Planning for 2020 in Light of COVID-19: An Analysis of Crisis Communication by Christian Colleges and Universities in the U.S.
Bruce M. Kirk, Associate Professor, Liberty University
Clark F. Greer, Retired, Liberty University Online Adjunct Professor
Institutions of higher education in the United States faced diverse challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic. It included changing the way course content was delivered, with classes meeting online rather than in-person. Prior research about colleges and universities has considered issues associated with the pandemic from various perspectives, but few studies have specifically examined how Christian institutions of higher education responded to COVID-19. The present study used the constant comparative method to qualitatively analyze messages posted about Fall 2020 plans on the websites of 118 colleges and universities in the U.S. that were members and affiliate members of the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities. The analysis revealed four dominant categories of messages in the institutions’ communications: (1) Safety First, (2) Better Together, (3) Commitment to God, and (4) Education Despite COVID-19. The messages found in this study were then compared with the four components of the Discourse of Renewal theory. Those comparisons showed that institutions learned from their COVID experiences and that they provided ethical communications while looking toward the future and offering motivational messages. Findings from this research provide several implications for crisis communication practices of Christian colleges and universities.
Keywords: COVID-19, pandemic, crisis communication, Christian colleges and universities, Discourse of Renewal Theory
The spread of COVID-19 variously affected colleges and universities across the United States. Some large universities furloughed faculty and staff or indicated they planned to reduce personnel (Quinton, 2020). Regionally-focused institutions faced financial challenges or experienced increased difficulties due to COVID-19 (Quinton, 2020).
The pandemic resulted in additional negative impacts on students. According to one study, 13% of students in the research study indicated they planned to postpone their graduation (Aucejo et al., 2020). Also, in that study, differences in the impact of the pandemic were based on economic situations associated with them or a family member who lost their job. Another study focused on students’ mental health associated with COVID-19 (Son et al., 2020). Results indicated that more than 70% of the individuals studied experienced various types of stress, including the inability to concentrate, difficulty sleeping, lack of social connections with others, and academic concerns. The researchers also found there was a need to employ various coping mechanisms. Indeed, all those issues were concerns that colleges and universities wrestled with when considering returning to on-campus classes.
Even in mid-2020, while COVID was still a very recent concern, colleges and universities were already considering how they might return to in-person instruction for Fall 2020. However, reinstating on-campus classes required unanticipated financial expenditures to address requirements for meeting face-to-face instructional environments (Quinton, 2020), given the need for physical separation in classrooms. Another change was holding online events, so that prospective and admitted students could visit an institution virtually (Moody, 2020). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also issued regular updates with guidelines about how higher education institutions could deal with risks associated with the virus, including community living situations, mask use, vaccination, and distancing (see e.g., CDC, 2021). In that document, the CDC also noted that institutions should make decisions about implementing its COVID-19 guidelines in accordance with state and local government entities to meet the needs of their communities.
Prior research has examined crises associated with COVID-19 from the standpoints of various types of institutions (e.g., Aucejo et al., 2020; Blankenburger & Williams, 2020; Fernandez & Shaw, 2020). In those studies, scholars primarily looked at secular higher education institutions. In contrast, the present study focused on religious institutions. There was a three-fold rationale for studying this segment of higher education. First, it offered a look at external expressions of “spiritual formation” as an indication of the institutions’ internal essence during a crisis (Otto & Harrington, 2016, p. 256). Additionally, this study provided a glimpse at how institutions responded to COVID-19 disruptions of Christian higher education beyond changes that might already have been taking place (Reynolds & Wallace, 2016). Finally, this research also might serve as evidence of institutions’ crisis communication and management approaches (Heiselt & Burrell, 2012).
The research used the constant comparative method to qualitatively analyze messages publicly disseminated by institutions that were members and affiliate members of the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities (CCCU) (2021) in the U.S. Specifically, this study analyzed communications posted on their websites about the institutions’ proposed plans for Fall 2020. Responses were then compared to the Discourse of Renewal theory to determine the extent to which the institutions’ messages fit the four components of that theory. The unique contribution of this study to communication research is a focus on Christian higher education and whether those institutions expressed forward-looking statements when conveying their situations. The overarching research question is, “How did CCCU institutions communicate their proposed return to on-campus classes for Fall 2020 in light of COVID-19?”
To answer the question noted above, this paper first provides information about crisis management, followed by a general background of pandemics and how they were historically handled by academic institutions. The review of literature then presents research about higher education and ends by discussing the Discourse of Renewal theory. The method section details the way in which this study was conducted, and the results discuss the dominant categories that emerged from examining the institutions’ public communication. This research then provides a discussion about the findings of the present study and their relationship with the four elements of the Discourse of Renewal theory. Implications of this study offer pertinent suggestions for institutions of higher education. Limitations and future research note areas of potential study related to this topic that could be examined by communication scholars. The paper culminates by offering a summary of conclusions from this research.
That organizations will face a crisis at some point is a certainty (Coombs, 2010), so preparing for those situations is essential, especially in an environment of round-the-clock news (Fink, 2013). As Fink (2013) posited in his work about crisis communication, organizations must consider not only how they communicate during a crisis, but also how they manage a given situation. Although COVID-19 was not the academic institutions’ crisis, it was a situation that rapidly became a major concern for colleges and universities.
One consideration in managing a crisis is the formation of teams that will respond in different ways to a situation. Uitdewilligen and Waller (2018) found that a team’s work related to crises moves from team organization to communicating the situation with each other, and finally determining how to deal with the situation. The researchers found that the best teams had more structure early in the process and a common understanding. Those teams also were more collaborative and ultimately came to a better analysis of the crisis.
