David D. Perlmutter

Professor and Dean at Texas Tech University

What ‘Middle’ Administrators Can Do to Help in the Coronavirus Crisis

Full vitae admin101

Image: Kevin Van Aelst for The Chronicle

If you’re a college president or provost, the global coronavirus scare means you are making some really big decisions lately, affecting the entire campus. But what if you’re a midlevel manager — dean, chair, program director? What is your role in this crisis?

It’s certainly true that the new coronavirus — even though, so far, it’s infected relatively few people in the United States, and killed even fewer — has set off a meteor shower of events that are rattling campuses across the country. Every day there’s a new chain of emails, social-media posts, and news stories announcing that some campus is closing and going online, that an important conference is being shut down and trying to go virtual, or that parents are pressuring institutions to bring study-abroad students home. And everyone is worried: What is coming next?

In a 2018 Chronicle essay, "A Crash Course in Crisis Communication," I wrote about modern risk management for the academic administrator. Although one of my favorite literary genres is postapocalyptic fiction, I had not imagined at the time that the pool of possible crises facing academe would include how to deal with panic about a global virus.

Across higher education, people are mobilizing to do the best they can as quickly as they can. Those of us in the rather large pool of midlevel administrators won’t be the ones deciding to cancel classes or move them online. But there are plenty of steps we need to consider as we weigh our role in the days and weeks to come.

Communicate with your people — but don’t overcommunicate, miscommunicate, or undermine central communications. Rumors tend to fill a vacuum. It’s always a dilemma trying to determine whether you are saying too much or too little as the leader of your department or college. On the one hand, you do want folks in your department or college to know what’s going on; on the other hand, constant updates and announcements may end up confusing and worrying everyone.

Tone matters here, and so does staying on message. As an administrator, you hold a semi-oracular status. Your speculations, assumptions, trial balloons, and even fleeting thoughts can be taken out of context and interpreted as campus policy. People might get riled up or think you are going to do something that you don’t really plan to do. So most of the time, saying less is more. You want to present known facts only — especially at a time when people are being bombarded with all sorts of information and misinformation.

Second, don’t contradict or undermine communication from other, higher-up sources on the campus. Right now, your institution is probably issuing statements and reminders from health offices, the provost, the president, and so on. Whatever they say is likely to affect what you say. So don’t hesitate to ask people in central administration to clarify campus policies or to look over any individual messages that you intend to send out.

Your responsibility as a middle manager is to immediately try to think of what effect decisions made on high will have on your constituencies and what local decisions make sense for you.

Of course, the established position or the known facts of a day, or an hour, ago may not be right anymore. So keep up with any decisions that might affect your unit. And don’t hesitate to admit when you don’t know something and need to check with someone who does. Admitting ignorance is far preferable to spreading information that you’re not sure is true — especially at a time of crisis.

Be more responsive and available than usual. You will get queries and concerns from all directions — not just from professors and students but also from alumni and parents. Important intel can come from many new sources, direct and indirect.

For example, a few days ago a student tweeted that there was not enough soap and paper towels in some of our college restrooms. Several faculty members informed me about the tweet, which also showed up on my Google alert. We were able, within hours, to work with facilities management to resolve the problem.

Only 10 years ago, I would have found out about that via a phone call. Today we are serving populations whose method of choice for seeking help is social media. I’m grateful to that student for alerting us — by whatever means.

The point is: You must pay attention to more than just your email.

Convene your own crisis-response team. Academics around the world are pondering how to finish the semester with the maximum positive outcome for our students. Some campuses are converting all classes to some form of online teaching. Your central IT office is probably working on this already, but you know best how that transition might affect your particular courses, faculty members, and students.

A large lecture course might be easy to transform into a noninteractive video format, but what about a lab, a seminar, or a class that requires fieldwork? Now is the time to get the right people together to ask: What do we need to do?

Each hour will bring new challenges: What about the professors who purchased nonrefundable plane tickets for a conference that they can no longer attend or that is no longer being held? Will they be reimbursed? Beyond classes, what meetings will you hold virtually, and how will those be handled if the entire campus goes virtual? Which staff members and administrators are considered "essential" and will need to go to work whatever happens? What will happen to visits arranged for job candidates? If faculty members are expected to teach from another location, such as their homes, who will set up and service their IT equipment?

Those are some of the questions that have been put to me in the past 24 hours. No doubt your meeting of minds will raise many more. But it would be prudent to think about them and come up with some possible solutions before they jump into your lap.

Keep relevant campus authorities informed of major problems in your unit. Central administrators are being deluged with demands, so try to avoid updating them on every minor problem you encounter. You know your own unit and can best resolve such issues on your own. But there may be special circumstances about which it is wise to notify different authorities on the campus:

  • One of your department’s professors is on a Fulbright in an East Asian country.
  • A group of students plans to work over spring break on a project in another city.
  • Perishable lab materials in your department will be at risk if the campus is closed and (most) staff members are sent home.

At the same time, if a campus plan to deal with the crisis is brewing — and your team has identified and/or resolved a problem that may be relevant to others — now is the time to speak up. For example, an acquaintance who works in animal science at another university recounted that a key staff member was the central manager for all animal care. He asked the dean a question that subsequently went up the chain of command: What happens if that person is sick? In response, a wider discussion began about animal-care issues across colleges and departments.

The coronavirus is presenting a great deal of stress and confusion across the world, even for people and institutions not actually affected medically. College campuses — because of our open nature, our high density of people interacting with one another, and our many external connections — are especially vulnerable to a pandemic as well as to the fear of it.

Above all, keep calm, rational, and factual. You serve your unit best by being thoughtful and stable as much as quick and reactive.

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