Seismic Shift, Small College Challenge
Focus Area Policy and Advocacy Supporting the Profession Community Public Policy Division Small Colleges and Universities Division Professional Level AVP or "Number Two" Mid-Level New Professional Senior Level VP for Student Affairs
April 23, 2020
I thought I was a pretty talented, seasoned administrator. I thought this that is, until March 18, 2020. March 18, 2020 marks the date when our President called the first of what would be six Cabinet meetings across seven days, and our small, regional university community drastically changed in the face of a world-wide pandemic arriving in our state and at our front door.
A fortuitous decision made prior to Spring Break bought us some valuable time. We extended spring break for students by an additional week and announced a transition to remote instruction beginning the week students returned. We didn’t know it, but that additional week of preparation time was pivotal as we stared down this deadly virus and vowed to take good care of our campus and greater community.
I thought I was a good administrator. With over two decades of professional experience and an advanced degree, I thought I had developed good communication skills, and proven myself as a solid, solution-focused, pragmatic thinker. I thought I was crackerjack at planning and contingency planning. I thought I was operationally minded and systems savvy. I thought I was a decent policy wonk.
Like so many of our small cohorts, our institutional bench is not deep. We have one-person departments, limited administrative support and more tasks than work-day hours. COVID-19 has stretched us to the human resource limit in the last month; making the move to remote instruction, establishing remote student services and sending many to work remotely. We’ve been confronted with a barrage of decision-making alongside the responsibility of planning and executing in the span of minutes, hours and days - not weeks or months, as is often the pace of higher education. A constant stream of emails, texts, phone conversations and virtual meeting information to distill, digest and disseminate electronically in record time.
Our institution is in what many call “Tornado Alley” so our business continuity planning has always been focused on a weather-related or man-made disaster. World-wide pandemic? Not in the plan. So, we are doing what we do best, teaching and learning. Teaching ourselves Zoom and soft phones, VPN and remote desktop connections. Creating virtual offices, deploying online services and activating new functionality in our student information system. We are watching, reading, and applying local, state and national guidance from agencies, departments and governments to institutional policy and practice while trying to guess and answer the next questions coming from students, faculty and staff. We are in uncharted territory.
The traits we take for granted at a small institution; proximity, collegiality, creativity and ingenuity have served us well. By the same token, those traits have exposed our Achilles heel. Thin benches expose key vulnerabilities in critical university operations, particularly in the areas of student health services, communications, residential life and information and academic technology. Our colleagues in those areas have been pushed to the limits of time and talent for several weeks and we are grateful for their dedication and service to students, faculty and staff.
It’s impossible to know what the next weeks and months will bring. Each new day brings new information, new data to distill, new governmental guidance and mandates to translate into institutional actions and a keen sense of the responsibility and ownership we all share to keep our students and ourselves safe, healthy and vigilant going forward.
I have used my communication muscle more in the last month than perhaps ever in my career. I have made more plans and decisions in the last month than I can remember over the last year. I have read more government, association and organizational guidance and revised policy documents in the last weeks than I have in years. I have thought more about how small our university truly is and how best to ensure its survival in uncertain times.
I thought I was a good administrator, but this has been a test.