Creating messages with the recipient in mind has been shown to enhance the efficacy of information. Sellnow and Sellnow (2010) stated that crisis communication should consider the audience when developing crisis messages and that communication is implemented in different ways for learning. Another concern is the awareness of the perception an organization’s statements are creating among its publics, in contrast to the public’s knowledge regarding the crisis (Fink, 2013).
Prior research has examined how academic institutions dealt with major crises on campuses and the preparedness of employees. One study (Liu et al., 2015) found that knowledge of how to deal with a crisis enabled people to better respond. However, there was a difference between the faculty and staff’s knowing a crisis plan and their actual ability to respond to it The study concluded that there needed to be more training in those situations. A survey of Christian college and university presidents found that most institutions had a “written crisis management plan” (Heiselt & Burrell, 2012, p. 268). All respondents indicated their institution had a pre-crisis response plan, and more than 90% noted they had a written plan to use during and after a crisis.
Crisis management also reflects the individual who is tasked to deal with a given situation. Fernandez and Shaw (2020) noted the importance of trust as a preface to change and the necessity of an institutional leader having the ability to communicate the situation and its “possible” solutions. That includes characteristics of the individual who speaks on behalf of the organization, such as the person’s ability to communicate clearly, knowledgeably, and with compassion (Fink, 2013).
Administrators of institutions respond to crises not only as the leader but also as the face of an institution (Gigliotti, 2016). Those situations require leaders to think differently, make decisions, and act in response to incidents, including providing a response that is personal in nature. This results in a tension of styles between acting in a way that is appropriate for a president either in a personable manner or as an expert in a role (Gigliotti, 2016).
Prior research about managing responses to COVID-19 and disseminating news and information about an institution’s actions showed the necessity of a focused effort. It also required making decisions and acting “quickly” through stressful situations, as well as implementing technologies that individuals might not have been adept at using (Fernandez & Shaw, 2020). Blankenberger and Williams (2020) expressed the importance of viewing COVID-19 as disruptive to higher education, in that channels in one area can affect others. For example, they noted that budget reductions reached into an institution’s locale. Additionally, increases in students pursuing online education and course offerings by institutions required adjustments by both sides, while continuing to deliver education substance.
Given the nature of Christian institutions as the focus of the present study, the level of constituents’ religiosity could be a consideration in how crises are communicated. One prior study about responses to natural disasters noted that “religiosity,” which included religious participation, beliefs, and prayer, enabled individuals to deal with a disaster and messages about it (Lim et al., 2019). Another study advocated developing relationships with religious organizations for research and practical outreach during crises (Lachlan & Spence, 2011). This suggested that colleges and universities associated with the CCCU should evidence their religious foundations when disseminating information about their response to and perspectives about COVID-19.
The nature of this study was to understand previous pandemics as a roadmap for navigating COVID-19. The word “Pandemic” comes from the Greek “pan” which means “all” and the Greek “demos” or “people” as broadly the “crowd”. The accepted definition of a pandemic from the Dictionary of Epidemiology is well-known: “described as an epidemic occurring worldwide, or over a wide area, knowing no geographical boundaries across the globe and infecting large numbers of people” (Harris, 2000, p. 38). This definition, however, says nothing about the immunity of the population or the severity of the disease.
Modern definitions also include what is called an “extensive epidemic,” meaning that the impact covers a very wide area and usually affects a larger part of the population, including a region, country, continent, or globally (Morens et al., 2009). For the World Health Organization (WHO) (2011) to consider the most severe pandemic, there must be evidence of the disease remaining active in at least two regions at the same time. The standard definition of pandemic influenza, as established by the WHO, refers to a situation as a new and highly contagious type of influenza that few in the human population have any immunity or resistance to and is easily transmissible between humans, which spreads worldwide in a very rapid fashion (Kelly, 2011).
History of Pandemics and Higher Education Effects
The term “unprecedented” was used to describe the challenges of COVID-19 (Major, 2020). However, the novel coronavirus is not the first time educational leaders have been forced to respond to an epidemic. A brief historical review reveals that colleges and universities previously addressed such epidemics as yellow fever, utilizing quarantine procedures and later, the 1918 flu pandemic (Nuwer, 2009).
By the middle of 1878, just ahead of colleges reopening for the Fall, rumors were replaced with legitimate concern for illness as Yellow Fever had spread throughout the South (“Ledger Lines,” 1878; “Our Natchez Letter,” 1878). Initial responses by colleges and universities to these various stories in the media hinged on isolation, so many higher education locations remained closed for most of the year. What is now known as the University of Mississippi, then called Oxford University, would not open its academic year until the end of November (Nuwer, 2009), which parallels how institutions of higher education reacted during COVID-19, by opening much later than the normal start time.
The research points to colleges in the 1800s and 1900s as not being prepared to respond to epidemic diseases. Indeed, most colleges did not have a system or even staff to care for or monitor the health of their students. Instead, many colleges and universities handed over control of health decisions to whatever the local health department safety response was (Thomas & Foster, 2020).
The Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918 took an even larger toll on colleges and universities and forced educational leaders to respond. Some schools remained open so students’ health could be kept under observation. However, in other places decisions were made to close schools,
churches, and any entertainment venues (Davis, 2018; “Influenza is now,” 1918; “State university puts closing,” 1918; “What the health department,” 1918). National or even regional coordination seemed nonexistent. Academic leaders at each college or university made decisions based on their own context or depending on the directives issued by the city or state health department in that area.
