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Corona Thoughts: Every Crisis is Different / All Crises are the Same

I was president of a small residential liberal arts college during a period which saw the SARS outbreak, the Swine Flu epidemic, the financial meltdown of 2008-2010, the active shooter anxieties that followed the Virginia Tech massacre, a minor earthquake, and several major storms that knocked out power for extended periods. It was a great time to be alive!

Although the full extent and severity of COVID-19 is yet to be assessed, two things are clear. First, it will be a public health crisis on an unprecedented scale in our lifetimes. And, second, higher education is responding more swiftly, decisively, and aggressively than it has to any threat I can remember. That said, I believe there is value in reviewing the lessons learned in responding to previous crises.

Guess what I learned? Crisis response planning is never wasted. Even very different kinds of crises place similar demands on institutional resources and responses. Let’s focus on some of those demands:

  1. Institutional leadership needs to communicate, clearly, candidly, and frequently with its on-campus and off-campus communities. Most campuses have greatly developed their communication capacities during the last 15 years, including emergency text messaging, pop-up messages on campus computers, and judicious use of campus websites to keep stakeholders informed in real time. My campus had one of the most creative rumor mills I’ve ever encountered, but during a crisis we needed to shut it down by flooding the community with reliable information. Developing this capacity and ensuring that administrators are on the same page about how to use it requires advance planning. Getting it right is fundamental to whatever else you need to do.

  2. Different stakeholders have different concerns. Staff and faculty, residential and non-residential students, parents, trustees, campus neighbors, community officials, and alumni – each group will have different concerns and questions and messaging should be consistent but tailored to address the legitimate concerns of each constituency.

  3. Crisis planning should include the full spectrum of campus leaders. You never know who might have an essential piece of the puzzle. Obviously campus safety, plant operations, student services, human resources, and the campus health service are key players. But it helps to be even more inclusive. Admissions will have an important perspective on how to communicate with prospective students and their families, especially those planning campus visits. The chief financial officer will know how to prioritize and reallocate resources, and can assess the financial impact of different tactics. In the run-up to a major storm with anticipated lengthy power outages and emergency supplies sold out at local stores, Muhlenberg’s advancement vice president helpfully provided fifteen hundred mini flashlights that had already been obtained as giveaways for alumni weekend. Beyond gaining these insights, an inclusive process brings the leadership together and ensures that all are on the same page during a time when their skills and teamwork will be tested. And don't forget to keep trustees informed about your plans and progress.

  4. Prioritize health and safety, while respecting academic values. Okay, this should be a no brainer. But there is sometimes a fine line between an excess of caution and a macho disregard for risk – and it’s not always clear where that line is or to what extent individuals should be permitted to decide for themselves. Whatever you decide, you’re likely to be second-guessed. Draconian top-down measures may be perceived as stifling cherished values like the independence of faculty and students, the faculty prerogative of making decisions about when, where, and how their classes will meet and their exams will be administered, faculty freedom to participate in academic conferences and return to campus. Your communications should acknowledge these potential conflicts upfront, while making the rationale for the policy decision crystal clear and convincing. Should faculty be discouraged from attending academic conferences? And don’t forget the staff. Are housekeepers provided with effective tools and equipment to avoid personal exposure? Should advancement officers and admissions personnel be on the road? Should the president?

  5. Hope for the best but plan for the worst. What if your backup generators fail (they often do)? How will research projects and labs be protected from disruption? How many days of food (perishable, non-perishable) does your dining service have on campus? What if cooks and servers fall ill? What gatherings must be cancelled and how quickly must you decide (sometimes watch and wait is the best approach, sometimes not)? When will you quarantine students – and where, when, and how will you send them home? And my least favorite (yes we really discussed this): do we need a supply of body bags?

The good news is that campuses seem better prepared than ever to handle a crisis like the corona virus. On-line instruction capabilities provide the flexibility to continue the academic enterprise while minimizing group exposure. Real-time information about the virus’s progress world-wide is enabling rapid responses to students who are studying abroad, faculty attendance at academic conferences, and whether foreign applicants’ admission should be deferred.

The bad news is that other major questions will need answers soon. How will admissions officers bring home the class? Will summer melt follow a different set of rules this year? Should commencement ceremonies be cancelled or postponed? (as of this update, some already have been). How about Alumni reunions? (ditto). For now most institutions have adopted a wise policy of waiting and watching – but a decision point will be here soon. We are opening a discussion on TH Forum where you can share your thoughts, plans, and advice – and (at least as importantly) share information with your colleagues and counterparts. The more who participate, the smarter we will all be – and no hand sanitizer or fist bumps will be necessary.

I’m no epidemiologist, but I’m fairly sure the corona virus crisis is going to get worse before it gets better. It’s going to be ugly for a while – and it’s going to test our leadership skills. But if we keep the above lessons in mind, our institutions will emerge better, stronger, and smarter.