2020 Year in Review: COVID-19

I had an opportunity to author an essay in the March 2020 ACUI Bulletin on the topic of crisis leadership and the ways in which ACUI members might understand, navigate, and lead in the complexity of crisis. It was by coincidence, then, that by the end of March, it was clear to many in the United States that our default ways of working in higher education, our sense of normalcy, and our collective way of being were under attack by an invisible and highly infectious disease. 

But as I highlighted in that March essay, written just prior to the pandemic spreading across the United States, when the very fabric of an institution might seem torn or damaged, the spirit of community and solidarity cultivated by college unions—along with the guiding values of inclusivity, respect, and student well-being associated with these organizations—are especially important. More broadly, the activities organized by student union and student affairs professionals play an important role in helping an institution respond to and eventually recover from the myriad crises that we might encounter in higher education. 

We have experienced a collision of crises over the course of this year that has been both destabilizing and disorienting. These crises—a global pandemic, growing economic upheaval, sweeping racial unrest, heightened partisan polarization, and the ongoing impact of climate change, among others—present significant challenges to those engaged in leadership across settings and sectors, including those of us in higher education. As I will highlight in this essay, the values of community, solidarity, inclusivity, respect, and well-being have sustained us during this period of tumult, and it is with optimism that we can look ahead to reinventing our work for the post-COVID university of tomorrow. 

Responding to Short-Term and Long-Term Disruption

The immediate disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic was stunning and extensive. In the early days of the pandemic, college and university campuses announced the transition to virtual instruction, restrictions on employee and student international travel, and new policies for working from home. This accelerated migration to a fully online context raises important questions regarding student learning and development, the design and delivery of curricular and cocurricular experiences, virtual team engagement, and the very future of higher education. This pivot to a fully online working and learning environment revealed an interesting set of paradoxes for leaders across the higher education landscape, including the desire for information during a time of remarkable uncertainty, the hunger for connection during a period of physical distancing, and the need for swift and agile leadership within organizations and environments that tend to privilege careful and deliberative decision making.

For those engaged in student affairs and student unions, there was a clear need to triage the immediate needs of primary stakeholders. Much attention was placed on supporting students and colleagues in navigating a period of collective uncertainty. Learning from others across the ACUI community, short-term inquiries centered on logistics, policies, and procedures, such as the following:

  • Are staff and student workers working from home? When do you plan to return to campus?
  • Is your union/student center currently open for operations? If not, when do you plan
    on reopening?
  • What are the requirements and recommendations regarding the use of face masks? 
  • What will adjusted summer and fall hours look like?
  • In what ways is your student center making accommodations or amending meeting rooms/ballrooms to accommodate physical distancing guidelines? 

We should take great pride in the immediate response to the COVID pandemic. In responding with care and agility to the immediate needs posed by the crisis, and in adapting how we support students, reinventing work experiences for staff and student workers, and fulfilling the primary obligations of student centers and activities, there is much to celebrate. 

However, as we have witnessed throughout the Fall 2020 semester, the financial, emotional, and logistical challenges posed by the pandemic continue to weigh heavily across higher education, leading to widespread workforce reductions and sweeping concerns regarding the long-term impact on student recruitment, retention, and well-being. In a report for the business and financial services company Moody’s, analyst Michael Osborn noted that auxiliary services like dining, student housing, and in many cases, student unions, “remain the hardest hit revenue stream” in higher education. Environmental, social, and governance considerations will also become more prevalent as the higher education sector confronts fundamental changes, the report added. 

As noted in a recent survey of college leaders conducted by the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, the leading challenges facing higher education have been further exacerbated due to the pandemic, including government funding, student mental health, equity and inclusion, and affordability. Furthermore, as supported by a recent study, “The Impact of COVID-19 on Student Experiences and Expectations: Evidence from a Survey,” the pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on low-income students, who are 55% more likely to have delayed graduation due to COVID-19 than their higher income peers.

The pandemic is apt to accelerate trends that were already underway, and one area that will likely be most affected by the pandemic involves the further integration of technology into the design and delivery of curricular and cocurricular instruction and into the college and university workplace. As John Marcus, for the Hechinger Report, noted: “These trends may not transform higher education, but they are likely to accelerate the integration of technology into it.” Moody’s Osborn agreed, reporting that “the rapid move to a virtual classroom experience is hastening advances in online delivery that might have taken much longer before the pandemic. And while near-term shifts are more reactive, universities will have to embrace this bigger change over the longer term in order to adapt to students’ preferences.”