COVID-19 and Higher Education
For colleges and universities in the U.S. and internationally, Christian institutions of higher learning among them, COVID-19 abruptly changed the dynamics of learning environments by altering in-person instruction, socialization, and the need for institutions to rapidly move courses online during the spring semester of 2020. Much of that instructional approach continued into the Fall of 2020. One survey found that more than half of college and university presidents polled were employing primarily online classes with few courses offered in the classroom (Turk et al., 2020).
Institutions of higher education in the U.S. faced a complex mix of situations related to admissions, financial status, international students, and changes in instructional modes (DePietro, 2020). As of mid-October 2020, “undergraduate enrollment” in the U.S. had declined four percent from the previous year and was down just over 16% alone for first-year students (Sedmak, 2020). The biggest enrollment declines for the Fall of 2020 were experienced by community colleges (Sedmak, 2020).
During the COVID-19 crisis, two examples of unintended consequences surfaced that differed from past epidemics. The Los Angeles Times criticized some private schools that closed, which resulted in housing being closed, complaining of hardship for homeless students (Rust et al., 2020), while the newspaper also criticized the reduction of reasonable accommodations for students being taken away by campus closures, under the Americans with Disabilities Act (Sessa, 2020).
The early spread of COVID-19 began to surface in January and February 2020. By the third and fourth weeks of April 2020, the American Council on Education initiated the first of 12 monthly Pulse Point surveys involving college and university presidents, seeking their insights and experiences with COVID-19. Nearly 200 presidents shared their most pressing concerns as planning for the Fall 2020 semester was underway. Close to half of the presidents at private four-year institutions were considering laying off faculty and/or staff. Similar to the devastating impact the 1918 flu epidemic had on higher education, 93% of university presidents in 2020 feared whether their institution could financially survive the pandemic. More than half had already started staff-hiring freezes, nearly 6 out of 10 presidents expected to lay off staff, and nearly half expected to merge or eliminate academic programs to survive. Unlike colleges and universities being forced to close their doors during the 1918 flu, higher education institutions in 2020 expected to keep their doors open remotely, with 90% of the presidents saying investments in information technology would allow them to remain vibrant online (American Council on Education, 2021).
The Discourse of Renewal Theory
A large body of research has focused on organizational reputation related to crisis communication theories. Two theories dominate the literature in organizational crisis research. Situational Crisis Communication Theory (SCCT) gives organizations crisis response approaches that consider the crisis itself, as well as constituents’ perceptions about the type of response (Coombs, 2007), focusing on crisis communication that decreases the negative perception of an organization (Coombs, 2014). Crisis responses range from denying that one exists to expressing regret for a crisis (Coombs, 2010).
With SCCT, the predominant concern of an organization during a crisis is protecting constituents from various effects of a situation (Coombs, 2007) and communicating what an entity is doing to help individuals deal with the crisis (Coombs, 2014). Reputational concerns, which are secondary (Coombs, 2007), seek to reduce the impact of a crisis on an organization’s standing (Coombs, 2014). It is at that point that an organization considers the type of response that focuses on its reputation (Coombs, 2007).
Communication during a crisis involves choosing a practical form of response that emanates from planning based on categories of crises and considers an entity’s responsibility (Coombs, 2006). How an organization responds is associated with an audience’s perception of the entity, which entails determining how the type of crisis response will produce a certain outcome among constituents in relation to the situation (Coombs, 2014). Thus, stakeholder perception is critical to instituting a particular crisis response (Coombs, 2006). One factor is the extent of a crisis, in that a higher level of perceived crisis effects is correlated with a higher attribution of organizational responsibility (Coombs, 2006). Additionally, previous research found that it was important for a company to proactively deal with a crisis and to implement a particular response strategy for the organization’s reputation (Coombs, 2006).
Similar to SCCT, Image Repair Theory focuses on crisis responses that range from denying the presence of a crisis to admitting a crisis has occurred, as well as apologizing for it (Benoit, 1997). This theory, also commensurate with SCCT, is concerned with the public’s perception of an organization (Spradley & Spradley, 2021). Benoit (1997) posited that perception is essential to consider, rather than simply determining whether or not an organization is to blame for the situation.
Seeking to repair an organization’s image includes three components (Benoit, 1997). The first component involves planning before a crisis happens by considering the types of crises that may occur. Second, organizations need to analyze a crisis when it happens in order to best respond based on the crisis itself. Finally, organizations should know their affected audiences and match their response message to them. The latter includes realizing there are differences in audiences and that each has varied interests (Benoit, 2000). Furthermore, Benoit (1997) argued that an organization should take responsibility early in the process if the entity is at fault.
One research study examined President Barack Obama’s image repair strategy when dealing with content and technical issues associated with the healthcare.gov website (Benoit, 2014). Overall, the study revealed that response language sought to decrease the negativity of actions. Responses provided various messages, such as taking responsibility for statements about selecting a doctor and regretting the technical difficulties of the website. Specifically, that included such tactics as indicating the site issues would be corrected, minimizing the percentage of people who were affected by the technical glitches, noting how the program improved healthcare, promoting a positive attitude toward the President, and comparing healthcare assistance before and after implementing the new plan.
The two above-mentioned crisis theories deal with an organization’s image, but the Discourse of Renewal theory (DOR) focuses on crisis messaging that considers the situation as an opportunity for an organization (Ulmer et al., 2008) and one that looks toward the future (Seeger & Padgett, 2010). Research has shown that DOR can provide more positive connections with stakeholders by considering the perspective of renewal versus restoration (Ulmer & Sellnow, 2002).
Ulmer et al. (2008) posited that there are four elements to the Discourse of Renewal (see also Spradley & Spradley, 2021). First is “organizational learning” which seeks opportunities and gains knowledge from a crisis to avoid future such situations. Next, the researchers state that “ethical communication” must be practiced at all points in a crisis, including anticipating a situation and responding in the middle of a crisis, as well as after a crisis. Third, the researchers indicated the importance of anticipating a positive future. The final aspect of DOR is communication that emanates from leaders who offer motivation for the future.
