Steering universities through crisis, upheaval and protest
September 5, 2020

Original post in University World News

The demands of the past six to eight months have been unprecedented for university leaders steering their institutions through the COVID-19 pandemic, planning for an economic squeeze that could heavily impact teaching and research and responding to societal upheaval caused by both the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement sparking demands for change on campuses around the world.

Even individually, each of these would be hugely challenging for leaders juggling the immediate, day-to-day task of dealing with COVID, medium-term economic effects, and the potentially long-lasting, far reaching upheavals prompted by Black Lives Matter, which demand long-term, far-reaching solutions. But the ‘triple whammy’ is a major test for university leadership.

As demanding as the day-to-day response has been, “you can’t get too fixated on [it]. We have to keep our eye on the horizon and look for the opportunities that spring from crises,” said Cynthia Larive, chancellor of the University of California (UC), Santa Cruz. “If we focus on building resiliency, then our campus will be stronger and we will be better able to withstand crises,” she told University World News.

“We are all having to manage with the huge amount of uncertainty that often comes with a crisis and I think it’s been very difficult for [university] presidents and leadership teams to work out where to pay their attention and where to put their efforts, because it’s a constant moving feast,” said Dawn Freshwater, vice-chancellor of the University of Auckland, New Zealand.

“We have to walk and chew gum at the same time; we’ve got to be able to respond to the immediate and also think about longer term planning to assist with some of those other threats that we know are on the horizon,” Freshwater told University World News.

Just as universities are dealing with technology and the future of work, challenges to funding models and geopolitical disruption, the pandemic has highlighted issues of public health generally, employment, food security, even as climate change needs to be tackled and the resilience of communities increased, she noted.

“For everything there’s a plan B, C and D. Every plan comes with an asterisk,” said Ana Mari Cauce, president of the University of Washington, Seattle in the United States.

“I say to almost everyone almost daily that we have to be thinking about the day after and that this [pandemic] will end, so I’ve been very deliberately creating conversations about our goals beyond managing through COVID and the budget crisis. I make the mental space to do it,” said Carol Christ, chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley.

This is not as easy as it sounds. The pandemic, the shutting of many campus facilities, putting classes online, facilitating examinations, assisting faculty and students who were abroad to get home, “there were just hundreds of decisions that had to be made in an organisation as large and complex as a modern university,” Christ told University World News.


Sudden and immediate impact

Shutting down campuses and moving classes online had to be implemented swiftly at many universities around the world.

“I remember so vividly that moment I realised that I had to do this,” Christ recalled. “I was hearing a lecture by an epidemiologist and it made it clear to me how exponential the spread of this disease was going to be and how every day we delayed moving towards remote operation would mean more lives lost.

“I heard that lecture on Saturday 7 March and I pulled my cabinet together the next day and we sent out a message to the campus, moving to remote operation on 9 March, so we did this fairly early.”

Some decisions involved complex logistics. “We had first of all to think about our students in study abroad programmes, with many students and also faculty who were abroad, and help them get home, and with the international students who wanted to go home” Christ said. “We used commercial airlines.”

Everything was a priority, university leaders said, and speed was paramount. Margaret Gardner, vice-chancellor of Monash University, Australia, outlined the herculean efforts of the first weeks after lockdown, requiring a substantial reorganisation of curriculum, outreach to students and families, redeployment of staff and resources, just as a new academic year was about to start in Australia in January and early February.

“At the very point that our students were due to come on campus, domestic and international, the whole place went into lockdown, so we had to put the whole of our first semester online,” she told University World News.

The university already operated a lecture capture system which meant that some online resources were available. But that was not enough.

“We had to reorganise; we brought in educational designers; we assembled a much bigger team – we called people out of other areas like the library. We gave all the academics extra support and we put more money into sessions to help them with getting online – we’ve invested tens of millions in converting lessons into high quality online. We carved extra money out of the budget to do that.

“We put a lot of infrastructure in place,” Gardner added. “We put in private VPN; we boosted capacity so their ability to get high-quality online material from us was not affected as dramatically as it might have been by internet [restrictions in China],” she added, referring to the large number of Chinese students stranded outside Australia.

