Chapter 5: The Role of the President: Leading by Wearing Bifocals Through the Pandemic and Beyond

by Devorah Lieberman, Ph.D.

Posted on December 10, 2021

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On Friday, March 13, 2020, Los Angeles County Public Health announced that COVID-19 was an official pandemic and educational institutions must take immediate actions to protect their students. Conferring with the Board of Trustees and the President’s Cabinet on “immediate action,” I sent communications to faculty, staff, and students that the campus would immediately convert to remote education and virtual business operations and would temporarily suspend campus housing. Fortunately, the following week was spring break, and we had seven days to move from a traditional face-to-face campus to completely virtual.

To do this successfully, I challenged myself and the cabinet to what I referred to as “wearing bifocals.” The “bifocals” metaphor became a helpful construct to respond to the pandemic and navigate our future. This allowed us to focus on different views while keeping both in focus, simultaneously. First, we focused on being completely virtual while sustaining inspiration during a time of fear and uncertainty. Second, we asked how to create opportunities to ensure a sustainable university beyond the pandemic. Crises demand leaders focus on the immediate and urgent. We, however, moved beyond that to address two concurrent perspectives: short and long range. 

Presidents lead; however, in normal times and even more so during crises, leadership requires the hard work and collaboration of many. A president cannot execute this bifocal strategy alone. In other words, the entire Cabinet and Board had to adopt the University bifocals. How fortunate the University of La Verne is to have a Cabinet and a Board of Trustees that became, what I perceived as, the “dream team” for problem-solving the “now” and envisioning the “future.” 

The University of La Verne 

Located in Inland Southern California, the University of La Verne is a comprehensive, private, not-for-profit university serving a diverse population of traditional-age, adult, and graduate students, preparing them for successful futures. The University’s core values of lifelong learning, ethical decision making, civic and community engagement, and diversity and inclusion shape every graduate’s commitment to enhancing their communities and professions. 

The University of La Verne serves more than 7,000 undergraduate and graduate students across four colleges: College of Arts and Sciences, LaFetra College of Education, College of Business and Public Management, and College of Law. The University is currently launching a fifth college: College of Health and Community Well-Being. The University delivers its educational programming on the La Verne campus as well as online and across nine locations throughout Southern California. The University awards bachelor’s, master’s, law, and doctoral degrees. 

We are a proud federally designated Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI). Approximately 80% of our students are minorities, with the largest group being Latinx (54%). Forty-three percent of the students are first in their families to attend college, while over half of the traditional undergraduate students are eligible for federal scholarship grants (designated for students with a total family income of less than $50,000 per year). Committed to making a quality education accessible to students regardless of financial status, the University provides institutional aid to more than 97% of its traditional undergraduate students annually. This year alone, the University awarded $55 million in scholarships across the student body. 

The University operates on a thin financial margin, putting students first. There are few discretionary resources available to solve short-term problems nor to make long-term investments. Although the University’s financial situation has improved over the past 10 years, we are far from a wealthy institution. Even though we recently successfully completed our first comprehensive campaign ($125M), what “new” money we spend is dedicated to strategic investments in the University’s future. 

Entering the Pandemic Required Immediate Pivots and Short-Range Bifocals 

Like many other institutions, the pandemic brought uncertainty to the campus community. No one could predict the length of time the campus would operate virtually; student retention nor new student recruitment; and health and safety of the University’s students, faculty, staff, and board members. Being in Los Angeles County, which was aggressive in its approach to public health (different than other parts of the country), we had to balance our responses with the stringent governmental mandates. 

We identified and communicated widely three guiding principles that balanced our short-term needs with longer-term aspirations: 

  1. Safety of all faculty, staff, and students 
  2. Quality of student educational delivery and retention 
  3. Financial sustainability 

In nearly every communication to campus constituents, we used the phrase: “We must wear our bifocals, react successfully to the present, and prepare for a sustainable future.” 

By the end of spring break (March 20) and through spring term, immediate actions that aligned with these three priorities included, but were not limited to, the following: 

  • Information Technology virtualized all operations for faculty, staff, and students. 
  • All classes were delivered remotely while business and support offices functioned virtually. 
  • Safe and socially distanced residence halls supported 150 housing-insecure students. 
  • Regular COVID-19 tests for faculty and staff.
  • A COVID-19 related communications strategy and monthly virtual town meetings for students and families, faculty, and staff. 
  • Our Center for Teaching and Learning implemented continuous assistance throughout the semesters and summers to convert classes to quality remote instruction. 
  • Ergonomically designed technology and equipment supported employees working from home. 
  • Given the financial background of the students we serve, we launched a mini campaign: “The Student Emergency Relief Fund.” Through the pandemic, our students and their families faced emotional, physical, and financial risks. Nearly all our students work; those in small businesses and service industries were most at financial risk. Helping attend to their financial concerns allowed them to focus more on academic priorities. 300 donors contributed a total of $350,000. 1,000 students, including DACA and international, received between $90 and $300 from this fund. 

Short- and Long-Range Bifocals: Financial Sustainability 

Between March 13, 2020 and the close of the 2020 academic year, we faced a budget reduction driven by the loss of revenue from residential students, dining services, and rental space. As I spoke with other presidents, they were building their 2020-2021 budgets based on worst case scenarios. With the leadership of our CFO, we built our bifocal budget. The short-range strategy immediately adjusted the budget so that the year ended without deficit. The long-range strategies included budget scenarios and inflection points. 

