As a recently retired Vice President for Student Affairs, I can’t help but simultaneously feel relief at not having responsibility for handling this awful Coronavirus crisis and guilt for not spending every waking moment dealing with this mess. I have only admiration and appreciation for the many thousands of student affairs educators and practitioners who are working extremely hard under extraordinarily challenging circumstances to provide support and comfort to their students. I admit to wondering what I might have done, or, more importantly, what I might be doing in the future given current and, likely, ongoing COVID-19 influenced conditions.
As a senior student affairs administrator, I would be wise to be attentive both to immediate needs and long-range concerns and options. I would hope to focus both on crisis response and subsequent opportunities, always with an eye on what will best serve my students, my campus and all others. As an optimist, I would presume some form of recovery and stability, but as a realist, I would also anticipate long-term adjustments to higher education and the role student affairs play in our colleges and universities.
For the next year or two, I would imagine and would plan for substantial changes to the campus experience. As many are predicting, I would presume a decline in enrollment which would affect all my budgeting models. Our housing occupancy is likely to be diminished, our fees revenue will be short of expectations, and institutional allocations to student affairs will inevitably be less - perhaps far less - than planned. Staff hiring has already been suspended on most campuses and many institutions will yet require furloughs and layoffs. The next couple of years are likely to be quite challenging as international students stay away or are kept away, domestic students opt for time off, gap year experiences or more affordable collegiate options.
Under these trying circumstances, I’d be thinking about several initiatives:
- I’d want to ensure continuity in services and support as best we could and focus on how best to deploy remaining staff to that end. In these past few crisis-influenced months, the staff has acquired unanticipated new roles and responsibilities. As usual, the student affairs community has risen to the challenge and accomplished so very much. These conditions are likely to continue or recur and traditional organizational designs and job descriptions may have little utility. Now’s the time I’d be exploring role flexibilities, re-training options and the development of a far more nimble and facile organization.
- Online education will inevitably persist and expand regardless of the timeline of the virus crisis. I’d be examining every opportunity to offer online versions of anything students may need. I’ve written previously about issues such as telehealth and I’d be encouraging those leading orientation programs, career advising and anyone with an educational role to explore online options and programs.
- I’d also be thinking about how best to utilize excess capacities in support of institutional and community needs. Housing vacancies can offer options for healthcare uses, staff emergency accommodations, and for simply thinning occupancy numbers in all buildings to spread people out and reduce crowding. Other facilities may address sudden sheltering needs, emergency operations centers and simply places for rest and recovery.
But, much of my thinking will extend beyond the coming year or two when some so-called new normal emerges. I have no better predictability than anyone else, but I’d rather work on some possibilities than persistently be in a reactive mode. I would presume that enrollment declines will be longer-lasting and would be thinking about long-range alternatives for use of campus facilities and services.
- Could our campuses help launch a more formal post-graduate year or two of service and inspire our graduates to participate in a service project in the local community? Perhaps we could partner with programs like City Year or Teach for America or one of many other service-oriented agencies to enable our graduates to acquire essential experiences while in service of others. Campus residence halls could house recent graduates and relevant services could be provided as well. This could have a great donor appeal.
- Workforce development will likely be of far greater importance in the years ahead and I could imagine far more powerful and viable partnerships emerging as a result of these conditions. How can we welcome alumni back to campus for re-training, credentialing and further education? Can we imagine a campus with any even more diverse array of students, faculty, staff, and alumni? Could this inspire more relevant and effective corporate partnerships for training and research?
- New markets have been and will be expanding rapidly in the years ahead for various forms of executive education for advanced degrees. There’s an extraordinary opportunity ahead for creative schools and colleges within universities to capture much of that market, and campus supports and services can be adapted to serve that market.
I doubt that I’ve even scratched the surface for needs and opportunities in the years ahead. Partnerships with community colleges, our military, and many other agencies and communities are ripe for development. But, what seems inevitable to me is that higher education will change and so will student affairs. The question is will we change by default or by design? I look forward to what others’ may be thinking and what further opportunities and pitfalls await!