Perspectives from 45 chiefs of staff on higher ed’s COVID-19 response

Expert Insight

Perspectives from 45 chiefs of staff on higher ed’s COVID-19 response


Institutions across the United States and Canada
Institutions across the United States and Canada

Between March 25 and April 3, the Higher Education Strategy Forum hosted five virtual working sessions for presidential chiefs of staff and other strategic deputies representing 45 institutions across the United States and Canada. These working sessions gave us unique insight into what’s on the minds of presidents, cabinets, and boards as the COVID-19 crisis has unfolded – what have institutions been doing well, what remains a challenge, and questions they have about what is to come. Below, read about the institution-wide concerns, initiatives, and lessons we took away from these virtual working sessions.

1. Senior leadership has reacted quickly to this crisis, but can’t handle all tasks themselves. Delegating more of the day-to-day of crisis management and planning will be key to finding the right balance between the urgent and the important.

Already most institutions have created working groups and task forces dedicated to their institution’s COVID response, with leadership teams delegating more responsibilities to mid-level staff out of necessity. This has allowed leadership to pivot to medium and longer-range planning.

Institutions also developed innovative ways to deploy experts on campus beyond faculty and staff. At one institution, a group of student leaders helped to develop a social media campaign that explained to the broader student population the importance of physical distancing and how to practice it. This served a dual benefit, increasing the involvement of student leaders at a time when many were feeling unengaged, while also contributing to the institution’s COVID response efforts.

Another institution capitalized on the planning expertise of several mid-career military fellows on campus. The military fellows have been actively involved in multiple parts of the institution’s COVID response, supplementing staff in the emergency response center and working with the president to facilitate a series of deep-dive discussions on future state issues.

2. In order to mitigate information overload, institutions should use channels more likely to facilitate an empathetic connection—not just email.

In a time of uncertainty, with classes having moved online and students sent home in the span of just a few weeks, many students and others are already feeling overwhelmed by the amount of information they must consume to stay up to date. Some chiefs of staff expressed frustration that despite their institutions’ best efforts to communicate, their intended audiences were not always reading the updates. This led to complaints from faculty, staff, and students that their institutions weren’t providing regular updates when in fact they were.

Instead of mostly relying on mass email updates, chiefs of staff have found other channels more effective:

  • Weekly video messages: To try to more efficiently communicate important updates to their institutional communities, some presidents have been sending brief weekly video messages at a set time each week. Chiefs of staff say these messages have been effective in personalizing the communication and conveying a sense of empathy in a challenging time.
  • Virtual town halls: In addition, a few institutions have done weekly virtual town halls for the whole campus community, during which the president shares major announcements. The town halls are occasionally an opportunity for internal and external experts to speak on topics that are relevant to faculty and staff, like remote work, and issues relevant to the entire university community, like public health updates.

3. As institutions pivot from short-term coronavirus response to medium- and long-term planning, they must develop a strategy to not just survive, but emerge out of the current crisis stronger than ever.

Chiefs of staff raised many questions as they begin to think about longer-term planning and convene groups to look at the enrollment, financial, and other implications of the coronavirus situation:

  • What will online learning look like post-COVID? How can institutions use the current situation as a catalyst for more online offerings post-COVID?
  • How can institutions effectively advocate to their state legislatures for funding in an economic downturn?
  • How will strategic plans need to change, particularly for institutions that are in the middle of, or recently finished, their planning process?
  • How should institutions plan for the Fall term?
  • What will it look like when campuses eventually reopen to a new normal?

To begin to address these questions, institutions are accelerating strategic initiatives that are relevant to the coronavirus situation. For example:

  • Expanding online degree offerings for the long-term
  • Developing partnerships with other organizations to expand the institution’s academic programs and enroll more students
  • Messaging to government officials about how higher education supports the common good to reinforce the institution’s value to the community

Institutions will feel the impact of the coronavirus outbreak long after campuses reopen; campus leaders must plan for both the short- and long-term effects of COVID-19. To successfully navigate this crisis, making it out stronger than before, institutions will need to grow their organizational resiliency, staying true to values and purpose while being able to adapt to challenges as they arise.

Please contact your Strategic Leader to discuss having an EAB expert facilitate an emergency response tabletop exercise to get ready for the next few months or a scenario planning workshop to prepare for the next 3-6 months.

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