Q Considering leadership on a broad level, what foundational aspects of leadership are guiding you as Baylor and higher education in general navigate the uncertainty created by the COVID-19 pandemic?
During any crisis, leaders at colleges and universities must fall back on their institution’s core mission. You have to ask yourself, at all points in decision-making, “What are our core values?” I would have to say that the last few months have posed the most unique challenge of my entire career in academic leadership. So many difficult decisions impacting our students, faculty and staff have had to be made in a brief period of time with little information. Even in times of unprecedented challenge like these, however, the backbone of effective leadership remains the same — a reliance upon the institution’s mission as the guiding force as you move forward.
At Baylor, we have kept our mission at the forefront of our response and planning, constantly remembering that we’re preparing men and women for worldwide leadership and service, and that we’re focusing on academic excellence within a caring community that is grounded in Christian values and functions on biblical principles. At the end of every day, those things must remain priorities even as we make difficult choices in how we’re providing high-quality education, how we’re utilizing our financial resources, and how we are taking other necessary steps.
Q What does that decision-making process look like, and how do different groups on campus play a role in shaping it?
This crisis is having such a comprehensive impact on the institution that we have many different groups and individuals working in a variety of ways. Ensuring that an institution is alert to emerging opportunities and challenges — and dexterous in its response to them — is critical to that institution’s ongoing strength.
Universities are built upon the concept of shared governance, and accordingly we have practiced a shared response to this crisis, as we would to any other. Collaboration and organization are key components of such a response. We established a COVID-19 task force in January that began monitoring information early on with the local public health experts, partly because we had many students traveling internationally. That task force was instrumental in helping us obtain the accurate information we needed to make initial decisions.
“We are going to be stronger on the other side. The Baylor campus might look different in some regards, and we might operate differently, but in the end, Baylor is a strong and resilient university.”
My leadership team, the President’s Council, also has played a critical role in our response. Our provost has worked closely with our deans and our Faculty Senate. Our vice president for human resources has worked with our Staff Council on issues. Of course, we have consulted with and benefited from the expertise of members of our Board of Regents. In total, this has been a comprehensive decision-making process that has engaged many people across our campus and throughout the Waco and McLennan County communities.
Q What have been your priorities in communicating the challenges that higher education is facing and some of the ways Baylor is addressing them?
In a time like this when there’s so much uncertainty, people need as much information as possible even if you don’t have all the answers. When there’s a void, people become anxious and experience unhealthy levels of stress. We have focused on being as consistent as we possibly can in our messaging and providing as much information as we can. At the same time, because there is so much uncertainty, we’ve sought to be honest about what we do know, what we can be pretty confident about, and what we don’t have an answer for. Being authentic and genuine are foundational to effective communication.
As a Christian institution, it is also important for us to give people a sense of hope for the future — a message that, rather than simply seeking to survive, we are going to thrive as we navigate this challenge. We are going to be stronger on the other side. The Baylor campus might look different in some regards, and we might operate differently, but in the end Baylor is a strong and resilient university.
Q As you collaborate with leaders from other universities, or in the medical field and public agencies, are there areas of concern that everyone will be keeping their eyes on as we head toward the fall?
Absolutely. Because we’re very much about engagement and community, many events and activities on university campuses bring large numbers of people together in close quarters. That has always been an important part of the college experience. Whether they are at athletic events, concerts or student life activities, such large crowds raise a number of concerns and require a number of solutions. Can these events be staged in a different way? Do you need to restructure them? Do you need to create different kinds of experiences that accomplish the same goals but don’t bring so many people together? Similarly, residential living and communal dining will require us to find innovative ways to ensure that safety protocols are in place.
Earlier in my career in academic leadership, a mentor told me something that I have kept in mind ever since. “There’s no competition between lighthouses,” he said. Collaboration with other institutions and leaders across industries and public service is essential to effective management and service. We are not competing against one another. Instead, we are striving with one another toward common goals. Christian institutions, in particular, should serve as a light in the world to others.
This crisis is forcing leaders across every industry and profession to learn things that will improve their organizations. At Baylor, we will use technology differently in our environment, both in terms of the administrative side and the academic side, because we now have so many more people who understand how to use technology in significant ways to enrich the learning environment, whether it’s online or face to face. We will also be increasingly strategic and efficient about how we allocate our financial resources, to ensure they support the core mission of the institution.
Even before this crisis, there was considerable discussion about whether or not higher education was worth its cost and the debt some students incur. Those are legitimate questions and ones we have to take very seriously in the world in which we now live, particularly if we are committed to educating a broad base of diverse students and giving them opportunities to have a high-quality education. However, I do think one of the things this pandemic has made clear is the importance of science in understanding the virus, developing treatments for COVID-19, and discovering and implementing ways to prevent its spread. This crisis is an opportunity for higher education to shine as a powerful and beneficial force for good in its role as a provider of solutions generated through our research and scholarly activity. People are seeing higher education in a new light, coming to an increased understanding of why the research we undertake at our institutions matters, as well as the value of the training we provide to students in areas ranging from healthcare, mental health, social work, communications and organizational management, to name only a few.
Q As Baylor’s president, how have you worked in a proactive manner regarding the University’s financial position and operations to address the projections about declines in enrollment throughout higher education?
There have been two aspects to this. One was an immediate, conscientious response, and the other has been an anticipatory response.
For the previous fiscal year, which ended May 31, we had to adjust our budget in order to reimburse students for the residence hall and dining plans they no longer used after not returning to campus. I have to give tremendous credit to our leaders across our units on campus for coming to the table and cutting some expenses that allowed us to end the year with a balanced budget in spite of incurring such significant and unexpected expenses.
Simultaneous with that response, we began creating a budget for our current fiscal year, which was approved by our Board of Regents in mid-May and started June 1. We developed this budget around some of the predictions that suggest higher education institutions will see a 10 percent to 20 percent decline in their enrollment, on average. Such enrollment declines will also impact income from housing, meal plans and other areas. Our top priority during the process of prudently creating our budget was to sustain a high-quality experience for our students in both the learning experience and outside the classroom.
Again, I am tremendously grateful to our leaders across campus — administrative and academic — for rolling up their sleeves and making some hard decisions that are allowing us to move into the 2020-21 academic year fully prepared for a range of scenarios. If enrollment doesn’t decline too much, we can take our foot off some of those levers and push resources back into the system. If we find ourselves facing a more challenging reality, we know there are levers we can pull that will allow us to continue protecting the core mission of the University while ensuring that we manage the budget appropriately.