Prior research about the Discourse of Renewal has considered the way in which varied organizations have responded to crises. One study found that the use of both verbal and visual elements to communicate Wells Fargo’s historical position and practices served as the foundation for highlighting its future (Anderson & Guo, 2020). During its crisis, the company focused on its past standing as being bigger than the crisis it encountered.
The way in which a crisis is conveyed, both before and after an incident, determines how the public responds. Taking a proactive approach to crisis preparation has been found to strengthen connections with stakeholders (Carlson, 2018). Messaging also is a consideration. Liu et al. (2020) examined the role of narratives following the Ebola health crisis. They found that the type of narrative predicted how a particular message was received by the public. One aspect of DOR, as discussed above, is learning and responding based on prior situations and remembering values (Ulmer & Pyle, 2021). For example, Zhao et al. (2020) found that people were more positive when an organization talked about actions it was taking to prevent future crises and when the organization learned from the situation.
The present study examined communications about plans for Fall 2020 posted online by institutions that were members or affiliate members of the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities (CCCU) (2021). The analysis focused on publicly available messages that were posted by the institutions in preparation for the Fall term, specifically regarding their status in relation to COVID-19. Because they were publicly posted, those messages could be read by the institutions’ constituents (e.g., faculty, staff, and students), as well as the press. The institutions were only recently emerging from lockdowns and online courses. Therefore, administrators’ statements about their Fall 2020 plans provided for comparisons between actions that were anticipated or already implemented and crisis management. Additionally, the use of the Discourse of Renewal theory enabled the researchers to examine the extent to which institutions were forward-looking versus focusing on the crisis itself.
Institutions included in this analysis were those located within the United States. Colleges and universities associated with the CCCU were listed alphabetically on the organization’s website, with an option not to select international entities (CCCU, 2021). Excluding institutions outside the U.S. resulted in a list of 140 colleges and universities. A search was then conducted on those websites for general COVID-19-related information the institution had posted. In most cases, that included a page dedicated to an institution’s data, links to updates, and policies and procedures such as cleaning, mask requirements, and social distancing.
The next step of the study involved conducting a search of the institution’s website to locate messages that provided a conversational discussion (versus listing data and facts) of the institution’s plans for Fall 2020. That included a search for press releases posted to the institution’s media center or newsroom and official communication about plans for Fall 2020. In instances in which no press release about Fall 2020 plans was found, the search feature on the institution’s homepage was used in an attempt to locate other communication associated with “Fall 2020.” This study focused on written communications, so institutions that provided statements solely via video were not included.
Most institutions provided an initial statement about Fall, but then gave updates as situations changed in the months and weeks leading up to the start of their Fall 2020 terms. This analysis only included the latest and most complete statement from the institution about the Fall 2020 plans prior to the beginning of that term. The websites of those institutions were then accessed and the most recent statement about the institution’s plans for the Fall 2020 term was saved as a PDF file for later analysis. The search resulted in locating 118 institutions with messages that were analyzed in this study. Those messages were divided between the researchers for coding. Using a qualitative approach, this study analyzed messages by focusing on their dominant categories. To avoid conflicts of interest, institutions that either of the researchers had been employed or had attended as a student were analyzed by the other researcher.
Each researcher examined their set of messages for the presence of common categories using the constant comparative method, which can be applied to a variety of types of artifacts (Glaser & Strauss, 1967). Using this method provided for the examination of institutional communication, such as press releases and other public messages. The method involves categorizing materials and determining similarities that enable grouping, matching new materials with those previously examined, and then placing them in similar groups (Glaser & Strauss, 1967). Continued analysis results in locating fewer new categories, so that the establishment of new divisions reaches a point of “saturation” (p. 112). Once the researchers in the present study completed their independent examinations and coding, they combined similar categories and determined the divisions that comprised the dominant categories across all institutions’ messages.
Analyses of the messages revealed common topics the institutions communicated to their employees, students, and others associated with the campus community. Most communication provided a specific plan for reopening. That included various rules, such as masking, social distancing, classroom procedures, and statements about the physical elements of the campus being sanitized for health and safety. Nearly all offered extensive details about institutional planning and safety implementation efforts. In fact, most were primarily dedicated to listing and discussing their campus guidelines. Overall, there was a mix of policies that reflected the most recent CDC (2021) guidelines, as well as information specific to a particular institution. Exact protocol varied due to an institution’s location and differing regulations that varied by state or local government decisions.
Institutions’ messages analyzed in this study revealed the presence of four distinct categories: (1) Safety First, (2) Better Together, (3) Commitment to God, and (4) Education Despite COVID-19.
(1) Safety First
The Safety First category focused on an institution’s desire to inform its campus community, and in some cases its constituents, that the college or university was doing everything in its power to ensure it had developed a specific plan. Messages also indicated that protection measures were being closely followed according to an institution’s policy, and state and federal government regulations, including classrooms being fitted with equipment to enhance a healthier environment.
In addition, statements communicated that the institution was placing a priority on implementing a plan that considered the health and safety of the campus community. Education would still go on, but with a predominance of safety. That sentiment was reflected in conveying that the plan was employed with other individuals in mind. At least one institution positioned itself as a leader when it came to campus safety. Two institutions recognized the importance of using technology and innovation, referring to social distancing, masks, and sanitizing, but only if they could be employed safely.
