Reopening College Campuses During COVID-19


​Part 4: Andy Brantley and Susan Norton of CUPA-HR​

Andy Brantley, president and CEO of CUPA-HR, and Susan Norton, vice president for human resources at Augusta University and CUPA-HR Board chair, take a closer look at the higher education workforce during COVID-19. They also examine the challenges of shifting online or transitioning faculty back to an on-campus environment and the necessity of addressing workforce inequities. (Recorded July 28, 2020)

Episode Notes

Here are some of the links and issues discussed on this week’s show:

Hosts and Guests
Andy Brantley
President and CEO, CUPA-HR
Read More
Andy Brantley - President and CEO, CUPA-HR  - Guest
Andy Brantley
President and CEO, CUPA-HR
Susan Norton
Chair, CUPA-HR Board and VP for Human Resources, Augusta University
Read More
Susan Norton - Chair, CUPA-HR Board and VP for Human Resources, Augusta University - Guest
Susan Norton
Chair, CUPA-HR Board and VP for Human Resources, Augusta University

 Read this episode's transcript

Sherri Hughes: You are listening to Engage Conversations. And this is a rapid response episode focused on leadership and higher education in the midst of COVID-19. I'm your host, Sherri Hughes and today's conversation is part four in a series of episodes of how institutions are navigating the recovery and reopening process as a result of the health pandemic we continue to face. Specifically, we're unpacking what leaders have planned, what they're learning from those plans, and how they're adapting in real time to the emerging issues of this crisis. I want to welcome my co-host, Philip Rogers, Senior Vice President for Learning and Engagement at ACE. Philip has led the first three conversations in this series and they have all been incredible. Philip, I know that we've been inspired by the vision and dedication of the leaders we've talked with, and I'm sure this dialogue will be no different.

Philip Rogers: Well, Sherri, it's really great to be back. I have to say that it has been an inspiring series and I can't wait to go back to listen to all the episodes, but I'm especially excited about today because we have a number of great guests. And one of the aspects of higher education that I think is really phenomenal is its people. And I think its people are its strongest assets and in so many ways, they are the folks on the front lines of this work and are the heroes. And I'm excited to hear what our guests have to share with us about how to do people management the right way during a crisis like this one.

Sherri Hughes: Thank you. And it's good to be back together doing this again. So we're also pleased to welcome as our guest today, Andy Brantley, CEO of CUPA-HR, and Susan Norton, chair of CUPA-HR's board of directors and Vice President for Human Resources for Augusta University and health system. They're here to talk with us about workforce preparedness in the time of COVID-19. Andy and Susan, thank you for taking the time to be with us today.

Andy Brantley: Thank you so much, Philip and Sherri. It is great to have this opportunity to have this conversation.

Susan Norton: Yes. Well thank you, Sherri and Philip. We are thrilled to be here and look forward to discussing our response to COVID-19 and the implications for our workforce.

Sherri Hughes: Great. So before we move into the heart of the dialogue, we'd love for each of you to share with us a little bit about your roles and your organization. So you can give our listeners a little bit of context for the conversation. Susan, you want to start?

Susan Norton: Sure. I am privileged and honored to be the Vice President of Human Resources at Augusta University. We are home to the Medical College of Georgia. It is our oldest college founded in 1828. We are a comprehensive research public university that is dedicated to training the next generation of innovators, leaders, and healthcare providers. We have undergraduate programs, graduate programs, as well as a full array of the health professions, including our medical college, our dental college and the state's flagship college of nursing. We had over 9,200 students from fall of 2019, and we are projected to be higher than that this coming fall, which we're very proud of in light of current circumstances. We have over 160 degree programs and are just thrilled to be the state's only publicly-funded academic medical center and medical college.

Sherri Hughes: And Andy, you want to share with us a little bit about who you are and what you do?

Andy Brantley: Absolutely. I'm the President and CEO of CUPA-HR, which is the higher education human resources association. We have members from just over 2,000 colleges and universities. And on those rosters, there are almost 32,000 higher education human resource leaders and other leaders from across campus who focus, not just on HR, but the key challenges of the workforce. Our work is focused in four areas, learning and professional development.

