5 questions every president should consider when responding to COVID-19

Expert Insight

5 questions every president should consider when responding to COVID-19

Across the last two weeks hundreds of colleges and universities have shifted to remote instruction and cancelled most or all on-campus activities in order to slow the spread of coronavirus. The crisis has raised a range of urgent logistical questions on every campus, but presidents also need to keep the big picture in mind. Below are the top five questions that we believe every president should be asking right now.

1. How can we minimize the equity impact that emergency changes might have on different groups of students, faculty, and staff?

EAB Resources:

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Rapid decisions to change longstanding policies and practices (e.g., sending students away from campus, asking some staff to continue working while others must stop, requiring faculty to teach remotely for the first time, etc.) are already disrupting the lives of thousands of your community members. While each of these decisions may be necessary for public health, they will have disparate impacts on different groups, particularly those who have been historically under-served. Understanding how different groups will be affected and what types of specialized support you can offer will be critical in minimizing the negative impacts.

2. Are we communicating in ways that inform and reassure our many stakeholders?

In times of fear, uncertainty, and rapid change, people look to their leaders for guidance, reassurance, and meaning. One of the most important jobs of the president is to help your community understand and process what’s happening and to get them engaged in productive activities. Particularly for those who are away from campus (or on campus but isolated from colleagues), your voice must serve as the glue that bonds the community together. Regular and frequent communication (“overcommunication”) is critical in a crisis.

EAB Resources:

Sample communications from other colleges and universities

Coming soon: Crisis communication guide

3. Do we have contingency and succession plans in place for administrators and faculty who are unable to continue to perform their job duties?

Thankfully few campuses have faced cases of COVID-19 so far, but all epidemiological projections indicate that it is just a matter of time before members of your community experience infection, illness, and even fatalities. The closing of K12 schools in many districts has already made it difficult or impossible for some of your students, faculty, and staff to continue working. Starting with the cabinet and working down to all critical positions, it is important to plan ahead for how your institution would continue to function if key individuals were unable to perform their jobs.

4. How can we best meet our broader social responsibility to support our local communities in a time of crisis?

Colleges and universities have already made significant sacrifices in order to slow the transmission of coronavirus and protect public health. As anchors in their communities, they also provide knowledge, services, jobs, and a range of other benefits. While many of those activities are currently paused, colleges and universities still have an irreplaceable role to play in problem-solving, informing, and coordinating support at the regional, state, national and global levels.

EAB Resources:

What colleges and universities shouldn’t overlook in their COVID-19 responses

5. What are the medium- and long-term consequences of the pandemic for our institution?

Most campus leaders have understandably been focused on short-term decisions—what do we need to do today, tomorrow, or this week. But as the scope of the pandemic grows exponentially, it is starting to become clear that the larger impact will be felt over the next 2-6 months as enrollments are impacted and an all-but-inevitable recession begins to set in. As president you need to make sure that your board and cabinet are actively planning for a range of scenarios that could impact your financial viability including student retention and enrollment, alumni giving and endowment returns, potential cuts to state funding, and the credit impacts of the crisis. In the short term, you will need to monitor your cash flow very closely as unexpected expenses arise and revenues may begin to decline.

EAB Resources:

Yielding Your Class During a Global Pandemic [Webinar 3/19]

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Coming soon: Virtual scenario-planning workshop for boards and cabinets