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Higher ed is changing. Goldie Blumenstyk, a senior writer and Chronicle veteran, connects you with the people, trends, and ideas that are reshaping it. Delivered on Wednesdays.

From: Goldie Blumenstyk

Subject: Coronavirus Crisis Underscores the Traits of a Resilient College

I’m Goldie Blumenstyk, a senior writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education, covering innovation in and around academe. Here’s what I’m thinking about this week.

The traits of a resilient college (and maybe a resilient society, too).

Last week I wrote that the coronavirus crisis is a “black swan” moment for higher education, which would show us how crucial the skills of agility, flexibility, and resilience are for 21st-century colleges, not just their students. Since then, it’s become clearer that a skill I forgot to mention — dealing with ambiguity — also belongs on that list.

Like many of you, I’ve been hearing a lot about what it takes, beyond pivoting to remote education, to be a nimble institution. Several of the ideas you shared with me — and some other suggestions I’ve seen elsewhere — are important and useful. This isn’t about should’ve or could’ve. If you’ve done any of this already, more power to you. But it’s not too late to take some steps.

By far the most common pieces of advice I’ve heard involve the ability to communicate readily and frequently with the college community and to provide a safety net for its most vulnerable members. Communication is a skill that Tulane University president emeritus, Scott Cowen, shared in a Chronicle essay and in a Future U Podcast interview with Jeff Selingo. It’s also a point that Tony D’Angelo, one of The Edge’s most devoted correspondents, made to me on Twitter: “Always it will be about engagement. HigherEd execs must over-communicate during times like these: parents, students, faculty & staff first. Then everyone else.”

Concern for students’ losing their lifelines to food and housing when their campuses shut down has also come up often — a testament, I’d argue, to the awareness of students’ food and housing insecurity that has grown in the past five years. Matt Cohen, a consultant, put it succinctly: Institutional agility, he said, “must include continuity of care, particularly for a (school) community’s most vulnerable members and especially concerning their most basic human needs.” Cohen is a paid consultant for a company I’ve written about, Edquity, that helps colleges manage emergency-aid programs. But I heard this idea from many other folks, too, and I think his comment best sums up the sentiment.

One anguished reader from a research university in the Midwest pleaded for colleges to step up. “Agility for me means the ability to react swiftly to provide students, staff, and faculty with the resources they need to manage a crisis: securing housing, food, child care, and other resources,” he wrote, sharing his name in an email to me but asking to remain anonymous. “I’ve been dismayed at how many institutions are leaving their students out to dry, sometimes with literally no place to go once they are removed from campus. While I understand the need to prevent Covid-19 from spreading further, the decisions to basically render hundreds of students houseless and food insecure is simply appalling.”

I can imagine some college leaders thinking that this kind of outreach goes beyond their mission — and their budgets. But every institution in our society is in uncharted waters right now. It’s hard to imagine that, looking back, people will fault colleges for showing humanity by prioritizing the needs of vulnerable students.

What else?

D’Angelo also noted some more-tangible tips, including the importance of managing cash flow. He’s right. It’s hard to be agile when you’re running out of money.

In the same vein, André Mayer, a veteran educator and work-force-development policy maker, noted that keeping an eye on borrowing is critical. “Low interest rates are nice, but debt can kill you,” he wrote to me. I’ll quibble with that one. While it’s true that colleges under a heavy debt load may find themselves with a lot less ability to maneuver, I expect that many institutions will and should take advantage of extraordinarily low interest rates (part of the Fed’s effort to keep the economy from freezing up) to bridge the gaps.

“Plan for the worst” is another piece of advice from college officials who’ve managed crises before. (Read more tips along those lines in a free report available here.) Donald Guckert said that, and he’s associate vice president for facilities management at the University of Iowa, which faced catastrophic flooding in 2008. Planning doesn’t happen only in advance, he said, but involves constantly adjusting to changes on the ground. While it may seem impossible (and, honestly, terrifying) to anticipate the worst right now, it’s not too late to prepare further — and hope you’re wrong. We certainly now recognize that our reality is changing by the minute.

As colleges try to improve their ability to put not only instruction but also operational services online — a suggestion I heard from several people — they also need to think about digital security. One reader tweeted at me, “What will happen to our online world when another kind of virus takes down the internet?” No joke, that. Protecting against computer viruses, phishing scams, and cyberattacks on the digital tools that are keeping us together is vital. The challenge of keeping digital communication both readily accessible and as insulated as possible from threats is no cakewalk. But it’s another essential feature of a resilient institution.

The consequences of uneven access to broadband.

The coronavirus crisis has laid bare our digital divide. Readers of The Edge know I’ve been following the challenges already facing rural populations (here and here). Now, as schools and colleges rush toward remote learning, millions of students who lack decent or affordable broadband could be left in the lurch. (That the digital divide is leaving so many people vulnerable in other ways right now is a topic I’ll leave to others to explore.)

In the short term, it’s heartening to see that internet-service providers are responding. Some are offering free internet to students for 60 days. Nearly 200, at last count, have signed the Keep America Connected Pledge being coordinated by the Federal Communications Commission. By doing so, they agree that for 60 days they’ll open Wi-Fi hotspots, maintain service for people who can’t pay their bills because of the crisis, and waive late fees.

Longer term, a recent report from Pew Charitable Trusts suggests some powerful strategies for closing digital gaps. And as if we needed any more reminders of the important ways that governors can assert leadership, this report provides one, describing successful efforts to expand broadband access in several states. Once we get past this crisis, governors will have plenty on their agendas. The higher-ed community should be sure that broadband lands high up there.

I’ll report on our “Shark Tank: Edu Edition,” but later.

As I noted last week, when SXSW EDU was canceled, we were able to hold a virtual version of our annual panel in which start-up founders and social entrepreneurs pitch us their ideas for improving higher ed. It was a bit slapdash, but the show went on — and to date, nearly 600 people have watched it on YouTube. (You can, too — here’s the link.) That’s far more than would have fit in the room in Austin, Tex., so in that respect going virtual was a plus.

Our contestants had some great ideas to share, and the back-and-forth with the sharks was illuminating and fun. I’ll recap the lively hour when more of us have the head space to reflect on ideas beyond the challenges of the moment.

A personal message.

I’ve read and heard a lot of good advice this week on how to cope. No doubt you have, too. The bit that has stuck with me the most came from one of the rabbis at my synagogue here in the D.C. area, Sid Schwarz, who counseled that we rethink the notion of social distancing. Continue to practice “physical distancing,” he said, but also “social solidarity,” by making extra efforts to support folks in our various personal communities. I like that idea. As we stay apart, wash our hands, and try to stay safe, it’s good to remember that we’re all in this together.

Got a tip you’d like to share or a question you’d like me to answer? Let me know, at goldie@chronicle.com. If you have been forwarded this newsletter and would like to see past issues, or sign up to receive your own copy, you can do so here. If you want to follow me on Twitter, @GoldieStandard is my handle.

The veteran reporter Goldie Blumenstyk writes a weekly newsletter, The Edge, about the people, ideas, and trends changing higher education. Find her on Twitter @GoldieStandard. She is also the author of the bestselling book American Higher Education in Crisis? What Everyone Needs to Know.