Bracing for a Fall

Circumstances may force colleges to shift their current plans, and they must carefully communicate that to preserve credibility and enrollment, write Teresa Valerio Parrot and Erin Hennessy.

July 1, 2020
 
 
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Each day, colleges and universities announce their fall semester plans with great confidence, fanfare and media coverage.

And yet somewhere out there is the first institution -- and the second institution, and the third and so on -- to be forced by circumstances outside its control to pivot from those plans to something different. Fall plans were created with wiggle room built in, however, communications about a shift must be carefully constructed to retain credibility and preserve enrollment while accepting the reality that health and safety of our communities have to supersede the value of the on-campus experience and ideology of in-person learning.

Institutions that make the difficult decision to shift to a remote-only fall will be in good company. That door has already been opened by institutions with the size of the California State University system, the prestige of Harvard University and the innovation of Southern New Hampshire University. The institutions will find themselves among a strong cohort, but this won’t make the emotional response from students and parents any easier to bear.

To date, such constituencies have eagerly accepted conceptual plans about tentative reopenings. A majority of students, parents, faculty and staff members have been willing to accept less detail and extend more faith as they imagine some return to normalcy in the fall. Perhaps even members of institutional decision-making teams have been mostly holding on to hope. Yet as people overcome their initial excitement, they’re going to want -- demand -- a considerable amount of specificity. Most likely, that will be more than many colleges and universities are ready to share or perhaps have even developed. That will be doubly true should a change from an in-person semester be necessary. Institutions will have to provide very concrete information and transparent communications should the need to enact contingency plans upend what audiences expected for the fall.

Most decisions are stronger when they are grounded in data, and these return-to-campus decisions are no different. If moving away from an in-person fall is even a remote possibility, and it is for almost every institution, leaders will be best served by early and consistently sharing the indicators that are driving decisions and articulating what they see as an acceptable level of risk and vulnerability when it comes to the health and safety of their community. At the same time, when it comes to COVID-19, data have been weaponized and inaccurate information abounds, so reliability of data and information sources is key.

Planning for a potential shift in academic offerings cannot happen without an understanding of the financial ramifications, including whether the institution can withstand a full semester of remote learning and what, if any, refunds or reductions of tuition and fees it will be able to offer. Asking students and families to pay full freight for an experience very different from the one they were expecting will require a vigorous demonstration of how a remote-only fall will not be less than an on-campus experience. That will require a bold rethinking of how institutions talk about the benefits of higher education, the construction of community and the traditional roles that faculty and staff members play in mentoring students.

The first college or university to step away from its announced plans for the fall is going to receive attention and scrutiny from its own constituencies, the media and colleagues across higher education. We’ll all learn from their experience, but we’d offer the following tactical advice to those preparing, or even considering, a change in approach.

Be sure to bring the governing board along in conversations about options and liabilities. Help them understand why a new approach is necessary and potentially different from the other institutions against which they benchmark. Arm them with what they need to help frame the pivot and to answer questions from an emotional and skeptical public.

Consider and address questions of equity in detail, not just in aspirational language. Acknowledge that decisions to move to an online-only fall will impact students from low-income families and place additional stress on some underrepresented groups. Then work with faculty and staff members to creatively meet those challenges as best as possible.

Be ready with resources and training for faculty members who are returning to online instruction. A late announcement of a full semester of online learning will be disruptive and will necessitate significant faculty support just as the semester begins.

Think hard about how to meaningfully communicate what students can expect in this medium. Some institutions have shied away from explaining just how different -- and potentially not fun -- an in-person fall would be. With a shift to a remote fall semester, leaders must be transparent and up front to manage expectations. Go beyond vague phrases like “a robust online academic experience.” Managing student expectations and communicating them to faculty and staff members clearly and repeatedly is a necessary step in delivering on promises about a now-online fall.

Be sure to bridge student expectations of faculty interactions and their actual experiences of them. Office hours will look different this fall, as will other faculty and student interactions. Institutions often market such interactions as a benefit of attendance, and while they received leeway for how students experienced those interactions in the spring, that leeway will be ending once the new academic year begins.

Do not overlook parents as an audience. While students still need to be treated as adults, the anxiety -- emotional and financial -- that COVID-19 has created means they are relying on their parents when making difficult decisions now more than ever.

One last piece of advice, which applies broadly in these COVID-19 days: leaders must choose their words carefully. While it’s appropriate to express regret and acknowledge disappointment should an online fall semester be necessary, an apology isn’t necessary when putting the health and safety of the campus community first. Campus leaders need to be ready for criticism that runs the gamut from disapproval and disappointment to evisceration and pulled enrollment deposits. Be prepared for feedback and emotion from individuals who are angry about a shakeup in plans and those frustrated about the perceived loss of opportunities for students to change course. But stand firm with whatever plan of action is in the best interest and well-being of the institution and its people.

Bio

Teresa Valerio Parrot is principal and Erin Hennessy is vice president of TVP Communications, a national public relations and crisis communications agency solely focused on higher education.

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