Wednesday, November 25

Crisis Management on Campus

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Terri Givens

by Terri E. Givens

In April of 2009, I was a vice-provost at UT Austin, preparing to head to China with a delegation from the Provost’s office to work on collaborations with Chinese universities. That trip would get cancelled when the H1 N1 virus was identified in Mexico and crossed the border into Texas, leading the CDC to declare a health emergency. As Vice Provost for undergraduate curriculum and international affairs, I was responsible for deciding how to manage the situation with our study abroad programs in Mexico, and eventually I became the administration’s lead person working with a task force on campus to deal with the potential health crisis.

After the first meeting of the task force, I went home asking myself, how did a political scientist end up leading the crisis response for one of the biggest universities in the country? With the coronavirus on its way to becoming a pandemic, there will be many academics across the country being asked to take on a university’s response to the current crisis.

My biggest piece of advice, based on my experience in 2009, is that you cannot be over-prepared. It is important to develop lines of communication with local health authorities, as well as campus resources. We were blessed to have a campus full of experts to draw on, and a great student health system that responded well to the crisis. 

One of the more effective interventions was a hand-washing campaign. Posters popped up in every bathroom on campus, encouraging people to wash their hands more thoroughly. Student health workers noticed that the number of regular cold and flu cases dropped during that time. To this day, I am very thorough with washing my hands, although that also comes from being a mom. I have had several people ask if I am a nurse based on the way I wash my hands.

Crisis management is a key component of being a leader in higher education. It is important to be aware of risks and prepare for a variety of potential impacts. In the case of the coronavirus, Chuck Staben, former President of the University of Idaho, writes in an article in Inside Higher Ed:

Colleges have several risk factors for epidemics. We often house large numbers of students together and feed them in communal dining halls. Our classes, athletic events and other activities are large public gatherings. And, as we enter March, many colleges will enjoy spring break, with associated travel offering the opportunity of contact with a wide population, often including international travel by students and faculty, and a return to campus.

Here in California, we’re already seeing the impact, with one student at UC Davis showing mild symptoms of coronavirus and three students in isolation.

Crisis planning should also be an ongoing component of strategic planning. On March 1st, we will be launching our first self-paced strategic planning course. CHEL members are eligible for a 50% discount. We are emphasizing strategic planning because it is not only something being required by accreditors, but an important way to track progress on innovations and new programs that are important to the ongoing development of a campus. 

Strategic planning puzzle

Strategic plans are also an important component of succession planning. With turn-over in administrative positions, it can be difficult to keep track of new initiatives, and whether or not they are successful. Today it is important to develop ways to track progress and outcomes. However, it is also important to make sure that what is being tracked is strategic. Day to day operations don’t need to be a part of a strategic plan. There’s lots more to say about strategic plans, and I will save that for our course, and the discussion forum that will go along with it.

Using data to track outcomes and the development of predictive analytics is getting a lot of attention in higher ed, but a recent review of surveys by Kenneth Green indicates that many institutions aren’t using data in an effective way:

Just a fourth (23 percent) of the surveyed CAOs assessed their institution as “very effective” in “using data to aid and inform campus decision making.” Moreover, the CAO number has plunged over the past eight years, from 31 percent in 2012 to 23 percent in 2020.

Green argues that this is due to the fact that analytics require interventions to be in place to actually respond to the outcomes being tracked:

In other words, analytics only work if the analytic work is part of a larger and well-understood gestalt: the sum (improved student outcomes) is more than the parts (analytics and other unconnected efforts). Absent an institutional (or departmental) commitment to evidence-based, well-designed and well-resourced intervention strategies and support services, the investment in analytics is almost certain to fall short of expectations.

This conclusion points to a broader issue with ed tech and data – it’s not just the tool or the analysis that is important, it’s how we respond that matters. It is important that leaders are prepared to expend resources when incorporating data analytics into strategic planning processes, so that there is a pro-active way to respond when areas of concern are identified.

I have two new books on my reading list – the first is Bryan Alexander’s Academia Next: The Futures of Higher Education. I have been following Bryan’s blog for several years and look forward to reading his thoughts about the future of higher ed. The second book is, The College Stress Test: Tracking Institutional Futures across a Crowded Market by Robert Zemsky, Susan Shaman, Susan Campbell Baldridge. The issue of college closures has been a contentious one lately, with a study by the company Edmit scuttled when private colleges who were part of the study raised concerns and threatened legal action. This issue isn’t going away, and I will be interested to read the approach taken to analyzing the potential for college closures in this new book.


About the author

Terri Givens, Founder & CEO

Dr. Terri E. Givens is the Founder and CEO of The Center for Higher Education Leadership (CHEL). She was the former Provost at Menlo College in the San Francisco Bay Area; Professor of Government and European studies at The University of Texas at Austin; Vice Provost overseeing undergraduate curriculum and spearheading global initiatives as its chief international officer. She formed CHEL to provide academic leaders with information and a supportive community for improving management and leadership skills in an environment of changing demographics, financial challenges, and advances in educational technology. CHEL was born of Terri’s experiences navigating these fields and learning along her journey through academe, from professor to vice-provost and provost at universities in Texas and California.

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