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Mar 15, 2020

How to run a university during a crisis

It is amazing how things that looked very important just a few days ago, are now deemed non-essential. And things we were taking for granted, are now issues to be solved. Actually, the ability to shed the non-essential is the key to success, not just during a crisis. The trick is now to understand the shifting border between the important and unimportant. The game has definitely changed, and so did the job of running a university. However, different people adapt with different speed. Here are a couple of tips on adapting faster.

You need to delegate a lot more than before. Do not try to find solutions for people; give a broad set of goals and helpful tips, and let those close to the ground to figure out most problems. The mind of the crowd is stronger than anything you can do centrally. The farther away from the ground is the administrator, the more it is true. For example, our huge CSU System has been known to be micromanaging in the normal times. Now they need to understand that the best thing they can do is remove themselves from decision making to the largest extend possible, and work on relaxing requirements they have imposed in the past. To the System's credit, it is doing some of it. 

Some units are so used to be the controlling, rule-enforcing offices that they continue to produce regulations, forms, and requirements to deal with the crisis. They believe more or less sincerely, that they are helpful. It is very hard for them to recast themselves into support units, providing resources, ideas, technical assistance, etc. But that is exactly what is needed. I you ask people to do something extraordinary, don’t follow with “And by the way, here are the requirements I am going to enforce while you’re doing your extraordinary thing.” There are still rules, you just have to follow the changing practice (which you cannot anticipate anyway), and them gently channel it into the existing regulatory environment, if and when it gets off track.

We all must learn to think fast, to find pragmatic, simple solutions, but it is important not to play defense the entire time. Remember the old truism that no crisis should be wasted? It is true; each unusual, crisis-like situation opens up possibilities that were not there before. If we do not build anything and do not learn anything from this particular crisis, we have not done our jobs well. At a minimum, we should revisit all those things that were found out to be not that important, and see, which ones we can stop doing altogether. We have to figure out how to use our newly found massive expertise in online teaching. And I believe we should push all the administrative units in the university to stay closer to the support function, and shift away from command-and-control mentality forever.

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