A Marathon Sprint: How Higher Education Is Responding to COVID-19

min read

Four IT leaders share their experiences responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, the knowledge they have gained, and early planning for the future.

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Credit: baldyrgan / Shutterstock.com © 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic abruptly upended higher education (along with K–12 education, sports, travel, the market for toilet paper, and seemingly every other aspect of our lives and routines). Campuses closed, sending most students, faculty, and staff to learn and teach and work from their homes, many of which were suddenly also occupied full-time by spouses, partners, children, siblings, and other family members, all vying for some privacy and the hardware and bandwidth to participate in the grand, unplanned foray into entirely remote education and work.

In mid-April, EDUCAUSE conducted a webinar with four IT leaders to hear about their experiences:

  • Barron Koralesky, Chief Information Officer, Williams College
  • Michele Norin, Senior Vice President and Chief Information Officer, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
  • Sharon Pitt, Vice President for Information Technologies and CIO, the University of Delaware
  • David Seidl, Vice President for Information Technology and CIO, Miami University

They discussed what has gone well, what shortcomings they have discovered, what plans they have in place, and what questions remain unanswered. The panelists' institutions do not represent the breadth of higher education, but their differences do illustrate some of the variability between, for example, how a large, public institution that previously offered some online learning has navigated these unusual circumstances versus the experience of a small, residential institution that, until March, had an entirely in-person curriculum, without any online education. Speaking with these four leaders also revealed how much they have in common in their perspectives and experiences.

Several clear themes emerged from the questions and answers, and during the event, panelists' heads were often nodding as they heard the wisdom and shared sentiments of their peers. Institutions of all shapes and sizes are finding their way through an unprecedented set of challenges, and leaders in higher education again demonstrate their commitment to working as a community to navigate uncertain times.

Immediate and General Response to the Pandemic

Panelists spoke at some length about the steps they took when it became clear that the academic term was about to change dramatically. Existing emergency plans were implemented, followed by some improvisation to fill in gaps, highlighting the importance of flexibility and creativity in dealing with this crisis, now and in the coming months.

Michele Norin: One of the most effective approaches that we took at Rutgers was a decision to launch our emergency operations center. The institution has a pretty extensive disaster recovery plan—you name it, we have it. And our leadership decided, early on, to launch that program. We launched it very formally, which allowed us the opportunity to set up structure. That's allowed each of us as team leads to organize our work, stay in touch, provide a communication channel in the institution in terms of situations, ideas, decisions, and co-work, and it has served us extremely well. We're pretty much steady-state on our issues right now. But we're starting to think future-state. We have declared no in-person classes or events during the summer, and we're planning for several scenarios in the Fall.

Sharon Pitt: I would reinforce what Michele spoke to with regard to creating an emergency operations group and convening that group early. Our group first established what our guiding criteria would be in decision-making—that we were, first, focused on the health and safety of our community, and that we were, second, focused on academic continuity for the university. And then, third, that we would try as much as possible to sustain the rhythms of the university so that we could continue to identify as a university throughout this process. Much like Rutgers, we're still questioning what we're going to do for Fall. But part of our working group's mandate is to understand what we need to begin to do in order to be prepared for a return to campus.

David Seidl: One of the things I thought was really interesting was watching people identify spot needs and really nail those. One of my fellow Ohio CIOs saw they had a population of people who did not have internet access. Most Miami students went home and had pretty good or some form of access; this CIO saw that some did not. He went to the local cellular provider, bought one hundred iPhone 7s for a buck a pop—because they sell them cheap these days. He bought by-the-month plans and got the phones with data plans out to the students who needed them the most.

Barron Koralesky: We are all turning our focus towards the Fall to work out the pros and cons of different scenarios and what each will require. All institutions are arriving at a similar set of options to consider: stay online, shift our semesters out in the hope that health conditions will improve, low-residency/hybrid options, or even canceling the Fall semester. The challenge is going to be that every institution will have to make that decision far before it has definitive information to act on. We have to make that leap but likely to different approaches, as each institution will need to determine a solution that makes most sense for their context. It's an incredibly hard challenge to face, making this big decision without the information we'd like to have, but we will do our best, all the time taking good care of our incoming and current students and also our faculty and staff.

Teaching and Learning

Teaching is, of course, central to the mission of higher education. But teaching during a pandemic is new territory for faculty, and students face challenges that few, if any, institutions were prepared to address. Panelists shared their thoughts about how current events are affecting teaching and learning now and about what might happen in the future.

Pitt: I don't think it's particularly fair to call what happened in March "online learning" or "distance education." That was pure academic continuity—learn remotely, teach remotely. Now that we have a bit more time, we're determining what we can do to help faculty who had never really done this before to prepare for the Fall. We've learned a great deal through this transition process, including how our rural broadband is not working for us and how our student laptop requirements may be inadequate. We're getting a big smack in the face for unthoughtful decisions we've made or advocacies that we haven't made that have made it very difficult for some members of our community to participate in this academic-continuity effort.

