AGB Search Principals Monica Burton and Peggy Plympton, in partnership with Karen Hutcheson, partner, and Lyn Harper, principal, of Mercer, hosted Human Resources in Higher Education: A Renewed Appreciation, a virtual breakfast session dedicated to discussing prevalent issues in higher education Human Resources with an emphasis on developments and challenges during the pandemic. This was the second event in this newly launched series, Leadership Connections in Higher Education. During the session, participants were engaged in discussion on topics regarding diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives; the student experience during COVID-19; and effective ways to support faculty and staff during the pandemic. Presenters were members of leadership from top schools around the country, with participants hailing from human resources areas in similar institutions.
University of Minnesota President Joan Gabel, who ascended office shortly before the protests of George Floyd’s death in nearby Minneapolis, was a panelist during this session and shared a list of resources that the U of M has provided to students, staff, and faculty alike to tackle issues around diversity, including community engagement. Among important points discussed was the need for patience and compassion when engaging with communities that have long felt skepticism regarding the sustaining impacts of outreach and progressive efforts.
As vaccines are rolled out and the country begins to reopen, colleges and universities will carefully consider the various models of instruction and their values to those on campus, as well as the risks that in-person instruction may pose to the community. President Joanne Berger-Sweeney of Trinity College reminded attendees that while virtual instruction has some advantages in health and safety, the experience plays differently for students who have learning challenges, and institutions need to plan to support these as well. To best serve all students, many institutions may be struggling with the question of whether to require vaccination to safely accomplish in-person instruction, and while it has become a contested political issue, session participants agreed that requiring a vaccination remains a public health question and should be considered in that context.
However, with so many developments in instructional technology over the last year, there is an opportunity to rethink so much of what was regarded as “normal” in the past. Marvin Krislov, president of Pace University, pointed out that there are some innovations that will last and continue. For example, both students and faculty have been enthusiastic about Zoom-based office hours, providing both convenience and in-depth interaction. The impact of a return to in-person instruction is bound to have differing yet equally impactful effects on undergraduate and graduate students as well as faculty and staff.
While much attention is rightfully paid to the mental health and well-being of students, participants were reminded that there is a tendency to overlook the well-being of faculty and staff, who have been under tremendous pressure to adapt and persevere. Studies have shown that faculty and staff at all levels of education, including higher education, have suffered from intense burnout and stress during the pandemic. Universities and colleges can alleviate some of this pressure by reviewing job descriptions and evaluating where support and innovation can be applied. Mary Opperman, Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer of Cornell University was sure to remind participants of the underlying mission of HR: by ensuring that faculty and staff feel supported, HR also ensures that they can continue to focus their attentions on students who are also struggling.
The pandemic has revealed the necessity for change and adaptation at all levels of higher education, and leadership should expect to update its institutional people strategies to include the entire campus community. As we move from pandemic to endemic, the importance of understanding community, student, and faculty trends in higher education cannot be overstated, and by addressing issues in each of these areas, Human Resources plays a central role in strategic people planning and leadership.
Participation in the Leadership Connections in Higher Education series is by invitation only to facilitate small-group discussion; however, inquiries to participate are welcome. To learn more about the sessions, please email Monica Burton (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Margaret “Peggy” Plympton (email@example.com).
About AGB Search
AGB Search, based in Washington, D.C., specializes in providing tailored services, including permanent search, interim search, and compensation evaluation, to higher education institutions. Founded by the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (AGB) in 2010, the firm has a unique understanding of the qualifications critical for effective higher education leadership. The firm has conducted more than 750 searches at institutions ranging from small, private colleges to large public institutions and research universities. www.agbsearch.com.