Andy Brantley: We have a strong advocacy position and are so pleased to partner with ACE on a number of issues that focus on the higher education issues and higher education workforce, building community, which we're going to be focused on quite a bit today and last, but definitely not least research focused on the higher education workforce. Our data set from this past year included information on over 780,000 higher education incumbents. So lots of work related to the higher education workforce and Susan and I are both thrilled to be with you and Philip today.

Sherri Hughes: Terrific. Well, thank you. So Andy, why don't you tell us a little bit about the higher education workforce. Who are the people behind this work, and how has the workforce been affected by COVID-19 particularly maybe a little bit about how health issues have evolved and changed over the course of the pandemic?

Andy Brantley: So Sherri, one of the things that people often forget is that there are millions of employees who are employed by higher education. So according to the latest National Center for Education Statistics data, there are just over 4 million employees who work for colleges and universities across the country. And just over 2.6 million of those are employed full time. So if you think about that, all 50 states, everything from public institutions to private institutions, to lots of different areas of focus, we have employees that are much more diverse across the number of types of positions than almost any other employer group in the country, in the world. And most people forget about that. When we think about what's been happening with the workforce, since COVID-19, there have been so many things that we have asked our workforce to do.

First, with the advent of COVID-19, we closed our campuses. "Closed" in quotation marks, because we know that none of our campuses actually ever closed totally, but we moved to an almost remote workforce almost overnight and finished out the semester. We thought that we would move from that phase to a phase during the summer where we were preparing to come back to campus in the fall. Well, what actually happened is as we were preparing for the end of the semester and closing out, all of these things started happening during the summer. And we were forced to make really difficult decisions for many of our employees, including layoffs, riffs, furloughs, as we saw what was going to happen during the summer with not only our classes, but summer camps and things like that.

And at the same time, as we were grappling with the end of the semester, the beginning of the summer, we were also grappling with what it meant to reopen the campuses in the fall. And again, I'll put "reopen" in quotation marks because we've seen how that's played out, how that is playing out, and Susan will talk about that in a few minutes related to all the things happening around the country. So instead of thinking about this in phases, all three of these things were happening at the same time and continue to happen at the same time for our workforces. So we'll have the opportunity to talk more fully about how each segment of our workforce has been impacted. But I think it's important to think about the number of people that have been impacted and the types of decisions that have occurred across our campus during the last four to five months.

Sherri Hughes: Wow. Thank you. And Susan, as we get started on the next academic year, how are things playing out on your campus?

Susan Norton: Well, certainly we are in the process of the reopening phase. Andy talked about the three distinct pockets of effort, all of which overlap. So currently we are focused on classes resuming on August 10th for our particular campus, faculty who are on academic year contracts will be back a week from yesterday, August 3rd. And so we're busy trying to make sure that we keep a people-first approach, safety and wellbeing of our faculty, staff and students. And so reopening efforts that focus very much on keeping our workforce and our students and any visitors safe. Of course, being the home to the Medical College of Georgia, we also have a hospital that is part of our organization. It is a separate 501(c)(3), but all total, we have a workforce that is above 12,000, about 7,000 in our university space and then 5,000 in the health system space. And so we also have to balance the reopening with effort that has been occurring since COVID began to support the healthcare needs of our region and our state. And so it is very much a balancing act.

Also in academic medicine, your medical students and dental students are starting earlier than your more traditional undergraduate and graduate programs. And so residents have already begun their residencies and started those on July 1st. And so there's been a huge effort really gearing up earlier than a more traditional college campus may have done. So it's really balancing everything, but keeping that people-first focus so that our workforce and our students can feel comfortable coming back to campus. I feel like we are fortunate because we do have an academic medical center. And so many of the members of our workforce have been at the forefront of responding to COVID-19. They have been engaged heavily in testing. As soon as this was clear it was a pandemic, we were on the forefront of that. And so that helps inform what we're doing as we prepare for the fall, because we do have this robust set of experts who are in the healthcare field and they can provide us with some really important guidance on how best to navigate the part of the campus that is reopening. So we've been in a balance of some of our workforce continued throughout the pandemic. Others did shift to online learning and more remote work, but now it's all coming back together and we're able to leverage the expertise of the healthcare side of the workforce.

