It’s been said that character and competency are revealed in times of crisis. We have to look no further than the 2021 Great Colleges to Work For program to find examples of institutional character and competency that warrant not just praise, but in many cases, emulation.

I’ve written previously about the benefits and power of a collective identity, and how the associated sense of esprit de corps and a common playbook helps institutions manage through difficult times. That remains the case today. Unfortunately, strong cultures and collective values are not instilled overnight; they’re the product of intention, consistency, and leadership.

There is little doubt that among the most important responsibilities of leaders is to provide vision, direction, and strategy. That job is both more complex and more important in times of crisis. In the face of uncertainty and fear, employees are eager, if not desperate, for stability, clarity, and hope.

Many institutions were diligent and effective in their immediate and short-term pandemic response efforts. Weekly presidential updates were often supplemented by regular task force briefings and bolstered by online dashboards and directions to resources and support services.

Some institutions, however, not only mastered the immediate crisis response but also were successful in providing larger context. They helped connect to, and ground, faculty and staff to the mission, vision, and values. They spoke not just to short-term plans, but also to mid-range plans and potential long-term impact. They were transparent in their scenario planning and spoke candidly to the potential impacts on strategic plans and even campus master plans.

We have clear evidence of the power of this focus in the responses to item #27: Senior leadership provides a clear direction for this institution’s future. Honor Roll institutions collectively had a 76% positive response (meaning that 76% of respondents from Honor Roll colleges selected either “Agree” or “Strongly Agree”) to this item with only 9% disagreeing (selecting either “Disagree” or “Strongly Disagree”). The 126 participating institutions that were not recognized in this year’s program had a 56% positive response and a 19% negative response.

Similarly, we see significant differences between these two groups on item #41, Senior leadership communicates openly about important matters, on which Honor Roll institutions reported a 75% positive and an 8% negative response, versus a 56% positive and a 17% negative response at non-recognized institutions.

There is no doubt higher education as a sector is unlike any other, and one of its defining elements is the construct of shared governance. Relatively simple in concept, the particulars of how it manifests on campus is unique to each institution, and ensuring clarity of decision-making processes can be challenging in the best of times. Faculty and staff may not have a full understanding of the nuances of the structures, processes, and norms of an institution’s governance. There’s often confusion between what is a Board or System-level decision versus the decision-making authority that rests with a President. Similarly, the processes for collaboration or soliciting input may not be accurately understood or believed to be effective. And even when shared governance processes are well-documented and clearly understood, their effectiveness is sometimes compromised by political agendas, competing priorities, strained relations, and low trust.

In times of stress or crisis, the challenges to effective shared governance can be even further exacerbated. Such was the case at many colleges and universities this past year. Decisions to close campuses, implement furloughs and layoffs, terminate contracts, initiate remote learning platforms, and deal with the immediate challenges of the pandemic were largely made outside of normal decision-making processes. And while many institutions were quick to establish cross-functional Task Forces, in the eyes of many, collaborative decision-making and shared governance suffered a blow.

In the 14 years of the Great Colleges to Work For program we’ve consistently seen significant gaps between recognized institutions and non-recognized institutions on the survey items related to shared governance. That trend continues in 2021. On faculty-only item #56, The role of faculty in shared governance is clearly stated and publicized, faculty at Honor Roll institutions reported a 76% positive response and a 10% negative response compared to faculty at non-recognized institutions, which collectively were at 57% positive and 19% negative.

That difference is even more pronounced when we isolate the faculty responses on item #42: There are sufficient opportunities to participate in institutional planning. Faculty at Honor Roll institutions were at 73% positive and 11% negative compared to faculty at non-recognized institutions where the response was 50% positive and 22% negative.

When we emerge from the pandemic and strive to create some sense of normalcy, we expect we’ll continue to see institutions engaging in damage control to mitigate the perceived erosion of collaborative decision-making. Reaffirming the commitment to shared governance can be a starting point, but moving forward, the actions will need to match the words if the bonds of trust are to be repaired.

In the same fashion that the language of diversity, equity and inclusion has evolved in the past 18 months, so too has the language of work/life balance and wellness. Generally considered a more holistic approach than a simple focus on wellness, well-being models typically include a more expansive lens, including one’s mental and emotional well-being, and in some cases, even spiritual and financial health. If we are indeed migrating to a more holistic approach to well-being it will be one of the silver linings of this recent crisis.

In the early days of the pandemic the risk of serious illness and/or death was both dramatic and not fully understood. Protecting the health and lives of faculty, staff, students, and communities became the number one priority for most presidents and senior leaders. And as the months unfolded and mental health challenges related to high anxiety, constant stress, isolation and burn out emerged – and in many cases emerged at scale – leaders had no choice but to pay attention to the health and well-being of faculty, staff, and students in ways that many to that point had not.

Those leaders who led with a genuine sense of compassion and empathy no doubt reaped the benefits of stronger relationships and deeper levels of trust. Item #37, Senior leadership shows a genuine interest in the well-being of faculty, administrators and staff, is yet another survey item where we see notable differences between the Honor Roll institutions (78% positive / 8% negative) and non-recognized institutions (61% positive / 17% negative).

As a function of the Great Colleges to Work For program, and the work we do supporting our clients, I regularly review mission statements, strategic plans, and organizational values. Often, I see goals related to “attracting and retaining world-class and/or diverse faculty and staff” or the commitment to “investing in, developing and taking care of our faculty and staff.” These goals have never been more necessary, and we at ModernThink are honored to be a part of making colleges and universities better places to work and learn, in good times and in bad.

Contact Us

Please let us know how we can best assist you.