22 SES 11 C, Paper Session
The history of higher education has consistently been influenced by the global societal context and the country the institution is embedded within (Cohen & Kisker, 2010). Contemporary analysis of institutional strategy and decision making during these events is lacking. The purpose of this study is to analyze institutional response to COVID-19 with a focus on the use of websites as hubs for information.
In the United States (US) public discussions of how to slow the spread of the virus began towards the beginning of 2020. While the response from higher education institutions aligned with the directive from world leaders, the actions taken by higher education leaders in response to this global crisis across the country were unprecedented. In addition to taking similar policy actions, almost all institutions developed a website for their constituents to serve as an information hub for all campus constituents. These drastic actions, coupled with a common communication tool, serve as a unique case to examine how institutions respond to global crises and the analysis of that response could help inform future crisis response.
This study analyzed the response to COVID-19 within a purposeful sample of higher education institutions in the United States. Specifically, we focus on the specific institutional actions taken by leaders in public flagship universities. Guided by chaos theory (CT), we seek to understand the common themes that emerge found from our geographically diverse set of universities in the specific institutional actions taken by institutional leaders, the timing of those decisions, and the structure of their institutional information website. We take a qualitative content analysis approach involving the coding of institutional websites and public communications to develop a unique data set capturing common institutional decisions, timing of those decisions, and informational website structure.
This study is guided by chaos theory (CT) which was first introduced by mathematicians and quantum physicist’s in the mid 1970s (Bütz, 1995). The correlation of chaos and crises has been pointed out by several scholars, making CT highly applicable to crisis research. For example, Myer, James, and Moulton (2011) state that through a chaotic crisis, which appears to have no sense or solution to it, a complex solution is reached over time and through much human trial. Myer and colleagues (2010) describe this arrival at a common solution as evolutionary stating, “It is evolutionary in that it is essentially an open-ended, ever changing, self-organizing system whereby a new system may emerge out of the crisis” (p. 30). This productive element to chaotic systems demonstrates the potential for the use of CT in order to understand and resolve various types of crises. The often-problematized unpredictability of crises is captured by the flexible and dynamic nature of CT.
The crisis response literature within higher education provides many insights into how leaders understand and lead through challenges, but the majority of this work focuses on single institution or state case studies with little analyses of how many institutions in varied contexts engage the same crisis. In this study, we examined the response of institutions across the United States to better understand the common approaches to the COVID-19 pandemic crisis. We focus on how institutions utilize their website to share information and engage multiple stakeholders. The study was guided by the following two research questions:
RQ1:What are the common institutional actions taken in the United States by universities responding to the COVID-19 crisis and how did the timing of the common actions vary across the United States?
RQ2: What information did institutions utilize websites to collect and share during the COVID-19 crisis and which institutional stakeholders were specifically referenced on institutional websites?
A purposive and homogenous sampling approach was utilized for this study (Onwuegbuzie & Collins, 2007). Specifically, we focused on the 50 flagship universities in the United States which are defined as the oldest, or best known public institution in each of the respective states (Gerald & Haycock, 2006). For this study we viewed flagship institutions to an appropriate sample for three reasons. First, they provide a natural national sample of institutions in varied contexts given the tension between centralized (federal) and decentralized (state) governance during national crises. Second, the high visibility and potential these institutions have to set trends for higher education within their state makes them desirable when seeking to understand how institutions responded to a specific crisis (McNaughtan et al., 2018). Finally, flagship institutions typically have the most resources when compared to other public institutions within their state, which may allow them additional flexibility during crises. The combination of public visibility and resources made it more likely that we could identify resources and responses using a search of publicly available information. While the use of institutional webpages is not new as a tool for disseminating information during a crisis, the ubiquitous use of these tools in response to COVID-19 presents a unique opportunity to analyze how institutions employ them in response to this crisis. In addition, the comprehensive collection of communications and resources on websites allows for a robust discussion of not only what information was provided, but also when it was released and for who the information was focused. For this study, we utilized a quantitative thematic analysis approach which included identifying themes and counting the number of times a piece of information was included on an institutional website (Hsieh & Shannon, 2005). We collected the institutional webpages for all 50 flagship campuses and focused on the content of the main page and public messages sent between January 1, 2020 and April 15, 2020. During this process we also identified which date the institutional decision was released to the public. The quantitative thematic analysis approach utilized concepts from Hsieh and Shannon’s (2005), which is similar to concepts from grounded theory (Strauss & Corbin, 1994). Hsieh and Shannon described this method as "appropriate when existing theory or research literature on a phenomenon is limited” (p. 1279).
Findings indicate that all institutions in our sample engaged in moving all courses to online instruction, implementing work from home policies, and canceling major events like graduation. In addition, we find variance in the readability and utility of websites during a time of crisis. The results for this study are divided into two sections. First, we focus on the institutional actions taken and publicly addressed on the websites with an emphasis on the timing of the information shared. Second, we present the results of our analysis of the websites focusing on which stakeholder groups are identities on the websites. The analysis of the institutional websites resulted in 17 common actions taken by institutions. First, there are five actions that were presented on the institutional websites that all 50 institutions completed. These included creating a website, sending a campus message, announcing a potential move to online instruction, officially moving classes to online instruction, and canceling face-to-face graduation. While all institutions completed these tasks there is significant variance between the first institutions to complete the action and the last institution in our sample to complete the action, which may be the result of differing state contexts. Second, with the exception of sending an initial message, creating a website, and travel restrictions the average institution completed all of the other actions occurred during the month of March. The third main finding of this study is that some decisions were made in a similar time frame by most institutions while others were made much more sporadically, which is evident by examining the standard deviations. Finally, very few websites (26) had a specific reference to student groups that may have been disproportionately affected by the actions taken in response to COVID-19.
Bütz, M. R. (1995). Chaos theory, philosophically old, scientifically new. Counseling and Values, 39(2), 84-98. Cohen, A. M., & Kisker, C. B. (2010). The shaping of American higher education: Emergence and growth of the contemporary system. John Wiley & Sons. Gerald, D., & Haycock, K. (2006). Engines of inequality: Diminishing equity in the nation's premier public universities. Education Trust. Hsieh, H. F., & Shannon, S. E. (2005). Three approaches to qualitative content analysis. Qualitative health research, 15(9), 1277-1288. McNaughtan, J., Garcia, H., Lértora, I., Louis, S., Li, X., Croffie, A. L., & McNaughtan, E. D. (2018). Contentious dialogue: University presidential response and the 2016 US presidential election. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 40(6), 533-549. Myer, R. A., James, R. K., & Moulton, P. (2010). This is Not a Firedrill: Crisis Intervention and Prevention on College Campuses. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons. Onwuegbuzie, A. J., & Collins, K. M. (2007). A typology of mixed methods sampling designs in social science research. Qualitative Report, 12(2), 281-316. Strauss, A., & Corbin, J. (1994). Grounded theory methodology: An overview. In N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), Handbook of qualitative research (p. 273–285). Sage Publications, Inc.
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