University Presidents – Lead for Your Now, and Don’t Forget Your Future

The corona virus pandemic poses a genuinely existential threat to many colleges and universities.  Even those institutions not already stressed by declining numbers of applicants and out-of-control discount rates may struggle to keep their footing in a world where prospective students cannot visit campus and where family financial aid needs may spike beyond all reasonable projections.  And who knows what the long-term effects of a temporarily closed academy may be? Will COVID-19 catalyze the idea that maybe the traditional residential four-year college isn’t really the best way to meet the educational needs of the nation in the 21st century?

I don’t know the answers to these questions.  But for beleaguered higher education leaders, I do have a few suggestions, akin in their simplicity (and efficacy, I hope) to the ubiquitous admonition to wash our hands often and thoroughly.

First, assemble and empower what Patrick Lencioni (in The Five Dysfunctions of a Team) has wisely called your “First Team.” These are your senior lieutenants, the women and men responsible for overseeing the day to day operations of the institutions, academic and non-academic.  No one leads alone.  No one leads effectively, especially in a crisis, by barking orders at disempowered subordinates.  You and your first team need to consult regularly, at least daily.  And all team members need to commit to honest and open exchanges with one another, subordinating the interests of their particular fiefdoms to the overarching interests of the institution.

Second, communicate, communicate, communicate.  Your faculty, staff and students want to hear from you regularly and often.  According to the most recent Edelman Trust Barometer, they trust you, their employer, far more than they trust the media and political leaders.  That is admittedly a low bar to clear, but nevertheless it underscores the fact that people need and want you to communicate with them.  And, sadly, we have to remind ourselves these days that they want you to tell them the truth.  Even hard truths are more reassuring that transparently groundless happy talk.

Third, don’t forget to “manage up.”  Make sure that your governing board or boards are in the loop and in synch with the actions you and your team have decided to take.  If you lead a public institution, be sure that the governor and legislative leaders, who are undoubtedly already fielding angry phone calls from distressed parental constituents, have heard from you and understand your plans.

Finally, use the weeks ahead to plan for a more resilient future.  Several weeks ago, before the pandemic had fully emerged, a report in Inside Higher Education indicated that optimism about their own institutional fortunes had begun to rise among college presidents.  I had doubts at the time about how realistic those assessments were.  My doubts in the face of the corona virus have not diminished.  Whatever the future holds, the odds are that the landscape for traditional colleges and universities will be even more fraught.  As leaders, we really now need to lead.