Philip Rogers: Yeah. So Susan, you mentioned the phrase "people first focus", and would love to unpack that a little bit more deeply with you and Andy, because I think as we consider some of the themes that have rolled up through the first few episodes of Engage Conversations in this limited series, I think one of the initial ones that struck Sherri and me from our previous guests was centered around the importance of staying connected with people in the midst of the crisis. And that can come in a ton of different forms, right?

You've got a Tim White and Randy Woodson who both talked about the importance of the human factor in higher education. And Randy mentioned working with faculty and bringing them to campus so that they could teach students how to operate a nuclear reactor. And then Susan, you have the example of an academic medical center. I spent seven years at a campus that had one of those and we built a dental school from the ground up. So I saw what it would take to educate a student through several years of dental school on the ground. And it's tough work in a virtual environment, despite all the technologies that we've developed.

So I'm just curious to hear both of you talk about how human resources professionals can ensure that both faculty and staff can feel like they're staying connected to the university, that their concerns are being heard. There have been a lot of decisions that have been made in higher education where we hear about faculty pushing back on being in the classroom again. And then how do you foster that sense of community in an environment where so many people are working remotely? So a lot in there, we can do some follow ups as we go, but curious about your reactions.

Andy Brantley: Susan, I'll go first, and then I'll let you follow up. So, one of the things that I like to ... My glass is always half full or at least I prefer for it to be half full. And one of the outcomes from this whole COVID-19 situation that we're in is that it has forced us to be more connected to our employees as people. So our employees are working remotely trying to balance childcare issues, trying to deal with elderly parents, who they might not be able to see and visit as part of the COVID-19, they're having two career families who are trying to balance all of these things at the same time. And then there's the element of our employees who we've had to convey the really awful news of the necessary layoff, or furlough and what that means for them and their families. So for us as not just human resources leaders, but leaders across the campus, it is almost like a call to action that we more fully understand all of these elements of the human condition and how they all come together to serve not only the campus and the needs of our students, but to also at the core, not just be about the health and safety of our employees, but their overall wellbeing and for them as people.

One of the challenges, I have friends who work at colleges and universities across the country who are not in HR or leadership roles, and I've had several of them email me or call me and say, "You're not going to believe what's happening on my campus." And in every circumstance I've said something like, "First, think about the amount transition that is occurring right now, and the types of decisions that are having to be made almost by the hour and how people are being asked to make the best decision they can make right now with the information that is available to them."

I think that that, as we're thinking about that, or as it relates to our workforce, that's a critical component of this. I see things written in the Chronicle or Inside Higher Ed and people are getting all upset about X, Y, and Z, but let's think about what's going on and how decisions are having to be made so quickly in an environment that none of us had ever experienced before. So I think as part of this, as we're working with not just our employees who have been impacted, but our leaders who are making decisions is that we all need to be willing to take a breath and have a little bit of grace for our colleagues across the country. So Susan, I'll let you follow up on that.

Philip Rogers: I want to jump in real quickly right before Susan does, because you said two things I just want to react to. One was around mental health and wellbeing, and as we looked at some of our past Pulse Point surveys over the last three months, that topic by far rose to within the top two to three to four issues that are on the minds of presidents each and every day. And so you have a colleague in that space worrying about students, faculty, staff, and other constituencies on the wellbeing side. And I don't think we can place enough emphasis on that one. The second thing you said was making decisions in the face of uncertainty. We heard that over and over again, that I made a decision on April the 15th, April the 20th about the fall semester, and today I'm facing a whole set of different circumstances and I'm having to pivot and move. And so asking for that grace and asking for that patience says we have to adapt and be agile is really important. Susan, how's it playing out on the ground?

