Assess, plan, re-assess, plan again. Repeat.

There is no Pandemic 101 course or a chapter in any leadership textbook on how to plan for unprecedented crises. But community college leaders have tapped their professional and personal experiences as they forge ahead in dealing with many uncertainties due to the coronavirus, from enrollments and state funding, to budgets and campus safety – and a whole lot more. 

“I’ve had a lot of disaster mitigation in my career,” including hurricanes and financial crises, said Maureen Murphy, president of College of Southern Maryland. “Generally, if your electricity goes back on and you get some money, you can start to get your feet under you again.” 

But this pandemic is not following any pattern she’s seen, Murphy said. 

Still, experience from other challenging events has provided leaders with a structure on where to start. For many community college presidents, having a strong executive team, clear communication, being flexible and being comfortable in leading with uncertainties has been critical.

“If you get the right people together, a lot of good things can happen,” Murphy said.

A seasoned team can astutely listen and respond to the needs in a community – from businesses’ emerging training needs and help in finding resources, to the basic needs of students, such as food, housing, transportation and more. Leaders can also convey to stakeholders what their college can do to help.

For many leaders, transitioning their colleges’ programs into online and remote formats was difficult, but the toughest part is yet to come. That includes figuring out finances, especially since the sources they depend on to develop a budget – such as state funding and estimated enrollments – are still uncertain. For that reason, colleges have typically developed various scenarios for the coming months and fiscal year. 

Some presidents have expanded how they normally run their colleges. They are still managing and operating an overall strategic plan, but they also are looking on a granular level. Kristine Young, president of Orange County Community College in New York, said doing do, especially in the current environment, helps her better understand details that inform her decisions. 

Be flexible and adapt

With the spring term wrapping up, colleges are now focusing on the summer and fall. They are developing several different scenarios for when they will open campuses, including plans to return to just remote teaching and learning if there’s an infection surge. Even with the best-laid plans, things can quickly change.

For Amit Singh, president of Edmonds College in Washington state, being flexible and able to adapt has been key. Even in uncertain times, leaders use data and information from local, state and federal officials to help them make decisions. And it’s OK to shift gears if situations change.

“Adapt and re-adapt, and then adapt again,” said Singh, who reminds newer leaders that they will face many unexpected events. 

“You have to be comfortable living with uncertainties. And remember that you are not the only one,” he said.

Randy Esters, president of North Arkansas College (Northark), agrees. With the current situation, it’s all about adjusting as things progress, he said. It’s not easy, though, and it can be frustrating, but leaders are able to go with the flow, he said.

“You can’t eat this elephant all in one bite. You have to eat it a little bit at a time,” said Esters, who is familiar with natural disaster recovery after devastating hurricanes hit college campuses when he worked at Louisiana State University. 

Singh also advises to keep in close communication to ensure that the college’s executive team, faculty, staff and community leaders are working in sync. 

“There are people and resources around you who will help you through it,” he said. “It might seem overwhelming, but in the end it will work out.”

He added: “The whole world is focused on the same thing.”

Tough calls

It’s difficult knowing that colleges likely will need to make reductions in the current environment. Esters anticipates shortfalls in the current budget that will require a $1.2 million cut. So far, Northark hasn’t had to cut jobs. 

Making decisions is difficult when they affect people’s lives, from those who work at the college, to those who look to it for quality education and training so they can land jobs with family-sustaining wages. But it’s important not to let panic or fear guide those decisions, Esters said. You have to have empathy, but use it along with data and forecasts in the future, he added.

“Make decisions that are emotionally informed, but not emotional decisions,” Esters said.

Lean on me

William Serrata, president of El Paso Community College in Texas, reminds newer leaders to look to their colleagues for advice and support, even if it’s just to let off a little steam. Serrata works with all 50 colleges through the Texas Association of Community Colleges, and he is close with eight to 10 presidents of those colleges. He bounces ideas off of them and also provides them with advice. 

Serrata also uses his ties with the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) to talk with other AACC board members. He also cited the association’s resources, such as recent papers on online education for career and technical education/related technical instruction programs in light of the COVID-19 pandemic

“We’re all in this together, we’re all here to help each other,” Serrata said.

It’s also important to continue to foster new leaders, Northark’s Esters said. At a time when baby boomers are retiring, and the top jobs may not be as appealing because of the additional responsibilities – especially during current crisis – presidents should remember to cultivate new leaders.

“Now is the time we need those folks,” Esters said. “We need the best of the best to get into leadership roles. We need folks to get in and get their hands dirty in making those decisions and help lead this economy.”

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
is editor of Community College Daily and serves as publications director for the American Association of Community Colleges.