Early in the spread of COVID-19, many institutions moved to offer courses solely online. Based on the sentiment in many communications, it meant suddenly ending face-to-face meetings and personal connections that were an essential part of an institution’s identity. In their planning for 2020, some institutions indicated that students would be able to attend classes on campus while allowing for flexibility to attend classes online. A press release of one institution indicated it was adjusting to that new model by redefining the notion of community as being realized in different ways – online and on campus.
As institutions prepared for the semester, they attempted to reassure their publics, including stating that the plans that they developed for 2020 were done so with safety in mind. Some indicated safety was a primary concern when considering reopening the campus. One institution noted that having a safe environment and caring was a part of its history. In some cases, institutions found it important to assure readers that the plans were based on information from various sources, rather than from independent decisions. That included communicating with their publics.
Not only did many institutions provide details about their plans, but they also discussed the future. Primarily, that involved statements associated with continually examining their campus situation, as well as COVID-19 recommendations and policies outside the institution. For at least one institution, the Safety First category noted that COVID-19-related decisions in the future would be made based on safety. While some institutions confirmed a reopening, others indicated that resuming on-campus courses would depend on state policies.
Many communications made a positive prediction about having on-campus classes in 2020. Indeed, since many of the messages analyzed in this study were issued in July and August, they confirmed that classes would meet in person. At the same time, there was a desire to assure readers that the institution was keeping current and staying on top of the situation. Because circumstances could change, they assured their publics that they would continue monitoring the information.
Even with a positive message about classes meeting in person, many institutions noted the importance of being flexible, especially regarding plans to return to campus. Those messages suggested that, even with planned openings, there could be changes. Some institutions referred to an evolving situation or a changing environment. One noted that it needed to have flexibility while ensuring equitable learning. Another indicated that it planned for students and staff to be on campus, but it was ready to go online to offer education if necessary. In a time of uncertainty, making plans did not necessarily mean implementation.
(2) Better Together
The second dominant category that emerged from the institutions’ communication was Better Together. Central to this category was the notion that the institution was not alone in facing the effects of COVID-19. Rather, messages revolving around that category signified the notion of oneness between the institution and its constituents. Here, it was important to recognize other individuals and their role in developing and implementing an institution’s plan. That suggests camaraderie rather than viewing rank and position differently. One press release stated that the institution would always review the situation before making new decisions.
Messages about working together took cheerleader and admonisher approaches. Descriptions included the people who developed or would implement a plan as a team. In fact, one institution used an art metaphor to describe coming together to develop a solution as a “masterpiece.” Another recognized students and faculty during COVID-19. The coronavirus offered one institution a positive message by reminding the readers that the situation showed the capability of the institution.
More specifically, some messages listed the names of individuals who had been involved in developing the COVID-19 response plan for the campus. The concept of a task force regularly appeared to indicate that campus directives were the result of a group of individuals. Communication then would discuss the results of the task force. It also was important for institutions to indicate they were being proactive in their work. As discussed earlier, that included creating extensive guidelines for their campus.
Other messages offered admonitions to follow the institution’s COVID-19 plan. That included indicating the importance of staying together. Some institutions reminded readers that it would take everyone working in combination for the semester to happen. Some messages indicated that the institution’s plan needed everyone’s help and that the plan would work if everyone was involved. Another message emphasized the necessity of supporting each other during the changes on campus that would be implemented by the institution. One institution noted that dealing with new situations would enable that university to realize its mission.
Several communications took a personalized approach by using pronouns such as “I” or “we” rather than only providing statements of fact about a plan. Many of the messages were undersigned by the president of the institution or another administrator, who expressed empathy and oneness with students or other readers. Many institutions stated that the leader missed the students and was looking forward to seeing them on campus again. In some cases, a message from the institution became one of personal reflection. Although much of the communication still offered updates about policies, it also provided an individual perspective that assured students that the writer understood the COVID-19 situation and would address all health-related needs. That the students were at the forefront of campus plans matched the sentiment noted by one institution, which indicated that changes to the schedule would benefit students. Another stated that safety was the rationale for the schedule change.
(3) Commitment to God
The Commitment to God category focused on if and how these Christian colleges and universities were staying true to a commitment to God, despite COVID-19. There was a range of ways in which institutions would demonstrate a commitment to God, ranging from prayer to specific actions connected to a biblical basis for decisions and communication on campus. A great deal of the communication centered on the biblical principle of loving one’s neighbor.
The category of Commitment to God revealed several ways it was manifested in the messages from Christian colleges and universities. Among those, the research examined Christian attitudes displayed in messages, how the Christian nature of the colleges or universities
was presented, how much the focus was on God in these COVID-19 plans, the number of times prayer was mentioned by the colleges and universities, and where the scriptural nature of decisions being made was outlined. Many statements dealt with focusing on God as the one in charge through the uncertain start to a school year, followed by messages about having a Christian attitude in the college or university. A portion referenced prayer for the students and the college or university in their message and some pointed to a scriptural basis for decisions being made about the 2020 return.
Messages about focusing on God were replete across a range of institutions, including many stating that God had already blessed and encouraged them; or that the word and example of Christ had guided their way, sharing thanks for God’s provision for the campus; or that institutions were trusting God to provide wisdom. Others expressed focus on God by stating that institutions were praying that God would give them sound judgment to live without fear, or that God’s wisdom and grace would continue to guide their steps. One of the rare institutions that planned to do in-person classes went so far as to state that the leadership was trusting that it was God’s purpose for them to be back together in person during 2020.
