Leading Through Crisis
Roslyn Clark Artis, Félix V. Matos Rodríguez, Barbara K. Mistick, Ted Mitchell, and Shirley Mullen
The CCCU has always valued learning from other leaders; our effectiveness is due in part to our ability to engage in conversations in the larger higher education network. We brought together leaders from across the higher education sector to discuss navigating the simultaneous crises we all face and preparing for the road ahead. The discussion was moderated by Dr. Shirley Mullen, president of Houghton College (Houghton, NY) and chair of the CCCU’s Board of Directors, and included Dr. Roslyn Clark Artis, president of Benedict College (Columbia, SC); Dr. Barbara K. Mistick, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU); Dr. Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education (ACE); and Dr. Félix V. Matos Rodríguez, chancellor of the City University of New York (CUNY).
Shirley Mullen: We’re focused today on the three crises of the spring, but those of us in higher education were already dealing with such issues as the approaching demographic cliff, the broken economic model for higher education, and certainly lots of public skepticism. So the crises of the spring have really exacerbated what was already a fairly turbulent time within higher education: the crisis in global health caused by COVID-19; the accompanying economic crisis; and the social and civic crisis rooted in a long history of systemic racism and injustice and exacerbated today by the polarization of our public politics.
As institutions of higher education, we are at the crossroads of these issues, and leaders in higher education cannot avoid dealing with these. We’ve come to realize that the impact of this [past] semester is also not only a one-semester impact; higher education will be changed for the long haul.
So we’re here today to invite several leaders from different sectors of higher education to wrestle with some of the impact of these crises, to think about what we can do to prepare for the long road ahead, and in particular to think about how we can better utilize our collective resources to support leaders in higher education. …
Dr. Matos Rodríguez, [you are] the chancellor of the City University of New York, a system of 25 campuses with an enrollment of over 275,000 degree-seeking students and over 225,000 adult and continuing education students. Within just a week this past spring, [you] oversaw the transition of nearly all of CUNY’s 50,000 core sections to remote education — an unbelievable accomplishment. …
As chancellor of the CUNY system, you lead the United States’ largest urban university, which is also in one of the areas that was hardest hit in the early days of the pandemic here in the United States. As your institution thinks about the coming academic year, what are some of the lessons you’ve learned from this spring semester that are shaping your plans going forward? And what are some of your top priorities for the coming year?
Félix Matos Rodríguez: We had to — in pretty much two weeks — move 50,000 courses to distance learning. We continue to learn about that experience from our students, our faculty, and the student support services — which is an important [group] that often gets neglected when you talk about that transition. And I am so proud of our faculty; before [the spring], about 10% of our courses system-wide were offered in online or hybrid modality. So we had faculty that had, in some cases, very little experience with the distance learning, and they just went all out for the students. The stories that I have from faculty [include] really trying to reimagine [their courses]; they formed learning communities with other faculty members on their own campus or throughout the system. [They wanted] to do the right thing for the students, who were adjusting to a new modality but also dealing with all kinds of situations at home — maybe having the virus themselves, or taking care of a loved one who was sick. Many [students] have children in the K-12 system in New York that went to homeschooling and they had to adapt their entire home routines, which was also happening to the faculty.
So [our faculty were] an incredible asset. We’ve now invested heavily in the professional development of the faculty getting ready for the fall and the spring; we’ve had about 2,000 of our faculty already go through some very intensive professional development in online instruction. We saw their passion and commitment to the students, and that was encouraging and inspirational, particularly then, when we were at the center of the pandemic.
On the other side, [the spring] was not the kind of classroom experience that we’re proud of or that we want to provide students moving forward. So we took a lot of notes on how we could improve the work that we were doing and also about investing in providing student support services — our academic advising, our mental health advising, our scheduling, our bursars, all those things that are key to give to students — and how we could find the best practices to be able to support students.
So as we go into the fall, I think that we’re better prepared because we have really invested and doubled down on the professional development of our faculty, the professional development of our staff in the student support systems, and then also on mental health [services], which is something that everyone needs — not just students, but [also] the faculty and staff, because we’re dealing with trying and difficult times.
