Coronavirus Erupts in a Crisis-Prone Enterprise

By Terrence MacTaggart May 7, 2020 May 11th, 2021 Blog Post

This excerpt is adapted from Crisis Leadership for Boards and Presidents: Anticipating, Managing, and Leading Beyond Pandemics, Disruptions, and Ethical Failures, a forthcoming book from AGB Publications.


Crises are a fact of life for higher education presidents and their boards. All too often, risks that foreshadow crises are either ignored or underestimated by executives and boards. Fast-moving social media may convert problems into crises overnight. Partisan polarities and ideological conflicts can add fuel to the flames like dry brush. Furthermore, changing markets and demographic shifts are creating sustainability issues for many institutions. Crises are fascinating dramas—when they happen to someone else.

The COVID-19 pandemic erupted with devastating consequences for peoples and institutions across the globe—but the probability of such a pandemic event had been predicted by health scientists for decades. In the United States, the pandemic is in its early stages, yet to reach its full impact on the lives of individuals, or the nation’s health care system, economy, and its colleges and universities. No one should doubt that remediating the crisis—by means of social distancing; shuttering businesses, nonprofits, and government agencies; and emptying college dormitories while shifting nearly all instruction to online delivery—will change the business of higher education for a long time to come.

But as we’ve witnessed, crises within the higher education arena were rising both in number and severity well before the coronavirus eruption. As the pandemic winds its way through the society and its economy, some higher education institutions will be far more vulnerable than others. It is widely believed that state-supported institutions are better positioned than independent schools even as public funding drops given their lower baseline tuition rates. Elite, well-endowed independents certainly have greater capacity to sustain themselves than their poor cousins. Yet scrappy, entrepreneurial, and agile colleges have demonstrated great resilience in the face of adversity in the past. Their nimble responses in a changing market increase the odds that they will prevail in the new post-virus world. Staid, legacy-focused institutions, whether public or independent, who do not enjoy large endowments and prescient leadership will likely find themselves disadvantaged in the changed market for students in the post-virus world.

The economic effects in a post-coronavirus world and the ubiquity of online offerings from sophisticated competitors will certainly push legacy-oriented liberal arts colleges closer to or over the brink. The problem of competing for a dwindling supply of residential students will be especially acute for schools that failed to develop any online capability when they had the opportunity to do so. In other words, institutions that failed to anticipate and prepare for a severe disruption to business continuity and/or invest in instructional technologies are facing a potential extinction-level event.

Ironically, this most unfortunate eruption is occurring as AGB prepares to release my forthcoming book, Crisis Leadership for Boards and Presidents, which we conceived to help guide boards of trustees and their executives on anticipating, preparing for, managing, and leading beyond the all-too-frequent crises in higher ed.

Consider these realities:

  • The pandemic dramatically illustrates the features of other major crises. Like other crises, this one is highly disruptive of the status quo. The industry will experience a “new normal” as yet not fully defined but surely including a massive shift to online education, a decline in the rationale for brick and mortar campuses, and a serious threat to a professoriate built on research, modest teaching loads, and classroom lectures.
  • Like most other crises, this one was highly predictable though not well anticipated or prepared for. The so-called “Spanish” flu epidemic a century ago, which claimed upwards of 50 million lives, and the more recent viral eruptions such as polio, Ebola, Sars, and HIV/AIDS, offer plenty of evidence to justify the ample warnings about the global spread of pandemics. Lame excuses—also a feature of the failure to anticipate predictable crises—abound in this one as well.
  • Like other crises, COVID-19 will migrate through a life cycle beginning with the trigger event—the outbreak in Wuhan, China—to a fatal blossoming and public concern intensified by media coverage, to an eventual decline in its virulence that nonetheless has very long-lasting effects on individuals and institutions.
  • Public scorn of leaders for their blindness or indifference will surely grow as the emergency aspect of the crisis recedes. Board members and presidents may escape blame for not predicting or preparing for the crisis because of the widespread (but false) belief that it was unpredictable. Likewise, they are not being criticized for closing campuses since that action was mandated by the CDC and state officials. Other than ceasing to teach in any form, there was no alternative to embracing online instruction.
  • The major threat to the credibility of trustees and executives will come instead as second and third order consequences of the virus emerge in the next few months and years. Those who enable their institutions to survive and even prosper in the virtual environment already upon us will deserve praise. Confidence in the judgement of those who remain blind both to the threats and deaf to the opportunities will decline as events unfold.
  • This crisis, like others, will breed still more disruption. Widespread unemployment and less disposable income will surely impact enrollment. Many expect students to resist paying full price for the online college experience. Follow-on crises also include a predictable rise in cyber threats (Cybercrime, and ransom demands); the loss of key personnel to the virus itself; and threats to campus safety and security.
  • All crises demand both skilled management of the immediate event—in this case the emergency of the epidemic itself—and shrewd leadership that looks to the future from the initial stages of the crisis onward. Leaders, as distinct from managers, are adept at spearheading change both to prepare for the next challenge and, in this instance, to more radically transform the way their institutions offer education.

The fundamental lesson to be taken from the onslaught of the coronavirus, and the lack of preparedness preceding it, is that boards and executives cannot put off facing potential threats and preparing to address them.

The advent and dissemination of the coronavirus underscores additional truths: Trustees and presidents all too often believe “it can’t happen here.” The progression from denial to “oh my gosh, we have a real emergency” to “where do we want our college or university to be 6, 12, 24 months from now” represents the most common response to this viral crisis. The sooner presidents and boards give attention to the future, the better the chances their institution will fare well in the new, new normal post-virus world.

Terrence “Terry” MacTaggart, PhD is an AGB senior fellow and consultant. His consulting and research focuses on higher education leadership and policy, strategic planning, board development, shared governance, and leadership evaluation.  He has held the chancellor’s position at the Minnesota State University System and on two occasions at the University of Maine System.