Although each of the schools researched was a Christian college or university, interestingly, some though not all Christian colleges and universities expressed a clear Christian approach in the messaging. Among those messages, there was a uniform sentiment that focused on loving one’s neighbor as yourself, or as one institution saw it as a commitment to love each other in Christ and sharing the love as Christian brothers and sisters. One institution stated it was committed to carrying out the great commission, despite the current global health crisis. Another institution said it was focused on demonstrating integrity by aligning its practices with its beliefs. Yet another institution spoke of its student body, stating that students continue to respond in these moments with faith and fortitude. And for one rare institution determined to return to on-campus classes, the message in the press release was that God created all of us as social people and individuals who need community.
Not all colleges and universities focused messages on God, but most referenced prayer in some fashion, including many presidents’ prayerful messages directly to the students. Those messages communicated that students were in the administration’s thoughts and prayers, or contained messages that they were praying for students or, in many cases institutions taking their message broader, by encouraging all to continue in prayer for our world, or to be in prayer for every member of the (university) community. Meanwhile, other presidents asked for students, faculty, and staff to faithfully pray for the semester or to pray for their university, asking God to protect it. One institution’s message was simple and direct, asking all associated with that university to pray for wisdom.
Interestingly, not all of the schools examined in this study focused on Christian education in their messaging. That was despite each of the colleges and universities being rooted as a Christian institution of higher learning.
(4) Education Despite COVID-19
Another dominant category that emerged from communications was what education would look like despite COVID-19. The range of communication touched on six areas that repeatedly appeared in the messaging: mentions of campus activities despite COVID-19, the broader campus experience, a promise of superior academics, a mix of on-campus and online delivery, and Christ-centered education. Several institutions took the role of an outlier, focusing on self-promotion and national ranking in the greater academic landscape. Among these six messages, the most prominent was a message of high-quality education, with statements focused on a goal to maintain academic quality and integrity, or stating they would accommodate what works best for students, serving them and adapting the academic courses and co-curricular programs in ways that meet their needs during this COVID-19 disruption. Indeed, one institution focused on the quality education students would be experiencing remotely as something distinct from other universities. One institution pointed to its infrastructure and how it had invested in the technology designed to reinforce student-faculty interaction. Another institution used its press release to talk of a commitment to a robust academic experience, promising it would remain the same even within the online environment. Yet another institution positioned its message through the lens of opportunity, saying COVID-19 was giving it a chance to find innovative and creative ways to deliver a great educational experience.
Some institutions focused their message on health as well as the educational experience, with one school acknowledging that it was not blind to the dangers of the COVID-19 pandemic but was committed to finding a safe way to provide the in-person undergraduate campus experience so valuable to education. Several presidents made guarantees, by assuring students that they had been intentional, creative, and tireless over the summer to maintain strong academic quality.
For many colleges and universities studied, the focus was clearly shifting to remote learning. Several institutions acknowledged this, saying they had pivoted to remote learning online or promising that remote learning would come with a renewed commitment to rigorous academics. Still, other institutions focused on accreditation, saying the criteria for courses would remain the same whether taught in person, online, or remotely.
Perhaps most surprising were two other institutions that took a very self-serving approach to their messaging to students. Both provided almost no mention of a Christ-centered education or any mention of how they would proceed through this COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, they blamed COVID-19 for limiting their growth. One institution said its growth was only held back because of COVID-19. Another institution used a press release to point to the past six years of continued momentum with double-digit growth despite COVID-19-related financial and health issues. Yet another institution took that a step further, pointing a finger at the naysayers, by stating it was on pace for one of the best enrollments in years, saying this would prove the pundits wrong who predicted much lower enrollment.
This study examined COVID-19-related communication from institutions that were members or affiliate members of the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities in the United States prior to the Fall 2020 school year. The purpose of this research was to determine the primary categories of public messages seen on the websites of those institutions as they prepared for the Fall term that year. A total of 118 institutions that posted such messages were analyzed in this study.
A qualitative analysis using the constant comparative method (Glaser & Strauss, 1967) revealed four dominant categories of messages in response to that question: (1) Safety First, (2) Better Together, (3) Commitment to God, and (4) Education Despite COVID-19. The Safety First category discussed the institutions’ efforts to develop a crisis plan, as well as indicating safety measures to follow an institution’s policy and state and federal government regulations.
The Better Together category dealt with the existence of oneness between the institution and its constituents and recognizing staff members for their role in implementing an institution’s plan.
Given the religious nature of the institutions, it was not surprising to see Commitment to God as a dominant category. Those messages ranged from prayer to decisions and actions associated with biblical foundations. The fourth message category was Education Despite COVID-19, which focused on pressing forward with an institution’s instructional achievement and integrity no matter the current situation. Messages paralleled Coomb’s (2014) crisis response category in that an organization should delineate what it was doing to help its stakeholders with the situation. The present study also found that message content was commensurate with the four main elements of the Discourse of Renewal theory (see e.g., Ulmer et al., 2008).
Organizational Learning Through Crisis
The relationship between the dominant categories of messages found in this study was compared with the components of the Discourse of Renewal theory. The first element of the theory considers the extent to which organizations view a crisis as an opportunity to learn from the experience (Ulmer et al., 2008). Colleges and universities were only a few weeks removed from the initial impacts of COVID-19 when they began considering how they would prepare for their Fall terms. Most institutions provided an initial statement about Fall, but then gave updates as situations changed in the months and weeks leading up to the start of their Fall 2020 terms. This analysis only included the latest and most complete statement from the institution about the Fall 2020 plans prior to the beginning of that term. Many of the communications examined here noted that institutions were learning how to adapt to the crisis, including several that began to actively plan their Fall terms as early as May or June. For some, dealing with a major situation allowed the institution to revisit its mission. In essence, the pandemic experience caused them to return to their foundation and make decisions accordingly.
