The Future of Learning and Leadership in the Wake of COVID-19

By Christine Nowik

Recently, a group called the TPHE Collective advanced ideas about the future of higher education, suggesting that the future for higher education should include “avoiding isolation,” “collaborating with other faculty members,” and “caring for students as whole people.” These arguments align with data I recently collected on faculty members’ experiences during their instructional adaptation for COVID-19 and are applicable to both the instructional environment and organizations across sectors.

In March and April of 2020, I interviewed 31 faculty members from across the country in an IRB-approved investigation into their experiences during COVID-19 emergency adaptation. Having studied planned organizational change in higher education for the past 15 months, I made a quick pivot to this investigation to learn more about how faculty are experiencing unplanned change and gained insights into what we need in the uncertain days ahead.

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The Sample

Faculty from across regions, disciplines, institutions, and employment types participated in the study: Careers in higher education ranged from 6-39 years, and service to current institutions ranged from 1-19 years. The average age of participants was 49; most were white, married, and just under half had minor children living in the home. Disciplines represented include those within the humanities, social sciences, arts, health sciences, physical sciences, library, and mathematics.


Almost unilaterally, faculty credit their institutions’ instructional designers and information technology offices for providing support and collaboration during the transition. One faculty member at a private liberal arts college in the Mid-Atlantic region half-jokingly referred to a Churchill quote in reference to the institution’s one-woman office of online pedagogy: “So much is owed by so many to so few.”

One challenge, however, was in the volume of information faculty received from their leaders coupled with a lack of time and opportunity to connect with others.

“We started getting the flood of how to do online instruction well, which was stressful because it was just too much advice and not enough time to think about it,” according to a faculty member at a university in the South. What the faculty needed at that time was “to be in community with our colleagues and just talk” as a means of working through – as an Historian put it – “not just the technical, but the pedagogical and ethical matters.”

The adaptation also highlighted the challenges of the stratification within higher education as faculty engaged with one another. A non-tenured contract faculty member with a Ph.D. in the history of medicine noted that while she is considered a “liminal” member of the department who is “trying to get people in the department to treat me like a human,” she also “stepped up a few times since this happened to exert a little leadership because I can help people get their courses online.”

Many faculty relied on an “external network, especially on Twitter,” and on their extended professional networks. Those who connected with others reported satisfaction with the sense of “community and spirit” they experienced. A theater faculty member with little online teaching experience noted that “our approach was really about faculty supporting faculty, and that was most helpful.”

Whole People

While the response to technical needs was strong, faculty reported that the affective and emotional aspects of adjusting to COVID-19 were not foregrounded by their institutions. The role of emotion is not often part of planned organizational change processes (Fineman, 2000) and even less a part of emergency adaptation. A faculty member at an online public institution in the west noted that the institution seemed to assume that education would continue without disruption: “In the eyes of the institution, nothing really changed . . . we’re going to go on as normal. Make sure your students know that they can’t just stop working; they have to continue doing their coursework” but that, meanwhile, students have “lost their jobs and they’ve had to take on child care.”

One math professor explained, “I have a good number of people and they’re so stressed out because they’re working in a hospital setting. It has just been surreal.”

Faculty, too, were disrupted by the change, with many reporting their new responsibilities of home-schooling children or caring for older parents while continuing to work their full-time jobs. Parents with grown children reported concerns about their kids’ status as essential employees. Life activities were adjacent to or disruptive of the majority of interviews: Children, pets, partners, texts from colleagues and grown children, phone calls. These moments provided insights into the conditions under which faculty are currently deploying their courses.

Asked if leaders directly addressed these challenges as faculty made the switch into remote instruction, the resounding response was “Not really.” Faculty reported that the end of “long-winded email messages about logistics and operations” often concluded with “be well.”

“I think everybody has had to make adjustments (but) there has not been enough talk about it,” a faculty member in the west explained. “There is a constant anxiety that I’ve never really had before,” added a librarian at a community college, and another noted that there was “no guidance on taking care of yourself in the process of this.”

Faculty expressed concerns about students’ well-being, particularly in the early days of the transition, and some have provided opportunities for students to continue to support one another in their learning environments. An ESL instructor at a community college noted that her class still meets at its scheduled time:

“We do circles at the beginning of every class now . . . We talk about our family members . . . we do have family members who have died in their respective countries . . . we also talk about the fact that every single one of my students is an essential worker, and we talk about how scared they are or how worried they are, or what their coping mechanism is. And they verbalize that, on one hand, they might not want to go to work, but on the other hand, they’re really proud to sacrifice for the good things this country has provided.”

The Future 

Faculty are acutely aware that things are going to be different in the fall. Changes in enrollment and modality are clear, but faculty are also concerned about other impacts as well.

“We need to address the students with some awareness of the fact that they’ve been really transformed, and I don’t really have any idea what that looks like. But I just think these are not your average freshmen or returning students. And if they’re approached that way, it’s not going to work. I’m not sure that these are considerations right now.”

Asked what lessons faculty will take with them from emergency adaptation, one response sums up several of the others: “Care. Care and compassion for students as whole human beings.”

This is the primary lesson for leadership moving forward, too. The bureaucracy makes little room for the type of care and compassion humans need during any change process, emergency or otherwise, so leaders should aim to build a sustainable organizational future that places human beings at the center of their decision-making.

Leaders in any field can apply these lessons in their own organizations. Policies that address the fallout from COVID-19 should be crafted with various stakeholders at the center and with their involvement: The organization is not separate from the people within them; the people within them are the organization. Models at the organizational level include Dr. DeRionne Pollard, President of Montgomery County Community College; Dr. Russell Lowery-Hart, President of Amarillo Community College; and Katherine Maher, CEO of the Wikimedia Foundation. Internationally, the most effective leaders across the globe are putting people first, leading with care and compassion.

Focusing on the immediate technical challenges in an emergency is critical, but COVID-19 has brought to the fore that connection, care, and compassion are the glue holding us together, as noted by one tenured faculty member: “The display of support, I think, makes people feel . . . more emotionally settled and more cared for and more safe during the transition . . . and then I can take care of what I need to take care of.”

A 20-year veteran of higher education, Christine M. Nowik is a doctoral candidate in the Administration & Leadership program and serves as the Chair of English at HACC, Central Pennsylvania’s Community College.


Fineman, S. (2000). Emotion in organizations, 2nd Ed. CA: SAGE Publications.


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