This chapter explores academic leadership and decision-making during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. As was documented in the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report Promising Practices for Addressing the Underrepresentation of Women in Science, Engineering, and Medicine: Opening Doors, women have a long history of underrepresentation in academic institutional leadership roles (Glazer-Raymo, 2001; NASEM, 2020), a situation that has contributed to decisions that favor men and has created organizational structures that appear gender neutral but that are biased to favor men (Bilimoria and Liang, 2012). Various studies have explored and documented the reasons for women’s historical underrepresentation in academic leadership positions. These reasons include the “chilly climate,” where women are treated in a discriminatory fashion that becomes even “colder at the top”; embedded attitudes in academia favoring men’s advancement (Allan, 2011; Dean et al., 2009; Eddy et al., 2017; Glazer-Raymo, 2001); and organizational work policies that make it challenging for women to succeed, such as tenure policies that make it challenging for women to have families. Universities have given relatively little attention to leadership development interventions to promote family and work-life supportive supervisory behaviors, which have been shown to be effective in randomized controlled trial experiments in other settings (Hammer et al., 2011; Kossek et al., 2019). In fact, data for women presidents and provosts demonstrate that they are less likely than men in these roles to be married or have children and more likely to have
1 This chapter is primarily based on the commissioned paper “The Impact of COVID-19 on Academic Leadership and Decision-Making,” by Adrianna Kezar.
altered their career for a dependent or spouse, as discussed in Chapter 4, suggesting that women find it more difficult to balance family and leadership roles (ACE, 2017). Women also have less access to networks that would help them to move up in the ranks of administration and are less likely to fit neatly into male cliques (Dean et al., 2009; Glazer-Raymo, 2001). In addition, societal stereotyping of men and women favors male traits in institutional leaders (Allan, 2011; Dean et al., 2009; Eddy et al., 2017; Glazer-Raymo, 2001).
Women of Color face additional challenges compared with white women. One study (Bridges et al., 2007) cited biased perceptions of Leaders of Color and their capacity to lead, which is often the result of conscious or unconscious reliance on existing stereotypes. Women of Color leaders in academia report tokenism and stereotyping as contributing to isolation, loneliness, and burnout (Bridges et al., 2007). Bias in the application of evaluation criteria and the tenure processes may account for inequities in Women of Color entering academic leadership. These are a sampling of the documented disparities that affect women faculty in particular but have outsized impacts later as they rise into leadership roles. These barriers, which were also discussed in Chapters 3, 4, and 5, are critical as they shape the pool for women leaders.
Women’s representation in leadership is critical for closing equity gaps and making institutions more equitable workplaces (Bilen-Green and Froelich, 2010). Scholars have hypothesized that more women in strategic leadership positions would ameliorate work policy obstacles, given their experience of these barriers, and they would likely improve networking possibilities that might facilitate more equal participation of women within the academy (Bilen-Green et al., 2008; Langan, 2019). Data support this hypothesis, with investigators identifying relationships between the prevalence of women in strategic leadership positions and the associated impact on support for women in various professorial ranks. Research also documents that having a woman president resulted in more women faculty in full professor and tenure-track appointments (Bilen-Green et al., 2008).
Data on department chairs in economics, sociology, accounting, and political science from 200 institutions over 35 years show that woman department chairs narrowed three gender gaps (Langan, 2019): (1) assistant professors who work more years under a woman department chair have smaller gender gaps in publication and tenure; (2) the gender earnings gap decreases in the years after a woman replaces a man as a department chair; and (3) when a woman replaces a man as department chair, the number of women incoming graduate students increased by 10 percent without affecting the number of men. As women have moved into leadership roles, they have addressed work-life challenges tied to the male norms that dominate workplaces, including those that affect tenure clock provision and other work-life policies, as discussed in Chapter 4 (Wolfinger et al., 2008).
These are examples of a larger body of work suggesting that the representation of women in leadership has important and meaningful implications for creating equitable college and university environments and reversing gender-neutral
policies that have had detrimental impacts on women. The collective data about women in higher education leadership roles suggest long-term underrepresentation has negatively affected progress toward equity, since data suggest women are more likely to make progress on these issues than men (Bilen-Green et al., 2008; Langan, 2019).
The COVID-19 pandemic appears to have had pronounced and immediate negative effects on women, as economic data appear to show (see Chapter 3). Various international policy organizations suggested that businesses, industries, governments, and other groups should be attentive and respond to these gender inequities (ILO, 2020).