These existential and systemic challenges require those engaged in the work of ACUI to adopt a dual focus on both the short-term logistics, policies, and procedures, and the longer-term questions regarding the purpose of our work in a post-pandemic university. 

In thinking more systematically regarding the longer-term direction of student affairs and unions, the questions presented by Brent Ruben’s modified Excellence in Higher Education-Renewal Framework, will likely be of value.

These questions point us in the direction of individual and collective renewal and reinvention, steps critical to effective practices during a time of crisis. Renewal and reinvention, offered in the framework as a means of achieving desired outcomes, is a subject that may exhilarate some, but may also be a source of fear or fatigue to others, as will be discussed in the next section. 

Renewal, Reinvention, and Reflection

In my role as the director of the Center for Organizational Leadership at Rutgers University, I have had the pleasure to connect with many academic and administrative leaders regarding the challenges and opportunities posed by the pandemic. It is clear from these conversations that colleagues are “losing steam” and experiencing tremendous “COVID fatigue,” which is supported by much of the recent research on burnout in higher education as the pandemic drags on.

In September, the American Council on Education asked nearly 300 university presidents what the most pressing issues were related to COVID-19. Student mental health was at the top of the list, followed by long-term financial viability and then, just one percentage point lower, the mental health of faculty and staff. And the problem is far from confined within higher education, as research published the same month in the Journal of the American Medical Association found rates of depression among U.S. adults to be three times higher during the pandemic than before.

As one senior leader shared with me, “I am losing the joy in my work.” For many, including student affairs and student union professionals, the desire to pursue a career in higher education is motivated by a hunger for human connection and student engagement—often inspired by many of our own in-person undergraduate experiences. Although much of our work moves forward in this modified work environment, the ways in which the work is done have been redefined and the longing for “normalcy” persists. 

A statue of human rights activist John Joseph Egan dons a face mask outside the DePaul University Student Center.

With this background in mind, discussions of renewal and reinvention may seem premature and problematic. Yet, the weight of renewal and reinvention in higher education rests on the shoulders of many across our institutions, and it is incumbent on all of us in higher education to engage in deep reflection regarding the core purpose of our work and the ways in which we can pursue priorities that advance our institutions and professions, and ultimately serve the best interests of students in a post-pandemic environment. 

The Oxford Dictionary offers the following definition of reinvention: “Change (something) so much that it appears to be entirely new.” Or, as the Macmillan Dictionary defines the concept, “To change something that already exists and give it a different form or purpose.” One can expect to encounter resistance to change for any host of reasons, including the existence of cynicism, disagreement, or confusion regarding the source of change, or the feeling of fatigue associated with the scale and pace of change. As these definitions highlight, however, reinvention involves the process of creating something entirely new out of something that already exists, and through this creative act of reinvention, we can perhaps deepen our relationship with the central purpose of our work and invite others into helping us chart a path forward.

Reinvention involves the process of creating something entirely new out of something that already exists, and through this creative act of reinvention, we can perhaps deepen our relationship with the central purpose of our work and invite others into helping us chart a path forward.

I recently conducted a survey of department chairs from across the Big Ten universities to assess current views of the post-crisis “reinvention” of higher education, ranking responses on a scale of 1 (strongly negative) to 5 (strongly positive). The results were divided, with 19 respondents viewing reinvention as either extremely or somewhat negative, 31 respondents viewing reinvention as either extremely or somewhat positive, and 31 respondents indicating a neither positive nor negative view. For those who expressed a favorable view of reinvention, respondents described the opportunities for innovation, creativity, and growth that have been made possible due to the impact of the pandemic. Describing “necessity as the mother of invention,” one chairperson indicated the ways in which the pandemic “forced us into innovative models that otherwise would have taken years to implement.”

As a “necessary corrective,” crises help to reveal what is broken and expedite efforts in making the necessary changes in fixing that which is broken. As another chair noted, “Much of what is best about traditional higher education will still be valued, while at the same time, this unexpected circumstance is causing us to have new and innovative discussions.” In applying this question to the work of the ACUI community and in exploring new and innovative directions for student unions and student affairs more broadly, this seems to be an important opportunity for honest consideration of core purpose, the dimensions of work that require transformation, and opportunities for creative new directions that elevate and integrate the work of student affairs for a post-pandemic university of tomorrow. Professional staff at public and private non-profit institutions has gone up 40% since 1990, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, so such adaptation and transformation should occur as expeditiously as possible.

