College Enrollment News Insights

Leading in a Pandemic: turn the stages of grief into institutional opportunity

Bill Conley and Bob Massa                                     Principals, Enrollment Intelligence Now


By August 2020, more than 10 million cases worldwide were reported, and 500,000 deaths were attributed to Covid-19.  Vast multiples of those staggering numbers have been touched by the loss of family members, loved ones, or acquaintances.  The world economy has imploded, and unemployment has devastated many families whose financial foundations were finally shored up years after the Great Recession.  Businesses, small and large, have shuttered, with many unlikely to reopen. 

And higher education, just beginning to reckon with an enrollment crisis precipitated by demographic declines and an unsustainable pricing structure, is now in an immediate crisis mode. Indeed, more than a few colleges and universities are confronting their mortality. 

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s framework for the five stages of dying asserts that there is a sequence of emotions that people may go through in coming to terms with their mortality.  Several years later, she and coauthor David Kessler proposed that people who anticipate or experience the death of a loved one may process grief in the same manner.  The grieving stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance could also apply to those facing the potential “death” of their college or university—while acknowledging the clear difference between the two situations.

Clayton Christensen, the late Harvard Business School professor and author of “The Innovative University,” posited in 2018 that lower cost, anytime online education would cause such a market disruption that half of American colleges would be bankrupt by 2025.  Many, including the authors of this article, viewed his prediction as overly apocalyptic.  Nevertheless, the unrelenting pressures of competing educational modes, demographics, and the cost of the traditional, residential college business model would, at the very least, require many universities to reimagine their missions if they were to survive.  For these institutions and their constituents (faculty, students, staff, and alumni), this alone might feel like the college they love is dying.   The health and financial tentacles of the pandemic now seem to put Christensen’s prediction very much back into play.

In times of crisis, colleges and universities need a strong, visionary, optimistic, yet realistic leader.  Whether the leader and the team are working tirelessly to keep the institution open and healthy or they are plotting a path to merger or closure, a leader conveys a sense of commitment to the institution and its people and demonstrates a strong willingness to do what it takes to save the institution or to close it down with grace and sensitivity.

A leader can adapt the Kubler-Ross model to help faculty, staff, alumni, and students manage their grief as the college struggles to open for the 2020-21 academic year and, more significantly, fights for its long-term survival.

Without question, there will first be a very profound sense of denial that the institution is even facing a crisis of mortality.  A few telltale signs of denial: 

  • Sure, the pandemic has hit us hard, but thank heavens, we are in a stronger position than our neighboring colleges.
  • We are just one or two years of good student recruiting classes away from stable vital signs.
  • We’ve got an endowment. Now is the time to use it!

Skillful internal and external messaging masks a visceral sense that something scary is looming.  Nonetheless, this stage of institutional grief may be marked by Einstein’s theory of insanity: doing the same things repeatedly and expecting different results.  A decisive/proactive leader identifies this tendency, names it, and helps stakeholders understand the realities of the current situation.

As a couple of academic years unfold, with perhaps declining enrollment metrics (first year and retention shortfalls) and resulting belt-tightening, the reactionary stage of anger can take hold.  It is human nature to find someone or something to blame for your grief.  The Board might question presidential leadership; the faculty might point the finger at the admissions director or administrative bloat; and the alumni may vent that if we only had college “x’s” endowment we would not be in this mess. When angry, rational decision-making is not likely to result.  Here, a highly effective leader confronts this anger head-on and, by doing so, taps into an inner strength that ultimately moves the college to an action-oriented resolve.

In the bargaining stage, an angry person may attempt, somewhat irrationally, to strike a deal with a higher power that she thinks might be able to undo the imminent death of a loved one: “If you spare my partner, I promise to return to my religious faith.” Played out on a college campus, this stage may be characterized by negotiating on the margins: If the administration pares its superfluous staff, we, the faculty, will consider teaching load adjustments or modestly reallocating faculty lines.  During this process, all parties are likely to spend inordinate amounts of time wondering what they could have done differently to avoid this fate altogether. 

A leader is open to this bargaining stage because it is critical that constituents feel valued, useful, and heard.  But a leader also understands that whatever the bargaining dynamic, this stage is unlikely to produce a breakthrough into decisive and recuperative action.  Over the past decades, too many of the old chips have already been played or are depleted. An effective leader helps stakeholders find new and potentially useful negotiating currency, thus facilitating a successful passage through the bargaining stage.

When reliving the good old days or making minor concessions clearly does not change the present reality, institutional stakeholders inevitably hit the emotional nadir of depression.  In this stage of grief, all constituents are feeling the full depth of their despair that the institution, as they know it and love it, is drifting away.  Desperate questions will arise:

  • Can we do what is necessary to survive, much less thrive?
  • Should we go on at all?

A leader understands that grieving is also a process of healing.  A resilient leader guides the institution toward a shared commitment to transcending the crisis by collecting themselves to undertake decisive actions to achieve a sustained level of stakeholder determination.

Arriving at the stage of acceptance is not acting like everything is fine or that everyone is reconciled to what has happened to the institution under the pressures exerted by the pandemic’s acceleration of the enrollment crisis.  Like the person who has lost a loved one, acceptance is recognizing that you can never replace the one you lost, but you can bring closure to her absence. 

For students, faculty, and staff, there may be solace in a campus that seems physically unchanged even as the activities within the buildings alter to new realities.  However, a leader understands that the danger lies in the absence of purposeful action.  Then, the acceptance of fate means that the institution remains vulnerable to new distress. An effective leader, of course, does not allow that to happen.

Kessler’s November 2019 book added a sixth stage of grief — meaning. Here he suggests that rather than seeking a final resolution to grief, embracing a new meaning can create innovative and positive ways to move forward.  For a college or university leader, this might mean overseeing a radical transformation (e.g., merger, significant downsizing).  But for most, the new meaning of sustained relevancy will come in the form of reinventing and reorganizing the core mission into an institution that connects its greatest strengths to market demands. 

The six stages of grief are neither destined nor linear. Some institutions will be shuttered in the coming years because of incurable pathologies.  A select number, fortified by wealth and prestige, will always be inoculated from a terminal condition.  However, for Christensen’s prediction to be proven quite wrong, the vast majority of private residential colleges must have bold leaders who help their stakeholders through the stages of grief so as to emerge with perhaps a different institutional identity but one that is ever stronger and more sustainable.

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