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A Time for Reassurance From Higher Education Leaders

April 15, 2020

This is the time for leadership in higher education to build trust in their own communities through thoughtful and planned communications.

Beyond the tragic and staggering death toll wreaked by COVID-19, the pandemic is taking jobs, housing, food security and more. Trust in institutions is another of its casualties, with federal delays in testing, challenges around the implementation of small business disaster relief, conflicting directives from federal and state leaders and bidding wars for PPE causing alarm. As a Washington Post headline noted, “America’s confidence in the government to handle coronavirus is shaky.”

This is the time for leadership in higher education to counter this narrative for their own communities through thoughtful and planned communications.

I recently wrote about how quickly colleges and universities took action once what we were facing as a nation was clearer. The millions who are in our higher education system, from administrators to faculty members to students and staff, responded and adapted to the changes required. Many are a bit breathless given what was required to move learning forward, but those in leadership positions at colleges and universities need to redouble their communications efforts so confidence among their various constituencies is strengthened. They can and should be trusted voices who share factual information about their institutions, offer reassurance, vision and hope, as well as thanks.

Nearly every institution of higher education has created a central repository of COVID-19 related information on their websites and are updating it regularly (examples include Clemson University and Pace University). These are critically important for all in the university’s sphere, but what so many within the community miss is the personal touch, which is more challenging with the current “social distancing.”

Presidents and chancellors, provosts and deans, and others in positions of authority should be reaching out to members of the campus community. Each administrator should play to his or her strengths, which could mean recording videos or writing emails or using social channels. If a president is not strong on camera and in light of the emotional stress this is causing for some, she/he could interview a campus mental health expert about ways to deal with the challenges of social isolation, the disappointment of having to leave a classroom or a dorm room, the lack of a commencement at least this May.

Provosts could highlight in videos or in emails the extraordinary work of the faculty in so quickly adapting courses for the remainder of the semester. Career development officers could further ramp up their already extensive work in providing guidance in light of the precarious job market. If LinkedIn isn’t a heavily used medium, they can post a series of pieces there; webinars with potential employers can be held; mock interviews can be conducted via Zoom.

Not all presidents have the oratorial skills of the late Father Theodore Hesburgh who served as president of the University of Notre Dame for 35 years. Campus communities are generally not expecting each sentence to be as eloquent as those delivered by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. or to include the turn of the phrase often written by Ronald Reagan’s extraordinary speech writer Peggy Noonan. What they are hungry for is some level of reassurance that the institution is alright, that even though there may be a new normal, the rhythm of their academic experience will return. Parents and caregivers need to hear these messages as well, especially if they are the underwriters of the degree. Calendarize communications so various campus offices are not flooding the community with messages, and establish a cadence that reinforces the institution’s concern for all who work and study there. 

A recent piece in Foreign Affairs is entitled, “Universities Fill the Void.” The writer laments the lack of traditional institutional leadership at this time of crisis, “The Group of Seven leading industrialized nations could not agree on a joint statement, much less joint action, and the Group of 20 could agree only that the problem was global and serious,” while lauding universities and “international teams of researchers [who] are working around the clock to find a cure for, and mitigate the impact of, COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.”

I was again reminded of the power of our institutions of learning and now, more than ever, leadership at these institutions need to assure their communities all are doing the very best they can in light of one of the greatest challenges of the 21st Century to date.

TAGS: Education