Shirley Mullen: It is an encouragement in itself to see how the faculty have really stepped up to the plate and put the students first. I think that’s something we’ve all seen. Dr. Artis, I’m going to move to you now. You lead a historically black college located in South Carolina — in many ways, a long way from New York City, far removed from the experiences of the campuses that Dr. Rodríguez just talked about. How have the events of the past few months impacted the Benedict community, and what are the lessons that you are translating into the fall semester?
Roslyn Artis: As you might imagine, the challenges that Benedict has faced have been, certainly in my opinion, somewhat more extreme than perhaps some of my other colleagues have seen. North of 80% of Benedict students are Pell-dependent students, so they are incredibly low-wealth. They are overwhelmingly first-generation: 74% of my students are first-generation college students. So they are among the most vulnerable student populations in the country. And so when we experience traumatic incidents like sudden displacement from the campus, we see a lot of emotional trauma associated with that.
We also have had academic challenges that have been born, by and large, out of the digital equity divide. COVID-19 has revealed what we have always known but now have fully confirmed: Digital inequity is a huge crisis in rural states like South Carolina. Fully 12% of Benedict College students do not have access to broadband in their home communities. We’ve spoken with numerous students who have had to walk upwards of two miles to get to a local library — which, of course, is closed in the wake of COVID-19 — and sit on the steps in 90-plus degree heat for a couple of hours to complete assignments on their cell phones. Many students did not have laptops and other devices to be able to complete work online. So while I am incredibly proud of our faculty for their immediate pivot and transitioning all of our courses online, the socioeconomic status of the students that we serve really exacerbated an already critical situation for our students, in particular, and made educating them all the more difficult during this period of time.
We also began to track the extent to which our students experienced homelessness and food insecurity. We found that a significant number of our students, quite frankly, did not have a stable home environment within which to study. Many of them were actually in more danger from COVID-19 at home than perhaps they might have been on the campus because the primary earner in the family is a frontline service worker and, as a result of that, was exposed on regular basis to COVID-19. We have been tracking very carefully the cases of COVID-19 among our student populations at home.
And so as we began to move toward fall to make decisions for the reopening of the campus, we did so against the backdrop of the socioeconomic factors I’ve outlined, as well as public health and safety factors that again are unique for populations largely of color, where we’re seeing a tremendously disparate impact of COVID-19. For example, in South Carolina, the population of people of color is 27.1%, [but] incidences of COVID-19 exceed the 50% mark at this juncture [in mid-July] for people of color. And so there are lots of social issues that surround the education of our students; while the curriculum and the deployment of that curriculum was our primary objective, we had to do that within the context of those socioeconomic limitations and the racial disparities that occur.
And then add to that the racial unrest that really evolved in a very big way over the last several weeks. For many of our communities, that brought an entirely different challenge to bear: the inability to wrap our arms around our students to help them unpack their feelings about recent events associated with George Floyd’s murder and so many others; the inability to help them really work through those feelings and be effective, articulate, safe advocates for the issues of the day. We felt very limited in our ability to engage them in those meaningful and often difficult conversations; Zoom just isn’t the same when we were having those kinds of engagements.
So lots of lessons: one is to take nothing for granted. We were among the institutions that, when we evacuated, we provided travel subsidies for our students to purchase plane tickets and bus tickets — only to learn later that some students were terrified because they had never been on a plane. But we didn’t stop to ask them. We thought we were doing the right thing, only to find out later that the anxiety they experienced was quite significant. Moreover, many of our students said, “Nobody asked me if I was going home to a safe environment.” We were so busy evacuating the campus, we didn’t stop to process some of those unique and personal issues that our students were suffering through.
So over the summer, we’ve had a comprehensive communication strategy deployed, and we’re listening — really listening — to what our students have to say, not only about their academic experience but their home experiences, their social experiences, and their emotional state. They are not okay. And it’s important to us at Benedict College to ensure that they are [okay], because when they come back, they’re going to bring that pain and that anxiety and those feelings with them. And we have a responsibility to help them to unpack and work through those things. So it has been, as they say, more than a notion, but it is work that is critically important for us to undertake and to be persistent about.