The history of gender underrepresentation in leadership, gender inequities in academic decision-making, Gig Academy context,2 the global recession, and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic outside higher education suggest that the COVID-19 pandemic will likely exacerbate long-standing gender inequalities for women’s advancement into leadership as well as decisions that shape gender inequalities. An exploration of institutional decision-making under academic capitalism and the Gig Academy is available in Box 6-1. Women’s advancement into tenure-track faculty positions has been significantly altered by academic capitalism and the Gig Academy. These trends are also likely responsible for the slowdown in diversifying leadership such as provosts and board members where there has been little progress on gender parity. All these forces culminate in a set of reactions that played out on campuses during 2020.
With the Gig Academy (see Box 6-1) pushing decision-making more to academic governing boards and administrations that are largely white and male, campuses had already seen a regression on gender equity that was further exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic (Flaherty, 2020b, 2020c, 2020f). Shared governance has been in decline for years but has now receded even more on most campuses. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been dozens of examples of reported overreach among governing boards making unilateral decisions without input from faculty, staff, and sometimes even the administration (Flaherty, 2020c, 2020f; Friga, 2020). Significant financial decisions have
2Gig Academy is a term coined by Kezar et al. (2019) to capture the ways that corporate gig economy practices, such as hiring contingent labor or outsourcing, have been adopted by colleges and universities across the country.
been made at a variety of institutions unilaterally, resulting in sanctions by the American Association of University Professors.3
According to data from the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education (COACHE),4 faculty generally rated leadership and academic governance better in late March and April than in September 2020 (Foster, 2020). Faculty gave their administrations this early positive rating because of the quick response of campuses to close down in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic emergency. However, between May and September 2020, faculty have registered concerns of being left out of decision-making processes for months, particularly on decisions that shape domains of teaching and learning, but also more broadly to significant decisions about program closures, finances, and layoffs. For example, one story in The Chronicle of Higher Education indicated that Rutgers University had almost no teaching faculty involved in any of the critical decisions made around the COVID-19 pandemic (Taylor, 2020). Indeed, current governance trends appear to be working in opposition to the practices of crisis and equity-minded leadership.5 In fact, these trends work against practices of effective organizations that typically have a more shared leadership and governance approach that is described later in this chapter (Kezar and Holcombe, 2017).
The gender dynamics observed in the United States across various economic sectors are also apparent in higher education in terms of gender inequality in the workplace (Flaherty, 2020e; Pettit, 2020a). Campus administrators tend to make decisions in a gender-neutral way, which in turn reflects past patterns of inequitable decisions by academic leaders. Because shared governance has been compromised within higher education during the COVID-19 pandemic, many campuses are experiencing a heightening of gender inequalities.
3 For example, in October 2020, Canisius College, Illinois Wesleyan University, Keuka College, Marian University, Medaille College, National University, and Wittenberg University were being investigated by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) to determine whether these colleges and universities have overstepped their purview and deviated from AAUP’s widely followed principles of academic governance during the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly when laying off tenured faculty members (Redden, 2020). AAUP has received dozens of complaints from faculty members about unilateral decisions and actions taken by their governing boards and administrations related to finances, returning to campus, how courses are taught, suspending key institutional regulations, reducing and closing departments and majors, compelling faculty members to teach in person, reducing or cutting payments into retirement plans, and laying off long-serving faculty members (Flaherty, 2020b, 2020f).
4 COACHE is a database of faculty and academic leaders’ views among several hundred college campuses administered out of Harvard University. It is a research-practice partnership between academic institutions and COACHE that administers surveys to participating institutions and provides data to them to support the improvement of faculty work life.
5Crisis leadership is the process by which an organization deals with a major unpredictable event that threatens to cripple the organization. Equity-minded leadership involves being evidence based (i.e., using data), race conscious, institutionally focused, systemically aware, and equity advancing.
Various studies have identified the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on women faculty’s productivity, as discussed in Chapter 3 (Flaherty, 2020a; Viglione, 2020; Vincent Lamarre et al., 2020). Declines in hiring of tenure-track faculty and the increased hiring of women in non-tenure-track faculty positions suggests that fewer women will be available for leadership roles. In addition, during 2020, faculty and academic affairs offices were asked to take the brunt of many budget reductions, and faculty leaders questioned why they have not seen equivalent proposals for downsizing administration and other cost centers (Flaherty, 2020f).6
Moreover, full-time faculty faced reduced incomes resulting from furloughs and decreased contributions to retirement programs. Longstanding data show pay disparities between men and women in academe (AAUP, 2017, 2018), so salary inequities are being compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic and associated recession, particularly for households headed by women or single women. One study found that after accounting for academic productivity, regional cost of living, specialty, term length, title, and other factors, women earned $0.12 less than men for every dollar made (Mensah et al., 2020).
