When the pandemic began, I felt like a CBO (Chief Business Officer) without a university and a faculty member without a tenure track. On the faculty side, there was a sense of panic and loss. The challenges of teaching online, the inability to complete research projects, and the desire to see students learn weighed heavily. We were thrown into great confusion.
There was an immediate need to learn how to teach online, something many never wanted. Could we find a way to integrate online learning seamlessly into our established processes? Many felt a sense of disconnectedness. Remember, this is a group of people who spent every day interacting with hundreds of students and colleagues. This group had not spent a great deal of time in virtual conferences. That all changed overnight.
How grief and crisis management relate to post-COVID higher ed
There is a connection between our reactions to the pandemic and the 5 stages of grief — denial, anger, depression, bargaining, and acceptance. In the early part of the pandemic, we had no time to go through the first three stages. Circumstances thrust us directly into the latter two stages. It’s no surprise that later, we saw and still see faculty members and my colleagues in the business world exhibiting the first three stages, along with confusion, and frustration, all at once. The good news is, we are also seeing signs of bargaining. People are reaching out, telling stories, and finding meaning and acceptance.
CBOs did not have the luxury of grieving; they were thrust directly into crisis management mode bearing the huge responsibility to “save the institution”. Behind the scenes, their jobs and realities changed overnight. They found themselves making tough decisions about the health and safety of students and staff, knowing that some of those decisions could cause long-term financial hardship for the institution.
As finance professionals, we are trained to examine the finances and immediately dive into protection mode. Most of us have managed our institutions through a tough recession and know the unpleasant drill. This feels different. There is significant change on the horizon.
In this examination, it occurs to me that there is a relationship between grief and crisis management. When we experience grief, it is generally because we experienced a loss that was beyond our control — a loved one, a job or something else. Sometimes this can be coupled with a crisis. How will I manage financially? Can I do this alone? Like the CBO, we can feel alone in our need to manage the crisis and work toward a solution. Often in crisis management, the loss is less personal. The crisis centers more on a sense of personal responsibility. CBOs feel the responsibility to take care of their teams and save the institution. This is a heavy load to bear.
The fallout from the pandemic and its ongoing nature creates a challenge for financial teams. Will enrollment numbers ever go back to their previous levels? Is hybrid learning a fact of life? What challenges does that present to faculty members, students, and the financial health of the university? What opportunities will it bring?
Are we on the verge of a transformational change?
Bob Tipton’s 9 Stages of Transformational Change represent a merger of the stages of grief and crisis management, with grief representing the first 6 stages and crisis management, the final 3. Perhaps this is why transformational change can be so difficult. We all move through these stages at different paces.
Perhaps, at a time like this, we can spend more time listening. Having empathy for the despair and skepticism on both sides will help us move together towards tolerance, acceptance, and agreement. Our challenge is time. We will not have the luxury of time as we devise options for our institutions. We need to find a way to reach over the divide now so we can move forward as one institution and better serve our students. After all, our students have been through a lot, too. They will expect something different from us and it’s our job to deliver.