Why leaders should consider similarities between campus uprisings and the COVID-19 outbreak

By Ty-Ron M.O. Douglas, author of Campus Uprisings: How Student Activists and Collegiate Leaders Resist Racism and Create Hope. You can reach him on Twitter at @DrTyDouglas

While not a campus uprising in the way that most of us traditionally think of uprisings, the COVID-19 outbreak has created unprecedented uncertainty and disequilibrium across the entire university context, not entirely dissimilar from the paralysis experienced on some campuses during campus uprisings. When folks typically think of campus uprisings, our initial thoughts go to disgruntled and disenfranchised people mobilizing to challenge policies and institutional concerns, rather than a global pandemic that is literally compromising the very ethos and execution of how we do life, let alone education.

Yet, I would like to suggest that this global pandemic is a campus uprising of a slightly different sort: while the Covid-19 virus may not be challenging institutional inequity in the exact same way most typical campus uprisings do, it is certainly exposing the inequities and inefficiencies in leadership, in healthcare, and in access to resources that often necessitate or precipitate unrest and uprisings; and these realities are always inextricably linked to racism, disproportionalities, and the history of discrimination in this country (and across the globe) which never seems to provide black folks with immunity. Look no further than statistics on the deleterious effects of this pandemic on the African American community (Johnson and Buford, 2020; Muse, 2020), realities that mirror the overrepresentation of black people in other markers of oppression (e.g. the penal system, school suspensions) and the otherization of black communities, whether based on accurate data or on “bad stats” as my colleague and co-editor, Ivory Toldson, notes in his book No BS (Bad Stats): Black People Need People Who Believe in Black People Enough Not to Believe Every Bad Thing They Hear about Black People. Moreover, perceptions can be just as deadly as the realities, even though perceptions are often not reality.

Toldson (2019) appropriately reminds us that some pervasive beliefs held about Black people are not true and based on BS (bad stats)—for example, the claims that “There are more Black men in prison than college,” or “Black children fail because single mothers raise them.” This is important context and consideration for anyone who desires to respond to this particular campus uprising called COVID-19, a virus that has compromised the immune systems of the entire global, national, and university enterprise. What hasn’t been compromised is the proclivity of adversity to disproportionately and negatively affect the most vulnerable.

During times like these, leaders across the spectrum of influence—from educational, community-based and curriculum contexts to political and governmental chambers—must draw on the best of what we know to face and overcome that which we have never experienced in our lifetime. And let’s be clear. Leaders—at the governmental and campus levels are struggling much like many faculty and staff members who are now managing transitions to 100% online classes while serving as homeschool teachers to our own children. Few, if any of us, took a class in our leadership preparation journeys called “What to do during a global pandemic.”

Fortunately, our new book, Campus Uprisings: How Student Activists and Collegiate Leaders Resist Racism and Create Hope, offers timely and vital perspectives from various levels of university governance and engagement that would be useful to our colleagues at disparate levels of leadership currently in the throes of a new normal of social distancing, an elevated level of systematic instability, and ubiquitous headlines of systemic bad news. Admittedly constructed to address a particular brand of campus uprising, our book just may be what is needed for leaders during this season. Our book includes hopeful insights from those who have known unrest, albeit by a slightly different name: substitute coronavirus for campus uprising. Still, the lessons from their leadership experiences certainly translate. You want to know what a department chair does during an uprising, read Dr. Stephanie Shonekan’s chapter on her experiences as she stood strong for her students, faculty and staff during the heat of the University of Missouri uprising. Want to know what center directors can do when they must balance student needs with pressure from senior administrators during a time of unrest, Jonathan McElderry and Stephanie Hernandez’s chapter provides those insights. Interested in what a university president is thinking right now? President Andrea Luxton’s chapter provides timely access to senior administrators leading amidst the unknown, much like Kofi LeNiles, Barbara Boakye, and Kmt Shockley offer us perspective on the need for student voice to be heard and heeded, particularly during these times.

In chapter 7 of our book, “Preparing for the Storm in the Times of Peace: Strategies for Preparing Higher Education Presidents for Campus Racial Crises,” Mahauganee Shaw and Sydney Freeman Jr. offer the most transferable and pointed counsel for leaders that can be translated to leaders in the trenches of the COVID-19 context. Though they primarily address racial campus uprisings, they offer two crises management frameworks (the crisis management cycle and the punctuated-equilibrium paradigm). Both of these frameworks can be applied to any campus crisis, including responding to COVID-19. Notably, Shaw and Freeman rightly posit that leaders should seek out crisis management training prior to a crisis taking place.

While it is now futile for leaders to waste time wishing they had completed a course on leading in a pandemic, it is not too late for leaders to consider and learn from the similarities between campus uprisings and the coronavirus outbreak; and the leaders who have navigated the aforementioned crisis previously.


Johnson, A., & Buford, T. (2020, April 3). Early data shows African Americans have contracted and died of coronavirus at an alarming rate. Propublica. Retrieved from www.propublica.org/article/early-data-shows-african-americans-have-contracted-and-died-of-coronavirus-at-an-alarming-rate/amp

Muse, M. (2020, April 7). Men in mortal danger—but we need more numbers. Level. Retrieved from https://level.medium.com/amp/p/694fc47fa027

Toldson, I. A. (2019). No BS (Bad Stats): Black people need people who believe in black people enough not to believe every bad thing they hear about black people. Leiden: Brill/Sense

Featured image courtesy Ty-Ron M.O. Douglas