Positives and pitfalls: what is good leadership in a crisis?

Based on interviews with university presidents over the past year, Jon McNaughtan identifies three areas that all campus leaders should focus on during any crisis

January 22, 2021
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Most university leaders would opine that they are constantly facing one crisis or another, but few will have seen anything quite like this before. Over the past year, the Covid-19 pandemic has plagued all universities simultaneously, institutions have been forced to move instruction to virtual platforms, and most of the ways universities conduct business have been altered.

Leaders have taken a multitude of approaches dictated by their past experience, campus context and the level of governmental oversight. While there is no perfect way to navigate a crisis such as Covid-19, we can learn from some of the approaches taken by institutional leaders.

First response: initial lessons from the digital pivot

Over the past three months, I have led a group of researchers interviewing university presidents from countries across the world to better understand leadership in times of global crisis. Based on those interviews, we have identified three areas that all presidents should focus on during any crisis, and we outline some common pitfalls as well as positive practices that could be considered.

Of course, good communication is critical generally, but in times of crisis, accurate, accessible and timely information sharing is required to successfully overcome challenges.

Pitfall: In an effort to be transparent and share information, many university leaders ended up over-communicating. At some institutions, more than 100 public messages were sent to campus faculty, staff and students during March last year. Some communication was redundant; other communications contradicted previous messages, leading to campus-wide confusion. While the uncertainty surrounding Covid may have led to some of these contradictory messages, the communication coming from institutional leaders decreased in value as constituents lost trust in the messages and were fatigued by the sheer number of public statements.

Positive practice: To avoid this decline in value, leaders must centralise institutional crisis communication to ensure that messages are consistent, vetted and relevant. Most institutions created a website to archive all public communication and provide a place for faculty, staff and students to find the latest information on the crisis. These websites were divided into meaningful sections (student information, faculty information and so on) and presented information chronologically so that constituents could see the most recent data and institutional insight.

Supporting faculty and staff
Colleges and universities are large employers with many faculty and staff working to provide educational opportunities for students, maintain institutions and conduct research. University leaders were central to guiding employees through the crisis in a way that could maintain quality educational experiences for students.

Pitfall: Many institutional leaders focused so much on making decisions that they failed to provide formalised opportunities for faculty and staff to offer feedback. For example, many institutions moved to online course delivery and sought to provide resources for faculty to complete their work. However, during this process, a one-size-fits-all approach was often taken, with assumptions being made about what meeting platform would be most appropriate, which testing software would align with assessment approaches and what information should be shared with students.

These decisions were made with little engagement with faculty and staff, who were left to employ these new institutional tools or fulfil new requirements. This approach left many institutional systems either underutilised or misused because they did not apply to a course, or the faculty member was not trained to use them.

Positive practice: The most successful institutional leaders during the pandemic were those who provided clear guidance for faculty that disentangled policy changes from advice for completing work. For example, at many institutions it became policy to move courses online, but allowing students to take courses for credit as opposed to letter grades was up to the individual faculty member. Clarifying this policy distinction was critical to reducing frustration and ensuring that correct policy changes were implemented. In addition, this process allowed staff to share feedback that could inform future decisions.

THE Campus: Creating a centralised advice resource to help faculty adapt to online teaching

Supporting students
In conversations with presidents from across the world, one of the most consistent themes was that they saw the support of students as one of their central responsibilities. In particular, the education, safety and well-being of students was discussed in all interviews.

Pitfall: Students desire information, but institutional leaders should be cautious in making promises, and when making commitments they need to be transparent. For example, many institutions committed to offering face-to-face instruction in the autumn semester of the pandemic. However, most courses ended up being delivered online or in a hybrid format in the fall, which left many students frustrated. Furthermore, institutions were unable to offer the same extracurricular activities for students, which left many isolated, resulting in high student attrition.

Positive practice: Similar to engaging with faculty and staff, institutional leaders need formalised approaches to receiving insight from students. Some institutions included multiple students on their Covid-19 committees; others developed specific student contacts for groups of learners, such as international centre directors to seek and relay information from international students to leaders. One final example of this included regular meetings with student leadership and administration to create communication lines for students.

These are a just a few of the common practices identified from interviews with presidents discussing leadership during Covid-19. There are countless others, detrimental and beneficial, but most importantly, administrators should be reflective and identify their own positive practices that can help inform their approach to any future crisis.

Jon McNaughtan is an assistant professor of educational psychology and leadership at Texas Tech University.

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