There is absolutely no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has changed higher education in a way that is almost completely unprecedented. Age-old processes, procedures, and traditions have gone out the window in a number of weeks, and both students and faculty have been thrust into an online learning modality that very few are trained in and comfortable using. Across the United States, what each of these changes—and the processes that have led to them—look like have been different. There is one thing that many of these institutions, and their reactions to this crisis, could benefit from: the inclusion of student shared governance. The inclusion of student shared governance voices is an issue that has been at the forefront of student advocacy on campuses for years, however, it is essential to be included now more than ever.
Students, most of whom hang their hats on the ability to be involved and to have meaningful interactions with their peers, have suddenly found themselves feeling isolated and alone without interactions with their peers and in most cases without the ability to stay involved in their campus communities. Likewise, student leaders, sometimes due to circumstance and others by nature, have found themselves outside the regular channels of communication with campus administration and leaders. Student leaders, who regularly find themselves in the room and at the table to give input and shape decisions made at the campus level. Forgoing the inclusion of this essential step of input from students renders institutional decisions flawed, sometimes fundamentally, in their addressing of concerns and communicating of processes and accommodations.
Some campuses and university systems are doing a great job making sure their students are included in conversations and messaging during these difficult times. The University System of Maryland, for example, has included student input in conversations with the Chancellor prior to major announcements to ensure that the messaging would be most effective in communicating the desired message to students. Despite this, sometimes even just a word can completely change the desired message. For example, we have seen institutions garner swift backlash online and on social media by announcing commencement exercises as “canceled” rather than “postponed,” even if communications describe the opportunity for these events to be celebrated in the future. This simple change could have been made, and negative backlash prevented, if administrators had simply invited students to a conversation around messaging first.
Often, administrators and campus leaders will argue that students can’t be included at the table or in conversations because the information is confidential and students may leak it. The vast majority of students, just like the vast majority of other adults, can be trusted with privileged or confidential information. If, for some reason, administrators are wary about student leaders’ ability to be private, there are always legal protections of confidentiality. If information is protected under HIPPA or FERPA, remind everyone of that. If administrators are just worried about a leak, use a non-disclosure agreement or another legal guarantee of confidentiality. These remove any excuse for a lack of trust in confidential information among students.
While living in this “new normal,” it is so important that we cannot forget the lessons we have learned in the past. Across the nation, administrators have learned that including students in conversations proactively, rather than reactively, has increased the success of their messaging and establishes goodwill relationships moving forward to allow for better relationships and communication when problems do arise. I implore every higher education administrator to keep in regular communication with their student shared governance leaders and to include them in the decision-making and messaging conversations, especially during this unprecedented crisis.