It is important for leaders to understand the broad range of issues that should be considered and the many policies that could currently benefit from alteration. Leaders have several resources to support them in these decisions, including work describing appropriate ways to implement tenure clock extension policies, approaches to faculty evaluations to reduce bias toward women and Scholars of Color, forms of support for faculty and their transition to online learning, and acknowledgments and rewards for women, particularly Women of Color, who often take on the majority of service and emotional labor to support students during this difficult time (Gonzales and Griffin, 2020).
Some emerging data indicate approaches that leaders can use to make decisions, govern, and be accountable in ways that are gender inclusive and help to eradicate growing equity gaps. The predominant approaches include at least three strategies: (1) utilizing the expertise of existing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) staff to inform decision-making processes; (2) creating new structures to address decision-making needs; and (3) altering existing processes to include more voices in decision-making. A few campuses have begun to think about the long-term implications of the COVID-19 pandemic and to recommend strategies to address this issue, such as revising strategic plans aimed at ameliorating equity gaps.
6 Budgetary decisions favoring administrative interests over faculty inherently favor men, who occupy many more administrative positions and the most secure faculty positions.
Utilizing Existing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Staff
A case study of the University of Massachusetts Amherst (UMass) exemplifies the approach of capitalizing on existing DEI staff, as well as some other key practices, that can be instructive for other campuses (Clark et al., 2020). Changes UMass made include altering tenure, promotion, and review policies; creating a modified evaluation process highlighting the need for documentation; adapting teaching expectations and evaluations; suspending teaching evaluations; establishing emergency funds for childcare and technology; accommodating salary increases at the time of promotion based on productivity losses; and formally recognizing the intensified caregiving demands. An optional COVID-19 Pandemic Impact Statement was provided for faculty to include in their annual reviews and promotion and tenure cases. This is one of the few campuses to have such a comprehensive array of changes responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and gender inequality issues (Clark et al., 2020).
An analysis of the leadership that produced these changes found that units across the UMass campus sought out the advice of staff participating in the National Science Foundation’s ADVANCE program,7 as well as other staff members on campus with expertise in DEI (Clark et al., 2020). In addition, there was a great deal of coordination across campus units to share ideas about equity recommendations for supporting women faculty and staff. Researchers identified this openness as part of the culture change that ADVANCE had been able to create in terms of a shared commitment and leadership to sustainable equity. The university also had strong senior leadership who spoke out about equity and made it a priority, who met regularly with the ADVANCE team, and who both listened to faculty needs and responded to those needs.
Another effort to include the expertise of existing DEI leaders on campus is illustrated in the letter from chief diversity officers to academic leaders within the University of California system.8 Campus leaders can also benefit from advice offered by the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education on addressing inequalities during the COVID-19 pandemic.9
Creating New Structures
Some institutions have underscored the need for new structures that can support better decision-making and leadership during this critical time. For example, Indiana University is investing in additional racial justice research and is creating a task force to address the negative impact COVID-19 has had on
7 ADVANCE is a program funded by the National Science Foundation to increase the number of and support for women faculty and Faculty of Color in STEM. More information can be found at https://www.nsf.gov/funding/pgm_summ.jsp?pims_id=5383.
women faculty and researchers. The Gender Equity in Research Task Force at Indiana University explores the negative impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on research productivity and suggests both short- and long-term actionable solutions within the university’s research context. Other leaders have suggested implementing Rapid-Response Leadership Teams that include DEI experts (Goodwin and Mitchneck, 2020), establishing a COVID-19 Pandemic Response Faculty Fellow, and creating a COVID-19 Pandemic Faculty Merit Committee (Flaherty, 2020a). For these new structures, the faculty and administrative leaders designing them are aiming to ensure better decision-making, since this group is specifically tasked with ensuring gender equity, taking a gender advocacy and equity, not neutral, approach.
Altering Existing Processes
A group of concerned faculty at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) suggested that their administration be proactive on and reach out to various existing policy groups, such as tenure and promotion committees, to discuss how to handle the impact of COVID-19. At the same time, they advocated for a new group to develop policies for existing decision groups that may not have this expertise. The faculty informed its administration that it will need guidelines on how to quantify impacts of COVID-19 on teaching, research, and service, as well as clear metrics, tangible benchmarks, and effective communication to decrease bias in merit and promotion decisions (UCLA, 2020). Regarding longer-term accountability and transparency, UCLA faculty leaders are encouraging the university to respond to this COVID-19 pandemic by developing a strategic action plan, which includes metrics and accountability for dealing with changes in faculty productivity because of COVID-19 over the long term.