Many university leaders have spoken of the rush to move online and attempts to ensure disadvantaged students had access. But Gardner’s account of the early months of the pandemic illustrates the extent to which higher education delivery had to be rethought.

“We re-examined all the things around education – a whole lot of academic policies – because we had to deal with all sorts of exceptions,” Gardner explained.

Importance of communication and outreach

In the case of Monash University, the initial focus was on the large number of Chinese students outside Australia, estimated at around 7,000 students and “the first and largest group to be affected”, Gardner noted.

The university already had a system in place where they rang students at particular times during the semester. “It’s a big operation and we geared up that system to a much higher level with a lot more personalised conversations with students who were initially sitting offshore feeling quite dislocated; this is not what they were anticipating.”

“We identified all of them. We developed 7,000 individualised study plans and we rang each one of them with a personalised plan to show them how they could undertake that semester online,” Gardner explained.

“The team talked it through with them and their parents – we had to have people who spoke Chinese as well – and they worked on that for weeks, giving up their Easter break and working long hours.”

When exams moved online, invigilation became an issue. “Students were very worried about us using third-party invigilators so we designed our own online invigilation, an e-assessment platform for exams.”

Monash University had already switched many exams to computer-based assessment. “We’d already done tens of thousands of these assessments, so we designed an interface for that. Because we are a big comprehensive university and we do such a big range of exams, and what is done commercially doesn’t have the range.

Emergency planning

At top universities, identifying issues and swift implementation were handled at the university management level by emergency committees. In many countries in Asia and the Pacific Rim these were often set up before the pandemic in response to the SARS epidemic in the early 2000s.

Washington University’s Cauce pointed to the university’s advisory committee on communicable diseases put in place during the SARS crisis. “As soon as the first COVID-19 case was discovered in the US, we activated the committee and it was largely based on their recommendations that we decided to go online,” she told University World News.

“They helped us set up our testing protocol and our contact tracing protocols for when students come back to campus. They are absolutely critical.”

In Australia and US states such as California, they played a role immediately prior to the pandemic in response to bushfires.

“Two years ago, we had to close the campus for several days because of the air quality from the bush fires,” explained Berkeley’s Christ. More recently the utility provider Pacific Gas and Electric “was proactively shutting off power to minimise the spread of fires so we had a number of power outages which involved our closing the university very suddenly and for a number of days, so we had a lot of practice there too.”

“One of the things that we learned, and it served us very well during the pandemic, is that you have to immediately stand up an emergency response group and that group has to meet daily at the height of the crisis,” said Christ.

“The organisational challenge is huge during a crisis and depends on having a central group constantly in communication with groups that are formally assigned various tasks – we have one for research, for instruction, one for residence life, one for student support, for administration, for finance, for communication, for public health and testing,” Christ said.

UC Santa Cruz’s Larive also points to the importance of an emergency management structure. “We had a team of people at the ready; we have an operations centre; everyone knows the rules,” she said, adding that it includes coordination protocols with the city or county and planning for campus reopening.

Freshwater had a particular challenge, arriving days before lockdown as Auckland’s new vice-chancellor from her previous job as vice-chancellor of the University of Western Australia. “I literally left the University of Western Australia with the critical incident management team in place addressing the COVID response there on the Friday and I arrived on the Monday with the strategic response teams in place at the University of Auckland,” she said.

Under her predecessor, “they had already started the process of looking at scenarios, predictive modelling and starting to address potential options if this really became a pandemic”.

“I was in an unknown environment in an unknown culture and an unknown team,” she said, but rather than working on the university’s new strategy as a new leader would normally do, the immediate focus, she said, was the student experience.

“Our students were anxious about what was going to happen with their studies at the same time as asking themselves questions like should they go home or stay on campus, and I was trying to work on what we would be offering in terms of the campus experience – what could remain open.”

At the same time staff were being geared up to function in a very different way and needed the right support. Throughout this, she said, communication was crucial in building trust.

