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The past two and a half years have pushed the adaptability of higher education institutions to their limits and revealed weaknesses in their change management processes. Almost universally, colleges and universities found themselves unprepared for the pandemic and the swift action it would require. Lessons learned through unexpected challenges shape policies and procedures in higher ed. COVID-19 taught institutions the importance of agility and quick coordination organization-wide. If institutions integrate learnings from recent events into their risk management strategies, they will be far better prepared to handle crises of all sizes in the future.
Tuition and Additional Contract Considerations
At most campuses, tuition costs remained the same even after facilities were closed and learning moved online, upsetting many students and their families. Some families sued the schools in response, though most of the lawsuits did not result in payouts. However, the litigation revealed potential gaps or unclear phrasing in contracts that must be addressed.
All contracts—with students, third-party vendors, professors, etc.—should be reviewed carefully and changed as needed to protect against future litigation and potential losses, especially as they relate to unexpected shutdowns. Risk management professionals, institutional governance and legal teams should all be involved in contract review to ensure all viewpoints are accounted for.
On-Campus Housing Challenges
On-campus housing is a significant revenue driver for educational institutions. When pandemic regulations restricted occupancy within housing units and students began to study remotely, budgets took a hit nationwide. Schools still had to pay to keep the facilities open despite serving far fewer students.
Though nothing can directly replace housing income, colleges and universities should prepare for situations in which housing occupancy is adversely impacted. Housing facilities could be affected by extreme weather events, or another unexpected crisis could disrupt on-campus activities. To avoid being caught flat-footed again, institutional leadership should implement thorough plans to mitigate the impact of lost housing income. The details of these plans should be tailored to each school’s circumstances and budget. For example, in the case of future occupancy restrictions, certain costs, such as food services, may be trimmed to more accurately reflect the reduced needs of fewer residents.
The pandemic highlighted the limits of on-campus medical clinics, especially in their ability to manage the enormous increase in demand that accompanies a public health emergency. Students and staff sought treatment and services at a rate far above average, which pushed the limits of nurses and providers. Clinics struggled to keep the equipment, materials, and medicine needed to keep everyone safe, healthy, and properly tested.
Having made it through the worst of the crisis, health professionals working on campus should now prepare for future situations that may require more resources. Proactive measures include remaining well-stocked on PPE and sanitation equipment, hiring additional staff, and leveraging telehealth services when appropriate to increase the capacity of on-site doctors.
Preparing for Technical Needs of Concerts
Concerts are regular events on campuses across the country, but if an on-campus venue is not equipped to accommodate the technical needs of the concert, it could result in disaster. Thorough sound, electrical, and special effects tests should be conducted in advance of the event, with plenty of time for adjustments and necessary repairs. Without proper testing, technical issues can occur, which could potentially shut down a concert and leave leadership facing difficult decisions regarding refunds and musician payments.
Cancelling Conferences and Sporting Events on Campus
Many large institutions regularly host conferences for external groups, which can provide an important revenue source. When outside forces cancel these conferences, it creates a hole in the budget that can be difficult to fill. In those instances, institutions’ leaders must work together to mitigate the impact of event cancellations.
Similarly, canceling or postponing sporting events can impact income expectations and lead to angry ticket holders. To avoid having to issue refunds, schools should work to reschedule sporting events as soon as possible and have ticket redistribution plans in place well in advance.
Preparing for the worst and developing contingency plans will help colleges and universities absorb or lessen event-related losses.
Change Management is Risk Management
Taking a wait-and-see approach to developing change management plans opens colleges and universities up to numerous risks and exposures. Instead, organizations must act with the mindset that the next catastrophic event could be right around the corner. The development and institutionalization of new change management procedures and proactively implementing risk management protocols wherever possible needs to be a top priority.
Risk management officials and executive leadership within universities must work closely together to make institution-wide changes that properly address current exposures and future risks. They should learn from their pandemic experiences to create new initiatives tailored to their organization.
Above all, adaptability saves higher education institutions in times of crisis. All roadblocks to quick coordination should be removed as the ultimate preparedness measure.
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