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How Colleges Can Plan for and Adapt to Campus Crises

Episode 4

April 21, 2020 24 minutes


EAB’s Senior Vice President of Research Dr. Melanie Ho joins EAB researcher, Michael Fischer, to continue their discussion on the unique leadership challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic.

Melanie and Michael explore ways that senior college administrators can use this crisis to strengthen their leadership skills—and how colleges and universities can build greater organizational resiliency to better prepare for, respond, and adapt to future disruptions. Melanie uses the metaphor of “the elephant and the rider” to explain how to balance the rational and emotional parts of our brain when managing during a crisis.


00:17 Matt Pellish: From EAB, I’m Matt Pellish and this is Office Hours, a weekly podcast from the leader in research, technology and services for education. Last week we dove into the all important topic lately of leadership and particularly leadership through this crisis. Today, we’re gonna look at part two. This is a discussion between my friends and colleagues, Melanie Ho, who’s our Senior Vice President for Research here at EAB as well as Michael Fischer, one of our lead researchers who’s been covering all aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic and supports a lot of leaders through administration and finance across the university.

00:51 MP: We’re gonna talk about how senior college administrators can use this crisis to strengthen leadership skills, help their institutions build greater organizational resiliency. Thanks again for joining and welcome to Office Hours with EAB.

01:11 Michael Fischer: Back again from a continuously sunny Hyattsville, Maryland. My name is Michael Fischer and I am a researcher at EAB. It’s my great pleasure to have with me Melanie Ho, one of our senior researchers and an expert on leadership issues. Melanie, thanks for being back with me again today.

01:34 Melanie Ho: Thanks, Michael, good morning and I think this time I actually know how to use my mic.

01:39 MF: I think last time we spoke a little bit about your recommendations around backdrops for virtual conferencing. Let me ask though on a more personal note, can we have a feline update? How are your cats taking in the situation of you being at home for so much time?

02:00 MH: They’re pretty much doing I think what they always do, which is napping almost the entire day but I think they’re a little bit sad because typically, what I do when I go to work in the morning is leave them an extra snack as I’m exiting the apartment so that they don’t follow me out and they’re not getting that at the same time of day that they usually do, so that’s throwing off routine a bit.

02:23 MF: I have a nine-week year-old here at my house and so I envy the amount of napping that your cats are taking but sympathize with the amount of snacks that need to be provided.

02:35 MF: Well, Melanie, last time we had a chance to speak on leadership. We discussed some broad strokes about how the coronavirus crisis is changing the way that leaders have to respond on their campus and we highlighted some of the top issues of the areas of vulnerability, of valuing resiliency, of being able to communicate that we’re understanding things, things are changing and we’re making decisions in the best ways that we can. Today I wanna go a little bit into some of the more specifics, both around what leaders should be doing on their campuses now to guide their constituents through this crisis but also the ways in which leaders can use this opportunity to improve their leadership skills and become better leaders out of the circumstance.

03:29 MF: So let me posit an initial question to you. When you’re speaking to presidents, provosts, CBOs, what’s the number one concern on their plate when it comes to something that they have to do as a leader, what’s top of mind for them?

03:47 MH: I think probably top of mind is how to balance the urgent with the longer term and longer term, I think in this case, could mean three months. It could mean six months but it could also mean two to three years. There are so many fires to put out and that can be all consuming. So how do they and their teams also make time for considering at the other end of the crisis how do we come out stronger?

04:17 MF: And that seems like it would require a combination of prioritization so making sure that the right fires are put out in the right order but also delegation, making sure that people on campus are empowered to deal with decisions that are in their scope so that other leaders on campus have the flexibility and the bandwidth to be able to address their concerns. Anything you would add to that list?

04:46 MH: I think that’s exactly right that as a crisis continues, you tend to have more and more leaders who are able to be involved. In the early days, often it’s a smaller team and that with every passing day, week, month, a larger group needs to be involved in a lot of the key decisions and that allows the senior most folks to start doing the bigger scenario planning, for example, that needs to happen.