Shirley Mullen: Dr. Mitchell, I’m going to turn to you now and ask, as you’ve listened, what have you heard that resonates with what you’re hearing in higher education as a whole? Do you see ways that higher education as a whole is going to be changed by what’s happened this spring?
Ted Mitchell: So I have the great pleasure of serving ACE, and both [President Artis] and [Chancellor Rodríguez] are our board members at ACE, and we’ve been meeting once a week since all of this started. So we’ve been having very robust conversations among our leadership group of 40 to 50 university presidents as we’ve worked through this.
I think that the biggest lesson that we are all taking away at the moment is that these combined crises have revealed a lot about higher education. On the upside, one of the things that this crisis has revealed is the inherent strength of our institutions. And it’s not just the traditional strength of bringing people in, teaching them things, introducing them to different cultural experiences, and then saying goodbye. No, it’s really about a set of institutions that are morally committed to the growth and development of individuals and to the communities that they are in and that they serve. So I’ve been heartened every day by the stories of individual faculty members, of individual student service officers, of students reaching out to other students; the kind of support that has been just in time and incredibly creative.
So these crises have revealed an inherent strength in higher education in the way we think about our work and the way we deal with each other. I hope we don’t forget that. I hope that as we move out of these crises or to the next set of crises, we can continue to draw on that experience of the assets that we might not have recognized before.
On the flip side, I think that the crises, as [President Artis] said a moment ago, have drawn back the curtain on issues that have been a problem in higher education for generations: racial injustice; the inequalities inherent in our system as a result of racial prejudice; socioeconomic dislocation. [CUNY’s and Benedict College’s] student bodies share many characteristics in terms of poverty, [students with] complicated family situations, and [the number of] first-generation students. As we look at the dynamics of American higher education, that represents more and more of our future. So it’s high time that that curtain gets pulled back and we look for ways to address [those issues]. And I hope as the crisis clears — or again, as we move to the next set of crises — we remember and we commit ourselves to working on remedying some of those systemic issues that have compromised the lives of our students as well as our institutions. …
We do our best when we recognize the systemic nature of our students’ experience. That includes everything from race, to gender, to family status, to socioeconomic status. … So I hope that we really remember the systemic nature of our work and not fall back into this default that, well, we have these tight little compact communities, and if everything is okay day-to-day as students move from residence halls to cafeterias, to classrooms, then all is well with them. No; they — and we — are all a part of very complex social dynamics and social systems that we need to attend to.
Shirley Mullen: Dr. Mistick, I’m going to turn to you now. You’re also a leader of a national organization. The question I particularly want to address to you is how do you see these new circumstances having an effect on the role of university leaders, particularly university presidents?
Barbara Mistick: Chancellor Rodríguez and President Artis, your comments really make me think about the changing nature for presidents as they lead through a crisis today. You have several crises we’re addressing. You have a lot of emotion; it’s a very personal crisis, both COVID-19 as well as issues of race on our campuses. You’ve got limited facts and a lot of speculation. All of that together makes for a very unstable informational environment.
So I think one of the big challenges for presidents is to be prepared for a phase I’m thinking of as “über-engagement.” You’ve got to be prepared for an era where students, parents, families, your community, your faculty, and your staff want to be more engaged with what’s happening on campus. This need for communication today is just intense — not just to be communicating but to be timely with information.
A second element that’s really important is transparency today, particularly in this lingering and extended level of uncertainty that we have right now with the crisis. So if we can tell people what we know and tell them what we don’t know, if you can explain the process, [even if] everything else is uncertain, you can at least have some certainty in how decisions are going to be made, who’s making those decisions, and which members of your campus community are involved.