Other suggestions build on this notion of developing processes for supporting existing institutional decision-making structures but altering these processes so they include different individuals who might be more sensitive to gender equity issues. For example, one group recommended that academic leaders establish inclusive communication, continued monitoring for equitable distribution of resources, and conscientious attention to differential impacts on the workplace climate (Goodwin and Mitchneck, 2020). These investigators also suggested exploring who is at the decision-making table, as it will affect whether gender equity emerges, and engaging campus leaders and experts in DEI, which will broaden participation in decision-making and ensure needed attention to faculty DEI concerns. Another strategy is ensuring funding for DEI work so that this work continues even during the COVID-19 pandemic and inequities do not become larger and more exacerbated. Several efforts are paired with broad-based surveys of faculty and staff to understand specific needs and concerns on a campus related to caregiving, workload, and productivity during the COVID-19 pandemic. (See Chapters 3 and 4 for more information.)
There have also been dozens of suggestions from campuses for a combination of new structures as well as new decision processes that would ensure greater accountability and transparency in decision-making. One instructive example is from the University of Toronto, where a process was proposed for clear internal policies and guidelines aimed at protecting workers. The proposed process included increasing the frequency of open stakeholder meetings to ensure that worker perspectives were considered in decision-making as it pertains to operations during both lockdown and reopening (OCUFA, 2020; University of Toronto, 2020).
Based on studies of the type of leadership needed to make equitable decisions and decisions in complex environments such as the COVID-19 pandemic, three key types of leadership—equity-minded, shared, and crisis—can help inform the leadership of administrators, governing boards, and other governing groups and decision-making entities. While a growing body of research provides suggestions about how to create equitable changes in “normal” times, it is particularly important to also look at the literature on crisis leadership to help inform decision-making during the COVID-19 pandemic and similar disruptions. Perhaps surprisingly, some key practices that work during normal times can also work during a crisis when implemented with intentionality.
To reverse the gender inequity trends that have emerged both before and during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, leaders in higher education could be well served by taking an equity-minded leadership approach. Equity-mindedness is defined as being evidence based (i.e., using data to explore inequalities), race conscious, institutionally focused, systemically aware, and equity advancing (Dowd and Bensimon, 2014). When practicing equity-mindedness, individuals question their own assumptions, recognize biases and stereotypes that harm the advancement of equity goals, become accountable for closing equity gaps, and see closing racial, gender, and other gaps as their personal and institutional responsibility. To understand and become equity-minded, various practitioners (faculty, administration, staff, etc.) assess and acknowledge that their practices may not be working and understand inequities as a dysfunction of the existing structures, policies, and practices that were not created to serve today’s students, and that they can change (Dowd and Bensimon, 2014). A lack of awareness of these issues is what keeps reproducing gender inequalities over time. While there is a need to continue to change the representation of leaders so that they have greater awareness of different circumstances, such as race and gender, equity-mindedness focuses on leaders of any background being able to adopt an equity
mindset (Kezar and Posselt, 2020). Since the race and gender of current leaders is unlikely to change soon, equity-mindedness is particularly important at this time to make needed changes.
Equity-minded leaders can have both immediate and lasting impacts on a campus’s ability to close equity gaps and goals (Galloway and Ishimaru, 2015; Kezar and Posselt, 2020; Shields, 2010; Theoharis, 2007). For example, research documents how leaders that adopt an equity-minded approach have been successful in closing equity gaps for students in college (Dowd and Bensimon, 2014). Equity-minded leaders dismantle discriminatory policies, use data and assessment to understand inequity, and shift the consciousness among educators when it comes to discrimination and bias (ASCCC, 2010; CDE, 2010; Felix et al., 2015; Galloway and Ishimaru, 2015; Santamaría, 2014). Several of the suggested structures offered by campuses, such as rapid response teams, COVID-19 pandemic task forces, highlight the importance of having a mechanism for integrating equity-minded thinking into decision-making processes at campuses (Goodwin and Mitchneck, 2020). While they were forming, it might have been helpful for these rapid-response and COVID-19 pandemic teams to look at the equity-minded leadership literature to help support their work.
Shared leadership is “the dynamic, interactive influence process among individuals in groups for which the objective is to lead one another to the achievement of group or organizational goals or both” (Pearce and Conger, 2003).10 A review of literature on shared leadership found four key elements that characterize shared leadership (Kezar and Holcombe, 2017):
- A greater number of individuals take on leadership roles than in traditional models.
- Leaders and followers are seen as interchangeable. In some cases, this may mean that leadership occurs on a flexible and emergent basis, while in others it rotates more formally.
