Higher education leaders are in a difficult position as they navigate the coronavirus pandemic. They have had to make the difficult decision in closing campuses during the spring semester, and now they need to focus on bringing students back safely in the fall semester and moving forward in the “new normal.”

Dr. Billy Hawkins has successfully led several higher education institutions through transformational change. During his 13-year tenure as president of Talladega College, the college has undergone a transformation and quadrupled its enrollment. The institution is listed among Princeton Review’s best colleges in the Southwest and U.S. News and World Report’s most innovative colleges. He is currently the chair of the 37 presidents of the United Negro College Fund (UNCF).

Working Collaboratively

Leading during this time requires collaboration instead of isolation. For instance, Dr. Hawkins uses his role as UNCF presidents’ chair to interact with the presidents who serve on the organization’s advisory board through Zoom calls and meeting. These meetings and calls allow the presidents to collaborate and work through the many challenges that their institutions are facing.

Closing the Campus

Talladega College and similar institutions had to make the difficult decision to send students home in mid-March. In making the decision, Hawkins reviewed what other institutions were doing across the nation. He then sat down with his leadership team to analyze this information. Using this data, Talladega College’s leadership made the decision to shut down on-campus instruction during spring break so that students wouldn’t return from other parts of the nation and inadvertently infect members of the university’s community. This closure also meant that Talladega’s faculty had to convert their classes to an online platform.

One of the major challenges that Talladega College faced was helping students through this difficult time. Some students were international students who couldn’t travel home; other students’ hometowns were hotspots for the coronavirus.  

Talladega College approached this uniquely and with compassion, telling students that they could remain on campus if they didn’t feel they could return home. Those who stayed were given jobs on campus working in the physical plant. In addition, the institution was able to tap into a campus emergency fund to help international students return home if they were able to do so.

Many students also faced challenges because of lack of technology and Internet connectivity. For those who remained on campus, Talladega College set up technology in the library so students could easily take classes online.

In addition, the institution reached out to the community, continuing a long partnership. There are two major education institutions in the city, Talladega College and Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind. The two presidents often talk, and AIDB’s president serves on Talladega College’s board. In addition, the city council and community businesses have been very supportive of the college during the pandemic.

CARES Act

Talladega College received approximately $4 million from the CARES Act and the PPP loan program. The institution is using the 50/50 part to support students through a grant application process. Students were asked to log into the institution’s portal to complete the application form. This gave Talladega College a current address where the student was residing as well as hard data in terms of where they are residing at the present time. Once the school received that information, the business office cut a $500 check for each student. Hawkins sent a letter with the check that acknowledged Congress, the U.S. Department of Education and the UNCF, which provided key leadership in the CARES Act’s passage.

If students didn’t access that website portal, the institution did not send a check; this gave the college a better accounting of the funds.

This is the first of two checks. Talladega College will send out a second check in early July, which Hawkins believes will help with student retention. Furthermore, by allocating these funds in two distributions, the institution is encouraging students to use the amount on what they truly need in their daily life.

Creating a Family Atmosphere

Dr. Hawkins believes that the institution’s leaders, faculty and staff have to connect with the students to be able to help them – and reminds employees that the students are their customers. If they treat these customers right, they’ll keep buying their “product.”

The college’s small enrollment allows Dr. Hawkins and the faculty to get to know every student personally. He wants students to be able to walk up and have a conversation with him. He also hosts students at the president’s residence.

The family atmosphere on campus is important – and can be been seen in the college’s various activities. For example, Talladega College has 400 band members (even without a football team) and is striving to be the largest band among HBCUs. The band has participated in the Inaugural Parade, been the lead band in key Mardi Gras’ parades, and performed half-time shows with the New Orleans Saints football team and two senior bowls.

Student Retention

Dr. Hawkins and faculty members continue to check on students, and many are ready to return to campus. He said that the institution needs to show they care about the students, which also convinces their parents that they have taken the appropriate measures to ensure everyone’s safety.

The retention office also is actively working to stay in touch with students. The office is doing weekly podcasts and also reaching out to students on a weekly basis. They are having regular chats and there are chat groups with faculty participation that are specific to groups, such as the band. There also is an e-blast that goes out regularly.

The institution recently opened a new dorm, and has taken advantate of students being away to renovate the older dorms so that they are more comparable to the new dormitory. Talladega will be distributing information on renovations of the dormitories in the near future. This will create a “wow” factor for students because the campus leaders are listening to student feedback.

Dr. Hawkins and his cabinet also meet with student leaders every month. The vice presidents and the director of the physical plant are allowed only to sit and listen, as Dr. Hawkins wants them to hear how students feel about what’s going on around campus. After the meeting, the administrators discuss how to fix a specific issue, if it is indeed a problem.

Three Recommendations for Higher Education Leaders

Dr. Hawkins suggested several takeaways for higher education leaders:

  • Prepare for students’ return to campus. Make the campus a safe environment; this is what parents want to hear. For instance, Talladega College has ordered 6,000 masks and plans to have hand sanitizer and rubber gloves available across campus. Also, screen companies that want to provide these items carefully since many just began selling these items during the pandemic.
  • Connect to the students. Know how they are feeling about being away from campus and find ways to celebrate their return. Dr. Hawkins likes to create unique t-shirts to celebrate college milestones as a way to send positive energy. For example, he is considering holding a barbecue at the start of the school year.
  • Communicate the continued importance of on-campus education across the nation. The current focus is online, but we need to make sure that the importance of on-campus education is not forgotten.

Bullet Points

  • Seek out a group of presidents to discuss critical decisions during the pandemic.
  • Maintain the focus on students during this time. Ensure their safety and also find ways to support them as they face challenges.
  • Seek the community’s support during this time. They can offer a variety of resources to your institution.
  • Look for innovative ways to support students that also can help boost retention. One example is Talladega College’s decision to split up student payments from the CARE Act. The second payment which will be distributed in July, will help reinforce the school’s commitment to the students – and serve as a prompt to reenroll.
  • Create a family atmosphere on campus. This includes getting to know students personally and encouraging faculty and staff to see the students as their customers.
  • Find ways to strengthen the bonds with students to encourage them to return in the fall. These can include podcasts, chat rooms, email blasts and information about what is happening on campus, such as renovations.
  • Meeting regularly with student leaders. Invite your cabinet to sit in and listen. Take the students’ feedback from these meetings and address these issues, when appropriate.

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