It is also important to be consistent with what you’re telling people. There are so many different audiences; whether it’s internal, whether it’s media, whether it’s your political leaders, you need to be able to communicate the same message to all of the various constituencies. When in doubt, come back to your mission. The missions of our institutions are so important, and they’re so embedded in our community — colleges and universities have trusted brands. So as you have that trust that you already have established with your communities, you can really let that mission help drive your approach to dealing with the various crises that are out there. And that trust does give every one of our presidents that platform to speak as a leader and help people through this unprecedented time.
Shirley Mullen: It really does require a level of upfront humility and just engagement in the moment even more than in normal times; if someone has not already somewhat acquired humility in this job, this moment will bring that about. And we all want our characters changed for the better in our work.
I’m going to ask a question now that invites you to speak a bit more out of your own leadership style. You have all experienced in many arenas a lifetime of leadership, learning, and lessons. And so I’m going to invite each of you to share one or two lessons from your own journey that you have drawn on in this moment to give you courage and sustenance as you’ve gone forward.
Félix Matos Rodríguez: One thing that was very clear to me early on [in the pandemic] was how exhausted both my team at the central office was, emotionally and physically, and how my presidents and their teams on the 24 campuses were. I needed to find energy in my own daily life to be able to be sensitive to where they were and — either [by engaging] collectively or one-on-one — be someone who was supportive of them and urged them to take time for themselves, to take care of their families.
It’s recharging your existential batteries, and it’s also being humble about things I have to learn. We lost one of our vice chancellors — Allen Lew, who was an alumnus and the first Asian American chancellor in the history of the university — we lost him to the virus, and that is a big blow to the team. So these things hit you personally, but you need to keep battling on. You need to keep dealing with the uncertainty of the budget for the next year and how to deal with the racial unrest.
So one thing has been to keep an eye on how my team is doing and making sure that I’m providing collective space for all of us to nurture each other and help each other. But [it’s also important to] do the one-on-one work — which I think all presidents or chancellors do in a different way — [to help your team manage] the levels of exhaustion and insecurity, which are at a much bigger place than they’ve ever been historically.
We all need something that gives peace and energy. For me, I’ve been able to get out and bike. That has been my space to stay physically fit and to give me 45 minutes or an hour of mental peace and figuring things out so I can come back and be a good husband at home, a good dad to my two teenage boys, and [a good leader] to my team. I’ve also told all my members — and I suffer because every day we’re behind on what we need to do — but I tell them to take time off in the summer. We’re in a war mode, but I need people to sneak out and go recharge because that’s the way that we are going to be ready for whatever the fall might bring.
Shirley Mullen: Yes, this is clearly turning out to be a marathon and not a sprint. President Artis, what would you like to add?
Roslyn Artis: The short answer is “ditto.” Everything that Chancellor Rodríguez said is entirely accurate. What I would add is that it is okay even for the president or the chancellor to not be okay. I think there is a level of empathy and humanity that attaches to us all, and I think there are moments when it’s appropriate to share that.
For example, Benedict College postponed its commencement ceremony; it was rescheduled for Aug. 8. It became abundantly clear that that is unsafe and is not going to happen; a crushing disappointment for the first-generation students who want the opportunity to walk across the stage. I was unpacking how I was feeling about that, and I was really dreading having to talk to them over Zoom to explain why we made that decision. And it occurred to me — I’m sad too. It is my favorite day of the year. The other 364 days of the year are all for this moment for me as a president to see those kids complete their academic goals. And while I will not suggest the disappointment that I feel is equivalent to the disappointment that the graduates feel, it’s important that they see me as human and they see me as grieving right along with them. I have lost something, too.
The reality is, I’ve also lost something else that’s really important — the ability to make decisions. I did not decide to cancel commencement; COVID-19 decided to do it. Even though I am the president, and I’m accustomed to controlling environments, making decisions, engaging my team, and trying to reach the best possible solution, I understand very much that the buck stops with me, but the reality is it doesn’t. Roslyn Artis did not cancel homecoming; she did not cancel commencement; she did not cancel summer schools; she did not push us online. COVID-19 did. I am serving at COVID-19’s will and pleasure right now.
