Crises offer many common lessons once they are over. That’s the case now as higher education faces the latest crises, the COVID19 pandemic.

This episode of Changing Higher Ed features Dr. Scott Cowen, the former president of Tulane University. Dr. Cowen, who is now a faculty member, as shares his insights of surviving a crisis, which in his case was Hurricane Katrina.

He believes that out of every disaster, we have an obligation to make something better. He encourages institutions to chronicle what they are learning so it could help inform future crises.

The Differences and Similarities between Coronavirus and Katrina

Whereas the coronavirus is affecting the US and the globe, Hurricane Katrina affected a very specific region of the United States. About two weeks after the storm, Tulane leaders were able to determine the physical damage that was done to the institution and to New Orleans. Then plans were developed to remediate and renew the university as well as the city.  That took many years to complete. In Tulane’s case, this recovery took seven years to get back to normal in terms of damage to both the physical plant, enrollment and the institutional reputation.

In the case of the COVID19, the effect and the impact continue to unfold every day. No one knows the duration or how bad it’s going to be. It also is kicking off a meltdown in the stock market.

There are similarities between these two crises. There is no playbook for what’s happening. People are feeling very anxious and very scared. They don’t know what the future holds. Now college campuses are closing and dispersing their faculty, staff and students.

Four Key Areas to Focus on

If the COVID19 crisis goes 3-4 months, there will be impacts, especially if the market remains on a decline. Dr. Cowen believes that institutions could return to normal operations in the Fall. There will still be a lot to do because it will have significant impact on finances.

Dr. Cowen suggests doing the following planning steps:

  • Make plans for the safety and welfare of students, faculty and students. By and large, institutions are doing a good job in this area.
  • Focus on what you can and can’t control. What institutions currently can control is the closure of campuses and putting everything online. However, there is a lot that is currently out of our control. Therefore, it is important to start doing scenario planning and developing work streams focused on when the institution potentially could reopen or what the financial impact will be. Look at three-month, five-month and nine-month projections for reopening.
  • Communicate like crazy. When people are anxious and nervous, they want information. There needs to be a rhythm to communication. Give stakeholders a realistic view of what’s happening right now, what is being worked on, and a sense of realistic hope. This common message, which requires a very well-planned communications plan for all stakeholders, needs to come from the president and board chair.
  • Constantly monitor chat rooms online. This is a fruitful site to see what is on stakeholders’ minds and then address these in communications.

Communicate with People’s Hearts

The president and board chair should be focused on calming everyone’s fears. Fortunately, technology allows this to happen instantaneously. There is video, messaging and electronic town hall meetings.

Dr. Cowen also encourages university presidents to stop using a teleprompter. Scripted content loses the speaker’s authenticity, which is important right now because people want to feel that you’re in this too. Instead, use talking points and be open to making mistakes, something which makes your human in the eyes of listeners.

Make sure you have your facts and data right. One of the worst things you can do is “shoot from the hip” and get your facts wrong. Know what is actually happening. It’s also OK to admit that you don’t have all the answers, but also describe what you are doing to get all those answers. Provide stakeholders a timeline in which you anticipate to have those answers.

Scenario Planning

After Hurricane Katrina, everybody went back to the risk enterprise programs to look at scenarios. They became more focused on developing scenarios that included weather-related issues or an active shooter. However, Dr. Cowen believes that most institutions did not project a scenario of a pandemic, even though a lot has been written over the past 15 years about this type of scenario, and in fact, many if not most do not do risk planning. Now that it has happened, institutions are having to lead on the fly.

Student Recruitment Moving Forward

Student recruitment also will be an area of concern. Many institutions are pushing back deadlines due to the pandemic. After Katrina, about 85 percent of Tulane’s undergraduate and graduate students returned to campus in January 2006. This was higher than institutional leaders had believed would happen.

However, Tulane did not anticipate what would happen the following Fall. They normally had an entering class of 1,600, but instead, they had an entering class of 860. It took the institution six years to rebuild that population, taking a tremendous toll on Tulane’s budget and everything that the university did.

Dr. Cowen does not believe this will be as severe an issue now, but it will be an issue. Some students may decide to attend an institution closer to their home instead of going away. Given the meltdown of the stock market, some may opt out of attending the expensive private school, while others may opt to take a gap year to make sure that the aftereffects of the COVID19 pandemic have settled out. Therefore, this may have an effect on yield rates going into the fall.

Finances Issues Moving Forward

Additionally, many colleges and universities were on the cusp financially before COVID19 hit, and this situation could accelerate their demise. He encourages institutional leaders in these situations to do serious thinking about the future, including pursuing mergers or being acquired. Additionally, these leaders need to reach out to other institutions about taking care of current students. For example, Tulane restructured after Katrina and cut down its number of departments. Tulane leaders reached out to other institutions that had those departments and asked them to give consideration to Tulane students if they applied to the other institution. This proved to work out for the Tulane students who were impacted.

Finding Informal Advisors

Dr. Cowen and his team also created an informal board and cabinet to get feedback in fall 2005 once they realized the institution could not reopen as it had previously been. The Tulane formal board was very helpful in doing scenario planning around issues.

He also asked five university presidents from across the nation to work with him in developing a renewal plan in fall 2005. This group helped him to develop an objective long-term picture and key issues while he was dealing with life-and-death situations, helping him focus to develop the renewal plan. Additionally, the Higher Education Association of America was very helpful because they encouraged other universities to take Tulane’s students.

Dr. Cowen encouraged institutional leaders to embrace “plagiarism,” i.e., borrow from what other institutions are doing and saying, to get through this situation and to identify solutions that are working. Then these solutions can be implemented across the nation.

Moving to Online Education

One positive impact of the current situation is the need to move to online education. Everybody needs to learn how to do online courses. This could lead to additional opportunities to expand reach, lower the cost of education and appeal to additional populations. This also will get faculty more experienced in online and open up new opportunities.

Faculty also can use technology to meet with students online. Dr. Cowen meets with his students via Zoom without any agenda to keep students connected with Tulane. Having faculty do this beyond the scope of the course and during the closure will help with student retention as well as the institutional reputation. That relationship is critical right now.

4 Recommendations for Higher Education Leaders

Dr. Cowen suggested takeaways for higher education leaders:

  • Ensure the health and welfare of students and faculty.
  • Make sure you focus on what you control and do serious scenario planning for those things you can’t control.
  • Have a robust communication plan that addresses all of the institution’s stakeholders. This plan needs to have a rhythm to it to help people deal with stress and anxiety.
  • Follow chat rooms on the Internet to hear what stakeholders are saying and doing so you can address that in future messaging.

Bullet Points

  • There are many lessons from previous crises. Learn from situations such as Tulane’s response after Hurricane Katrina.
  • Focus on present-day matters such as student and faculty safety, but also begin scenario planning using different time frames.
  • Communicate extensively and with a rhythm. Avoid teleprompters and speak from the heart. Make sure that you have your facts correct but also be willing to say that you don’t know and how you are trying to determine an answer. Constantly review online comments and chatrooms to see what stakeholders are saying about your institution so you can address these in subsequent communications.
  • Look at your financial situation and begin to reach out to potential partners who may be able to provide support to your institution and/or merger candidates.
  • Find informal advisors who can help you get a big-picture long-term view, even though you are focused on the day-to-day issues of managing the COVID19 pandemic.
  • Find ways to reach out to students during this time. Encourage faculty to stay engaged using technology so that relationships remain strong. This could translate into improved retention for the fall 2020 semester.
  • Look for silver linings, such as the emergence of more online learning opportunities.

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