Special Features

  • Special Feature / Interview
  • 05.18.20

Leading in the Midst of COVID-19

  • by Ellen Peters, Associate Provost, Institutional Research, Planning, & Student Success, University of Puget Sound

About a week into this adventure, I felt like I had a new job—and in some ways that was true. But in other ways, I was doing the same work but toward different purposes. StillEllen administering surveys, still producing enrollment projections, still ensuring compliance with our regional accreditor, still working on student success and retention. And while my staff and I were doing this work, we were also trying to manage our own reactions to this situation and to support one another and our colleagues.

I’m sure you all have felt something similar—still doing the work, some of it the same, some of it new, and some toward a new purpose. It has been challenging to pivot so quickly and to provide data and feedback and information almost as soon as a question is posed: Will our accreditor allow us to offer courses online? What technological support do students need? What technological training do our faculty need? What will enrollment look like next fall? But I’ve learned a lot—about myself and the way I work, about the value of our work to the institution, and about what is important.

I could write about how the work has changed and what we have done to assist our institutions, but I know there has been a lot of that elsewhere in the AIR Hub and in other publications. So instead, I’m going to talk about leading in the midst of this and what I’ve learned.

This isn’t leading a new initiative or program; it’s leading in crisis.1

I am a collaborator. When I embark on something new, I value stakeholder input…sometimes to a fault. I’ll check in with everyone I think might care and try to incorporate everyone’s ideas and suggestions before moving forward. I’ll take the time to reconcile any differences. That’s my style. But it didn’t work in this case. There just wasn’t time to consult with everyone before I launched that survey about technology needs of faculty to support remote instruction. I had four days (two of which were a weekend) to write the survey, collect the data, analyze it, and provide a report for faculty development. And it meant more targeted data got into the right hands quickly enough to take action immediately.

This isn’t business as usual; err on the side of trust.

I really didn’t know if work from home would work. I worried that my team would be less efficient and disconnected.  We’d discussed it prior to COVID-19, and while I was very flexible about work hours, I was slow to warm up to the idea of telecommuting as a preference vs. as a need. But, as soon as instruction went remote, I told my staff that they could work from home immediately if they felt in any way unsafe or needed to work remotely for the sake of family—no questions asked. I set up a Google Sheet for all of us to keep track of the work we are doing, and they have completed it carefully each week. They have been appreciative, and they have worked incredibly hard. When they’ve had difficult days, I’ve told them to take a break. They know I trust them, and value them, and indeed, I should have made this more explicitly clear all along.

Communication is important—and not just about work.

I like to talk—and sometimes I talk too much. In this environment, everyone is distracted and experiencing a range of emotions. Staff and colleagues need us to communicate with them multiple times, and we need to do so in as many modes as possible—in an email, via a phone call, on a video meeting, in a team meeting, in a committee meeting—with the same message each time. It’s not that people aren’t listening; it’s that the internal monologue is really loud. Providing space and time for colleagues and staff to share some of that internal monologue—the fear, the frustration—can allow them to engage more fully in this work. I’ve had to quiet my own internal monologue in order to be present for my staff and colleagues. I’ve honed my messages for clarity. It takes some additional forethought, and I know I come across as more authoritative and dictatorial, but it’s provided some sense of security for the staff. It clears the way and provides a foundation for discussions about more personal concerns. I have two staff who are high risk; every conversation begins with their health and basic needs. That influences the rest of the discussion and means that I can better cater to their needs and help them meet their goals.

Prioritization means something different than it used to.

I used to prioritize by making some things high priority and others low priority. This spring, I just let some things go entirely. Senior Survey? Gone. Campus forums on student success? Gone. Will they be gone permanently? No, probably not. But I couldn’t have imagined recommending that we do away with them. I’ve said for many years that we shouldn’t do things just because we’ve always done them—COVID-19 made me double down on that.  If the guidance to faculty was to identify the outcomes for their classes and revise their syllabi to achieve those in a remote format, the same goes for me. If the goal is stronger student success, maybe forums aren’t the best way to do it. It was more important to work with our faculty to ensure they had the professional support they needed to deliver remote instruction. It was more important to ensure that our students had the support they needed to be successful. It was more important to communicate that we care.

I’m sure some of you will read this and think that it shouldn’t have taken a virus for me to learn these things, but alas, that is the case for me. So, while this time has certainly been hard, it’s also helped me be a better leader, to be bolder in my decisions and recommendations, and given me permission to engage more personally with staff and colleagues. What about you? What has this situation taught you about the importance of institutional research on your campus and beyond? What have you learned about yourself as an institutional researcher, a staff member, a faculty member, or a campus leader?

[1] Adapted from NILOA Webinar Series on Assessment March and April 2020.

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