Pivoting Into the Future of Higher Education: Leadership Communications in a Prolonged Crisis

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Ask most college or university presidents or chancellors who have taken the helm in the last 10 years what their most important job is, and they will tell you it is finding ways to finance the operations of the institution through private and public resources. And though they may not often articulate it, the key to successful fundraising through private sources or advocacy for public funding is using a complex set of communications tools to reach prospective students, donors and public officials. Effective leadership communication, more than ever today, may very well be pivotal to the future of our higher education institutions. Leaders must make hard choices, almost on a daily basis, and the scenarios they face may be even tougher in the future.

Well before the onset of the coronavirus crisis, forces outside higher education – instant access to global information via the power of Google and the consumer-centric, personalized approach of commercial behemoths such as Amazon – had changed the expectations of nearly everyone. But under the conditions imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic, the ability of college and university leaders to give constituents confidence in the status and direction of the institution, connect effectively with a wide assortment of stakeholders and develop advocacy among faculty, students and alumni for forward-focused decisions has never been more crucial.

While higher education is an enterprise dedicated to creating and transmitting knowledge, it is one that must be managed with sound business practices. Given the changes in the environment in which higher education operates – changing demographics, higher expectations, declining public support, heightened competition – even before the pandemic the trends were already ominous for the financial health of many colleges and universities, particularly small private colleges and public institutions of all sizes. Building and maintaining healthy enrollments is a critical driver for the financial well-being and competitive edge of all institutions, public and independent. As leaders adjust to the pandemic’s impact on prospective students and make unprecedented changes to admissions processes, the most immediate threat is the uncertainty surrounding student enrollments.

In February, even before the coronavirus crisis became apparent, a study by the Chronicle of Higher Education, the Council of Independent Colleges and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities revealed that “no one escapes enrollment woes.” The report noted that 60 percent of the public and private institutions missed their enrollment numbers and 67 percent failed to meet their net-revenue goals.[1] That study is an indicator of the pressures college and university leaders will confront over the next decade, even under normal circumstances, as demographic trends shrink the numbers of college-bound students.

But in the era of Covid-19, the concept of business continuity becomes a stark reality. In mid-March, a survey of admissions officers by EAB showed major concerns about the impact of the pandemic on enrollments. Some 75 percent of respondents predict serious negative effects on this year’s admissions yield, and 87 percent “worry that future visits to the campus by potential students will decline.”[2] And a survey of presidents conducted about the same time revealed that 70 percent expect revenue decreases of 10 percent or more on their campuses, leading to hiring freezes.[3] More than half expect to lay off staff and implement furloughs, with labor representing more than two-thirds of higher education costs. Further, 36 percent of the presidents believe serious disruption will be on the front burner in September and even into 2021.

These concerns were only buttressed by a study released in early April by the research and marketing firm SimpsonScarborough, which revealed that up to 24 percent of high school seniors are considering changing their plans to attend a four-year college because of the coronavirus outbreak. Even a 10 percent drop, the researchers said, would be “devastating.”

In mid-April, a survey conducted by the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers showed impending seismic shifts in admissions processes in response to the realities of Covid-19. Some 94 percent of respondents have made, or are considering making, changes to their admissions practices, including extending deposit deadlines, moving to online or remote course testing placement and allowing non-qualitative grades on high school transcripts to satisfy admissions requirements.[4] The presidents’ survey also found that 96 percent are planning to re-engineer processes and look for efficiencies in their operating models – including an expansion of remote online education for all audiences.

All of these studies point clearly to long-lasting and potentially permanent disruptive changes to the academic environment on which our assumptions have been based for decades.

Public perceptions of the virus and of its impact on society change almost literally by the hour. With those shifting perceptions comes a new set of demands on institutional leaders to communicate with their stakeholders. While the campus community reflexively is the initial focus, cultivating the support of alumni – the largest constituency with the longest relationship – should be a priority for information-sharing.

Most situations that call for sound crisis communications policies and practices, as difficult as those incidents may be, are simpler than the coronavirus pandemic in one key respect – predictability. Leaders are usually able to anticipate the progression from trauma through recovery from natural and man-made disasters.

We know now that the Covid-19 pandemic is different. No one knows how the virus will impact our society in the coming months and years. Organizational leaders must now be prepared for a long-term shift in their communications practices, and a sustained approach to some form of crisis communications management.

Such a mindset brings with it challenges college and university leaders must address. In a recent New York Times article, Dov Seidman, founder and chairman of the ethics and compliance company LRN and the How Institute for Society, told columnist Thomas Friedman:

“Great leaders trust people with the truth…The true antidote to fear is hope, not optimism…by inspiring collaboration, common purpose and future possibilities.”[5]

The following guidelines will help as leaders navigate the entirely new territory in communicating with their stakeholders.

Give people the information they need when they need it. Typically university leaders’ communications are tightly measured in their frequency, reserved for topics of the greatest impact. Sometimes the core issues are skirted out of deference to institutional strategy or politics (internal and external). The stakes are different now. Deciding when and how to speak – and to whom – requires trade-offs, intuition and sensitivity to the needs for information by a wide diversity of audiences.

Be visible, but empower and trust your team. Because you are the ultimate decision maker, your constituents need to see you, but they do not need to see only you. Be deliberate about deciding who your spokesperson should be depending on circumstances, and support the team that supports you and your institution.

Deliver the big picture. No one else can. Communicate the impact on all aspects of your institution to help constituents develop a deeper sense of trust that the right decisions are being made at the right time.

Focus on factual information, and distinguish it from your opinion. Both are important, but keep the distinction clear as you share factual data and your perspectives on its impact on your institution.

Be transparent. When so much is uncertain, it is important to call attention – where genuine – to the resilience of the organization and its people where it can or should exist or be further cultivated. Bring people behind the curtain – helping them understand what is known and what isn’t – and keep them in the know.

Demand consistency in messaging. We are in an era now in which confusion in the minds of your stakeholders can be particularly damaging. If they receive conflicting or inconsistent information from your organization, they will quickly lose confidence in your leadership.

Repetition is not a sin. We are operating in a rapidly changing environment, and your stakeholders are entering the conversation at different times. Assume that they will need to be reminded constantly of the context for your key messages.

Nothing is more important than empathy. The emotional impact of this crisis is unprecedented and enormous. Let your stakeholders know you understand that, and that you care about the impact on them, not just on the organization.

Presentation is everything. Use the full range of communications tools to reach people where they are, and focus on preparation.

Words matter. The way in which you articulate information, and perspective, and empathy – and the precise words you choose – have a huge influence on the clarity and impact of your messaging.

Seek to inspire.  The default position of most stakeholders is to trust their leadership. Do everything you can to build their confidence in you and the organization and to inspire their thinking and their actions.

Author: Bill Walker


[1] “At the Precipice: 6 in 10 Colleges Say They Missed Fall Enrollment Goals,” Chronicle of Higher Education, Feb. 24, 2020

[2] “Admissions Fears,” Inside Higher Education, March 18, 2020

[3] “Survey of Presidents Shows a Growing Divide in Confidence,” Inside Higher Education, March 13, 2020

[4] “AACRAO, ACE Survey Finds Uncertainty About Current College Student Fall Enrollment Plans, Optimism About Completing Spring Coursework,” American Council on Education, April 23, 2020, ACENET.edu

[5] “We Need Great Leadership Now, and Here’s What It Looks Like,” New York Times, April 21, 2020