Economic impact

As if the day-to-day organisational challenge of managing the pandemic crisis was not enough, university leaders are involved in forward planning and projections for the coming economic and financial crunch.

“We will take a financial hit. And we will take a hit that is more extensive than our counterparts in New Zealand because of our research-intensive nature,” said Freshwater.

“We, as a country, just like other countries, have diverted resources from the government into stimulating the economy as a result of the COVID experience and that will no doubt have an impact on funding in the future.”

Washington University’s Cauce admitted: “We are very concerned about our state budget; we won’t know the size of the cut that we will get, but we’ve been asked to project as high as a 15% budget cut.” She points to only essential hiring and no pay hikes for faculty this year in anticipation of the cuts.

“Our state budgets are put together on a biannual basis – two-year budgets. So we are anticipating the pain will be at least that long. But, depending on what happens, it could be longer,” she said. “It is incredibly demoralising to be thinking about the worst-case scenarios so we try to take it a step at a time.”

“COVID-19 has created a financial emergency for most universities and colleges in the United States,” noted Christ. At Berkeley, revenues from campus services such as food and supplies, athletics – a major revenue source – and performance are all down. Christ pointed out that any student who wanted to leave campus could get a refund on their room and board contract.

Enrolment drops during the summer session added to the revenue crunch. “We are very worried about enrolment in the fall. And we’ve already been told we can expect a 10% reduction in the resources that the state gives us. So we are facing a financial crisis of considerable dimension,” Christ said.

UC Santa Cruz, which normally houses up to 9,000 students as well as faculty, had the number of students drop to just 1,200 after March. “That was a giant budget hit for us. For the spring and for the summer quarters we are expecting about US$50 million in lost revenue,” said Larive. It means the university will have to dip into its reserves.

The concern for September is how to house students safely on campus. “It will be much less than the normal number – we think in the region of 40% of the students normally on campus so that will be another revenue hit for the coming year,” she noted, predicting a “two to three year problem”, even if a vaccine is available, before the economy can “fully regain its momentum”.

Larive said planning for budget cuts began as early as April with scenarios based on 10%-15% cuts.

“We are the largest employer in Santa Cruz County and the UC system is the third-largest employer in the state of California. So we want to focus wherever possible on retaining employment for the faculty and staff and students – we have many student employees – both to keep the university resilient and ready to recover and to accomplish our teaching and service task, but also because we want to help support our employees,” Larive said.

Finding the money

Monash’s Gardner said that so far there has been little financial support from government in Australia.

“We put together a AU$15 million (US$10.9 million) hardship fund at first – it’s now worth AU$30 million (US$21.9 million) – for students for this year and we had to close the applications as it was oversubscribed,” she said.

“We put it over in tranches – initially a very fast AU$500 because people suddenly didn’t have any money – and then you could apply for up to another AU$7,000 to get you through, assessed on hardship.

“We put together a team of 50 people and assessed all the applications. It was overwhelmingly accessed by international students because they were unable to access unemployment benefits and the like,” she said, noting that all this was paid out of university funds.

“Our estimated revenue loss for this year is AU$350 million so we instituted major cuts in non-salary expenditure; we froze all positions so we haven’t been hiring,” she said. “We talk about cutting AU$150 million out of our capital budget to fund all these other things including the hardship fund.

“The state government [of Victoria] put AU$45 million into a hardship fund for the whole state, but we put AU$30 million into our student body, domestic and internationally,” Gardner emphasised.

Monash set up a philanthropic fund, supported with “significant staff donations”, while the university’s senior executives took a 20% pay cut from April. “We put 10% of that pay cut into the hardship fund,” she said.

The university also faces a big research funding hole. “We did give extensions to PhD students in recognition of the disruptions to their study. Research agencies didn’t give us any extra money; we paid it,” she added. The impact on research is bigger because of changes in domestic funding immediately prior to the pandemic.

“There has been not a single cent of government money to us yet,” she said, noting that the government changed the legislation four times to prevent universities, which would otherwise have qualified, from being able to access job retention payments to help ease the impact of the downturn. “Four times they did this!” she repeated.

