A Letter to College and University Presidents/Chancellors,
As a former campus-based student affairs professional now working in the association field supporting higher education practice, research, and scholarship, I am in the unique position to offer observations and recommendations as you begin what some have predicted to be the most challenging year yet. In addition to unaddressed trauma and anxiety from the first 16 months of the COVID-19 pandemic, the slow rate of vaccinations and the alarming rise of variants will now be moving into your campus boundaries. We cannot pretend that the crisis has ended and revert to “business as usual.” Business should be anything but usual right now. While still dealing with the virus and its medical, mental, and emotional effects on our lives, individually and collectively, we do know more than we did a year ago.
We must use what we have learned and what we now know to lead our campuses in ways that advocate for students, faculty, and staff physical safety and mental health. A campus that is not physically or emotionally safe is not an effective learning environment. Getting back to “normal,” should not be your goal. Your campus community needs your leadership and vision for defining new ideas and new ways to address the lingering trauma of the pandemic and other historical injustices. This new academic year is an opportunity to demonstrate and put into practice what we have learned the last 16 months. Recovery must resemble actions more like reconciliation and authentic reflection than business continuity.
If you had an easy road ahead of you, anyone could be a college president or chancellor if they wanted to be. Perfection of your game plan for the new year should not be an aspiration but centering the physical and emotional health of your community should be. This means putting people before profits. It means putting people before policies. It means leading from an ethic of compassion, not precedent or positionality. Think with me for a moment: What would still be happening in the world if we held firmly to precedent and the way we did it before? Progress requires precedent to be challenged and changed when we center humanity if we are to lead from a place of love instead of numeric results.
In support of your leadership, I want to offer a few insights I have gained from hundreds, if not thousands, of higher education professionals over the last 16 months. Although I typically avoid generalizing to such a wide audience, it is my belief that the following recommendations will serve you well in this new academic year no matter your community’s population, size, location, specialty, or other distinguishing features.
The core of my request of you is this:
Acknowledge, respect, and address the labor, exhaustion, and potential trauma of your staff.
The administrative staff of a college or university are accustomed to feeling like the third (or fourth) priority for an institution behind faculty, students, and possibly parents and/or alumni. Even within staff, there are divisional and departmental hierarchies that often disrespect and diminish the work of student affairs professionals. These attributes of a campus have only been amplified during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the relationship between staff and the institution are at a breaking point.
Campus staff were the first to be furloughed or to have their positions eliminated. Those who were fortunate enough to maintain their jobs shouldered the responsibility of student retention in a virtual setting. Much of this labor was left to staff of color to support and advocate for students who were already feeling marginalized by their institutions, but now in a time where they were dealing with threats not just on their medical health but feared for their lives because of the color of their skin. The campus staff who kept their roles were asked to risk their lives to conduct COVID tests, coordinate quarantine housing, deliver meals to isolated students, conduct routine check-ins, and many other tasks. And they performed this labor and risked their health and safety because they deeply cared for students.
Now, it is time for the institution to demonstrate your appreciation and respect publicly and authentically for the staff of an institution who carried out the many alterations of your campus COVID-19 plans. It is important that the staff of an institution be celebrated for the tremendous amount of labor required over the last 16 months. Yes, the pandemic required everyone in the institution (and quite frankly, the whole world) to stretch into new ways of doing things, but the labor assigned to student affairs and other student-interacting staff at your institution was extensive. These specific recommendations are symbolic and practical:
- Compensate your staff for their COVID-19 labor: This could include monetary compensation in terms of bonus pay, additional paid time off in the coming year, and/or the repayment of furlough days. This recommendation does not need additional explanation: When people work more and harder, you compensate them.
- Advocate for and provide counseling for staff: We likely do not yet know the ongoing mental health effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Even today, the campus staff who have expended significant emotional labor over the last 16 months are busying themselves with carrying out pandemic protocols while also managing orientation programs, residence hall move-in, academic and student organization advising, registration, financial aid, and so on. Campus leadership must demonstrate a compassion for the emotional and mental health needs of our absolutely depleted and sometimes defeated or deflated staff.
- Listen and attend to the specific needs of staff of color: The last 16 months have exponentially impacted the lives of people of color. Not only were Black and Brown bodies more susceptible to COVID-19, the killings of numerous Black people in the United States during this same time was an additional pandemic against their lives. Staff of color on campuses were taxed with the labor of managing their own physical and mental health, while also being asked to deliver diversity education on campus and supporting and advocating for the needs and challenges of students of color mostly in virtual exchanges. If you do not believe the last 16 months have disproportionately affected Black people at your institution, you are not in tune with your community. In addition to the compensation and counseling you provide for all staff, I advise going even further for staff of color by providing additional compensation, by hiring counselors of color to focus just on the support of staff of color, and by creating spaces where staff of color can share their experiences and needs not just related to the pandemic, but all the time.
- Conduct reflection sessions with staff: As mentioned before, we cannot go back to routine campus operations and pretend the last 16 months did not happen. When I talk with campus professionals, however, I am hearing the recurring theme that this is how institutional leaders are proceeding for the new academic year. Yes, we are still in a global pandemic, but we have learned so much over the past year that we are now able to implement our new knowledge in ways that keep our people physically safe, while also continuing their learning and engagement. It is critical that college presidents and chancellors reflect with student affairs and other college staff on their experiences, successes and challenges, and lessons learned so that we can collectively support the community together.
- Find opportunities to center joy and celebration: Finally, nearly every conversation I have with a higher education professional includes their need for joy and celebration right now. Fear has run our individual and institutional lives for the last 16 months, and we now need to balance fear and anxiety with joy and celebration. This is where role modeling as the college’s president or chancellor is so important. When you offer speeches this year, share what brings you joy in your life and in your work. When you talk with students and staff, give them opportunities to tell you about what brings them joy or a reason they must celebrate something good that recently happened to them. Begin your cabinet meeting with sharing a positive experience from the past week and end your meeting with celebration and appreciation for another person in the group. Amidst the challenge and sickness that will still be a part of campuses this academic year, the culture can also contain joy and gratitude. Authentic leaders can hold and role model multiple truths at the same time.
Higher education will not be the same following the multiple pandemics we have endured over the last 16 months. It should not be the same. I encourage you, as a college president/chancellor, to not just assume my words are true, but to engage your campus’ staff, especially your student affairs professionals, to either validate or challenge these recommendations. The critical ask is that you actively engage your staff community following a prolonged period of trauma and labor. With some predicting another challenging academic year ahead of us, many of your staff find themselves physically and emotionally at the lowest point of their careers, and the option of doing nothing is simply not there. Institutional leaders who fail to acknowledge and address the challenge of staff fatigue, trauma, and burnout will face mass position vacancies, lackluster student engagement, and potentially student retention problems. Leading from love, decision-making with compassion, and healing deep wounds must be the primary competencies exercised by executive institutional leaders in the coming year(s).
Chris Moody, Ed.D.
Executive Director, ACPA-College Student Educators International