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The FOCUS on Faculty Model of Crisis Leadership: Remote Leadership Support across Institutional Contexts

Faculty Development Leadership and Management

The FOCUS on Faculty Model of Crisis Leadership: Remote Leadership Support across Institutional Contexts

Articles lamenting the post-COVID-19 state of higher education have reached their zenith (we hope!). But after countless explorations of this pandemic’s effects on the state of enrollment (Hartocollis, 2020), study abroad opportunities and tuition revenue (Whalen, 2020), job placement and course modalities (Gardner, 2020), and, of course, overall budgets (Huelsman, 2020), few have positioned COVID-19 as an opportunity for faculty development professionals to respond urgently to faculty needs in an effort to support and enhance student learning. To address this concern, we developed an actionable and transferable model to help institutional leaders FOCUS on faculty in times of crisis.

FOCUS provides a model for faculty leadership that transcends operational and institutional contexts, especially amid challenges. The model consists of five elements for effectively leading faculty, with a focus on times of remote instruction. Many available leadership models require time-consuming, costly, and intensive training, often involving travel to a specific site or conference. Many academic leaders have been left on their own, however, as entire institutions have quickly moved instruction, operations, and administration to remote delivery, thus creating challenges with traditional leadership training opportunities. We need, then, portable, accessible leadership models that transcend academic disciplines and institutional contexts.

FOCUS emphasizes timely, faculty-centered leadership. It can be used as a scaffolded, five-step process or adapted for institutional leadership contexts or challenges (figure 1).

Five-point diagram, reading, clockwise from the top: "frame the situation," "identity urgent opportunities," "communicate your message," "understand stakeholder needs," and "suggest tangible action steps."

Figure 1. The FOCUS model of leadership

1. Frame the situation

Frame the situation by first defining it and identifying how academic leaders—alongside  their faculty—should develop a plan for moving forward. In the process, consider the level of transparency needed to engage faculty stakeholders. While all information—including data, input, or feedback—may not be known at this time, it is still important to be honest and straightforward in times of crisis. But leaders should be appropriately transparent without causing information overload or an infodemic. To do this, focus on the facts of the situation rather than your own inferences and frame the situation as accurately as possible.

  1. What is the current impact on teaching and learning, student success, and faculty engagement?
  2. What are the potential short- and long-term impacts on teaching and learning, student success, and faculty engagement?
  3. In what ways might this situation affect faculty (e.g., in terms of tenure, teaching, or research)?

2. Identify urgent opportunities

After framing the situation, identify urgent opportunities—that is, the circumstances, contexts, or situations that require immediate attention. As you do so, consider approaches, possibilities, or alternatives for operationalizing activity using familiar and new technologies or software to best engage faculty. The process might involve assessing areas under your purview that are most at risk or could benefit and, specific to faculty development, where your leadership efforts most affect faculty.

  1. How might you leverage available funds or institutional support to best implement technologies and media?
  2. How might you seek external support to implement new technologies? Are there possibilities to partner with external groups that share similar goals?
  3. How might you reconsider current practices to improve efficiency?

3. Communicate your message

After framing the situation and identifying urgent opportunities, start to select the most appropriate channels for communicating your message. Try not to overwhelm and instead think strategically about how faculty consume information most efficiently and effectively. The answers to the questions below will probably depend on your faculty, the institution, and the ethos of information seekers.

  1. Timing and frequency: How often will faculty benefit from your communication? What is appropriate for the moment? Is it daily, a few times a week, once a week?
  2. What is the best medium to deliver each message? Is it email? A virtual meeting platform, such as Zoom or GoToMeeting? Group text messaging?
  3. Should the message be delivered in a way that invites interaction (e.g., via a listserv or virtual meeting platform), or should it be delivered in a way that is static (e.g., a webpage update)?

4. Understand stakeholder needs

Throughout the process, ensure that needs are understood in your area. Ask colleagues about their concerns rather than make assumptions. Try to identify what faculty need to continue to do their jobs effectively.

