View from the Board Professional: A Strategic Response to COVID-19

By Jeffrey Garland    //    Volume 28,  Number 4   //    July/August 2020

During this profoundly, unsettling time, health professionals, economists, political scientists, business executives, and government leaders are discussing the “new normal” brought on by COVID-19. For higher education and, indeed, all nonprofit organizations, this raises the question, what will our new normal be? For many, the answer begins with defining the “old normal” for their organization. Were they on a path to innovation and growth before this pandemic? Or were they on a path of mere survival with COVID-19 presenting the latest and gravest challenge to being viable and vibrant?

An engaged and aware board of trustees at these institutions has a responsibility to ask questions of the administration, faculty, and students at all times. However, a time of crisis makes questioning, listening, understanding, and acting imperative for members of the board. Particularly under these circumstances, talented, and diverse board members can bring unique perspectives and add substantial value to the governance of the institution.

There are many ways a board and key stakeholders can approach the situation and actively define the new normal for their institution for the future. A good starting point might be to look back to 2008 and the impact the financial crisis had on the institution. For example, how was the university affected by reduced endowments, enrollments, philanthropy, and government subsidies? How did they define what was essential to their core values? What did they do to keep themselves competitive, relevant, and worthy of support? Schools that were relatively stable financially may have found opportunities such as redeploying assets to maximize return such as starting new programs that were more relevant to the time and hiring faculty and staff to support those initiatives. Schools with less stability were more focused on cost cutting. Key questions were: What did the institution do to position itself for the future? How did it define its new normal?

The COVID-19 crisis adds far-reaching public health issues to the financial burdens experienced in 2008. Boards always have a responsibility for looking at the long-term viability of an institution. Administrations, faculty, and students change. Trustees, with input from other members of the university community, are the definers and defenders of what is the essence of the institution. This may be their most difficult assignment. This essence is the brand of the university and is the rationale for its existence. It is what must survive and is, therefore, a valuable standard for analyzing the new normal.

A time of crisis may challenge or blur the essence of the university and, therefore, requires board committees to act with clarity. Committee chairs must set priorities with guidance from the board chair and be willing to ask key questions, challenge answers, and make meaningful observations and proposals. Here are several critical questions to consider:

  • What are our current financial obligations? Can facilities be maintained and be developed with an eye to the future?
  • How well managed is our endowment? Is it well positioned to manage risk?
  • Have our previous financial stress tests been relevant? How do we make them relevant for the future?
  • How will fundraising and long-term planning be impacted?
  • What will the impact be on admissions?
  • Are we interacting in a meaningful way with our alumni during a stressful time? What can the institution do for them? Examples might include communicating health tips, posting exercise videos from trainers, and providing advice from counselors about mental health.
  • How will student life and wellness change?
  • Have we asked the faculty and students for their ideas and observations? Are we listening to them?
  • How do we start up again from an extended closure?
  • Are we talking regularly with elected officials and being transparent about the impact of the crisis and related needs of the university? Are we offering to be a partner in helping the state meet its challenges?
  • How are we interacting with the community we live in? How can we support businesses and municipal services?
  • What will the landscape of higher education look like when this crisis ends?

Every university and nonprofit organization board should have a list of questions like these related to their particular mission, challenges, and assets. Clear-eyed, honest, and sometimes hard conversations among trustees and other stakeholders are also required during this challenging time. Focused questions generate focused and useful answers. Optimistically, this will yield a positive outcome addressing where we’ve been, where we are now, and most importantly, where we want to be. This is truly a defining moment.

Jeffrey W. Garland is a former vice president and former university secretary at the University of Delaware.

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