensure messages within units, departments, and schools align with those being offered at the most central and senior levels.
  • Support one another. Many faculty and staff bring a great deal of experience with online learning to our institutions. As we wade through these difficult circumstances, support colleagues who may have little experience or background with remote instruction.
  • Demonstrate compassion. It is easy to remain fearful in the face of uncertainty. For many of us, our work in higher education is a vocation, and these times of disruption challenge us to exercise care and concern for others as we navigate a challenge for our time.
  • Engage in values-centered leadership, recognizing that in the darkness and chaos of crisis, this approach to leadership becomes most critical, most visible, and most desired.

Editor’s note: This piece was submitted on March 14, 2020. 

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