It also comes as the Australian government has under separate measures cut its funding by 15% and increased the number of university places without the extra funding.

“So we are having to rejig to deal with that; we are actually working on that planning at the moment, too,” Gardner says, adding that as chair of Australia’s Group of Eight top universities she is currently negotiating with the government on these matters.

“There is a series of imponderables about how the pandemic plays out. But at the very least I don’t anticipate seeing any real signs of recovery until 2023 and potentially 2024 – it’s a full five-year impact,” Gardner said.

Black Lives Matter

Even if students can return to campuses in September, major societal changes and upheavals mean things cannot go on as before. Universities in the US in particular point to the impact of the Black Lives Matter movement. But it is having effects far beyond the US.

“I asked myself the question several times throughout the COVID-19 [crisis]: what would we be focused on if we weren’t focused on COVID right now?” says Auckland’s Freshwater. “What came to mind was that we would be continuing to address those issues of freedom of speech, the issues of Black Lives Matter and white supremacy. Those things have started to take hold again now.”

Disadvantages faced by minority groups became even more stark during the pandemic. “Many universities are saying this – we’ve learnt where the gaps are, we know that inequalities exist and COVID has highlighted where they are in more detail for us to be able to respond.”

Her university was collecting data during the lockdown, including a survey of students. “Early indications were that if you look at the students that struggled the most, it would be those students perhaps with lower socio-economic status.”

In New Zealand “the Maori and Pacific students and the Maori and Pacific staff were not only at a greater risk of being disadvantaged during the lockdown but also at greater risk of being disadvantaged by us going online. Even though the Black Lives Matter movement wasn’t dominant, it was quite prevalent in our conversations around how we make sure that we don’t embed further disadvantage as a result of our response to COVID-19,” said Freshwater.

In the US even stronger links are being drawn between COVID-19 and race. “The pandemic of racism has been with us in the US certainly much longer than COVID-19 and the effects are deep and, quite rightly, we are seeing students and faculty mobilise around it,” says Washington’s Cauce.

“The pandemic has clarified things,” Cauce added. “This pandemic hasn’t affected everyone equally. Certainly the black community, the Latinx community as well, have suffered more from COVID-19 – they are more apt to get it, they are more apt to die when they get it and to have severe complications,” Cauce pointed out.

“Partly it’s because many of them are essential workers and so they are more exposed to it.

“We have a moment in which we can change – we have an opportunity to really rethink to what degree are we leading to social mobility and not social ossification. Those of us, particularly presidents of colour, will be leading this,” said Cauce, herself of Latin origin.

“Particularly, we see the unemployment rates are higher both on black and brown people and on top of that, they were witnessing death at the hands of the police.”

With 2,000 students still on campus, marches have been held. Black students’ unions and other students “presented to me and other university presidents a set of demands”, said Cauce. “We are looking at issues of how we take care of public safety and policing and is there a need for change.”

Revamping campus policing was a common theme with university presidents. But many see the need to go much further. “I think the changes are going to be profound,” said Berkeley’s Christ.

“Even before this, we developed diversity plans for undergraduate student bodies, the graduate student body, and plans to diversify the faculty, but there’s more of a sense of urgency about it now,” Christ said. “COVID-19 has made it so clear how we don’t have it [diversity].”

UC Santa Cruz’s Larive, who predicts more activity around Black Lives Matter in the upcoming term, said she met with leaders of the university’s black student union.

“We are partnering with those students to think about some of the barriers on campus to equality, access, equity. It’s important to acknowledge that universities like UC Santa Cruz are really instruments that come from a place of white supremacy and centralised power and to be able to think with different groups of students about how we can be more equitable.”

Everything points to profound changes in the wake of the perfect storm unleashed by COVID. “We have to make sure the reactivation [after lockdowns] is understood in the context of not going back to where we were, but this is reactivating for recovery and reactivating to be new. Because will never be what we were before; we’re not going back to what we were like in 2019,” Gardner said.