Higher education is in a hurricane created by the COVID-19 virus. In many respects, it is sweeping away plans for the Spring 2020 semester, even in areas where a case hasn’t been identified yet. We’re seeing on campus classes being cancelled, some of which are being moved online; enrollments and finances affected, e.g., deposit dates for AY 2020-2021 being pushed back; study abroad programs and foreign travel are being scrapped; and events—whether that’s the NCAA basketball tournament, conferences or campus art gallery exhibits—cancelled.

Yet despite the current chaos, higher education still goes on. And when the all-clear sounds (and it will), this won’t be a typical “students are back from summer break” event. Think more 9/11 and how peoples’ mental models shifted–how it gave rise to TSA and Homeland Security.

Right now, the focus is (and rightfully so) on health precautions. Experts are saying that this situation may last up to 90 days, although that projection could change.

At some point, though, higher education institutions are going to need to redirect their attention to business matters. That’s because with this shift in landscape, I believe we’ll start to see some if not all of the following:

  • This crisis will call into question institutions’ planning and risk models, and institutions will begin to take risk planning more seriously (as corporations are starting to do).
  • Boards will need to become more proactive in planning, and especially risk planning.
  • They also will begin to start recruiting new skills on board, e.g., instead of having all or a majority of the members of the board of a Christian college being pastors, the institution will begin recruiting a broader skillset.
  • Institutions who have not embraced distance education/online education will move in that way if they can (financially), or will start creating more strategic alliances to enable their students to continue their studies while not on campus.
  • Accreditors will begin to loosen up requirements for online education, and allow more substantive changes during these times to help keep colleges afloat.
  • Colleges and universities will need to reexamine their strategic and financial plans to account for the serious drops in revenue they will (and are) see(ing).
  • They will also need to reconcile the rates that students pay for face-to-face and online education.

So let’s take a look at some of the issues that higher education leaders will be facing both in the near-term and farther down the road once the COVID-19 situation plays out.

Current Situation / This Term

Many institutions are making (or have already made) the decision to have students remain home after spring break. This has many implications for your institution, its students, and its faculty and employees. I know this is stating the obvious, but the single most important job you have is a president in the near-term is to focus on protecting your students, employees and other stakeholders. Obviously, you want to follow the CDC guidelines to ensure that anyone on campus is able to be in a safe environment.

We have put together some thoughts on how to cope with this crisis. This not an all-encompassing list, but perhaps something here will trigger a thought you may not have had.

Do I Stay or Do I Go?

There is a large number of institutions who have robust online/distance education programs, and many institutions are moving all of their instruction online. And, at the same time, there are many institutions who for a myriad of reasons have not embraced online education. This could be problematic going forward, and for those who are willing to make the switch, this could be an opportunity.

But before we go there, let’s talk faculty. While many faculty have embraced online education, there are equally as many who have not and are steadfastly opposed to it. However, given this current crisis and its potential impacts on institutions, I think we have, as John Kotter from Harvard Business School said in his book Leading Change, a “sense of urgency.” We don’t need to create it – it is already here. And perhaps this may be a way to get recalcitrant faculty on board with distance education.

Moving Instruction Online and Other Ideas. If you do not already have the infrastructure built for online classes, there are some simple ways you can do this, one that even resisting faculty might tolerate (or even embrace).

One way to make this move is to encourage synchronistic online education using a platform such as Zoom, which will allow the faculty member the same (or similar) structure as teaching in a classroom. While many faculty will be comfortable with this shift, some recalcitrant faculty members who haven’t previously embraced this may have difficulty. Needless to say, it will be important to provide these faculty with training on the selected platform as well as those students who aren’t familiar with the online management system you use.

Asynchronous may be a better way to go with this. If faculty record their lectures prior to the “scheduled class,” students can view the lecture and then the entire class time can be devoted to discussion. This also alleviates potential bandwidth issues that faculty or students may have with synchronous.

One institution I know of recently moved all their classes online. Surprisingly enough, it was the faculty who asked them to do this, and suggested that they record their lectures for a term ahead of time. What was the key for these faculty was that they found that by recording the lectures for the “classes,” they had more time to spend with students one-on-one in mentoring roles. This sealed the deal for them.

You want to record these classes, both to allow students to access these when they can, as well as their serving as a record of quality that you may need with accreditors.

You’ll also need to consider how students hand in their assignments. They can potentially email them to the instructor. Which may not be all that different from what they’re doing now.

Another way of doing this would be creating an alliance with an OPM to maintain continuity, but I would be a bit wary of continuing with this as the costs can be prohibitive over the long term.

Is conducting independent study a possibility? Can assignments be given outside the classroom and completed by students remotely, i.e., correspondence courses? Yes, I know “substantial interaction” is required by the Dept of Education and your accreditor. However, given the circumstances, I suspect accreditors will be more open to ideas they normally would not be.

This ChronicleVitae article offers some important insights about moving online quickly.

Your Board

This is a crisis situation and as that, it’s important to make sure that your board is informed and involved.  We suggest engaging board committees that look at finances, strategy and risk, academic affairs and university life since this crisis will have wide-ranging ramifications.