By necessity, innovation did occur with haste as institutions operated in some combination of completely virtual, a hybrid mix of virtual and on-campus, or a highly managed transition back to on-campus in the fall semesters. One week student union professionals were testing new virtual student engagement and orientation tools, implementing virtual student hiring processes, and providing lessons on resiliency, reflection, well-being, and crisis response over Zoom. For the next week staff affiliated with the same student center could be setting up COVID-19 testing sites, transforming their largest spaces into physically distanced classrooms, and altering everything from dining and food pantry services to indoor seating arrangements and traffic flow patterns.

“Initially our faculty who were scheduled to teach in-person classes in the union were reluctant to the idea, if not downright hostile,” reported Paul Ford, the evening operations manager at Plemmons Student Union at Appalachian State University. “Now, they tell us how they are so glad to be in the building … they see students constantly cleaning all of the space, and they get audio-visual assistance almost immediately. They were not getting either of those services in other areas where they were doing instruction.” Northwestern University Norris Student Center Events Operations Manager Meredith Young doubted the student center would ever go back to the traditional posting boards where call-outs for events and activities were tacked up. Instead, QR codes directed students to events and activities, and a link tree sent users to maps, ticket sales, and other reference pages. “I suspect something like this will stick around since it’s also more environmentally friendly,”
she predicted.

And at the University of Texas–Dallas, where the Division of Student Affairs promotes the slogan “You Belong Here,” students working virtually were still afforded access to services like the campus recovery center, wellness center, health center, and military and veterans center.

“We try to live that and are trying to figure out ways to continue to make that true even at a distance,” said Sean Collins, coordinator of the campus student service addition, during a July “Living with Uncertainty” roundtable conducted by ACUI. “We have a slow and cautious plan right now, and flexibility in that plan is a priority.”


In navigating these complicated times, I continue to view the work of crisis leadership as a priority for those engaged in leadership in higher education across all levels. The pandemic did more than create many new inequities; it also revealed inequities that have existed for years longer. But with that comes the revelation of new opportunities for change to address injustice and in turn create a more resilient and sustainable campus environment. A leader cannot hope to be successful in these situations without a systemic understanding of the nature of organizational crises, a well-rehearsed and well-informed set of principles for approaching crisis situations, and perhaps most important, a clear sense of how institutional values should guide one’s decisions and actions.

During a period of widespread loss of life, extensive workforce reductions, prolonged uncertainty and ambiguity, and the countless and wide-ranging examples of personal and professional disruption posed by the pandemic, we can, should, and must lean purposefully on these shared values of community, solidarity, inclusivity, respect, and well-being. Karl Weick, in his work studying organizational structures, refers to periods such as these as cosmology episodes—moments in time when meaning collapses and “when people suddenly and deeply feel that the universe is no longer a rational, orderly system.” According to Weick, “What makes such an episode so shattering is that both the sense of what is occurring and the means to rebuild that sense collapse together.”

For those engaged in the ACUI community, these shared values that you privilege during times of normalcy take on a more pronounced and heightened importance during times of crisis as student union professionals and the students and colleagues with whom you interact navigate this enduring period of personal and professional upheaval. 

During 2020 we have been forced to behave and think in ways that have felt unfamiliar, constantly being asked to adapt to new scenarios, challenges, and factors beyond our control. But the ability to twist challenges into opportunities; to evolve, adapt, reinvent; and to connect and communicate with one another on a transparent, trusting level provide the foundation for successfully weathering this storm.

Many challenges lie ahead, but as testing has increased, vaccinations are distributed, and campuses announce plans to be in-person later in 2021—putting some scene of normalcy on the horizon—prioritizing a leadership approach that reinforces these personal and institutional values of community, solidary, inclusivity, respect, and well-being will continue to prove beneficial in pursuing this deeply important work. 


  • Ralph Gigliotti

    Ralph A. Gigliotti, Ph.D., is director of the Center for Organizational Leadership at Rutgers University, where he also serves as an associate faculty member in the Ph.D. program in higher education and part-time lecturer in the Department of Communication. He is the author of the book, Crisis Leadership in Higher Education: Theory and Practice, and co-author of A Guide for Leaders in Higher Education: Core Concepts, Competencies, and Tools.

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