Norin: We've done a phenomenal job—I'm sure my colleagues will say the same about their institutions—getting from traditional onsite, in-classroom mode to a complete remote mode, and for the most part, it's working pretty well. Now, what do we do with this going forward? What can we learn from it? We did lay out the option for pass/no-credit for students for this semester. But the question is, what is that long-term plan? And how do we judge quality and the assessment piece?

Seidl: E-learning is beyond stressed. If we think we're busy as IT people, the e-learning people are just completely overloaded. So rather than asking them what's going well, we're asking, "How can we help you?" And we're focusing on giving them as many of our staff who have any background in teaching as possible and freeing up as many hours as we can to give them assistance, to give them that support, because they need it more than we do right now.

Koralesky: If we're still remote in the Fall, what will we learn from now to help us improve? Our communities are willing to compromise right now for the greater good, but longer term this challenges student retention and completion, research programs, faculty tenure and promotion, and much more. A fundamental concern for the current emergency remote teaching that would continue in the Fall is student equity. From the IT side, we need to do all we can to help students be successful. This includes figuring out how to get internet access to students in rural America or on the other side of the globe, and realizing that their experience and their chance for success in their courses differ based on their circumstances. Sometimes technology offers a great solution; other times we'll have to dial it back.


Research is another area that has presented higher education leaders with an unusual set of issues to sort out in a very short time, while also considering the longer-term implications for research projects, labs, and the role that technology might play.

Seidl: The first question was, how do you shut your labs down? If you have live animals, how do you keep them fed? If you have lab experiments, are you going to be able to do those lab experiments? More of the faculty have moved to video experiments because you can't take the reagents home with you and you can't take the dissection lab home with you. They're moving to virtual and technology-based implementations and starting to think about alternatives to the traditional lab experience so that students get the knowledge even if they don't get the hands-on experience. This is where the continuity of education comes in. It's not about doing the lab; it's about continuity of education so the educational experience continues.

Norin: Our vice president for research has been pushing out quite a bit of information and guidance to our researchers about how to handle the labs. And so each faculty member with a research lab has had to think about "how can I transition any of this into a remote something?"

Pitt: Communication is a critical component of the research conversation. Our vice president of research, innovation, and scholarship has been deeply engaged—holding town halls on Zoom, which are incredibly well attended. So just making sure that leadership is responsive and that there are opportunities to provide feedback has been very important for our research community during this crisis. We do know from looking at our high-performance computing utilization data that our researchers continue to be engaged in HPC and at the level that they were doing it before, which is awesome.


The US Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act provides federal funds to help support the economy, individuals, and organizations during the crisis. Fund recipients include higher education institutions, which are facing a long list of financial challenges. Panelists responded to a specific question about CARES Act funds, and they also discussed the broad issues they are working through now and what might lie ahead for enrollments and plans for the Fall 2020 term.

Seidl: We're starting to understand how the financial distribution is going to work. We are doing financial modelling, helping us figure out what we would do in a variety of scenarios. Most, if not all, of us have taken pretty significant budget hits, whether you've done refunding or whether you're doing credits for future semesters. We may have different numbers in the Fall. All of the things that we did for secondary income—auxiliary operations are closed down, so you're not selling hamburgers and chips and not housing many students. The cash flow is different. The really interesting question for me is, are there places where we can do new, better things to invest moving forward? People are getting really stuck in panic mode, and we really want to talk about what the positive aspects of this can be.

Pitt: With regard to the CARES Act, there's not enough money coming from that process to even begin to address the amount of pain that we're experiencing—budgetarily—at the institution. Some of those funds will go to support students directly, and some of it will support the institution directly. The act requires, I believe, that states continue to fund their institutions at the level they have funded them in the past, and that's a wonderful requirement that could help sustain us in the future. But as David said, there's a lot that's yet to be understood about the CARES Act and how much funding we may receive. We're looking at what we need to do to address the shortfall that we know that we have now and the shortfall that we may have in the future. We did start—at the beginning of this crisis response—collecting all coronavirus-related expenses, so we will have that data.

Koralesky: The students will have more needs, and we would use those funds to directly support students whose families have been affected by this pandemic, to make sure that they can continue learning.

Leadership, Empathy, and Communication

At most institutions, only a very small proportion of the staff are still working on campus. Remote work was not unknown to higher education before the pandemic, but abruptly transitioning essentially the entire staff to a fully remote working environment will challenge the mettle of any group. Situations like this put new pressure on leaders to maintain operations and to support not only their staffs during difficult times but also one another.

Seidl: The most magical thing so far has been how well my team and other teams have bonded and are making sure that we check on each other. One of my directors has sent handwritten cards to every member of her staff to make sure that they had a personal reach-out. And there are national groups of CIOs and leaders who are checking on each other. I was in such a meeting a couple of weeks ago when a member of our community showed up who was just defeated. Just absolutely defeated when they Zoomed in to the meeting. By the time that the meeting was done, this person had support and community and knew that people all over the country were willing to step in with resources, time, a phone call—whatever was needed. I think we've done a really good job at that.