05:14 MF: Melanie, you bring up scenario planning. That seems to be something of a buzzword that I’ve been seeing a lot of conversation taking place amongst our partner institutions and the industry as a whole. What are the major scenarios that you are seeing institutions have to forecast and wrestle with? What are the kinds of decisions that leaders are going to have to make?

05:41 MH: I would say that there are two different phases of scenario planning that needs to happen and I think this is going to be tough for colleges and universities that aren’t even in the habit always of doing scenario planning to begin with, that we’re not only just needing to do scenario planning but to do it in multiple ways. So I’d say that the first phase of scenario planning is related to the ambiguity of the current crisis that we don’t know how long social distancing will go, that there are a lot of things that are related to the virus that folks are still trying to understand how it will play out, how the treatment will play out, and how long it will take to get a vaccine. There are clearly experts in all of these topics so they’re not me.

06:26 MH: But with all of that being uncertain, there’s a layer of scenario planning that needs to happen first. That’s essentially how we’re going to manage to and respond to what we talked about in our last podcast, what’s essentially an extended crisis? So there what we would recommend and where we’re starting to work with institutions are thinking about different scenarios based on how the pandemic itself will play out. When will things start to normalize a little bit when it comes to, say, social distancing? And even when things start to normalize a little bit how might social distancing still be in place in some part. So for that, I think colleges and universities are starting to think through you know what are the different scenarios we could land in the fall, for example.

07:20 MF: So things related to like, will travel bans be kept in place even if domestically we’re allowed to spend more time in each other’s company? Or if there’s a second wave of the virus that comes out when the weather turns in the fall, how will our campus have to react? Will we have to stay performing remote instruction? Should we even go remote already for the fall because we’re so worried about the disruption it would have on our campus if we brought students back and then immediately had to send them away again?

07:52 MH: Exactly, there’s just so much ambiguity around how the situation will evolve from a health perspective and a social perspective that being able to look at all the different possibilities and how we would respond to each one. I call that phase one of scenario planning which is about the crisis itself. Phase two of scenario planning would be about the aftermath and even though we don’t necessarily know when that happens, I feel bad using the word aftermath, that’s probably too negative but what I mean is thinking of that more positively, how are we going to come out stronger on the other side? Where will our institution need to shift in order to… For some institutions, it may be about survival. For others it’s about thriving and not losing track of their strategic goals and their mission and so I think phase two will be more based on what will be the ultimate impact on higher education as a larger industry in sector?

08:54 MF: Because there’s no question that this is going to be a game changer of an event in terms of the long-term impact. I mean ranging from the amount of financial stress and strain the institutions will undergo and what that might lead to their budgets but also to the fact that this is the greatest experimental shift of pedagogy to take place amongst so many students at a single time probably since maybe the invention of the book. I don’t know if you can think of one that has such an impact of sending so many students remote and having them being instructed entirely via virtual ways. I can imagine that that potentially could lead to us unleashing a genie that we can’t put back in the lamp.

09:42 MH: Well, and all of this is happening at the same time that we’re facing an economic crisis and so just the compounding effects of changes to pedagogy, changes to campus community, changes to the economy, what that means for the typical family and their ability to pay, just all of these different factors are adding to one another.

10:05 MF: And so then when I’m trying to scenario plan for my campus and I’m thinking about both the crisis itself and the consequences from the crisis and what kind of information is best for me to have in front of me in order to think about what the weeks, months, and years ahead? I can start with my strategic plan, my master plan though a lot of that is up in the air. What kind of information can I either get from my fellow colleagues on campus, organizations like EAB, the inter-webs themselves to make the most informed forecasts and predictions about what might happen for my campus?