Crisis Communications

Crisis communications are critical (as you already know). One of the key things that we have learned over the years is that the message needs to be ubiquitous across the institution, hence it is important that messages coming out of your institution come from the same source.

One of the most critical things is to identify specific spokesperson(s). We recommend they be the president and board chair. These individuals must have a clearly defined message and stay on it.

Another critical thing is to ensure that faculty, students and staff understand to point media to those who are designated spokespeople. Media LOVE to get divergent points of view and run with them, and no college needs to appear as they don’t know what they’re doing or indecisive.

Don’t think this is just media. As you recall from previous blogs, anyone with a smart phone and an Internet account is a “reporter.” And in this day and age of social media (and everyone wanting their 15 minutes of fame), the importance of staying on message as an institution must be emphasized to all (and those who disobey must be held accountable).

There is a saying in crisis communication – you can never communicate enough. Above all, be clear, truthful, transparent and timely. More about this later.

Accreditors

This situation also means you need to get in touch with accreditors and keep them informed about your decisions. Most will (should) be amenable to the change, especially to online education if you have a solid plan on how to make this work. They will want to understand how your institution will regain the instructional time lost during the semester. They also may want to review recordings of new online offerings to ensure quality instruction.

Student Recruitment

Institutional leaders also need to be aware that this crisis may lead to other institutions trying to “poach” your current (and prospective) students since they are no longer on your campus (or wondering if your campus will be opening again). Therefore, it’s important to continue to be proactive in reaching out to these folks and their families to continue to nurture these relationships.

Employees and Faculty

Another issue involves staff and faculty. You must think through how to manage work remotely if you decide—as many institutions are doing—to have individuals work from home. This is a great time to get caught up on the things that you want or need to get done, but it’s important to also be looking toward the future and taking care of what’s necessary (such as enrolling the next class of students). Top leaders need to set the tone and expectation for the work that needs to be accomplished. It’s important to find ways to make sure that quality work is being done at home and that all people have each other’s contact information so that the normal communications can still take place.

Looking to the Future

Unfortunately, none of us know how long this is going to last. Our best guess is 1-3 months, but that is a guess. The good news is that it will wind down, and we need to be prepared for that when it comes.

We encourage you to also begin to identify how you can use online education as a new revenue stream.

As it is during the crisis, it’s important to be transparent and communicate often. Be sure to let students, faculty and stakeholders know what you as institutional leaders are thinking. For example, for those schools who are not planning to move students all online, when are you planning to have them complete the term? One way to do this is to make plans about summer school and use that as an opportunity for students to finish the semester. This has other implications that must be explored. For example, be sure to keep communicating your institution’s new cleaning procedures so that people feel safe about returning to campus.

Find ways to get feedback, whether through surveys, “hanging out” in the chat rooms that your students hand out in, or other methods, to integrate into your communications and planning.

Furthermore, you may want to use this period of time to look at your institutional positioning. We don’t want to see Clay Christenson’s prediction of 50 percent of higher education institutions going under come true. We don’t think it will happen, but each institution needs to be proactive in taking steps to survive this current situation. You may want to go back through your strategic plan and using this “new normal,” identify a roadmap for the future. Do market research to identify ways to attract and keep students.

Remember, people want to be included and engaged in the institution’s future.  Find ways to get feedback, whether through surveys or other methods, to integrate into your planning. If you get people involved in these types of activities and make their lives as normal as possible, they will appreciate it. They also feel included in the processes and remain engaged with and committed to the institution’s future. You may want to use your endowment to invest in online education, which can help your institution not only make it through the crisis but also move forward.

This also is time to be focused on enrollment. You need to make every effort to ensure that students are selecting your institution and will be enrolling in the fall. You’ll want to communicate this next chapter for your university and that you’re ready for the new start. You also want to begin to share stories about your institution’s resiliency as well as its new programmatic features, such as online education.

Financial Implications

This situation will bring on significant financial challenges. You need to analyze what you need to do financially to handle the more-demanding hygienic practices as well as to continue covering payroll, ensuring working conditions. Will you need to tap into your endowment or will the federal or state government provide resources?

Another consideration is whether your institution is going to need to refund room and board to traditional students who are moved to online education—and whether you use this to your advantage through giving families a credit for the next semester. While you have a contract with parents, you also need to consider the moral and ethical ramifications in the situation.

Once this situation has passed, be sure to spend time doing risk planning, especially taking into account areas that are fiduciary in nature. You also may come to the realization that it is time to plan for a new reality due to tight finances, so you may want to explore an alliance, merger or acquisition.

In closing, we’re in unprecedented times. Higher education leaders need to focus on ensuring student, faculty and staff safety while also beginning to look at the broader picture of how the COVID19 pandemic will affect the institution. It’s important to involve the board and all stakeholders and to communicate regularly and effectively. Additionally, you need to review your strategic plan and develop new risk scenarios based on what COVID19 pandemic is bringing to your institution. This includes both challenges (financially surviving, retaining students, enrolling future classes, maintaining clean and safe buildings) and also opportunities (utilizing the new online education component that institutions have been forced to embrace) that could offer a silver lining.

The times are foggy but if you move forward in a thoughtful, measured and collaborative manner, you can position your institution for the best possible outcome.