Norin: Totally agree with David. Even when we're all on campus, we're not all together, but for some reason, being remote feels far more distant than it felt when we were on campus. And so I really had to challenge the thinking around being intentionally focused on making sure people stay connected. We need to hear from each other. Many leaders on campus are trying different techniques to let folks know you're out there and hearing their questions. It takes extra effort now to make sure that we keep connected.

Koralesky: We worked the first few weeks purely on adrenaline, but that is not sustainable. We need to show staff how important their work is, make sure they are thanked and rewarded, and also give them time to unplug, recharge, and take care of themselves. I'm worried about sustaining this for a longer period of time. But it's just been amazing what we've all done.

Pitt: Communication is critical during this time. We created what we called a "COVID-19 IT Situation Report" where we gathered all of what our staff was doing in support of this effort. Transparency has been critical during this time, as well. Any time a university decision was made that was going to impact the team, I tried to interpret that decision and make sure that folks on my team were aware of it. It was a big, big, big deal when our president embraced Zoom. He is from Greece, so he entered his first Zoom meeting with a Greek-themed background. And from that point on, everybody on the leadership team embraced Zoom. That was a really important transition point for us.


The current situation also shines a light on concerns about security and privacy. Technology presents many opportunities to help people teach and learn, and it can also be part of nationwide efforts to track individuals' movements in an effort to limit the spread of the virus. These and other benefits come with security costs and risks, and they challenge attitudes about privacy.

Seidl: I have a wonderful CISO, and the first thing that he said was, "We're going to make things work." And that was the exact attitude we needed from him and that he brings every day. We understand that we can't do everything we would normally do. We're going to do some things very fast. We're going to make sure that the important things get done no matter what. And we know we're going to come along with a broom and sweep some things up afterwards.

Pitt: One of the challenges in security for us was that some folks wanted an entirely new process because we were engaged in security response in a new coronavirus world. IT focused on following the exact same information security incident response processes that we had in the past. We needed to reinforce that the processes that we had for incident response were the processes that we needed to continue to have, and that they remained relevant during this crisis.

Norin: One area that did pop up for us was in our healthcare spaces. It was extremely helpful that the federal agencies issued a little bit of compromise on the requirements for privacy and HIPAA and using telemedicine tools for remote practice and remote healthcare. So we made a huge leap in our physicians' ability to provide care to folks at home through remote technology.

Final Thoughts

The webinar wrapped up with some parting thoughts from the participants, all of whom agreed that the people at their institutions have done remarkable things under extreme pressure in less time than anyone thought possible. Difficult times can bring out the best in people, and the higher education response to the pandemic has shown the community's empathy, resilience, and commitment.

Norin: I'm just so proud of our IT community. We stepped up, wholeheartedly, and we're still there. And I just couldn't be more proud of our team right now—not only what we've been doing during the crisis but everything else we've done in getting to this point. I'm just so proud.

Seidl: I completely agree. I am really proud, and I think that as an institution, and as a higher education community, we learned that a lot of our assumptions about things that were impossible were not actually impossible—they were simply things we had never done before. And now that we've done the impossible, we have to figure out which of the impossible things we want to keep and which of the impossible things we might want to revisit. But I'm really proud of the fact that we delivered the impossible in an improbably short amount of time and, in most cases, made it look pretty smooth for our customers and our partners as well. It's just amazing.

Koralesky: Joining the group, that's exactly what I think. The national and international community response and collaboration has been phenomenal. The hashtag #InItTogether has been popping up in the chat stream, and that is what we are. The dedication and hard work by IT on each of our campuses shows that we are part of the glue that holds the campus together. I'm proud to be a part of this amazing community and to provide services that keep our institutions working every day and especially during a crisis.

Pitt: I agree with all of my colleagues. The level of work has been a "marathon sprint"—because of the short deadlines and because of every issue that we had to meet and resolve. I've been amazed at the creativity of the team, the lack of complaints, the commitment to "get it done," the feeling of being a part of the University of Delaware community that we want to sustain, and knowing that we're absolutely doing what we need to do for our students, for our faculty, for our staff. It's a moment that I'm proud to be a part of.

For more information about this webinar, please review the full transcript or the recording of the event, which are available from the webinar web page: "Responding to COVID-19: Lessons Learned and the Future Ahead." 

EDUCAUSE will continue to monitor issues related to higher education and technology during the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. For additional resources, please visit the EDUCAUSE COVID-19 web page. 

Barron Koralesky is Chief Information Officer at Williams College.

Michele Norin is Senior Vice President and Chief Information Officer at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.

Sharon Pitt is Vice President for Information Technologies and CIO at the University of Delaware.

David Seidl is Vice President for Information Technology and CIO at Miami University.

Gregory Dobbin is Senior Editor at EDUCAUSE.

© 2020 Barron Koralesky, Michele Norin, Sharon Pitt, David Seidl, and Gregory Dobbin. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 International License.