How do we build resilience in universities?

As complex infrastructure systems navigating the COVID-19 pandemic, colleges and universities have the opportunity to make needed changes as their leaders determine what a return to campus looks like. Here are 13 ways to build resilience for managing challenges.
By: | July 15, 2020
Photo by Matt Duncan on UnsplashPhoto by Matt Duncan on Unsplash

Resilience is often associated with an ability to withstand hardship and a return to an original state. While the goal of returning to the original state may be appropriate for some systems, it is not necessarily an appropriate or strategic goal for others. For example, it might be more appropriate to rebuild damaged homes in a hurricane-prone region to a higher standard, an improved state relative to its original condition.

Colleges and universities, as complex infrastructure systems, may seek to return to normal operations under some circumstances—following a fire, flood or other natural hazard event—but may seek to return to an entirely different set of operating conditions and capabilities under others, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Indeed, many higher education institutions may “return” to something quite different. There are certainly reasons this may be advantageous, timely and strategic.

David V. Rosowsky, University of Vermont

David V. Rosowsky, University of Vermont

In fact, there have been growing pressures on colleges and universities to change in recent decades, more often met with resistance than support from within, resulting in a growing rift between institutions and their missions, and society’s expectations and needs for higher education. Higher ed has been accused of failing to adapt or evolve—despite our rapid universal move to remote teaching—and of being out of touch with the needs of today’s learners, and failing to prepare graduates for employability. This crisis has given us both challenges and opportunities to make needed changes and reconsider our roles and responsibilities in society.

Resilience strategy recommendations

Given the discussion above and drawing on my experience as a university senior leader (and perpetual student), here are 13 recommendations for building resilience for campus-based institutions.

  1. Plan for a variety of scenarios. COVID-19 was not unforeseen. Consider the full range of possible (however unlikely) interruptions to normal campus operations at all different times during the academic year. Think about reopening and/or return-to-normal procedures, including partial or incremental operations. Establish clarity around who makes these decisions and who informs the decision-maker(s). Have a standing committee, led by a member of the senior administration, that reports regularly on readiness to the president and board.
  2. Build an emergency/contingency reserves fund. Set a goal based on your annual expenditures and your current capacity to absorb losses. For some institutions, building such a dedicated reserves fund will take time. What’s important is that you start now and make it a priority to add funds each year until you hit your goal.
  3. Establish an expectation for all senior administrators to assume the duties of other administrators if needed. This can be done in a number of different ways, either by regularly briefing the entire senior leadership team on critical functions, initiatives and challenges of each administrative division, or by assigning specific backup roles. (For example, each senior leader responsible for a division of the university is assigned as the backup for another senior leader, thereby only needing to stay abreast of one other division’s activities.)
  4. Develop emergency contingency plans. These plans should run throughout the organization, down to the department, lab, employee group or office level as appropriate. They should be reviewed and updated annually, and collected and posted (for internal use) by each college, school or division. The standing committee (see recommendation one) should review these annually for completeness, consistency, continuity assurance and mutual compatibility, making recommendations for any needed changes.
  5. Establish a chain of command for emergencies and an emergency operations leadership structure for prolonged crisis periods. This leadership structure may be the institution’s regular leadership structure, it may be a streamlined version, or it may be quite different. Set clear conditions under which any change in university operations and leadership structure may change. It’s critical that everyone knows who is making decisions, who is the responsible authority, and how information will be disseminated.
  6. Establish a point person for internal communications from the start to the end of a crisis, and campus returns to normal operations. This person should work closely with and set policy or provide best practices for departments, student life and student affairs offices, advisors, student services offices, and campus leaders.
  7. Also establish a point person for external communications from the start to the end of a crisis, and campus returns to normal operations. This person, who may be the same person in recommendation seven, has responsibility for coordinating communications with external constituents (community, alumni, city or state government offices and officials, hospitals) and for coordinating efforts with other organizations, institutions, municipalities or the state.
  8. Create and regularly review and/or refresh data management and security plans. This will ensure critical digital information is preserved and accessible. Most colleges and universities already have procedures in place, including data backup and off-site data centers.
  9. Create and regularly review and/or refresh a research emergency operations plan. This plan should address lab shutdowns, storage or disposal of volatile or hazardous substances, securing of facilities, decisions about laboratory animals, interruptions to clinical trials and establishing a critical personnel list for operations that must be continued during a shutdown.
  10. Ensure IT infrastructure is in place, including appropriate redundancies. This will allow senior leaders to continue to meet and function as a team, and for the president and board to continue to meet. Create a physical and a virtual war room for command-and-control meetings and operations.
  11. Create a campus housing emergency plan. The plan should cover different emergency scenarios, including students remaining on campus; students returning home; some students remaining on and some leaving campus; one or more residence halls coming offline; use of vacant rooms to house other individuals or groups; and use of other campus (or community) facilities for temporary housing. The same should be done for campus dining operations.
  12. Identify one or more external professionals who can be brought in to assist senior leaders if needed. These include crisis management, public relations, legal and security experts.
  13. Recognize and plan for the mental health needs of returning students, faculty and staff. Ensure an onboarding plan is established and available when people return to campus. Consider different scenarios and each group’s needs, and have a plan robust enough to handle them. Mental health issues may range from anxiety to stress over job security to post-traumatic stress disorder to grief over the loss of loved ones.

Other types of institutions may have additional or different considerations. But this list is a good starting point.

Can we afford it?

Building resilience is not cheap and neither is maintaining it. Resilience requires real and ongoing financial commitments by an institution. And today’s challenges include increased financial pressure for all institutions; decreased state support for public institutions; concerns over meeting net tuition revenue goals in areas where demographic trends are not favorable and/or discount rates are rising; and public perception of the value of higher education being at an all-time low.

Think of building resilience as a necessary complement to investing in deferred maintenance. Opportunity costs and trade-offs will have to be considered, as will triage and/or sequencing strategies and risks of delayed investments. The explicit goal of building a resilient institution should be part of any case made for investing in deferred maintenance (reducing the backlog), or building new facilities to minimize deferred maintenance costs in the future.

Investment decisions—whether in campus facilities, utilities and related infrastructure, technology infrastructure, and physical or data security, or deferred maintenance on any of these—should be evaluated, triaged and made taking a system-level view of the institution. How does investing or failing to invest in one impact the others? Which strategy has the greatest positive impact on institutional resilience? How is this being assessed, measured and reported to the board? This is not unlike an enterprise risk management exercise, and perhaps could be incorporated into an existing ERM.

College and university leaders have to be willing to invest in ensuring resilience, just as they have been willing to invest in programs, personnel, facilities and even deferred maintenance. But it may not take significant new resources or resource commitments. Rather, it may be more of shifting the leadership’s mindset and decision-making processes to explicitly include consideration of institutional resilience. That would be coupled, of course, with organizational strategies for scenario planning, contingency planning and response coordination, such as those described above.

The question is not whether we can afford to build resiliency into our colleges and universities. Given all that we have experienced and are learning from COVID-19, can we afford not to?

David V. Rosowsky is a professor of engineering at the University of Vermont. He served for six years as UVM’s provost and senior vice president.

© 2020 Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. This article was an adapted from an original version published in the July/August 2020 issue of Trusteeship magazine. Reprinted with permission. 

Note: This column is an excerpt of a longer paper that can be found here