Leading Through Crisis: A Community College Lens

Presidents of community colleges are facing particular challenges these days, writes DeRionne P. Pollard, who shares some leadership strategies she's found helpful.

April 22, 2020
 
 
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Leading through crisis is a skill that many of us in higher education are developing on the go these days, and presidents of community colleges are facing particular challenges. Our institutions, which serve about 12 million students in the United States today, are straining to help already vulnerable students face the pandemic while keeping our operations running. Students who are food insecure, losing part-time jobs and struggling academically are turning to us in extraordinary numbers. Many of them rely on us for internet connections, loaner laptops, food banks and scholarships.

In the U.S., about 72 percent of community college students work to pay tuition and living expenses. Many of those low-wage jobs -- in restaurants, daycare centers and the like -- have disappeared overnight. With 34 percent of all community college students receiving Pell Grants, and 36 percent being the first in their families to attend college, these students are more vulnerable than many who attend four-year institutions.

At Montgomery College, our 55,000 students are learning from home. More than 8,600 of them are Pell Grant recipients, with their average family income at $24,864 per year. Some students are now writing to us desperate for help with food insecurity. Some are driving to the campuses to sit in the parking lot in their cars to use our internet connection. Some without laptops have started using cellphones to follow classwork.

While I have a remarkable team of dedicated faculty and staff members, some of my leadership tactics are evolving day by day. I’m trying to make room in my schedule for the weekly and monthly planning that really needs to happen, but it’s a balancing act. To keep myself oriented in this crisis environment, I rely on a few leadership strategies. Some are instinctive, and some of them are borrowed from other leaders. Whatever the source, they’ve helped me to steer straight through this unprecedented time. Here are four tools that I find myself using repeatedly.

Organize teams. The pressure to make decisions that are well informed and timely requires input from personnel from different divisions and levels of the institution. Thus, rapidly organizing groups around immediate questions or decision points is important: at our institution, I organized a Coronavirus Advisory Team made up of public safety and emergency management personnel, the nursing dean, the health sciences chair, and the media relations director. I then called on my cabinet already in existence to serve as a sounding board and collaborative team. We have met almost every day over videoconference for the past month -- sometimes for up to two hours. I’ve tried to set clear priorities for our response -- radical inclusion, compassion, equity and academic excellence -- while also empowering others to propose and implement solutions.

Don’t leave anyone behind. That’s my clarion call. And it’s working so far. Our ability to be responsive is directly tied to these teams, as people work across divisions to get necessary work done, including responding to 1,000 students who have reached out to us for assistance and distributing almost $417,000 in emergency aid (food, technology, rent) to them.

Make clear, timely decisions. One of the challenges for leaders is making big decisions rapidly in the context of many changing variables. Here are just a few from our experience in the last few weeks:

  • Deciding whether to go public with a student and an employee with symptoms but no positive test for COVID-19.
  • Deciding how to distribute necessary technology to staff and faculty for remote work while keeping college IT workers safe.
  • Deciding to pay our hourly workers for three weeks even when they couldn’t come in.
  • Deciding whether to go to pass/fail grading when most of our local schools had done so. We decided not to do this (which was unpopular with some people).

We’ve had to revise ideas almost daily and check to ensure that we’re not overly relying on old models. I check in often with my teams to learn what they are hearing and seeing so that we can respond in real time to problems.

We are assessing some of our assumptions about our business model and asking ourselves:

  • Will our county be able to support our operating costs?
  • Will our local donors still be able to support scholarships on which our students depend?
  • Will we have to change which degrees are offered to meet post-COVID markets?
  • Will degrees still have the same value in the post-COVID world?

There are also some open questions that we’re living into:

  • Will students be able to learn successfully in emergency remote status?
  • Will faculty members with no experience remote teaching be effective?
  • Will students enroll for summer or fall if we are still in emergency remote teaching status?
  • Will students be able to afford tuition if unemployment climbs?

