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As the coronavirus continues to spread globally, U.S. colleges and universities are navigating decisions about vacating campuses and moving to online-only instruction. For any institution, temporarily shutting down the campus, offering room and board refunds, and moving to virtual classes isn’t an ideal solution, but for those that can afford to execute it, it seems an appropriate response to ensure the holistic safety and well-being of students, faculty, staff and community members, given the pandemic. 

But for those campuses financially on the brink, operating on already tight budgets, the decision may have higher stakes. If they close, are they going to be able to reopen? Or will coronavirus-related shutdowns result in an expedited permanent closure?

Though it’s tempting to look at news reports about abrupt college closures as a disease in higher education, it’s a symptom — a symptom of some leaders who have moved away from transparency, away from frank talk, away from responsible decision-making. It’s a natural outcome of what happens when presidents and boards don’t tackle the toughest issues facing their institutions, and don’t communicate enough with the broader institutional community about those issues. 

Related: Already stretched universities now face tens of billions in endowment losses

The fallout from coronavirus-driven closings is going to underscore how shortsighted and harmful this attitude is, and it’s going to force presidents’ hands with campus constituencies. Closures are going to be even more shocking because Covid-19 has the potential to wipe out any semblance of a runway or timeline that institutions assume they have before presidents and boards are compelled, finally, to make these critical decisions.

Denial and stopgap measures don’t allow for a timeline of a graceful, responsible exit, and we owe it to our students to do better. There needs to be a bigger reality check within our industry. Higher-education leaders need to stop thinking about how a closure reflects on them personally and whether a closure will be part of their legacy. They must stop looking at shutting down as a personal failure that will be career-ending; instead, they need to think about the central purpose of higher education: educating students. We need presidents to move from thinking “How can I save my institution?” to “How can I support our students in completing their education, even if it’s not here?”

Checks and balances aren’t performing like they should. As industry groups advocate for a suspension of financial-responsibility metrics calculated by the U.S. Department of Education, at on-the-brink institutions, presidents and boards make assumptions about what processes are underway, prioritize functional relationships and collegiality over students, and assume that their accreditors will give them a heads-up when what they really need to think about is closing. Very little of what’s happening is ideal in higher education, and it’s leaving students vulnerable.

When we are brought in to assist institutions that are in dire circumstances, we are asked to write communications that sound as if a strategy is in place to move the institution forward. It’s a really difficult place for communicators to be in when important leadership decisions haven’t been made and leadership is focused on treading water rather than moving forward. 

It’s gut-wrenching when institutions close, a difficult decision and not what anyone wants or sets as a goal, but it’s an increasing reality in U.S. higher education. And it can be done gracefully, in a way that preserves the ability of students to transfer, and of faculty and staff to transition to new employment.

Presidents and boards need to think about the best interests of their students, and transparent, honest communications should be central to that thinking. Decisions on “teach-out” arrangements, transfers and working within the reality of the circumstances before a campus closes may sound like a worst-case scenario. But it’s so much worse when institutions abruptly shut down and students are left without options or opportunities.

At this point, if a leader isn’t able to have a conversation on campus about whether the institution can survive an online-only approach during this coronavirus outbreak, it’s time to ask some deeper questions about the viability of the institution that have been avoided until now.

This story about abrupt campus closures was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for Hechinger’s newsletter.

Teresa Valerio Parrot is the principal of TVP Communications, a national public relations and crisis communications agency solely focused on higher education.

Erin Hennessy is the vice president of TVP Communications, a national public relations and crisis communications agency solely focused on higher education.

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