It was mid-March and the 2020 Western Athletic Conference basketball tournament in Las Vegas had started. The UVU women’s team played against Seattle University and lost, 61-48. I was disappointed, then baffled when I heard all other games that evening had been called off. The next day, the WAC board discussed the accelerating COVID-19 crisis and canceled the rest of the tournament. The pandemic was upon us.

How could minuscule viral particles lead to such immense consequences? In a matter of days, I went through five stages of pandemic grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.  As reality sunk in, I realized that my team and I had to step up to a new level of leadership. What have we learned?

UVU president receives society’s 2020 Advocate for Higher Education Award
‘No choice but to change’: Perspectives on the future of K-12, higher education amid COVID-19
  1. Agility and iteration. In two weeks, UVU moved over 4,000 course sections to a remote format. This required using digital resources on an unprecedented scale. Faculty and administration worked together closely to offer high-quality education while meeting health recommendations. We established a central system for feedback, received hundreds of complaints at the beginning, iterated, improved and, ultimately, helped most of our students complete the semester. United around the common purpose of teaching and learning, we became more agile and flexible in new uses of technology.
  2. Communication. COVID-19 created doubt, fear and anxiety. Students, staff and faculty had to learn new ways of working. Unhelpful chatter sometimes occurred. We learned that frequent, clear, and caring communication was essential. We implemented a disciplined flow chart for drafters, editors, subject matter experts and decision-makers. Starting in mid-March, my cabinet met daily, and then every other day from June. We used email, websites, social media, texts and virtual town halls to communicate. Sometimes we communicated top-down; other times we mostly listened and discussed. We read snarky questions verbatim in town halls, allowing people to vent while still addressing their underlying concerns respectfully.  
  3. Community and belonging. A pandemic never affects everyone equally. From March to May, we chose to pay employees who could not do their work remotely or on campus, giving them time to adjust to new economic realities. We expanded our CARE Initiative (food pantry, emergency cash assistance) as students lost jobs (81% of UVU students work). In April, 3,700 students responded to a survey on their learning experience, with 1,500 adding qualitative comments. Students named 873 faculty and staff who helped them finish the semester with confidence. We sent 873 thank-you notes and small gift cards to these individuals. Even as we deployed more “machines,” we learned that human empathy and exceptional care remained the keys to student success. There is no substitute for community and belonging.
  4. Government assistance. The pandemic left millions unemployed, including UVU students and their families. The state legislature withdrew new funding approved in the last legislative session, while asking us to cut 2.5% from our base budget. We made necessary fiscal adjustments, but received considerable support from the federal CARES Act. UVU students were provided $11.5 million in direct financial relief, while the university received a roughly similar amount for institutional needs (e.g., updating technological resources, purchasing protective equipment, training faculty). Government help has been critical during the pandemic.
The 4 key lessons COVID-19 has taught the University of Utah

Looking to the future 

  1. Inclusion in higher education. UVU’s invitation to “come as you are” will resonate more strongly in a post-COVID-19 world. The pandemic disproportionately hurt poor and already marginalized populations. UVU’s open admission policy will continue to create opportunities for these groups and improve their chances to weather future challenges.
  2. Education and employment. COVID-19 decimated millions of jobs. We need to link education and work more intentionally. This approach is embedded in UVU’s mission as a combined community college and teaching university. We have experienced the largest growth in career and technical education (CTE) in the Utah System of Higher Education, awarding 1,152 more degrees and certificates in Utah’s 4- and 5-star jobs from 2014-2019. Seventy-six percent of our graduates are still in the state 10 years after graduation. We will empower students to help rebuild a vibrant and resilient economy post-COVID-19.
  3. Partnerships and pathways. We will expand partnerships with technical colleges. Together with Mountainland Technical College, we have created pathways for students to transfer credits into academic programs at UVU. We are working now with five more technical colleges. These partnerships will further personalize education while maximizing the impact of every tax dollar invested in Utah’s post-secondary institutions. 
  4. Digital transformation. UVU hired a new vice president for digital transformation as COVID-19 raged. Digital transformation has been part of our strategic plan since 2019. The pandemic revealed the urgency of leveraging technology to enhance teaching, improve the entire student experience from recruitment to alumni life, and expand remote work. We will simplify instead of complicate, combining efficiency and effectiveness. We will collect data, and become more insightful in our decision-making.

Higher education is reckoning not only with a deadly virus, but also with an extreme economic downturn, racial tensions and polarized politics. Educators and leaders must “harness the uncertainty” by reimagining how we operate, asking hard questions and creating more relevant and rigorous experiences to help students succeed in work and life. The pandemic has been a long, tiring and challenging chapter, but we feel UVU has as good a chance as any institution to come out of this stronger.

Dr. Astrid S. Tuminez is the president of Utah Valley University.