The 2020 Great Colleges to Work For program officially launched the faculty/staff survey on March 9th. By the end of that week, colleges across the country announced their plans to send students home for the semester and transition to remote learning options. The situation was unprecedented and for many institutions, largely unanticipated in any of their various risk management scenarios. Despite the uncertainty and the chaos of the moment, 221 institutions chose to proceed with their participation in the Great Colleges to Work For program.

For many institutions, the challenges of the 2007-2009 Great Recession pale in comparison to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. There literally was no playbook for the combination of a global pandemic, economic recession, and social unrest that struck this spring. It’s often been said that, truly great workplaces, and those on the journey to become one, stand by their commitment to employee engagement, workplace quality and organization culture in good times, and in bad. The Covid-19 pandemic has put that aphorism to the test. As evidenced by actions at many of the institutions participating in the 2020 Great Colleges to Work For program, as well as other exemplars, those that successfully navigate disruptive challenges and existential threats often do so by relying on a formula that includes empathy, communication and partnership.

Over the summer months my colleagues and I listened to and read countless interviews and panels with Presidents, Chancellors and other senior leaders discussing their strategies and priorities in the midst of pandemic uncertainty. As might be expected, enrollment challenges, in-person vs. remote instruction, athletics, budget shortfalls, layoffs, furloughs and cutbacks were all regular topics. Also, and regularly “top of list”, was a concern for the impact on, and well-being of, students, faculty, staff and other community members.

Mary Dana Hinton, President of Hollins University (formerly President of the College of Saint Benedict) eloquently reflected in Academic Impressions on April 9, 2020:

This situation also yields the gift of clarity about what matters. While little feels especially clear right now, I believe all colleges and universities have demonstrated that what matters most to us is the education, safety and well-being of the people – students, faculty and staff – entrusted to us. For many institutions, the financial peril of choosing to suspend normal operations and have students return home is real and will have a long-lasting impact.”

Likewise, in “Leading an Institution Into the Future,” a recent virtual forum hosted by The Chronicle of Higher Education, President of Robert Morris University Christopher Howard offered his perspective: “My advice to leaders is to understand that this is going to be a marathon with sprints in between. And you have to be very deliberate and intentional about making sure your people are OK. One of the things we have to do sometimes is say, how are you doing? Call your staff members and their vice chancellors and vice presidents. They’re not supermen or superwomen. Be there to support them.”

Ray Rice, President of the University of Maine at Presque Isle (a 2020 Great Colleges Honor Roll institution) invoked this ethos on March 18, 2020 in a message to the UMPI community:

Carol Gilligan, the renowned ethicist, psychologist, and professor of gender studies, notes the importance of an “ethics of care” in which we direct our attention to the need for responsiveness in relationships (paying attention, listening, responding) and to the costs of losing connection with both oneself and with others…I can think of no greater time in higher education during our careers in which such a logic is necessary and implore you to be mindful of and connected to our students’ situation and needs (as well your/our own as educators!). The cost of this pandemic, in emotional, cultural, and financial terms, to our students, ourselves, and this institution, will be profound and enduring. The work we all do now to demonstrate an ethics of care can not only help our students to succeed – and return to our institution – but is essential for building the foundation for our university’s sustainability after this crisis ends.

Words and deeds combine to create the experience of being valued, respected and cared for. And while there can be no doubt as to the importance of our actions matching our words, the importance of the words themselves is paramount. As leaders, we must be particularly timely, genuine and appropriately transparent in our communication. We must create cultures that promote real dialogue, not just an exchange of information.

Indeed, many of the 221 institutions in this year’s program cited being able to leverage the survey process as a communication tool as a reason for their continued participation in the program in the midst of the pandemic. Over the summer, many other institutions surveyed their faculty and staff to better understand their concerns prior to making decisions about the fall semester. Some colleges deployed Request for Accommodation forms to better understand faculty needs and preferences within the context of a given individual’s COVID-19 health risks. And countless are the examples of regular Presidential updates via Covid-19 specific websites, community emails, videos and even Twitter.