10:48 MH: Well, there’s certainly a lot of information we’re tracking related to the economy, for example, where is there going to be job growth and not because all of that will have an impact on what higher education programs make sense to offer but I think a lot of what institutions need to do in scenario planning is pivot from information and go more towards what will enable bolder thinking from their organizations. A lot of the work that we did in EAB even before the crisis began was helping presidents who came to us and they said that they need their institution to come up with bolder strategic plans. They were a little bit worried that despite months and thousands of hours of effort that went into strategic plans when it came to turning visions into reality that often teams would focus on what they’re doing now kind of 10% better and that they were worried that even before the crisis with the magnitude of challenges facing higher education, people needed to think more boldly.

11:55 MH: One of the best scenario planning exercises I’ve seen, it was actually about four or five years ago but it really had an impression on me. The president of the University of Indianapolis, Rob Manuel, allowed me to be a fly on the wall during one of his leadership retreats and they went through an exercise where they went through some scenarios that could impact them as an institution. Oh, what if our nearest competitor developed a popular competency-based education program in one of our key fields? What if free college sweeps the state?

12:31 MH: Each of these were plausible things that could happen. Now people in the room might have debated how true or not they were, how likely that they were not. That doesn’t matter. In some ways it’s helpful if these scenarios actually seem like science fiction and they went through then as small groups, thought about each prompt and then for each one, what would be the implications on this from an academic perspective, from a financial perspective, operationally, et cetera and then how would we adapt?

13:00 MH: And it was a really illuminating exercise because what I noticed was at the end of it, everyone’s such robust brainstorming, so many great ideas, really inspirational, and at the end of it, President Manuel said, “Think about all of the ideas that you’re proposing. These are just great things we should do to better serve our students whether or not that worst case scenario, that science fiction thing comes through, those are just things we need to pursue.” And I think this is the kind of moment where that kind of visioning is going to be more important than ever. What are some of the more challenging scenarios that higher education could face related to enrollment or finances? And then how will we meet those?

13:48 MF: And if I’m thinking of what bold responses to that might look like, I’m seeing things ranging from the development of more collaborative consortium style models to help carry some of that potential risk into the future and I’ll leave some of the burden that institutions will face in the coming years related to this crisis to a fundamental rethinking of what physical space on campus looks like if there’s a need for as much dedicated classroom office space when people are more comfortable with learning and working in remote environments. Perhaps there are better ways we can leverage the capital assets that we have on our campuses.

14:37 MH: I think partnerships are going to be more important than ever for higher education but also a great opportunity. When I think about some of the challenges that college and university presidents have been articulating with more frequency and worry across the last few years, it’s been around how higher education has been perceived as far as its benefit to the broader society. I think at one point it was unquestioned that higher education was a public good and in recent years, it has felt like the public has lost a lot of its confidence in higher education. It’s been less clear to the larger public where higher education provides value to society even though those who are deep within it know all of the different ways that higher education continues to be public and private good but I think now is a moment where colleges and universities can really find the opportunities to support their regions.

15:39 MH: Coming out of the crisis, if you think about the economic and the public health challenges that every single region is going to face, the leadership role for colleges and universities here will be to help with that, to figure out how we restore sense of community, to figure out how we lift economies back up again.

15:58 MF: Yeah, I know that in the near run, many institutions have been trying to do their part by offering their residence halls to medical staff nearby to live at so that they don’t have to go home and potentially put their communities, their families at risk or donating large amounts of medical lab equipment to hospitals that are most affected. So the question will be how do institutions keep up this momentum and evolve these short term partnerships into longer run engagements that both continue to expand upon the mission of the institution as a community partner but then also become something that is renewable and flexible enough to change as new crisis tease and new opportunities come up in the future?

16:51 MH: I like the word renewable because I think it connects back to what’s at the heart of research which is the advancing the knowledge that continually renews our society as it evolves and as our challenges evolve and what I hope we see coming out of this is a renewed interest and focus on the power of research in all disciplines and a lot of that will be in medicine and in science and in public health but also as we think about the social impact, as we think about the role of the arts and the humanities and how they help humans and humanity through moments like this.