- Leadership is not based on position or authority. Rather, individuals with the expertise and skills needed for solving the problem at hand are those that lead. To that end, multiple perspectives and expertise are capitalized on for problem solving, innovation, and change.
- Collaboration and interactions across the organization are typically emphasized.
Inherent in this approach is a greater honoring of the multiple perspectives that make up a campus, which typically leads to much more inclusive
decision-making and equitable outcomes. Decentralization and the promotion of local autonomy increase the adaptability of organizations and allow them to respond creatively and quickly to changing environmental conditions (Heifetz, 1994; Wheatley, 1999).
Studies of shared leadership demonstrate that it tends to develop decisions that are more inclusive and equitable and to represent more diverse perspectives (Pearce and Conger, 2003; Wheatley, 1999). Studies have explored the potential of shared leadership for improving gender equity and found that it is associated with better performance for students and creating a better work environment for teachers and administrators (Hrabowski III, 2019; Shakeshaft et al., 2007). Many of these studies suggest that shared leadership is especially beneficial in complex environments that require frequent adaptations, such as a pandemic (Feyerherm, 1994; Pearce and Sims Jr., 2002; Pearce et al., 2004).
There have been several studies specifically focused on crisis leadership in higher education (Fernandez and Shaw, 2020; Gigliotti, 2019, 2020) that have identified three leadership practices to help navigate a crisis: (1) connecting with people broadly as individuals and establishing mutual trust, (2) distributing leadership throughout the organization, and (3) communicating clearly and often with all stakeholders (Fernandez and Shaw, 2020). Reports in the academic trade press suggest that faculty and staff have been advocating for regular meetings with senior university leaders and for creating avenues for communication between decision makers and those affected by the decisions (Flaherty, 2020b, 2020c, 2020f).
Effective leadership during a crisis also benefits from shared or distributed leadership so that those with expertise about policies and practices at the ground level can easily communicate with those who have decision-making authority. During a crisis, leaders who emphasize empowerment, involvement, and collaboration allow themselves a greater degree of agility and innovation than is possible with an inflexible hierarchical leadership paradigm (Kezar and Holcombe, 2017).
The third area of consensus related to crisis leadership is clear, frequent communication with stakeholders. During a crisis, it is important to use multiple communication channels (Robbins and Judge, 2018). In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, when people are unable to engage in face-to-face communication because of social-distancing practices, leaders considered live streaming of updates or messages of encouragement (Fernandez and Shaw, 2020). The choice of communication approach should also consider stakeholders’ preferences. Faculty and staff may prefer updates from leadership through email, while students may prefer a variety of social media platforms or text messages.
Researchers have studied campuses in crisis and identified active listening as another area of communication important for quality decisions (Kezar et al., 2018). Active listening is a structured form of listening and responding that
focuses the attention on the speaker—instead of on one’s own perspectives—and improves mutual understanding without debate or judgment (Kezar et al., 2018). Many of the emerging recommendations from faculty and staff during the COVID-19 pandemic have also related to more transparency with decision-making and increased communication. From accounts in the media, the current communication approach on campuses is failing and is exacerbating inequities (Flaherty, 2020b, 2020f).
There are limitations in the literature on academic leadership and decision-making. It has been almost a decade since the National Center for Education Statistics stopped collecting data for the National Study of Postsecondary Faculty, resulting in limited data about decision-making and leadership related to the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, studies of successful leadership practices during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 were often based on single case studies and should be understood to have limited ability to generalize. For example, the COACHE faculty job satisfaction survey is one of the only sources of faculty members’ views on governance and leadership. There has been intermittent data collection related to leadership representation in higher education with a focus on presidents and governing board members, which leaves critical gaps in knowledge related to other administrative roles. Similarly, there are not enough data collected on Leaders of Color or studies that evaluate the impact of decision-making on gender as well as racial and ethnic inequalities. Few studies have incorporated an intersectional perspective, grounding race and evaluating the intersection with other identities such as gender (Harris and Patton, 2019).
Historically, gender inequalities are pervasive among leaders in higher education leadership and their decision-making process, and the emergence of the Gig Academy has exacerbated gender inequalities. However, many campuses have existing efforts or offices (e.g., ADVANCE, DEI offices) working on changing the campus cultures and support equity over the long term. Leaders who are focused on addressing gender equity would benefit from working strategically to address the emerging gender inequalities of the COVID-19 pandemic observed during 2020. Many campuses may need more mechanisms for bringing faculty and administrators together around decision-making and leadership, particularly for non-tenure-track faculty that are often excluded from governance. While there is evidence from the first 9 months of the COVID-19 pandemic of worsening gender inequalities, there are also existing strategies available for reversing these trends.