It is an understatement that 2020 will be a year we never forget. It was one of the most difficult years that any higher education leader has dealt with, and one we will discuss and research for years to come. How we dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic, campus closures, and the social justice movement dictated how our institutions maneuvered throughout the year. We learned what it meant it to pivot and be flexible, and many of us are experiencing burnout as we strive to maintain a connection with our faculty and students in the midst of so much chaos.
Although few of us expected a sprint, the pandemic has proven the most grueling of marathons. In striving to keep our institutions moving forward, we have worked tirelessly to do our part bringing students enhanced convenience and a better educational experience to ensure they meet their goals. We have been reflective in redefining our attitudes, behaviors, focus, and priorities as well as identifying issues that have plagued our students as they strive to meet their educational goals. With 2021 well underway, it is most appropriate that we take time for personal and professional reflection. Equally, as we reflect on our experiences and continue to move forward, here are some lessons that I have learned and hope that can be of use to you.
Be grateful. We have witnessed some truly disheartening scenarios while supporting students who fought COVID-19 or were helping family members diagnosed with COVID-19. In the midst of the new rules, modifications, and updates to regulations, and despite social distancing, mask wearing, remote working, and COVID-19 test-taking, we have pressed on. Even as we have lost sight of days and nights, working tirelessly to be creative to keep institutions moving forward through anxiety and stress, we must continue to be thankful. While our institutions may have been able to maintain operations and service to students, others have not. Consequently, there will be more institutions that toil with the decision to cut faculty and staff or worse, close their doors due to finances. But as we have the ability to serve, we must find ways to be grateful even in this dark period in our history.
Allow yourself to feel. We have all exhibited heroism. We have worked around the clock as we’ve entered into a virtual space, holding activities, classes, meetings, and other important gatherings. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2021), African Americans, Indigenous Americans, and Latino Americans have a COVID-19 death rate of more than 2.7 times that of White Americans. Although our hearts and spirits are breaking, we have not stopped to allow ourselves to be human and process what is happening around us. Consequently, in the midst of this deadly pandemic, social injustices have erupted around the nation, causing many emotions to stir within us. Personally and professionally, our lives have been upended. Many of us have lost loved ones. As academicians and higher education leaders, we tend to thrust ourselves into our work, failing to reckon with the emotional and mental toll our new environment is taking on us. Therefore, take a moment allow yourself to feel the emotion of what has happened and process your feelings. It is acceptable to allow yourself to feel and process your feelings accordingly. Remember you are human.
Communicate in words and actions. Many institutions were successful because of extensive communication with stakeholders including alumni, faculty, staff, and students as well as the communities in which they serve. There were many lessons learned during the pandemic, with one being communicate as frequently as possible, and hold true to your every word. As your students seek some sense of normalcy, they want to know the next steps to take. Many institutions and leaders have been placed under magnifying glasses, as parents and students have hung on their every word of how they would proceed and trust them. As leaders, we are expected to communicate effectively and creatively with all of our stakeholders. As institutions move forward, they should continue to frequently communicate their plans, seeking buy-in from stakeholders and public health officials. I would advise against changing your messaging as doing so can lead to miscommunication and a lack of trust among your stakeholders. Therefore, make a solid plan and stick with it, ensuring consistent communication across all channels, including email, social media, and your institution’s websites.
Cooperation is necessary. It is important that as faculty and staff, you are a part of the institution. Internal partnerships are just as important as external ones, and ensuring stakeholders’ decisions are being made for the common good of everyone. Although you may not agree with certain decisions, be respectful of them.
Continue to be flexible. There is no one-size-fits-all solution for faculty, staff, and students. With many of us being policy driven, we must use policies to help others in the middle of the disruption. Before this transition, we were able to maintain many tasks ensuring accountability. But in the wake of this past year, we should all look at things a bit differently and use opportunities to heal and help others. While I am in no way downplaying policies, we must be more flexible, empathetic, and easygoing during the process.
Remember there is more to be done. Leaders should reflect on the past 11 months to see that both instructional and operational models will need to change to support their institutions going forward. Going back to a pre-pandemic normal may not be in our near future, and we need to ensure that we can maintain operations until we can combat the twin pandemics of COVID-19 and racial injustice. Until we realize that our work is far from done, the foundation of our institutions will not be stable unless we engage in change management processes to move our institutions forward.
Despite the challenges of the new normal, leaders have continued to drive change and move their institutions forward. Leaders should take a moment to show gratitude for their ability to remain vision oriented as well as for their health and resilience. Additionally, they should allow themselves to feel what is happening around them. As we move forward, the pandemic is still a moving target, and we should remember that there is no one correct way to get through the crisis. Still, we have come a long way as we continue advance the agenda of student success. That deserves to be commended.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2021). Risk for COVID-19 infection, hospitalization, and death by race/ethnicity. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/covid-data/investigations-discovery/hospitalization-death-by-race-ethnicity.html
Tanjula Petty, EdD, is the assistant provost of student success and special initiatives at Alabama State University.