Nearly two years into the global pandemic, it is an apt time to reflect on college and universities’ experience in the COVID-19 era and how we might build upon it productively.
The pandemic hit my institution, the University of California, San Diego, abruptly. One day our 40,000 students were in their classrooms, completing the last few sessions of the winter quarter; the next day, the governor issued a stay-at-home order and we shifted all impending final exams and most campus operations to a remote format. As restrictions tightened and loosened over the ensuing months, we made decisions and issued urgent communications at a dizzying pace that taxed existing structures well beyond their limits. There was no end to the workday; there were no weekends. Yet we were grateful to be employed and able to focus on the uplifting business of helping students continue their education.
This essay reflects on what I have gleaned from serving as a chief academic officer during the long months of the pandemic. I certainly learned a lot about technical matters like wastewater sampling, PCR testing, webinar design, remote exam proctoring, classroom airflow and privacy regulations. However, what will probably be of most enduring importance were the lessons about working with others: facilitating communication, projecting adaptive continuity and sustaining community. These approaches can nurture the optimism and hope that enable college and university constituencies to believe they can meet the challenges the crisis has caused and build a future together.
The uncertainty that any crisis unleashes will naturally prompt people on campuses to ask a host of questions and express a keen desire for wider access to information. When the crisis significantly disrupts operations for a prolonged period, a steady communication cadence becomes essential for maintaining continuity and peace of mind. That is particularly true during an outbreak of a deadly infectious disease, which forces us to stay physically isolated, upending our usual means of connecting with one another. While formal in-person meetings, with their impromptu side conversations with neighbors, can be roughly replicated by Zoom meetings with sidebars in the chat window, there is no real replacement for the many serendipitous (and surprisingly impactful) encounters we used to experience in hallways, at receptions or in coffee shops.
Several aspects of communication have emerged as particularly important for us during these months: conveying reliable information, gathering input and retaining a sense of engagement among our campus constituencies. As always, we must listen to people’s accounts of what worries them if we are to have any chance of addressing those fears. And we must prepare our fellow leaders—deans, directors and department chairs—with the information and insight they need to address the questions their faculty, staff and students bring to them.
Faced with the need to convey massive amounts of information to the thousands of people associated with a university, it is tempting to think that one all-campus email blast will do the trick. However, we quickly found that no single mode of relaying information would reliably reach everyone—or be absorbed even if it did arrive. As a professor, for example, one can better ensure that all students in one’s class are aware of an impending midterm by publicizing it simultaneously through various channels: the syllabus, the classroom calendar, oral announcements and email. Similarly, in sharing information about both the crisis and the continuity of campus operations, we found it necessary to use a host of approaches.
For instance, we leveraged long-established formal meetings with leadership or governance bodies and initiated flexible, inclusive gatherings of subject matter experts that focused on crisis-related business. We also created new written communication outlets, including dashboards, newsletters, notices and websites aimed at alumni, faculty, staff, students and students’ families. We launched a series of Zoom town halls that we recorded and made available online (with associated FAQ pages). We created topical videos and animations to explain technical matters in engaging ways. And we deployed “human kiosks,” identified by brightly colored T-shirts, who serve as peer educators and guides wherever students gather.
During an extended crisis, it seems obvious that one must broadcast detailed factual information about the nature, progress and impact of the pandemic and the tools being used to combat it, as well as how campus operations and campus life are being reorganized in response to it. But it is equally important to convey a sense of institutional perspective, guiding principles and a holistic approach: for instance, the campus strategy for keeping our educational and research mission intact, the emphasis on inclusion and equity throughout our solutions, and the larger financial and political context impacting university operations. By making stakeholders aware of how data and values come together to influence crisis-related policy, we prepare them to participate in inclusive and thoughtful discussions about addressing financial challenges, reimagining the educational role of digital media or keeping employees’ long-term career prospects on track. Such discussions are at the heart of our precious systems of shared governance.
Indeed, we have found that members of the university prize opportunities to share concerns and ideas with the leadership team and engage in dialogue with subject matter experts. Whether we have invited live questions during a town hall or structured inclusive meetings as brainstorming sessions, the response has been tremendous. Likewise, when we have asked people to join crisis-related task forces so their perspective and knowledge can influence the solutions we pursue, they have been generous with their time.
