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What Happens When Higher Ed Collaborates During a Crisis? Improved Solutions

May 20
Finding solutions
Finding solutions

BY CYNTHIA MCGRATH | MAY 20, 2020

Cynthia McGrath

The COVID19 crisis is hitting the higher education industry particularly hard. Four-year colleges may face a loss of up to 20 percent in fall enrollment, according to a recent survey cited in Inside Higher Ed. Carlos Santiago, the Massachusetts commissioner of higher education, says in a recent Boston Business Journal article that no event has changed the nature of the higher education sector as much as the coronavirus pandemic. He projects that enrollment-driven and tuition-dependent colleges and universities will be especially vulnerable to closing or merging with other institutions.

Human Resources departments are on the frontlines of trying to bring costs under control. Furloughs, layoffs, early retirement incentives, and benefit cuts are all strategies for reducing costs. Recognizing that collaboration between colleges and universities could help HR departments learn from one another, edHEALTH, the purchasing coalition of 19 colleges and universities, implemented bi-weekly Zoom meetings for its member schools toward the end of March.

“Collaboration has always been one of our strengths, and the pandemic increased the importance and usefulness of sharing ideas and best practices,” said edHEALTH president, A. Tracy Hassett. “Member institutions needed to get a handle on how the pandemic would impact claims, and they also wanted to evaluate how layoffs, furloughs, and other cost-cutting strategies affected their healthcare benefit program. edHEALTH’s forum has enabled schools to get some answers to these questions and to share ideas that help their respective institutions weather this crisis.”

One hundred percent of the member institutions, which also include four charter schools, take part in the bi-weekly calls. Average attendance ranges from 60-65 people, primarily HR and financial staff. “edHEALTH’s member collaboration has been especially valuable as each of our schools face the pandemic, and the ramifications to our faculty and staff populations,” said Marymichele Delaney, Lasell University’s former director of human resources. “The bi-weekly edHEALTH Zoom sessions have offered a strategic venue, allowing us to learn about best practices at other institutions and to share our approach during this unprecedented time.” She cites the following topics as those that have been most helpful:

  • Conducting successful employee town hall meetings to improve transparency, retention, and productivity
  • Mobilizing telehealth to fill gaps in care
  • Leveraging Employee Assistance Programs to ease faculty and staff stress
  • Managing on-campus health risks for essential workers
  • Planning for return to campus of remote workers

edHEALTH provides follow-up e-newsletter communications that recap healthcare-related topics discussed. To maintain confidentiality, edHEALTH captures the HR-related discussions, such as furloughs, in a separate document and posts this to a secure portal so that the schools can access and review as needed.

“edHEALTH’s bi-weekly meetings are helpful for benchmarking our approach to the COVID-19 crisis and sharing best practices,” said Kevin Pierson, Director of Benefits and Wellness at Brandeis University. “It’s also a morale boost to see everyone online during a time when we are all feeling isolated.” An HR employee at Bentley University said that she looks forward to the calls and that sharing ideas is beneficial. A Worcester Polytechnic Institute analyst lauds edHEALTH for providing an informative forum during a time of major change.

“Among the reasons Bennington College decided to join edHEALTH was the opportunity to connect with other colleges and universities,” said Heather Faley, Director of Human Resources for Bennington College, which is joining edHEALTH effective July 1. “Sharing information and best practices to navigate the waters in these times of uncertainty is especially valuable.”

To continue the collaboration momentum, edHEALTH is planning a June member school walking challenge. Member institution faculty and staff will compete against other schools for prizes based on steps walked. Employees from each school who have walked at least 5,000 steps are eligible to win a weekly prize. The winning institution receives the “Walk this Way edHEALTH Walking Challenge” trophy, a coveted recognition. “Now more than ever we all need to stay active, get outdoors, and have fun,” says edHEALTH’s Ms. Hassett. “Teamwork takes on new meaning during these times, and we look forward to helping our schools and their faculty and staff thrive.”

Cynthia (Cindy) McGrath is edHEALTH's Marketing Communications Strategist.

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