Introducing the Bifocal Budget Model: Scenarios and Inflection Points 

Because of the uncertainty of the 2020-21 year, the pandemic, and the enrollment, we built the budget around start dates for student enrollment (law school in August, undergraduate and graduate in September, the regional campuses in October). As we entered the academic year and through a shared governance process, we announced budget reductions with the understanding that when we reached each enrollment inflection point (August, September, October), based on enrollment revenue, we would either make further reductions or not. It became “if/then scenarios.” If revenue exceeded budget expectations, then there would be no additional reductions. These inflections points were implemented throughout fall and spring, and by the end of academic year 2021, having met and exceeded budget projections, we reinstated nearly all reductions. Because we held monthly State of the University addresses, we were able to announce the budget impact each month and the budget reinstatements, as well as a $1,000 Board-led Appreciation Award for every employee. 

For long-term sustainability, we will continue implementing this budgeting. It is “real-time,” transparent, and addresses the short and long range for the University. 

Short- and Long-Range Bifocals for Enrollment Management 

Traditionally, spring is the season for finalizing undergraduate recruitment, student confirmations, campus visits, residence halls visits, and face-to-face outreach by the enrollment staff. None of that could happen during spring 2020. The Office of Enrollment Management created alternative ways to reach prospective students. Additionally, a free “COVID content related course” was offered over the summer for entering freshman. Zoom meetings, drive-through advising, and regular and consistent virtual interactions with students and families produced greater than projected yield in undergraduate students and several graduate programs. 

Short- and Long-Range Bifocals for Campus and Space Management 

It became apparent that the faculty and staff could virtually deliver quality education and business services. During spring 2021, the president and cabinet created a model for a 2021 “safe return” that identified which services were best delivered remotely and which were best delivered face to face. Based on these criteria, all employees and offices began to rethink how to best use their space, when to deliver hybrid services, and how to manage time on campus and/or remotely. This allowed the campus to eliminate spaces that the University leased or rented, deliver services more efficiently, and help employees manage and balance university and family responsibilities. 

Short- and Long-Range Bifocals Meet and Exceed the $125 Million Comprehensive Campaign 

The largest comprehensive campaign in the 130-year history of the University began in 2015 and is projected to achieve $125 million by 2022. 

  • Short-range bifocals: On March 13 when COViD-19 required us to move to virtual, we also asked “how can we also move to virtual fundraising?” Short-term bifocals prompted us to create the “student emergency relief fund” to raise $350,000 in support of student needs for medical, travel home, tuition, and rent. 
  • Long-range focused bifocals: We knew that our prior largest gifts had been achieved through our one-on-one face-to-face meetings, our annual gala, and private dinners at my home. Our goal was to continue fundraising by re-creating that feeling of face-to-face intimacy through a virtual environment. The Advancement Office helped pivot to virtual fundraising and exceed the $125 million campaign during the pandemic, a year early: 
    • We cancelled our annual face-to-face gala and immediately planned a virtual gala, one of the first during the pandemic. We exceeded our goal of raising $600,000, dedicated to student scholarships. 
    • We pivoted from in-person donor dinners prior to virtual intimate dinners. We contacted our donors, scheduled virtual dinners, and ordered from their favorite local restaurants to be delivered to their homes. The evening of the zoom dinners, they dined in their homes while my husband and I zoomed from ours. 
    • The third fundraising pivot was virtual gatherings with targeted audiences focused around activities. Examples included virtual dinner with the provost for 20, virtual painting for 25 with an artist, and “wine and cheese parings” for 25. 

Exceeding the $125 million comprehensive campaign a year early allowed us to continue raising an additional $10 million that supports the initiatives of the 2025 Strategic Vision. The fundraising momentum continues.

Building and Maintaining Long-Range Bifocals During the Pandemic 

While most of the campus was focused on issues of the “now,” the cabinet, Board, and I communicated the importance of preparing for the long-range sustainable future. Critical initiatives that began prior to the pandemic moved forward and gained momentum during the pandemic. 

Board and Campus-Wide Commitment to the University’s 2025 Strategic Vision 

The 2025 strategic plan was approved by the Board prior to the pandemic. Why was it important to continue with the strategic vision? It was the perfect example of wearing long-range bifocals. 

During the monthly State of the University sessions, we addressed issues related to the pandemic that were pertinent to the short-range while also communicating progress and updates on the 2025 Strategic Vision. 

Lessons Learned by Wearing Short- and Long-Range Bifocals 

As I reflect on the successes and challenges we faced through the pandemic, I offer the following advice: 

  • Create a President’s Cabinet that wears, as well as co-creates, the bifocals to meet immediate needs and implement strategies for institutional success. 
  • Communicate (even over communicate) authentically and honestly, with the Board of Trustees, the faculty, the staff, the students, and the greater community. 
  • Prioritize and communicate the following: health and safety for all; student success and support; equity for personnel and policies; and institutional sustainability. 
  • Keep the board consistently informed of the present, engaged in focused long-range problem solving, and appreciated by the campus for their leadership. 
  • Be mindful that the campus community is depending on the president to embody the following: vision, honesty, grit, inspiration, visibility, authenticity, and confidence.