Susan Norton: No, I think all of these points are spot on, and we've focused a great deal on flexibility and use that word a lot, flexibility. It's a dynamic and fluid situation. We have to be agile, as you mentioned. We've also focused on trying to be creative too, recognizing that our faculty, staff, and students are facing challenges that they haven't faced either. So leaders haven't faced these challenges, our faculty, staff, and students haven't faced these challenges. And so shifting to online instruction, we had some faculty who had not had their classes in an online environment. And so they had to get up to speed in a quick fashion to transition their courses in the spring semester to finish them online. At the same time, if they had children in a K-12 setting or a childcare setting, they were also having to deal with their own family obligations.

And so, allowing flexibility, embracing things like telework and flex time as ways that we could support our workforce so they could meet their work obligations, but also meet family obligations. And yeah, Andy's used the term and you did too of grace. We've used that word a lot, now is a time to really be extending grace to others and recognizing that we are all facing something that is new and it is ever changing. The CDC guidelines are updated weekly, sometimes daily. And we always have to go back to those to check what is the latest and greatest, but in terms of operationalizing all of this on our campus, we've tried to be flexible. Communication has been critical, town hall meetings conducted by our president where he was speaking to our faculty, staff, and students about the current state as we knew it at that time.

And then multiple follow ups. Our provost has been very engaged in town hall meetings with faculty and staff. And so we've had a multipronged approach to communication, obviously, a webpage that gets set up, things that get tweeted out, a student focus. So it really has been a multipronged approach to try to keep our faculty, staff, and students informed, give them an avenue for asking questions, making sure that they feel like we are responding to their questions.

Sometimes we don't have all the answers. And I think that that's been another component that we've probably acknowledged that a lot more than ever, that this is a fluid and dynamic situation. We don't have all the answers today, but we're going to share with you what we do know, and we're going to work together because working together allows us to solve problems. And sometimes the best suggestions come, many times the best suggestions come, from those on the front lines. And so we need to hear from them, we need to give them avenues for letting us know what they're thinking about and what they're saying and what their needs are. And so we've tried to do that through open lines of communication, but recognizing the very, very fluid nature.

We've embraced things like alternate work arrangements and that's through our university system. We're fortunate to be part of a university system. And so we're allowing employees to request alternate work arrangements, and then we're working with them on a one-on-one basis to determine what can be helpful to them. So, again, just a fluid situation and trying to make sure that we keep our people first and that we do focus on their health and wellbeing. You mentioned the mental health component, I agree that's very critical. So we have made a point to remind our employees of our employee and faculty assistance program that is available to them and the resources through our university system wellbeing initiative.

Sherri Hughes: That is a lot for you all to handle. And I know, I think there's so much variation in individual circumstances that you really do have to find ways to meet the needs of the whole person, but knowing that that whole person is different from one situation to the next. That's a really big challenge for all of you. So Andy, you mentioned earlier that part of what has been a struggle for our colleges and universities is having to make tough decisions, furloughs, layoffs, those kinds of things. So, can you talk a little bit about how you're helping institutions think about making those difficult decisions strategically, fairly, humanely?

Andy Brantley: Yeah. As we've approached July 1st, which is the change of the fiscal year for many of our institutions, that's brought with it some realities of where we landed at the end of last fiscal year and some of the projections for the current fiscal year, and with that has come the need to make some really difficult decisions in terms of layoffs. In fact, some institutions had to make layoff decisions before the beginning of the fiscal year. So each one of those is guided by a different set of priorities and a different set of principles based on the operations of that particular campus. One of the things that I think we're all still hoping is that this is a temporary thing. This is a temporary thing, and what's going to be very interesting for us and I think something we're going to have to pay very close attention to is what happens in the fall once we reach our "new normal", at least the new normal for the fall semester and what that might mean in terms of our workforce.

