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  • Writer's pictureGregory Milton

The Next 18 Months with Covid-19: Contingency Planning for Higher Education

by Gregory B. Milton and Suzan Brinker

Covid-19 has disrupted higher education in ways no one could have foreseen just two or three months ago. After the scramble to close campuses and transition to remote learning, new, perhaps overwhelming, worries face campus leaders as they look to the next year of managing crisis:

● If a return to ‘normal’ may be delayed for a year or more, perhaps never to return, what does this mean for the future of the institution?

● Will students return to campus? Will prospects pursue admission, and, if they do, will concerns with the quality of learning and the lack of their accustomed campus life make student dissatisfaction grow?

● Will staff and faculty resist disruptive new demands in their teaching, research, and work requirements, demanding increased participation in crisis management and broader support to guarantee high quality learning?

● Will campus identity disintegrate as the distinctiveness of the university exhibited in academic programs and campus activities is diluted or disappears altogether?

● Will revenues continue to drop, deficits grow, and endowments deplete, threatening the efficient operations, and even the survival, of the institution?

The threats may seem overwhelming, but focusing on the building blocks – student success, academic quality, operational stability – as the foundations of your institution’s purpose and prosperity is the path forward. Create solutions with your team, piece by manageable piece, to overcome the challenges in front of your institution.

Change Management for Uncertain Contingencies

Instead of stressing in the face of these overwhelming problems, focus your team on soluble issues that will improve satisfaction, create faculty, staff and student cooperation to explore new possibilities, and enhance learning. Incremental successes will create a healthier outlook for your institution – personally, financially, and academically.

Student Success

Make student success, through every situation, your institutional priority. A recent survey of campus leaders has shown that their biggest, current, short-term worry concerns the mental and emotional health of students, faculty, and staff. Colleges and universities should ensure that not only do students and faculty feel ready to return to campus when the time comes, but also that they stay positive and engaged in their work whether on-campus or off:

Robust Student Services – Create virtual access to advising, financial aid support, counseling, and career services, enhancing on-campus processes with technology-based practices that will ease the transition to remote environments, if and when they return.

Access and Sustainability – Seek partnerships to ensure all students have access to course learning materials, broadband internet, housing and food when campus is closed, including on-campus options for those who depend on these during the regular term, with social distancing and medical safety requirements in mind.

Inclusive Engagement – Communicate and reach students, staff, faculty, and alumni where they are, through social media, open information sessions, online courses, and peer-to-peer tools to maintain cohort cohesion and craft virtual campus-life communities. Allow prospects, students and alumni to connect organically with each other, along with staff and faculty across your institution. Practice the ‘new’ methods on-campus so they flow easily when off.

Academic Quality

The rush to transition academic programs to remote learning meant many shortcuts in the development of quality online education had to be taken, while course and program requirements may have been relaxed. The gaps in learning that result may very well create resistance to online teaching for many, if not a backlash against the concept altogether. Colleges and universities must prepare for uncertainty during the Summer and Fall terms, and possibly beyond, whether for the return to teaching on campus, with additional short- or long-term closures possible, or for the continuation of the remote teaching environment for a longer period.

Quality Online Learning – Build on the successes of your transition to remote teaching, by continuing to provide extensive faculty support and training. Encourage the incorporation of elements of quality online course design in all courses, on-campus or remote. Focus on a core group of learning functions and tools, then add capabilities one by one for faculty and students to master.

Preparation for Additional Transitions – Engage faculty and staff in planning and rehearsing the move of courses and programs back to campus and for their return to remote teaching when necessary. Determine what activities are not easily done remotely (labs, clinics, arts, theater, internships, etc.) and select methods to cover them (in-place partners, 3rd-party vendors) in advance.

Accreditation Requirements – Collaborate with accreditors and activate your academic governance to determine best-practices to meet criteria under substantially altered circumstances. Work together to ensure the highest-quality outcomes for students and for crafting processes that work for administrators, faculty, staff, students, and accreditors.

Operational Stability

Even when student success is your priority, deficits and poor revenue projections often drive many immediate reactions to reduce everyday operations while in survival mode; reactions that may create long-term problems of their own. Streamlining operations, inspiring faculty and staff to work together to seek solutions, and demonstrating your institution’s commitment to mission and value are the sustainable methods to recover and rebuild revenue streams.

Business Operations and Flexibility – Remember that all operations of your institution have had to adjust to the disruption of remote work. With a return to campus, build up the tools and procedures utilized while remote to ensure that staff can continue to contribute as efficiently and effectively as possible whatever future circumstances require.

Workflow and Morale – Practice all university activities whether on-campus or off and take advantage of the technological tools you have. Proactively consider new tools to maintain communication and engagement between administrators, staff, faculty and students. Emphasize their valuable, necessary contributions to build resiliency for your entire team in the face of the next challenge, the next uncertainty.

Financial Management – Reinforce your best-practices and look towards efficiencies in operations, while remembering that stable revenue is dependent on maintaining quality learning and student satisfaction. Cutting services to save money immediately may undermine the very services needed to support learning and students. Carefully access rainy-day funds and endowments and invest in your core mission for the future.

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About the Authors

Gregory B Milton, PhD, brings 30 years’ experience in the professional development, training and academic fields to his focus on creating innovative lifelong learning opportunities for all learners. He employs an entrepreneurial approach to facilitating teams, always seeking to better achieve objectives, more efficiently and with higher quality, objectives that provide student-centric success through market-driven digital learning opportunities and enrollment growth.

Suzan Brinker, PhD, has dedicated her career to helping higher education initiatives build strong value propositions and communicating them to the right audiences. Having served as Director of Marketing at both Penn State and Northeastern University, Suzan now leads Viv Higher Education and consults for Tarragona Associates. She specializes in online education, internationalization, and enrollment marketing

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