AGB Urges Boards to Address Pandemic Threat Quickly and Decisively

By AGB March 16, 2020 May 11th, 2021 Blog Post

Every moment matters now in responding to the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, and AGB is urging the boards of U.S. higher education institutions to move quickly to mitigate the crisis while safeguarding the missions of their institutions. AGB will continuously update resources for higher education boards on our website.

There are five major areas of concern for boards as fiduciaries during this crisis:

  1. Safeguarding the health and safety of students, faculty, and staff;
  2. Ensuring continuity of courses of study and other essential operations;
  3. Determining the short- and long-term financial implications;
  4. Providing timely communications with key constituencies; and
  5. Addressing such special considerations as clinical programs, hospital operations, and food and housing insecurity.

Every governing board will need to be assured that the administration has a crisis response plan and team in place and establish how the board will be included in reports, deliberations, and decisions.

Health and Safety

  • Accept heightened responsibility for preventing and limiting COVID-19 transmission.
  • Quickly introduce social distancing.
  • Postpone or cancel foreign travel and foreign study programs.

With students, faculty, and staff working and living in close proximity on their campuses, higher education institutions must accept heightened responsibility for preventing and limiting the transmission of COVID-19. Global health experts have advised that social distancing is a key to slowing the spread of this pandemic. Time is of the essence, however, in introducing social distancing to prevent community spread. Numerous higher education institutions have moved within the past week to limit or suspend in-person classes, encourage or shift to online instruction and telework, and require students to return home for a period of time or until further notice.

Earlier this month the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued its “Interim Guidance for Administrators of U.S. Institutions of Higher Education (IHE) to Plan, Prepare, and Respond to Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), This interim guidance is intended to help administrators of public and private IHE prevent the spread of COVID-19 among students, staff, and faculty. Additionally, the CDC issued its “Guidance for Student Foreign Travel for Institutions of Higher Education” (, which recommended that IHE consider postponing or canceling student foreign exchange programs and that they also consider asking current program participants to return to their home country. The CDC guidance states that “those overseeing student foreign exchange programs should be aware that students may face unpredictable circumstances, travel restrictions, challenges in returning home, or accessing health care while abroad.”

Continuity of Courses and Other Essential Operations

  • Transition to online learning and telework.
  • Upgrade technology.
  • Ensure business and finance continuity.
  • Reassess plans as conditions change.
  • Reconsider policies for pass/fail and incomplete grades.
  • Explore new modes of support for students and faculty for learning.

The business of teaching and learning is the core operation of any higher education institution and every effort must be undertaken to ensure the continuity of this operation during the pandemic. As widely reported in the media, many colleges and universities have transitioned to remote instruction as campuses were emptied and in-person instruction was suspended. Plans must be firmly in place very quickly in anticipation of prolonged remote instruction, including plans for addressing information technology needs and capabilities to support extended social distancing. It’s also critical to ensure business and finance continuity as well as that of other essential functions—for example the continuation of payroll and accounting operations.

Long-Term and Short-Term Financial Implications

  • Anticipate and plan for enrollment shrinkage and revenue shortfalls.
  • Anticipate and plan for expenses related to changes in operations.
  • Scrutinize this crisis for potential opportunities.

Probably no amount of enterprise risk management planning could have prepared the higher education sector for the fiscal ramifications of this pandemic. But maintaining an institution’s fiscal health is among the most important fiduciary responsibilities of a governing board. Revenue may be down from interrupted programs this term as well as cancellations of or reduced participation in study abroad programs in the summer and fall. Additionally, enrollment numbers will almost certainly be affected for retention of current students and enrollment of new students in summer and fall. There may be significant revenue shortfalls with respect to enrollments of foreign students, who typically pay full tuition. It might be useful to recall that when Tulane University closed for four months following Hurricane Katrina it faced a substantial shortfall. But the board and administrators seized upon the crisis as an opportunity to develop a renewal plan by which it reduced its annual operating budget and focused its undergraduate, professional, and doctoral programs and research in areas in which it had attained world-class excellence.

The president, chief academic officer, and faculty will have primary responsibility for implementing decisions regarding instructional delivery. The board should determine with the president what information the board will receive and on which decisions the president should seek board approval.

Providing Timely Communications

  • Maintain ongoing communication.
  • Maintain board meeting schedules.
  • Draft key messages for a variety of constituents.

It will be critical to ensure that communication channels are functioning optimally among the administration, faculty, students, board members, other employees, parents, and the surrounding community. Plans must be devised and implemented that ensure all members of the institution’s community are updated on the situation on an ongoing basis.

The board should have measures in place to conduct meetings remotely and understand the provisions in the bylaws for emergency conditions. Boards should continue to meet for regularly scheduled meetings via teleconferencing or conference calls and should be prepared to meet for any emergency discussions as well. Working in close collaboration with the institution’s administration, the communications staff should draft key messages on health, travel and immigration, business impacts, academic impacts, environmental health, and human resources policies and resources. Additionally, the communications staff should define key issues to be communicated to students, faculty, staff, parents, the board, and members of the surrounding community. It is also important to develop a designated email address for questions from the university community, students, parents, and members of the general public and to build relationships with local public information officers from public health and medical centers groups.

Most college and university websites have dedicated pages that provide information on COVID-19 to the campus community, including self-care, classes, and employment, with information tailored to students, faculty, and staff. Here are a few examples of a range of institutional types and locations:

Elon College

Marquette University

University of Miami

University of Michigan

University System of Maryland

University of Washington

Special Considerations

  • Assist needy students in meeting basic needs.
  • Ensure that clinical programs continue seamlessly.
  • Ensure the continuity of research programs.

Not all students are able to return home and not all students are able to shift immediately to online learning. For many low-income and international students, the campus is home. That means that higher education institutions must step in to help meet these students’ needs, providing them with safe, healthy options for food and shelter as well as online access and devices that will enable them to continue their studies. Some options to consider:

  • Keep dining halls or food pantries open on a limited basis;
  • Inform uninsured students how to use Medicaid for emergency screenings and treatment;
  • Offer loaner laptops and establish portable Wi-Fi locations so that students can access coursework online;
  • Organize a fund drive to help cover unexpected costs; and
  • Enlist alumni to provide financial support to students in need.

Institutions that support medical schools, nursing programs, and hospitals have the additional responsibility of ensuring that students and faculty can continue to work safely and that hospital operations are not interrupted. That holds true for research programs as well.

Because it is apparent that this public health threat will continue unabated well into the foreseeable future, it is imperative for all boards and administrators to move quickly and decisively to ensure that their populations are protected to the extent possible and that their educational missions are sustained. This is uncharted territory and the challenges are enormous and the disruptions innumerable. An all-hands-on-deck approach to the crisis is essential—institution-wide as well as throughout the higher education sector.

In addition to information being made available and updated by the CDC, there are additional sources to turn to as circumstances change:

World Health Organization

Johns Hopkins University


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