I have asked my senior leaders to sketch out multiple scenarios that might evolve in answer to those questions. Facing such possibilities -- and considering the financial and personnel ramifications of each -- better prepares us for facing the next reality. We must also monitor changes to the wider economy and local businesses, as their circumstances can significantly impact our institution. Our tight connections to workforce development may end up being an advantage in these perilous times, as businesses reconfigure for the post-COVID era.

Empower others to lead. Like most higher education leaders, I imagine, I have worked seven days a week for the last five weeks, probably 12 hours a day. But I realize I can’t do it all -- literally. The implementation of dozens of changes to procedures takes many hands. I have always had a leadership style that encourages people to lead within their own divisions, and I can see clearly now how much that matters.

A top-down leadership approach in our current climate would be unmanageable, considering the speed with which we’ve been responding to constant change. Each day, we must consider new factors and adapt to them. Giving other people on staff the authority to make decisions is vital.

Also, some leaders will rise who are not necessarily senior members: character and judgment are key qualities. People who are able to respond quickly but calmly are valuable in these moments. Watch for them, and help them grow into increased responsibilities.

In addition, you should model the civility and compassion you want your direct reports to show their own staff. Remind them to care for themselves so that they don’t burn out over the long run.

Empathize. If you are working feverishly to get things done, you can end up pushing yourself and your team very hard. I remind myself, usually by saying it out loud in meetings, “Let’s not forget that folks among us may be suffering: someone could be sick at home, children are running amok, jobs may be lost, families fragmented.” Keep in mind that even your best employees have personal lives that this crisis may seriously impact.

Remember to convey your concern -- it means a lot. Do it verbally and in writing. I have been in communication with my entire college in writing -- and sometimes through video -- every weekday for the past month. I hear that they appreciate this very much. They are looking for guidance in a time of great uncertainty. Leaders can be a calming, informative influence.

Also ensure continuity of operations: If a president gets sick, or if someone in their senior leadership or their family falls ill, who is positioned to step in? One of the lessons from the Umpqua Community College shooting in 2015 was how vulnerable a college could be to a loss at any level of leadership. In a worst-case scenario, multiple leaders could be out of commission, seriously impacting a college’s continuity of operations at a very critical moment. Smaller institutions where only a few people have much knowledge about how things work should plan for that possibility. Could your organization go on without its top leaders? We are currently writing new policies on this, and our board is evaluating them.

I also remind my fellow presidents that, as we care for our employees and coworkers, we can’t forget to take care of ourselves. Attend to your own families. Exercise. Do whatever calms you: meditate, pray, connect with other leaders who know what you are feeling.

Set the tone. Most leaders realize that their colleagues and staff members feed off their energy. Setting a tone that is calm but realistic is important.

Employees will trust you if you are truthful. None of us knows the outcome of this situation. To say that everyone will have their jobs at the end of this, or that no one in our colleges and universities will be seriously affected, is not possible. However, the strengths and values that your institution already has can be pillars for your work in any crisis.

At Montgomery College, we emphasize radical inclusion -- which means no one gets left behind. We’re bringing that value into this current space with renewed vigor. I can see it playing out already in the ways that faculty members are helping each other and in how students are supporting those who don’t have technology or who live alone. I see it in donors who have stepped up to give gifts for food insecurity and laptops for remote learners. It moves me personally and is healing for us all to see people supporting one another. Don’t forget to share these stories: they give everyone hope about how we will emerge from our current situation.

Like all colleges, ours also values academic excellence, so we are channeling an extraordinary amount of energy into remaking our academic experience online -- providing tutoring and technology assistance for those who need it. We’re captioning classes for students with hearing impairments and shipping technology to students who are visually impaired so they can follow the chat boxes in their classes. We’re hosting Zoom meetings for counseling and students’ clubs and activities.

There is really no area of college services that we’re not replicating online in adapted forms. Continuing to teach so that we can “empower our students to change their lives” is our core mission. So we’re refocusing on that, even as we juggle so many other demands.

Whatever the size of your college or the needs of your students, I’m guessing that most leaders are doing the same right now, too. Transparency and compassion will serve us all well as we engage what is certainly one of our biggest challenges yet.

Bio

DeRionne P. Pollard is the president of Montgomery College in Maryland.

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