Dealing with Uncertainties

In Higher Ed, the activities of an academic year has remained very predictable. The academic year begins by welcoming the newest members of the community, and then – the Fall semester starts, the Fall break and mid terms, Registering for the Spring, Thanksgiving, Early Admissions for the following year, Finals, Holiday Break, Winter Session, Spring Semester, Spring Break & midterms, Registration for Fall, Regular Admission notification, Spring Open Campus, Commencement, Reunion, Summer Session – and the cycle begins again. There are many variations on this theme, but each of the institutions has a predictable cycle. Though we have had some serious disruptions recently – 9/11 for one, a couple of major financial crises – but nothing stopped us from operating in significantly different ways.

But then came the COVID-19 pandemic. No one could have anticipated and planned for a global pandemic like this! So, it is remarkable what we have been able to accomplish collectively since March. The students and faculty adopted to a totally different and imperfect way to do remote learning/teaching amongst all sorts of issues that one rarely needs to deal with – staying at home and competing for bandwidth, family issues much closer to you than before, child care and elder care and so on and so forth. Despite all of this, teaching and learning happened and we can all agree it was not perfect, but everyone adjusted, improvised and through their creativity constantly improved the experience.

As much as this was a huge disruption in March, there was less uncertainty. For example, we knew that the most students, faculty and staff needed to leave the College and work and learn from home. That was not a choice! But now, here we are, in May and need to plan how would the next academic year shape up. It is very different with a lot of uncertainties and is  creating a lot of anxiety and frustrations all around.

The reality is that no one at this point knows how things will look and feel in September. This article in Inside Higher Ed titled 15 Fall Scenarios captures a comprehensive set of possibilities the Higher Ed are likely to consider. So far, it is not clear what each of our states are likely to do in terms of opening up for various activities and services.

With all of these up in the air, the traditional cycle of curriculum planning, student billing, financial aid, residential life planning etc. are all impacted. If you don’t know yet what your institution is planning to do, you cannot even begin working on the systems that are needed to support what is to come.

This creates so much anxiety for everyone who have so far lived a well defined academic cycle. Not this time around.

For both the faculty and staff the uncertainties around life – whether their children’s schools will be operational fully, whether child care will operate the same way or what will happen to elder care that one is responsible for –  causes a lot of anxiety because these are tied to their ability to teach or work.

From administrative staff perspective, the realities new processes mentioned above and the time and effort it will take to implement them is what creates the anxiety. The sooner one knows what we plan to do, the better it is, but we don’t want to rush to any decision either. This is where practicing scenarios and being ready can be helpful.

And having technologies and systems that allow you the flexibilities you need are very important. As I have written before, we are thankful for having moved to Workday for ERP and we already scrambled to redo most of what I describe above for the summer term. And we were able to completely redo the configurations, recreate the curriculum, preserve the registrations already done etc. etc. very quickly. Of course the numbers in terms of courses and students registering are small, but still, this has given us confidence that we will be able to do what is needed quickly when the College makes a decision about the Fall.

We are all trying to do the best we can to deal with this, by keeping in touch with our staff and other colleagues and making sure everyone is doing fine. The uncertainties of the near future is real and unfortunately beyond anyone’s control. We each need to prepare to deal with it the best way we can and most importantly stay connected with friends, family and colleagues and ask for help when needed.

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