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Known Unknowns: Covid-19 and the Academy

This spring, as the pandemic hit our country with astonishing speed and force, colleges and universities (with one conspicuous exception) responded swiftly, decisively, creatively, and in keeping with their deepest values. Within a period of days (which must have seemed like weeks or months to institutional leaders) residences and dining halls were closed, students sent home, staff reorganized to work from home whenever possible, courses converted to remote delivery, prorated refunds promised to families for room and board, and residence halls reopened to accommodate health care workers and other first responders. I have been tremendously proud that so many of our institutions prioritized so unequivocally the health and safety of their students, faculty, staff, and community.

But now we enter a period of even greater peril. While “the right thing to do" was fairly clear in the immediacy of the pandemic’s initial impact, now leaders must confront the known unknowns that will threaten the viability of their institutions over the next months and years.

The biggest unknown, of course, is how long this situation will persist. Realistically, things will not get back to “normal” until we have a vaccine – which experts think is about 18 months away. In the meantime we can expect infection rates to fluctuate (most likely depending on our ability to continue to self isolate), and for a new wave to hit sometime in the fall. This uncertainty makes contingency planning a challenge to say the least. When you don’t know the answers to the big questions you’re going to need more than a Plan B. Plans C-Z should also be in the works.

With that sobering introduction, here are some of the questions you need to be thinking about.

Enrollment

The Class of 2024. Offers of admission are out, but yield rates are more unpredictable than they have ever been. Having missed out on high school graduation celebrations, how many students will be willing to start college with a virtual freshman experience? How many families, affected by sudden unemployment and stock market losses, will be able to pay tuition and fees? How many families will respond by urging their kids to take a gap year until things settle down? An empty spot in the first year class stays empty for four years. What actions can you take to move the yield needle in the right direction?

The classes of 2021-2023. If things are not going back to normal by the start of the fall semester, how many of your students will stick with your institution? If courses are going to be online anyway, will families encourage their students to take online classes at a local community college to save money? What strategies can anticipate and counterbalance what might well be an extraordinary summer of melt?

Finances

For most institutions, financial viability is directly linked to enrollment and student revenue. Those fortunate few that can rely on substantial endowments will also be hit – but how hard? Will portfolios and the economy rebound quickly, or, as during the Great Recession, will retrenchment be necessary for even the wealthiest institutions? If so, how can reductions be made with minimal impact on an institution’s value proposition?

With development officers and presidents unable to travel and donors’ portfolios shrinking, how much of a hit will fundraising take? The annual fund will be the canary in the coal mine this year – but the shock waves will likely not end there. Will campaign goals need to be reduced or campaigns extended? What about much needed capital projects that are only partially funded, especially if ground has already been broken? How can messaging to stakeholders be modified to encourage their continued support without seeming to exploit a tragedy that is affecting all of us?

Faculty and Staff

It takes generations to build a strong faculty, and almost as long to assemble a talented leadership team and the skilled staff that make a college or university run smoothly.

How do managers effectively supervise staff who are working remotely? How are goals determined, progress evaluated, teams assessed?

How do faculty continue their research? Does the tenure clock stop? And if so, for how long?

Is there a succession plan in case key administrators are felled by the virus?

Are employees in every area cross-trained so that continuity of service can be maintained if lab technicians, IT specialists, custodial staff, plant ops workers, campus security staff, and others fall ill?

How can institutions keep the members of an educational community together when revenues are unpredictable or non-existent? Salaries, medical benefits, and retirement contributions typically represent a significant chunk of institutional budgets (40% is not atypical). When revenue shrinks what solutions are available? Salary cuts? Benefit reductions? Layoffs? Rolling furloughs? How can morale be maintained while compensation is being cut?

Governance

In a situation that calls for rapid and decisive action, how do leaders honor principles of shared governance that undergird institutional stability and longevity? Consultation with faculty and trustees is time-consuming, and its effectiveness depends on the give-and-take of discussion – both formal and informal. It is even more difficult when budget cuts are on the table. Social distancing makes this kind of interchange difficult if not impossible.

Society’s Expectations

When the crisis has passed, will there still me a market for traditional education, or will our campuses be regarded as pleasant but quaint throwbacks to a bygone era – like so many Downton Abbeys? Will a pent up demand for engineers, health workers, and tech specialists send young people and the unemployed or underemployed flocking to short-term certification programs, close to home, part-time and maybe online?

Are there any Silver Linings?

Perhaps, but precious few. Professors who have had to adopt remote learning and online technology on the fly may find that they are rethinking and revitalizing their pedagogy. Stakeholders who have been complacent about the status quo or resistant to change may be motivated to think boldly, creatively, and strategically about their institution’s future. Colleges and universities in urban areas may find increased interest from local students who want to stay closer to home.

We cannot know the answers to any of these questions, but we need to be thinking about them. So far, the higher education sector has been exemplary in its response to this crisis. Let’s hope we can still say that a year from now. The challenges are just beginning.

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