  1. Ask faculty how they are handling the crisis and what they need to be successful throughout the situation.
  2. Assess what it will take (e.g., funding, resources, or collaboration) to ensure that faculty needs are met.
  3. Give faculty opportunities to provide regular feedback on the extent to which their needs have been met.

5. Suggest tangible action steps

Finally, think deeply about these questions and communicate appropriately while considering tangible action steps that need to be taken immediately to succeed, and then establish frameworks to complete the action steps. Make sure expectations, suggestions, and recommendations are clear, concise, and actionable.

  1. What steps should be taken to ensure that student learning continues at a high level?
  2. How do faculty need to be supported in taking care of themselves, their families, or other personal or professional obligations?
  3. Determine tangible and appropriate ways to continue supporting faculty (e.g., with promotion or tenure applications or committee work) using available resources.

By implementing the FOCUS model, leaders can situate faculty development as a robust institutional resource in trying times. Remember to frame the situation, identify urgent opportunities, communicate your message, understand stakeholder needs, and suggest tangible action steps.

While this concept of leadership amid remote delivery of institutional programs and courses might differ from traditionally defined leadership, several considerations rise to the top: the need for timely information among a variety of priorities for quality and accessibility. The FOCUS leadership model suggests an attention to concerns raised by faculty and for the welfare of faculty and their students. Several possible paths for implementing FOCUS emerge as well, including

  • trying one area of the model based on concerns, changes, challenges, opportunities, or needs of your faculty, department, college, or campus;
  • inviting discussion about the FOCUS model among your colleagues;
  • adding to the FOCUS model in ways that support your immediate and long-term needs and goals; and
  • welcoming feedback on your implementation or interpretation of the FOCUS model.

It is often tempting to simply survive the moment instead of considering how the current crisis makes faculty development indispensable. Now, maybe more than ever, faculty need support to teach online, deliver course material and collaborate with a range of institutional stakeholders in a virtual context, and take care of their families at home. Who better than faculty development professionals to lead this digital army into the next phase and truly FOCUS on faculty?


Carpenter, R., Strawser, M. G., Dvorak, K., Forde, T., & Krsmanovic, M. (2020). The implications of COVID-19 on educators, students, curricula, and faculty development. Journal of Faculty Development, 34(2), 9–14.

Gardner, L. (2020, March 20). Covid-19 has forced higher ed to pivot to online learning. Here are 7 takeaways so far. The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/Covid-19-Has-Forced-Higher-Ed/248297

Hartocollis, A. (2020, April 15). After coronavirus, colleges worry: Will students come back? The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/15/us/coronavirus-colleges-universities-admissions.html

Huelsman, M. (2020, March 12). Coronavirus could cause long-term higher ed crisis. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2020/03/12/coronavirus-could-have-long-term-impact-state-funding-universities-opinion

Whalen, B. (2020, April 14). Education abroad in a post-Covid-19 world. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2020/04/14/how-covid-19-will-change-education-abroad-american-students-opinion

Russell Carpenter, PhD, is executive director of the Noel Studio for Academic Creativity and Faculty Center for Teaching & Learning as well as associate professor of English at Eastern Kentucky University. Carpenter is editor of the Journal of Faculty Development.

Michael G. Strawser, PhD, is assistant professor of communication at the University of Central Florida. Strawser is managing editor of the Journal of Faculty Development.

Kevin Dvorak, PhD, is executive director of the Writing and Communication Center at Nova Southeastern University, where he is also a professor and faculty coordinator for first-year experience. Dvorak is associate editor of the Journal of Faculty Development.

Timothy Forde, PhD, is vice provost of diversity and associate professor in the College of Education at Eastern Kentucky University. Forde is associate editor for diversity and inclusive excellence of the Journal of Faculty Development.

Masha Krsmanovic, PhD, is a postdoctoral scholar at the Faculty Center for Teaching and Learning and an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Educational Leadership and Higher Education at the University of Central Florida. Krsmanovic is book review editor of the Journal of Faculty Development.

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