And so I’m grieving the loss of my decision-making authority as the president of this institution and really grappling with the extent to which the decisions I make are not my own — they’re necessary decisions brought about by the circumstances we find ourselves in. But I think it was okay for me to be vulnerable in that moment with the students and express to them, “Like you, I feel the pain of the displacement. A college campus is not a college campus without college students. I miss you. It’s terrible here without you. And I’m so sad about commencement, too, and I’m going to hate missing homecoming, and I love football. I didn’t unilaterally call off football. But those decisions had been made not necessarily by me, but by the circumstances, and I grieve with you. I am not simply handing down a decision; I am sharing that pain with you.”
I think it’s important for us to reveal our vulnerability as human beings who experience loss in many of the same ways. It humanizes us. It allows us to empathize more fully with our students. And as Chancellor Rodríguez said, our staff and faculty are exhausted. They are fundamentally exhausted, and we’re seeing it manifest itself in small ways, and we can ill afford them to break. And when I say that, I mean the psychological impact on your health. When your emotional state is in flux, it is not a good thing. I care enough about the people that work with, for, and around me that I forced them to take a break and give their family some much needed and much deserved time.
So I think the humanness of acknowledging that we are not okay either, but we will get through this together is a critically important leadership lesson. We don’t always have to be in charge; COVID-19 is in charge. But we do always have to be kind and empathetic and clear and transparent.
Shirley Mullen: Certainly, as presidents, we know that we’re never really in charge, but COVID-19 has reminded us of that to a very deep level.
Ted Mitchell: As I think about the words that we’ve been using — about humility, vulnerability, serving humanity — I’m reminded that that really is the core of the work that we do. And I think that all of these crises have helped us double down on those ideas.
Students really more than anything else want to be listened to. They want to be heard. They want their experiences to be a part of the experiences of other people whose privileges and backgrounds are different. And I think that we need to remind ourselves of that every day — that what we bring to every interaction is a set of our own experiences, and they’re different from those that other people bring. We’ve learned through Zoom that people have kids, people have dogs, people have pets, they make noise. And just as a microcosm, that suggests that we’re all part of these very complex environments, each of which has a different story and different dimensions.
In working with our staff at ACE, we have the conversation regularly: When are people going to come back [to the office]? And as we work with our staff, one of the things that we hear over and over again is that people are worried about coming back. They’re worried about the disease; they’re worried about the unpredictability; they’re worried about public transportation and what vulnerabilities they increase by taking the Metro in D.C. to work; they’re worried about childcare.
We are all really coming to understand the interdependency of the family system with the work system and the childcare systems. And those are out of alignment. So we need to listen hard, we need to work hard, and we need to bring those together in ways that impact both public policy and institutional practice.
Barbara Mistick: I think obviously Ted and I have been spending too much time together, because I think that he’s absolutely right about the COVID-19 crisis. It is a very personal crisis. And I see that from all of our colleges and universities, all of our member schools, but I also see it from our own staff. This is impacting everybody differently. So the leadership lesson for me is one of acceptance and one of not placing judgment on decisions that people make. We are dealing with people who are torn between their kids being home and a homeschooling environment; they’re dealing with perhaps being in an age group that is more vulnerable; they’re dealing with concerns about just the basic transportation pieces. I think that’s true for all of our member colleges too. I hesitate to say this, but there is also an inherent sadness by parents at a very deep level because they want the experience on the college or university campus to either be what they had themselves or to be what they aspire to [if their children are] first-generation college students. I think that we just have to accept that that’s where everybody is today and not have judgment about it.
I think the best way to deal with all of that from my leadership experience is to find a way to celebrate every single accomplishment. So you got everybody home safely from the spring semester; let’s talk about that. Talk about anything that you’ve been able to accomplish that’s had a successful outcome, even if it’s really small. We got all this Plexiglas installed, or we had a win with the CARES Act. All of these things are tremendous accomplishments that we’ve done because we’ve been working together. I think that we are stronger together and if we can celebrate all of those accomplishments along the way, I have no doubt that we’ll figure out a way through this crisis.