For the greater good : University leadership’s impact during the pandemic

Current and prospective students, university faculty, staff, and alumni and higher education pundits are waiting with bated breath across the country on guidance from governors, mayors, and university presidents regarding whether or not students will return to college campuses for the fall semester.

With depth or shallowness of breath remaining a central concern among the hundreds of thousands of individuals, families, and medical providers impacted by COVID-19, it’s fair to say that deep, relaxed breathing has become a precious commodity that most Americans took completely for granted as recently as three months ago.

The majority of American colleges and universities have claimed the middle ground, acknowledging a desire to return to traditional operations, tempered by a necessary wait-and-see approach as to what limits may prevent such a return (e.g. federal, state, or local restrictions; new scientific evidence; public consensus).

Howard University actions

In an April 29 letter to the Howard University community, President Wayne Frederick, M.D. announced Howard’s intention to reopen in Fall 2020 as a “bestcase scenario,” with a plan to ensure the safety of the university community. And to continue to regard any directives issued by the mayor of Washington, D.C. and continued updates as decisions about the future are cemented.

This letter, and Frederick’s near-regular appearances on local and national media to discuss his plans for Howard to support its university community and Washington, D.C. citizens, represents a vision that is bold, yet careful and full of hope and compassion.

He also exhibits radical transparency in sharing the challenges associated with potential
losses of revenue and how they impact the institution now and moving forward.

Staking ground on what rhetorically appears to be a diverging executive ideological spectrum, Paul Quinn College president Michael Sorrell, J.D. recently opined in his Atlantic op-ed: “If a school’s cost-benefit analysis leads to a conclusion that includes the term acceptable number of casualties, it is time for a new model.”

Pressure on presidents

The contemporary American college presidency has become fraught with demands from powerful alumni, boards prone to chicanery and meddlesomeness, and near impossible demands from the private sector and state and federal legislatures.

It is no wonder, according to recent data from the American Council on Education, presidential tenures are shorter and presidents are getting older, as younger higher education professionals and aspiring executives increasingly see the presidency as less attractive and unstable.

Even in the best of cases, that they are weighing many considerations of which the majority simply aren’t aware. Lives, jobs, and entire institutions are at risk, and a virus that has affected the lives of millions and the psyches of billions waits in the wings without compassion for any of them.

William Broussard, Ph.D. is a scholar of HBCU executive leadership trends and a contributor to the HBCU Digest.

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