Leading Colleges with Courage During the COVID Crisis

By Danica Fisher ’05, October 5, 2020
President Collado speaks at the Courageous Zoom Action Chat.

Ithaca College President Shirley M. Collado and her husband, A. Van Jordan, the Robert Hayden professor of English at the University of Michigan, spoke on Oct. 2 at the Courageous Zoom Action Chat titled “College on Covid.” The Courageous Zoom Action Chat was hosted by Ryan Berman ’98, the founder of Courageous, and author of book “Return on Courage: A Business Playbook For Change;” and Rhett Power, who in 2019 joined the prestigious Marshall Goldsmith's 100 Coaches and was named the #1 Thought Leader on Entrepreneurship by Thinkers360. 

Courageous Zoom Action Chat

Courageous Zoom Action Chat "College on Covid."

Berman moderated the chat and started off the event with a question on how COVID-19 has changed the narrative for our current students. Collado said she’s proud that even amidst the incredible pressure of the public health crisis, the college has been walking the walk of its values and centering its deep sense of responsibility to students.

“It’s about how you make huge decisions with very short-term visibility,” said Collado. “Your decisions have huge long-term implications that we can’t even predict right now.”

Collado talked about how it is an honor and a privilege to lead during such a historic time, and that she takes that responsibility very seriously.

“We’re making decisions with science. We’re making decisions with metrics. We’re making decisions that are about serving a public good,” said Collado. “We’re thinking first and foremost about the students that we have all around the country right now negotiating very difficult things.”

Attendees of Zoom chat.

Zoom attendees of the Courageous Action Chat. 

Jordan said that he didn’t think it was possible to separate everything that is going on right now.  

“All of these things are happening at once, and they are real challenges,” said Jordan. “I think the real complexity of it right now is that we can’t just isolate one problem and focus on that without the worry of the others having any kind of impact.” 

Collado touched on how COVID-19 has illuminated both the challenges and the opportunities that exist within our democracy — and the entire higher education sector.

“I think the silver lining in this is that there has been a coming together across sectors of education, unlike anything I’ve ever seen before,” said Collado. “And I hope that’s going to stay.”

Berman then asked both Collado and Jordan about the value of college and its worth. Collado brought up how both she and Jordan are first-generation college students, and how that informs their perspectives.

“College for us was very difficult, and it wasn’t because of academics, it was because of climate, it was because of issues related to equity,” she said.

“Foundational theoretical liberal arts are critical to any kind of professional practice work that you do — that’s in Ithaca College’s DNA.”

President Shirley M. Collado

Jordan mentioned how COVID-19 impacts the college experience because a lot of college happens outside of the classroom and replicating that on a screen is hard.  

“I do think the college experience itself is one of the few places where you are able to have this kind of intellectual curiosity and you’re pushed and forced to experience things that you probably wouldn’t experience outside of that space, and I think that’s what makes it important,” said Jordan.  

Collado talked about how COVID-19 has reinforced a lot of things in our country and in higher education, including the polarization of our country, the rapid pace of change, and that students want to be face-to-face on campus and in the community.

“Students learn by jumping in and getting it done,” Collado said. “Foundational theoretical liberal arts are critical to any kind of professional practice work that you do — that’s in Ithaca College’s DNA.”

When asked about how to tell the story of today, Jordan emphasized the importance of the narrative that is happening right now in the moment of COVID-19.

“The thing that we often do is we will look at other narratives; we look at narratives of the past and try to make those connections with the narratives of the present and that helps make sense of the present,” said Van. “I think for most of us when we’re thinking of narrative and story, we’re also trying to understand ourselves.”

Collado ended the conversation by putting a finer point on what higher education can take away from the COVID-19 crisis: that colleges and universities can innovate and bend in a short amount of time to move outside entrenched processes and approaches; that collaboration is a choice that leaders and institutions must make; and that the value of equity is critical for success.

“My hope for the future of higher education lies in what we’re learning right now in these very traditional places.”