17:30 MF: And governmental, economic, and social research about how to best prepare our political and economic infrastructure to be more resilient in the future and to be able to survive external shocks like this should they happen again. There’ll be, I’m sure, theses written for the next decade, taking some angle from the Coronavirus crisis and trying to expand upon the lessons that we can learn from that and making more effective decisions at all levels of society moving forward.

18:04 MH: Exactly, this is a moment where the challenges are all inherently interdisciplinary and that’s where the power of colleges and universities both individually and collectively come into play because it’s not a single set of researchers in a few corporate labs who can solve this many interconnected problems. It really is higher education.

18:25 MF: Melanie, I know that we are coming to the end of our allotted time for this conversation today but I have to ask before we wrap things up; you wrote an article recently where you use the imagery of an elephant and a rider to describe some of what’s going on in leadership on campus today. I have to ask you, what is the elephant and the rider?

18:50 MH: So, I can’t take credit for this. This comes from management scholars Chip and Dan Heath but it’s a really powerful metaphor and I’d actually encourage everyone to just Google image rider and elephant and Chip and Dan Heath so you can just see the visual because I think even the visual itself really hits the message home. The idea is that you have a rider on an elephant and the rider represents the rational mind and the elephant represents the emotional mind. So even if you’ve convinced the rider, that rational mind, that some kind of change is necessary and the right answer or that some kind of message is correct, that rider is no match for the elephant.

19:30 MH: Think about the size of the elephant and the power of the elephant compared to the rider and that that elephant, that emotional mind, that fear, the body’s stress response, that ends up taking over. That’s why change is so hard on an average day and now thinking about this world that we’re in now where everything we’ve taken for granted is now disrupted, we should just assume that those elephants are in overdrive.

19:58 MH: And so while I think it’s so important that institutions make time for things like scenario planning, as we’ve discussed for really trying to get a sense of what’s necessary in the crisis or what we need to communicate to the teams. At the back of all of our minds as we are thinking about how college and university leaders and staff can proceed, I think a lot of that has to be also remembering that the elephant is there and that we need to figure out ways of helping people kind of get past their elephant and focus on the rider. That’s why I love scenario planning exercises that are about unlocking the power of imagination. And we’ve done a lot of work in EAB on design fiction, on companies like Lowes and Nike and Boeing and others who like to hire science fiction writers and use the power of stories to get people kind of out of their day-to-day and thinking about bold and innovative solutions. Those types of activities are really designed to help people get out of the day-to-day and kind of help control the elephant.

21:11 MF: Absolutely, I feel a little bit like the rider on top of the elephant of this conversation around leadership that we’ve been having. There’s so much that we’ve covered, so many different directions and angles to pursue. It can feel overwhelming to try to synthesize down but nevertheless, I’m gonna ask you to try to do so. If there’s one thing that you think, Melanie, that leaders on campus should take away from the back and forth that we’ve been having over this and our previous conversation, what would you like them to have at the forefront of their mind?

21:55 MH: You know I think it’s hard for anyone sometimes to imagine the positive and the possible in the wake of trying to figure out how to deal with the day-to-day but I want to end on a hopeful note which is that if we think about a lot of the challenges that have been facing our society but that have been intensified by the COVID-19 crisis, that this is a moment where the power of colleges and universities to serve their communities is probably more clear than it’s ever been and that I’m hopeful about the role that higher education will play, not just through the crisis but afterwards as well.

22:51 MF: Well, I’m hopeful as well, especially hearing and having the chance to speak with you over the course of these conversations. Again, my name’s Michael Fischer, I’ve been joined by Melanie Ho. Thank you for taking the time to speak with us today.

23:07 MH: Thank you, Michael. Thanks to all that’s out there in podcast land.

23:17 MP: Thanks for listening. You just heard Melanie and Michael talk about the value of repeating important messages until they become a part of the psyche of the institution so others can go out, others can share that same message. Next week, Michael’s back with Kaitlyn Maloney. They’re gonna expand on the topic of campus communication and share a few examples of where it’s been effective and even where it hasn’t. Until next week I’m Matt Pellish for EAB.

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