Covid proved that HE can change quickly and effectively after all

Much discussion has focused on what to do better, but we should also recognise strengths that had not been seen prior to the crisis, say Jon McNaughtan and Hugo García

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20 April 2021
Loudspeaker design. One key takeaway from the Covid crisis is the proven ability of leadership to communicate effectively.
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The many challenges resulting from the pandemic have led scholars and leaders to expend thousands of words on opinion pieces, academic articles and blogs outlining how best to lead during a crisis.

However, these perspectives have often focused on how to overcome weaknesses during crisis. While these ideas are important, it’s also critical to recognise the strengths that have helped institutions, many of which had not been seen prior to Covid-19.

There were two areas, in particular, where higher education leaders were even more capable than previously realised, and we posit that these areas should continue to be central to the “new normal” of higher education.

First, higher education institutions have shown that they can change quickly and effectively. While teaching my administration of higher education course this past semester, I asked the students: “If I had asked university administrators at traditional bricks-and-mortar campuses a year ago if they could move all courses online by the end of the semester, what would they have said?”

Needless to say, my class unanimously agreed that administrators would have said it was impossible. And yet they did it. Higher education as a field has generally been viewed as slow to change and lacking an innovative spirit. However, the pandemic has shown us that when we need to, we can be innovative and we can change with little notice and limited (perceived or real) resources.

We must remember this exceptional capacity for change as we enter increasingly turbulent times. As history shows, colleges and universities are consistently affected by geopolitics, societal pressures and economic conditions. In addition, student demands will change as they see institutions’ capacity for online learning.

Now is the time to be innovative and press forward, not shy away and seek a “normal” that may never exist again. For example, we’ve seen how some institutions have taken this opportunity to explore new online learning tools and learning management systems, while others are merely weathering the current storm with their existing online learning set-up.

Institutions have great capacity, and leaders need not be reactive to future challenges but proactive in their decision-making to reduce the burden of future challenges. Hiring staff and faculty who buy in to the online and virtual domain is critical, as is providing consistent additional training to increase comfort with virtual tools. Both will help develop a culture amenable to online learning. Furthermore, institutions and their leaders should be proactive in exploring what the current generation of students actually wants in terms of online interactions, which can inform how to develop this newfound innovative capacity.

Secondly, during the crisis, leaders in higher education have demonstrated that they can communicate consistently and lead with transparency. Throughout the pandemic, leaders consistently shared information concerning the status of the institution, key decisions and availability of resources.

As one study found, most institutions set up a designated website where all this information could be collected. This example highlights the understanding of the importance of communication and the myriad ways that leaders can and should communicate moving forward. Leaders should continue to enhance and develop communication tools to ensure that students and staff are well informed of institutional decisions.

There is quite simply no going back to the way things were, and leaders need to continue to demonstrate their capacity for sharing information consistently and in a spirt of transparency with students. For example, it is highly possible that as instruction moves forward with both on-campus opportunities and online options, student activities will need to similarly bifurcate.

In a recent study focused on how leaders were engaging students during Covid-19 we found an institution encouraging interaction by providing e-sports and other online gaming competitions for their on- and off-campus students. These events promoted student interaction as they communicated through the computer games and created opportunities for students confined to their apartments to build community and reduce feelings of isolation.

It is hard to imagine that, once implemented, online extracurricular activities provided by universities will not remain part of student engagement plans. Thus, we suggest that institutional leaders maintain consistent and transparent communication with students in the same way they have during the crisis around what will continue and what will be phased back out as the pandemic recedes.

We’ve all seen that there is no shortage of advice for how to handle a crisis, but that advice should be applied while considering the strengths we have demonstrated during this pandemic. The future, in our opinion, should be couched in our increased innovative capacity and then communicated consistently and with transparency to stakeholders.  

Both authors are assistant professors in the Educational Psychology and Leadership department at Texas Tech University. Jon McNaughtan’s  research focuses on the role of college leaders in supporting and empowering faculty and staff, while Hugo García’s research interests pertain to access and equity in higher education.

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