One benefit of modern institutions compared to disseminating information during prior historical pandemics (Nuwer, 2009) was the existence of emerging technologies. Those technologies provided a variety of vehicles to immediately convey information to constituents, as well as to deliver courses to students online. However, the use of those tools required additional learning by faculty who were more accustomed to and comfortable with in-person instruction.
Learning at CCCU schools also meant adhering to their lineage as Christian institutions versus only considering their academic history and standing. Several schools noted that their decisions, which emanated from the pandemic, were based on biblical principles. That included reminders of how God had been a part of their past and the necessity of trust in dealing with the crisis. Indeed, many communication materials examined in this study dealt with focusing on God as the one in charge through the uncertain start to the Fall 2020 school year.
Another example of learning occurred when institutions indicated they were being flexible with their course offerings. Allowing for flexibility of class attendance, much of which was online at the end of the Spring 2020 term, showed that the institutions had learned to respond to the impacts of COVID beyond the classroom (Aucejo et al., 2020; Son et al., 2020). Such messages from the institutions seemed to exemplify knowledge of their audiences and matching responses to them (Benoit, 1997).
Ethical Message Content
The Discourse of Renewal theory also includes communicating in an ethical manner that is honest and forthright during all phases of a crisis (Ulmer et al., 2008). Communications examined in this study regularly provided ongoing updates regarding the status of the college or university. Institutions readily implemented policies recommended by the CDC (2021).
Findings of the Safety First category conveyed how institutions were ensuring a safe environment. Such information enabled the institutions to build trust, which is an important consideration when dealing with serious issues (Fernandez & Shaw, 2020). Those messages also helped to convey a sense of stability and consideration for students and their safety. Indeed, the present study found that the websites of most institutions included related policies, data, and links to resources, which were kept current. Messages also were commensurate with the crisis response category of SCCT, which deals with the safety of constituents during a crisis (Coombs, 2014), showing that institutions were concerned about protecting stakeholders from the effects of the crisis (Coombs, 2007).
In colleges and universities of faith, intentional messages from institutional leadership conveyed another layer of trust in communicating the situation, which correlates with Fernandez and Shaw’s (2020) findings. Nearly all of the Christian colleges and universities in this study said students were in their thoughts and prayers. Messages from the institutions assured students that plans had been intentional, creative, and tireless over the summer to maintain strong academics, despite COVID-19.
Messages analyzed in the present study had little to no discussion about the implications of the crisis on staff and faculty, such as layoffs or financial shortages. However, the institutions examined could have disseminated those types of messages through other means of communication.
Many colleges and universities in the present study included specific biblical passages in their messages. The present study found connections of messages to the religious foundation of most of the institutions, as being committed to demonstrating integrity. For example, one institution indicated it planned to provide an education that keeps Jesus Christ as the center of everything they did, which parallels what Lim et al. (2019) found in previous research about religiosity and responding to a crisis. In other words, the institution emphasized that religiosity helped people to make sense of COVID-19.
The third element of the Discourse of Renewal theory is to approach a crisis from a positive standpoint with a view to the future (Ulmer et al., 2008). Generally, analyses of the institutions’ communications revealed a glass-half-full perspective. Furthermore, the way in which an institution responded to COVID-19 revealed its character. Thus, institutional perception was an essential consideration in what was communicated to constituents regarding how the crisis was being managed (Benoit, 1997). As prior research discovered, recipients of crisis messages may, in turn, have a more positive perception of an entity when it conveys information about preventing future crises and learning from a situation (Zhao et al., 2020).
Many of the institutions examined in this study communicated a positive attitude about returning to campus in the Fall of 2020, indicating specific preparations that would make the return possible. Some messages sounded confident about holding in-person classes despite the pandemic, even though some institutions tempered their anticipated re-opening with comments about following state or federal policies. Furthermore, although a college or university might have encountered financial concerns, those issues generally were not addressed in the messages analyzed in this study about Fall 2020 plans.
One part of DOR also seeks to avoid assigning blame during a crisis (Spradley & Spradley, 2021). Institutions could have targeted the effects of COVID-19 for difficulties encountered on their campuses. One institution took a positive approach by indicating it would have a larger enrollment in the Fall. Some schools did discuss the ramifications of the pandemic. For example, two universities said enrollment growth would have been more significant without COVID-19. However, few other institutions attributed their problems to the COVID-19 virus.
Motivational Leadership Communication
The final component of the Discourse of Renewal theory is the communication from an organization’s leaders that motivates an entity’s public (Ulmer et al., 2008). Much of those messages fall under the Better Together category, which conveys a sense of unity and a community-wide resolution, rather than focusing only on the actions of a few individuals. Many of those messages originated from the president of the college or university, thus providing a face to the institution (Gigliotti, 2016). The situation enabled leaders to highlight their institutions’ proactive approach to the crisis, which prior studies have shown can enhance connections with stakeholders (Carlson, 2018).
Motivational content was directed both at the internal and external publics. One means of communicating to the internal public involved the notion of working together as a team. That approach to crisis response when planning for the Fall semester was similar to Uitdewilligen and Waller’s (2018) finding that early collaboration resulted in teams having better answers to their situation. In essence, that expression of motivation was commensurate with a cheerleader approach in which the institution’s president provided praise and encouragement for the continued efforts of faculty and staff to develop effective strategies for Fall reopening.
CCCU institutions also employed several means of motivating their external publics. Many of the schools provided compassionate messages, including personally addressing their audiences by referring to “I” or “we” and expressing empathy. Prior research found that using such language in crisis response keeps recipients of communication in mind (Sellnow & Sellnow, 2010). Organizational crisis response also can be based on the history of an organization, which emphasizes its strength (Anderson & Guo, 2020). Similarly, with COVID-19 planning for Fall 2020, some institutions noted that their academic standing would not be affected by the pandemic, but that they would continue delivering high-quality education.