Whatever the mechanism or forum, it is critical to keep not just the channels of communication open, but to ensure that the critical information is flowing in all the many necessary directions: top down, bottom up, horizontally and diagonally. Such fluidity often goes against the vertically-siloed mentality so commonly found in our colleges and universities today.

In the midst of the Great Recession, we saw many leaders struggle with how to communicate effectively in the face of so much uncertainty without having all, if any, of the answers. We learned from the 2008-2012 Great Colleges to Work For programs that at the best workplaces, senior leaders were fiercely dedicated to consistent and transparent communication, especially when they did not have all the answers. Strong leadership requires courage, and committing to sharing information, “telling the story,” and soliciting input now will provide a solid foundation for delivering the next era of higher education.

At the outset of the pandemic, with federal guidance and state mandates shutting down life as we knew it, decisions needed to be made almost instantaneously, and significant changes needed to be implemented quickly. College leaders needed to act immediately and decisively to answer the critical question: “How do we survive this?”

Their ensuing decisions affected virtually every division and department. Student Affairs personnel needed to organize the safe departure of students from campus. Information Technology teams had to fast-track online teaching and remote work capabilities. Those whose jobs were considered essential had to figure out how to adapt in light of new safety precautions. The dramatic, almost overnight, shift to online teaching created a special set of challenges for faculty, challenges some embraced while others endured. The world of online teaching was unfamiliar territory for many faculty members and some felt ill-prepared for the task at hand. Without the luxury of time, many faculty felt the decision to move to online learning was forced upon them without appropriate consultation.

Some institutions, however, were able to quickly assemble task forces, teams, and working committees with broad representation from across their campuses to ensure all perspectives were heard. Many of these COVID-19 Response Teams included representatives across divisions and departments, advising the administration on policies and enacting the final decisions.

The University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) is a nine-time Honor Roll institution. Their commitment to shared governance isn’t just found in their Mission and Vision, Faculty Handbook or Faculty Senate webpages. In UMBC’s “Retrievers Return Roadmap” they identify five guiding principles that will inform their return to campus planning, the second of which explicitly states, “UMBC’s commitment to shared governance will inform every stage of our planning process. We will continue to engage the campus community broadly, through participation in planning groups, frequent communication and solicitation of input as plans are developed.”

Embry-Riddle, another long-time Honor Roll institution has fallen back on some of its unique organization DNA in its Path Forward reopening plan. Perhaps not surprising given its reputation as one of the world’s leading aviation and aerospace institutions, an explicit commitment to safety is an integral part of the culture. That commitment to safety combined with their dedication to collaboration is woven throughout their reopening plan. “We are all in this together” is consistent refrain, and given their survey results, not just a platitude.

In the fluid and ever-evolving situation we continue to find ourselves in, we need to come together across our differences, whether they be a function of job classification; discipline, division or department; or even political affiliation. Collaboration has arguably never been more important.

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We launched the inaugural Great Colleges to Work for Program back in 2008 on the cusp of The Great Recession. And despite dire predictions about the demise of higher education and the imminent closure of colleges across the country, better days emerged.

In the 2008-2019 Great Colleges to Work for Programs we saw that it was possible to be a great workplace even in the face of disruption, uncertainty, and limited resources. In 2020, we see similar resiliency and commitment in many of the participating institutions.

We expect the institutions that end up navigating the current challenges most successfully will be those that hold fast to their long-term visions and long-held values; those that in the face of constant uncertainty and ever-evolving plans communicate openly, authentically and with empathy; those that in midst of financial challenges including layoffs, furloughs and salary cuts nonetheless find a way to demonstrate a commitment to the well-being of faculty and staff; those that not only tap into the expertise, passion and experience of their faculty and staff, but find ways to come together in the spirit of partnership, stewardship and service.

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