Note from the editor: This is a guest post from Susan Baldridge, one of the authors of the book The College Stress Test: Tracking Institutional Futures across a Crowded Market.
A couple of months ago I wrote a blog post about the need for conversations about change on college and university campuses and some of the challenges to that kind of engagement. At the end of that post, I promised a second installment in which I offered some thoughts on how one might begin such a conversation. And then the world changed – you know, COVID. Those of you serving institutions of higher education as administrators, faculty, and staff have been hit with a tsunami of change, and nearly everything about your work has been upended. At first, it might seem that the kind of conversations I was calling for is a luxury that can’t be afforded in this moment of crisis. But I’m going to make the case that it’s more urgent than ever that communities find ways to have these conversations, especially under these circumstances, and I want to offer some suggestions for how one might try to do this.
As to the “why,” we know that many institutions are being forced to make fundamental changes to the way they do business in the current circumstances. Although many are hoping against hope for a return to “normal,” that seems pretty unlikely at this point. All commitments are being examined, all assumptions being questioned, and every dollar scrutinized. We knew that change was needed, but the urgency has just been turned up to 11. We had a very brief window in which most members of academic communities understood that decisions were being made very quickly and with little guidance or evidence to support one decision over another. But already, barely 2 months since these changes have begun to be implemented, calls are coming from campus groups, from the AAUP, from unions, for transparency, consultation, and communication about how we will operate going forward. The fact that we are all working in physical isolation, connecting only virtually, increases the fear and sense that decisions are being made “behind closed doors” and that normal processes for engagement, consultation, and shared governance are being thrown out the window. When those concerns take over, people find it very hard to devote their energies on behalf of the institution – which ironically, we need right now more than ever.
So that’s the “why.” But in these strange circumstances, how is it possible to have the kinds of conversations and engagements that are needed? Well, the short answer is start with what you have. I’ll offer some concrete suggestions here, but welcome the ideas and thoughts of others about practices for meaningful consultation and engagement.
Let me start with the obvious: Technology is going to be the new context. Everyone has gotten a crash course in Zooming with students and colleagues, and you are going to have to think about how to use those tools and skills both in the short term – and perhaps in the longer term. Zoom and other virtual meeting tools are being used not only for small groups, but sometimes for very large ones, convening dozens and even hundreds of individuals for a “live” experience. What lessons are we learning about how and when these work well? Take advantage of the recent lived experiences of your community members and ask them – what are the most effective ways that videoconferencing is being used for learning? For meetings? What are the practices that feel most inclusive and effective? The same questions can and should be asked of asynchronous teaching and learning tools and practices, of course.
But if these tools are the medium, we also need to be intentional about the content of the work that needs to get done. If change is inevitable, that means there are many decisions to be made, and we need to be mindful of governance as much as possible. OK, committees and faculty meetings need to happen differently, but that doesn’t mean we should forego them. Ask yourself the question: If we were going to make these changes a year ago when we were all together on campus, who would have been involved? What groups would have been consulted? What communications would have gone out? As much as possible, continue to work within these structures, and when you can’t, say so and explain why. If possible, work with groups and constituencies already in place. These are not ideal circumstances for creating new committees, charging a new Task Force, or bringing people together for the first time to do difficult work. If it isn’t obvious who should be involved in making these sometimes unprecedented decisions, review your Handbook and find the groups whose charges most naturally overlap with the situation at hand.
Once the parties have been engaged, everyone involved in making these hard decisions is going to have to face the reality that…well, they are hard. The decisions you and others are making will most likely involve uncharted territory, and chances are good that there isn’t an obvious “right” choice about how to proceed. So how do you make these kinds of decisions? I refer you to a wonderful TED Talk by philosopher Ruth Chang, in which she points out that hard choices are sometimes hard not because there is a right answer that you haven’t yet figured out, and you must simply wait for the right piece of information or evidence to solve the puzzle. Rather, the choices may be difficult because there are two or more roughly equal choices available to pursue — equal in the sense that they all may contain some positives and some negatives, and even some uncertainty. She suggests, then, that the key is to ask not “What is the right answer?” but “What kind of person do I want to be?” and let this be your guide in choosing. To quote from her talk, “It is here, in the space of hard choices, that we have the power to create reasons for ourselves to become the distinctive people that we are.” I want to suggest that we extend her point to apply to institutions as well. None of us has a crystal ball about the future, and if we do, it’s cloudier now than ever. In that context, let’s try to let our values, commitments, and vision be our guide. This means, of course, articulating what those values and commitments are. Many campuses already have existing frameworks and principles that spell these out. If they don’t exist, then at least be able to reference the values that are informing the decisions being made.
Of course, not everyone can or will be engaged with making or even providing input into those decisions. It’s worth being honest and clear about that. But since the stakes of some of these deliberations will be very high, it is all the more important to be especially diligent about clear and frequent communication. Most of us loathe email, but let’s face it, it’s one of the primary modes of communication available to us right now. So use it, and any other communication tool available. Whatever the medium, regular updates, even when there isn’t much to report are better than no updates. Remember that the question foremost in people’s minds is “What about me?” followed closely by “Who’s talking with whom about what?” and “When will they decide?” Answer any questions you can, and when you can’t, say so. The more that folks have a sense of what to expect, the less likely they are to have to manufacture narratives about what is really happening, and the less time will need to be devoted to addressing erroneous conspiracy theories.
Finally—and I know this one may feel most challenging of all—try to create space for creativity. This may sound like a luxury: “Who has time for creativity when we are desperately trying to put out fires??” But a crisis, especially one as unprecedented as this one, is precisely when creative solutions are most needed. One leader with whom I’ve spoken has taken a brief time in her regular (virtual) meetings with colleagues for explicitly creative brainstorming – she calls it “idea factory” time. She reports that not only have some of these ideas been enormously helpful, but that colleagues felt a bit more optimistic and energized for having tried to focus, even momentarily, on positive and creative solutions, rather than dwelling only on challenges and worst-case scenarios. And sometimes the most innovative ideas come from those who are closest to the work – so don’t be afraid to be broadly inclusive in seeking creative solutions.
None of these suggestions are specific to this pandemic. But the current circumstances have increased the urgency around implementing them. And if you’ll indulge my tendency toward optimism, I’ll note that while many have complained that higher education is notoriously slow to change, we have all just demonstrated that when we had to, we could fundamentally change nearly every aspect of how we do business in a few short weeks. It wasn’t easy, and time will tell how effective these efforts have been thus far. But we have demonstrated that significant change, even rapid change, is possible. Let’s be intentional about the lessons we take from the changes thus far, and use them to inform the future we need to create.
Post-script: If you work in higher education, in case no one has said it to you: Thank you for all the hard work you are doing under extraordinary circumstances. Thank you for caring for your students, your communities, and your institutions in such trying times. We need an educated populace now more than ever, and your efforts matter.