Implications of Practice
Several implications for higher education institutions can be derived from examining the messages about Fall 2020 planning related to COVID-19. First, crisis planning, both externally and internally, is essential. That includes taking a proactive versus a reactive approach. Crisis management that considers seeing the crisis as an opportunity to learn will enhance the entity’s connections with its stakeholders.
A second implication is to focus on the positive side of a situation and consider an organization’s future, which is tied to the Discourse of Renewal theory. That approach includes ensuring the spokesperson communicates with empathy and understanding, while also considering the future of the institution.
The results of this study also demonstrated the need to be flexible. Institutional communications analyzed here hoped for a specific outcome, particularly returning to in-person instruction for the Fall 2020 term. Despite that prediction, the colleges and universities studied here indicated they were being flexible in their planning in the event of necessary changes.
A fourth implication is to provide regular and open communication. An important element of the Discourse of Renewal theory is to maintain an ethical approach to crisis communication (Ulmer et al., 2008). In the case of institutions regarding their anticipated Fall 2020 plans, that included conveying honest information that was essential for their constituents.
Another approach that can be derived for institutions from this study is the importance of considering an entity’s historical standing (see e.g., Anderson & Guo, 2020). Enhancing the trust of an institution’s publics involves reminding them it will continue to stand on the same values it has embraced since its inception.
Sixth, it is important to communicate unity among faculty, staff, and students. In the case of COVID-19 messages, many institutions were quick to express their appreciation for the team efforts to develop their plans for Fall 2020.
The final implication of this study is to simultaneously communicate the critical nature and reality of a crisis, while also noting that the institution is able to weather the storm. That involves delineating specific actions the college or university is taking and how the institution’s constituents will benefit from those plans. Personalization is key to helping their publics better understand their role in a crisis situation and how they should respond.
Several limitations should be noted regarding this study. First, it only examined CCCU institutions in the United States. Future research could compare COVID-19-related communication between institutions in the U.S. and internationally-located CCCU colleges and universities to determine whether there are differences based on global location. Another limitation is that the present study looked at the communication of the institutions within a limited timeframe just prior to the Fall 2020 academic year. A longitudinal study that considers messages at the outset of COVID-19 notices would show whether institutions changed their approaches over time when it comes to that topic. Thirdly, it might be helpful to consider the effects of Swine Flu/ H1N1 a pandemic or at least acknowledge the presence and effect of those college campuses. A fourth limitation is that this study is not generalizable outside the colleges and universities in this research. It can only provide a glimpse into the proposed Fall 2020 plans examined in the present study.
Further research might compare messages of CCCU member and affiliate institutions to COVID-19-related communication of secular universities. Prior research examined the extent to which institutions had a written crisis communication plan (Heiselt & Burrell, 2012), as well as whether faculty and staff felt prepared to handle a crisis (Liu et al., 2015). COVID-19 was a different type of crisis that continued well past the Fall of 2020. Staff and faculty at CCCU institutions whose COVID-19 communication was analyzed in the present study could be surveyed to determine if they were prepared for the crisis (Benoit, 1997). That also would provide scholars and administrators alike with an understanding of the effectiveness of institutional messages during a pandemic.
This study only examined institutional content. A future study could use a multi-method research approach that analyzes messages and also surveys the presidents of institutions to determine their rationale when implementing different COVID-19 guidelines.
The present study used the Discourse of Renewal theory when examining communication from CCCU schools during COVID-19. Coupling Coombs’s (2007) Situational Crisis Communication Theory and Benoit’s (1997) image repair would aid in knowing how institutions dealt with COVID-19 and how the pandemic could have aided in future crisis planning. That would include examining the outcomes of institutions’ crisis response messages to determine stakeholders’ perceptions of the entity (Coombs, 2014).
COVID-19 proved to be a disruptor of higher education institutions (Blankenberger & Williams, 2020). Colleges and universities in the U.S. spent several weeks at the end of their Spring 2020 term making adjustments to their course delivery systems, including foregoing in-person instruction for online courses.
The present study focused on U.S.-based institutions that were members or affiliate members of the Coalition for Christian Colleges & Universities. This research qualitatively examined 118 CCCU institutions that provided publicly disseminated communications on their websites via means such as press releases and messages from administrators regarding their proposed plans for the Fall 2020 term.
Colleges and universities examined in this study simultaneously had to deal with two issues. One was providing regular updates about a given institution’s status associated with COVID-19. Indeed, most colleges and universities studied here demonstrated concern for their students, faculty, and staff, by posting that information, as well as how the institution was responding to the evolving situation.
Commensurate with providing the updates noted above, this research found that institutions also recognized the importance of conveying the essence and sometimes the foundation of the particular college or university. That included messages that were positive about the entity’s future plans, especially anticipating in-person classes for Fall 2020. However, although the institutions examined here were very hopeful about meeting on campus, they often tempered those messages with realizations that their situation could change. That revealed a thoughtful but realistic appraisal of the future. Administrators of institutions responded to the crises as the leader, as well as the face of the institution (Gigliotti, 2016).
The results of this study showed that the institutions examined here had a serious perspective of the pandemic. They managed their crisis by readily and frequently offering updated information that was pertinent to individuals connected to the institution. Communications from many institutions recognized the work and collaboration of their crisis team (Uitdewilligen & Waller, 2018), created messages that had the audience in mind when developing the institutions’ crisis plans (Sellnow & Sellnow, 2010), and included statements about how the Christian colleges and universities examined here maintained a commitment to God, despite COVID-19.
Declaration of Interest
The authors report that there are no competing interests to declare.
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