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Leading During Difficult Times

During times of crisis, leadership can either ignite fear and uncertainty or provide a sense of purpose and confidence in the path forward. Active leadership in higher education is always multifaceted and requires a culture of preparedness. However, with the onset of COVID-19, leaders faced unprecedented challenges with no easy answers. AACTE interviewed Dale-Elizabeth Pehrsson, president of Clarion University of Pennsylvania, to discuss what leadership in higher education should look like during difficult times and how she is guiding her institution through the COVID-19 crisis.

What should leadership look like during a crisis?

People look to leaders during crises to keep them safe and to help them adjust to the new ‘normal.’ That’s why it is important for leaders to be visible and transparent. Honest communication on a consistent basis is an essential component in building trust with students, faculty, staff, and the community at large.

One leader of an institution can’t manage all the complex facets of the COVID-19 pandemic alone. Effective leaders know how to engage their team and when to rely on them for their expertise. For example, my background is in education and healthcare, but I know that I have healthcare leadership on campus that can more effectively and efficiently handle the public health aspects of the COVID-19 crisis. They know how to interpret, disseminate and present the information to various audiences including campus leadership, management, and staff, as well as to students and their parents. Without a strong leadership team, the information cannot be disseminated as quickly.

It is also important for leaders to model behavior that they want others to emulate. If you remain calm and focused others will follow your lead. Working in emergency mode doesn’t mean you can’t be light-hearted or take time to have fun. Humor is healing and a tremendous stress reducer. It also goes a long way in strengthening a team’s bond. 

Is it important to develop a plan? If so, how can you leverage your team?

A preparedness plan and management strategies need to be embedded in an organization long before a crisis happens. Having a crisis response team (CRT) allows you to seamlessly move forward to accomplish the mission. However, how you leverage your team to execute the plan is essential.

At Clarion, we put our crisis response plan together from a shared governance perspective. When COVID-19 came crashing at our door, we already had our crisis leadership in place and then identified who needed to be added to the team. We called in an army of our expert healthcare providers to manage our outreach to the community. In the beginning of the crisis, our six-member leadership team expanded to 18 members and met daily. The response team now meets three times per week. We also created a  text network that we use several times per day for support, to stay connected, and for immediate alerts that often develop during each day—keeping up with new information and developments.

Faced with challenging circumstances that we could not have imagined, within a matter of days we helped transition students to a fully remote learning environment, worked to quickly move them off campus in an orderly and safe manner, and learned how to transition ourselves to a remote work environment as well.

Why is it important to stay connected during a crisis?

Effective communications during a crisis requires utilizing multiple platforms and constantly thinking about new and creative ways to stay connected virtually. At the onset of the pandemic, we launched a coronavirus resource section on our website so students, family members, faculty, and staff could easily find the latest news and updates, answers to frequently asked questions, and links to resources. Connection matters, especially in times of social distancing and isolation for it diminishes fear, dispels misinformation, and helps folks not feel so alone.

Once a week we send out a COVID-19 update to the university community and keep parents and students informed of the latest developments on a consistent basis. We also send updates to the Office of the Chancellor, the Clarion Council of Trustees, Foundation Board, and the Alumni Board to keep them informed so they can share information with other constituents. Additionally, we have open lines of communication between local hospitals and school districts. Each Monday morning, we send out our popular newsletter, 10 things to know about this week, which shares information such as how to manage stress in the world of working from home.

I also leverage Instagram to post 30 to 45 second clips to connect with our students on a more personal level. A couple of weeks ago, I posted a video where I was loading my bike into the back of my car to show them that it’s okay to still hike, bike, and walk as long as you’re using social distancing.

Any final words of advice?

Make sure to sleep. During this difficult time, we are called upon to use all our skills and strength to address the impact of COVID-19. But at the end of the day, if you aren’t getting enough sleep you will not have the energy to be available for your students, faculty, and staff. Most leaders are reflective practitioners. So before you go to bed, take the time to look back on the day and all the things that have happened. Then, put it out of your mind and get a good night’s rest. When you wake up in the morning, you will be ready to take on the day’s challenges.

Dale-Elizabeth Pehrsson is president of Clarion University of Pennsylvania and an AACTE Board member.



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