In the midst of an extended crisis, people often find it hard to see a way forward. Even when it’s not possible to predict exactly what the future will look like, you should retain some elements of normal processes as a statement of hope about the long-term future: the sun will rise, the next academic year will start, careers will continue, students will pursue their education, scholarly creativity will find new ways to flourish.
At a time when so much is shifting, it is valuable to project a sense that our typical institutional processes still exist—and that we are thoughtfully adapting them to meet present circumstances or address inequities the crisis has revealed. Much of an institution’s communication content may necessarily focus on explaining what is new about the current situation—that classes may be offered remotely, research lab occupancy may be limited, masks may be required and so forth. But during an extended crisis, the very fact that some things actually will proceed as usual is news well worth imparting. If you do not actively communicate where continuity is present, people will wrongly assume that none exists.
So let people know that annual processes like the review of academic files for tenure, promotion or honors are continuing. Remind them that the regular evaluations of existing or proposed academic programs are moving forward, even if with some delay. Provide updates on the milestones of the admissions process: application deadline, release of decisions, student response dates. Keep up the campus news stories about prizes won and inventions launched. All of these are welcome reminders that time is moving forward, that we are not entirely stuck in the amorphous “now” of the crisis.
Maintain collaborations with the many leaders and units that you normally work with during the year; their engagement and morale are vitally important for the integrity and sustainability of the institution. And precisely because they are not spending every waking minute dealing with logistical details related to the crisis, they will bring fresh ideas and perspectives to your conversations. As you keep up your cadence of meetings with deans or chairs or the academic senate, try to gradually establish a balance between agenda items that relate to the current crisis and those that maintain momentum on long-term university priorities. Where feasible, offer flexibility on deadlines to acknowledge the additional roles and stressors that leaders are contending with.
Finally, don’t let the pressures imposed by the crisis paralyze action or atrophy priorities. Keep making decisions based on data, principles and long-term strategy; keep improving the effectiveness and equity of policies and processes. While the data may slew far more rapidly than in ordinary times—which can feel unsettling—the university’s underlying vision and goals should remain a steady beacon. It will be more important than ever to publicly share the information and reasoning behind the decisions that the institution is making. Then, if shifts in the data compel the institution to pivot in a new direction, campus stakeholders will be primed to understand the implications of the shift and the reason for the pivot.
Even while keeping up with the demands of your leadership role, you should do your part to sustain connection and community. It could be something as small as starting a team meeting with a friendly inquiry about someone’s Zoom background or scheduling individual check-in meetings with team members to hear what’s on their minds. It might involve opening up a bit about the hobbies you’re embracing to cope with stress. It could mean making an extra effort to praise people’s work openly so they know that their contributions are appreciated and other team members have the chance to chime in with their own words of support. It might include offering a listening ear to someone who is struggling.
As I have engaged with individual faculty, staff, students and alumni during the pandemic, I’ve noticed a few recurring themes:
- A desire for open reflection on just how challenging and fatiguing our professional (and personal) lives are right now. Things are not easy, and it is important that we acknowledge that as part of having authentic conversations about current realities and supporting colleagues in the moments when they feel overwhelmed.
- Expressions of gratitude for the many instances when peers assist one another and are actively, intentionally, thoughtfully kind.
- A determination to apply the hard-won lessons of the crisis era to transform the institution into a more equitable, resilient, creative place. This is an extraordinarily concrete expression of people’s belief in the importance of the university’s mission.
I strive to carry these honest and positive themes with me as I go through the endless and overfull days. What takes more effort than in pre-crisis times is regulating my response to irritations. I try to remember that the other person is just as stressed, frightened and exhausted as I am—and is carrying burdens I know nothing about. In recalling my own hope that others will forgive my brusque or uncomprehending moments, I push myself to extend the same grace to them. This is much harder than usual for any of us to do when unmoored from our traditional supportive social contexts by the extra burdens of isolation an extended health crisis imposes.
Focusing on communication, continuity and connection can maintain the shared vision and collaborative spirit that drive a university’s academic accomplishments and societal impact. The foundational lesson from an extended crisis that isolates us is that leaders must foster community and emphasize interdependence to promote institutional well-being.