President Speaks: 5 tips for small-college leaders to foster community amid coronavirus

Dennis Hanno is the president of Wheaton College, in Norton, Massachusetts.

America’s smaller colleges and universities, particularly liberal arts colleges, foster a sense of community that is central to their mission. While the current coronavirus crisis presents a challenge to maintaining that sense of community as colleges transition from face-to-face teaching and learning to online education, it is still possible to maintain that sense of community.

Here are a few tips for creating community while going remote:

Be personal and be human. This is a benefit, and typically a core value, of any small college experience. Connect directly with your audience by being personal and genuine in all of your communication. Prepare targeted emails to specific audiences that hit on topics you know will be most relevant to them.

Emphasize consistent communication. While most college leaders have been operating in a just-in-time communication mode over the last couple of weeks, start to plan for more consistent, scheduled communication. For example, starting this Friday, we are creating a twice-a-week update to the Wheaton College community, in addition to any necessary ad-hoc communications. Just about every higher education institution has detailed guidance and updates that can be easily found on their websites — which is useful to campus constituents and leaders from other campuses as we all look for ideas about navigating this uncharted ground. Regular virtual town meetings or targeted group meetings for various constituents can also help ensure that people are informed and encouraged.

Dennis Hanno, president of Wheaton College

Dennis Hanno is the president of Wheaton College.

Permission granted by Wheaton College


Embrace the technology you are comfortable using. Our individual comfort levels with, and access to, technology are different. Use what you are most comfortable with and do that to the best of your abilities; whether that is email, Zoom or Google Hangout technology, live streaming or social media. Certainly, try to meet your community where they are, but make sure your comfort level is also part of the equation. Communicate in the style you would when there is not a crisis. People will be comforted by “seeing you” where and in ways that they would normally see you communicating.

Prioritize response and service. Email is always a big part of a president’s role, but being responsive to email is even more important in times like these. While your response time may be slower due to volume, any response from you or your office will be greatly appreciated and reassuring in these difficult times. If you can’t get to emails that need a quick response, delegate those quickly with a request for immediate follow-up. If an instant response is not required, take the time to craft a personal response when you have the time. People will understand your need to prioritize.

Moving to remote operation for a traditional, residential campus such as ours — one that has taught only face-to-face for 186 years —​ can feel more than a bit overwhelming. For help, we are turning to our Center for Collaborative Teaching and Learning (CCTL), which launched last year.

As faculty work on contingency planning for their courses in such a short period of time, CCTL (among others on campus such as the Wallace Library) is putting together a list of resources for faculty on how to adapt course objectives to this new situation.

Their resource list will include ideas about adapting assignments, managing student needs and expectations, and inclusion concerns, among other issues at the forefront of everyone’s mind. They are helping faculty think through changes with evidence-informed pedagogy at the center and are offering personal consultation. 

Finally, use whatever resources you can, from on- or off-campus. This will help ensure the switch to remote learning is as smooth as possible. If not, you will suffer in the short term as faculty will not feel supported in this entirely new space and students will sense their frustration. You will also suffer in the long term as the imperative and opportunity to leverage new technologies may not present itself again so strongly.

We have faced crises before and colleges and universities have consistently been up to the task meeting them. This situation feels different because its duration and impact are so uncertain. However, every college and university is facing this challenge together and the level of sharing and support for each other has truly been unprecedented. 

We need to keep supporting and sharing with each other day-by-day as we move forward together into this new reality in higher education.

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