From the CEO: Advancing Campus Community Through Resilience and Innovation

The artwork that sits behind me during Zoom calls in my remote home office is Swiss painter Dominuque Appia’s Entre les Trous de la Memoire. To me the print is somewhat representative of the different and confusing COVID-19 world in which we live. An ocean liner is coming through the open door to a room where there is a pile of books burning in front of a fireplace, adjacent to a tilted picture of the Leaning Tower of Pisa that therefore depicts the famous landmark standing upright. Our world feels a little upside down right now, somewhat surreal with no face-to-face annual conference, campuses closed, and questions about our future. Will colleges be virtual for the fall, the spring, or both? When will things get back to normal, or more likely, what will the new normal be? How do we recover from such a devastating situation? 

To be clear, there is a steep uphill climb, but we will survive, and eventually, once again thrive. The two key factors to getting there in my mind are resilience and innovation, neither of which is simple, but both necessary. To be resilient, one must have the mental stamina to pick yourself up and push forward during very difficult times. Good leaders are resilient; we push forward and look for solutions even when we are anxious and unsure. This means being courageous, and as Abraham Lincoln said, “Courage is not the absence of fear. It is going forward with the face of fear.” On our campuses, in our unions, and in our association, we must face the difficult realities placed upon us by forces outside of our control with vigor and a mindset that we will overcome.  

ACUI is in its most precarious situation since World War II. Our primary revenue sources come from membership dues and the Annual Conference. Absorbing significant fixed expenses for the conference and having no revenue has dramatically impacted our association’s financial condition. In addition, the financial challenges campuses are facing likely mean cuts to professional development for the near term. Over the next year we anticipate a net loss between $750,000–$1 million. We are not a rich association, and this is a huge amount of money. However, we are not giving up and will adjust to meet this challenge head-on. Similar to your campuses, we will evaluate our programs and services, and undertake expense reductions to mitigate the damage.  

Innovation is often spurred in times of crisis because of creativity, necessity, or both. I am reminded of the movie Apollo 13, based on the actual mission to the moon that barely averted disaster after an explosion on the spaceship. NASA engineers were tasked to quickly devise a way to safely get the astronauts back to earth, using the limited items available on the lunar module. Today’s COVID-19 crisis has breweries and distilleries converting their operations to produce hand sanitizer; tech companies are using 3D printers to fabricate parts for ventilators. Researchers at colleges and universities are also collaborating to find innovative solutions to treat and overcome the coronavirus. 

During this crisis ACUI has quickly and innovatively responded to member needs. We have significantly increased our online resources, including highly attended webinars on topics ranging from virtual programming to students working remotely, COVID-19 resources, and a recently announced virtual conference. We have moved to deliver The Bulletin magazine digitally and see opportunities for more interactive engagement with authors through this format. We are planning an open clay targets competition that expands generational participation, an approach not previously considered for that community. Recognizing the financial pressures higher education is facing as a result of the pandemic, we have created a Financial Assistance Fund so that campus community builders can continue to receive professional development and network with leaders to ensure student success. We will continue to look for ways to innovate and adapt to meet the changing needs of our members and to ensure ACUI’s continued success. 

Looking toward the future, I am confident in a few things. First, our world will overcome the current coronavirus crisis. We can do our part to practice social distancing and best hygiene practices, while scientists, healthcare workers, and many others lead us to health and safety. I also know college union and student activities professionals will continue to make a difference in the lives of students, even remotely. You will continue to program, advise, and support students, and thoughtfully plan how to reopen our unions to welcome them back to campus. Finally, I know ACUI will continue to support and make a difference for our professional members, transforming our programs and services. Recognizing people have been in isolation for weeks and months, and some anxiety exists in the population, our role to advance campus community has never been more important.