We've seen some institutions that have had to already make one layoff decision. There are some campuses that have made three or four waves of layoff decisions already affecting faculty and staff. As you know, and we were talking about mental health earlier, every time that occurs on a campus, it has an impact to the culture, to the employees, to their mental health and wellbeing. When is the next shoe going to drop? Is it going to be me and my position next? How will my family be impacted? So all of those things impact where we are right now. But I think that the biggest thing for us to consider is going back to some of the things that Susan was talking about earlier, in terms of the understanding of what our employees are going through as part of this and not forgetting that as part of our own workforce challenges.

Philip Rogers: I'll jump in and react because I want to hear Susan's reactions as well. It's interesting to think about the types of institutions as well. Andy, I'm sure you have private institutions that are facing different scenarios around this work compared to public institutions that have state budget cuts that drive their funding models. And Susan, where are you all in this landscape of having to make tough decisions?

Susan Norton: Sure. So in the state of Georgia, as I said, we are part of the University System of Georgia. We're one of 26 institutions. We ultimately ended up with a 10% budget cut for our state. So campuses across the system had to absorb that and plan for that. We have been very fortunate in that we have ended up not having to apply furloughs to make that budget reduction. We have also avoided layoffs, but that is in part because of vacant positions that were already unfilled and therefore holding those can help us achieve the reduction. So we consider ourselves very fortunate in Georgia. My colleagues across the country are not as fortunate and some have faced furloughs, layoffs, and other types of salary reductions and things of that nature.

So we do consider ourselves fortunate, but we have to watch the enrollments for this fall, and we have to be very cognizant of the changing landscape and recognizing that now that we're seeing this uptick that we've all been experiencing over the last few weeks. We have to pay close attention to what impact is that going to have on the fall. And that's across our entire university system because we rise together, we fall together. We each have individual missions, of course, but we are still a system. I think that again, trying to keep our people first and recognizing that we are here to provide higher education for the state of Georgia, in our case. And focusing on our students, their wellbeing means that we are focusing on our faculty's wellbeing, our staff's wellbeing, and keeping them at the forefront is just critical even in the face of shrinking budgets and shrinking resources.

Philip Rogers: Yeah. I love that phrase, we rise and fall together, and I think it's spot on because so much about leadership in higher education is about mobilizing the people who serve the students and who serve the community, and mobilizing lots of different perspectives within an institutional setting around a set of core shared values towards a focused set of goals and a focused mission. We're fortunate to have good people like you, Susan, leading the charge on our campuses and, Andy, you across the entire landscape of higher education.

Now, we call these rapid response episodes for a reason. And so, one of the reasons is because we always ask you a rapid response question at the very end. So quick answers here on this one as we close out our time, and I'm going to pair two together. What's the big thing that keeps you awake at night right now, as you think about the next year in higher education? And then as you think about those things, what advice would you give to, or big takeaways to aspiring leaders who are going to be tackling these challenges as a part of the pandemic and its effects in the years to come? Let's start with Andy.

Andy Brantley: Susan, and give you a few more minutes to think. So, one of the things that keeps me up at night is what the new normal of higher education is going to be. I think we all still have the perception that we're going to return to normal, which was what was happening last fall. And I'm not sure that's going to be the new normal for higher education. And so when I think about that, when I think about the workforce, when I think about what we're trying to achieve in terms of our academic admissions, I think that is something that we should all be concerned about.

The other thing that keeps me up at night is when we look back three years from now, what will we be able to say that we did in response to all of these things that have our employees at the core? So for example, we're planning most campuses to go back full bore into the fall. All of our employees with school-aged children have issues there, our employees who will be laid off, what are things that we're doing to support community nonprofits that help our community as a whole? So I want us to be able to look back in three years and say, these are the things that we did that at the heart had community and our employees at the core.

Susan Norton: Yeah, I would say that some of the same things that Andy has said, I think what keeps me up at night are the unknowns too. It has been a fluid and dynamic situation going back to the 1st of March, we faced so many different challenges along the way. And it seems like there's always some new development. We have to then be able to respond to that. So, the unknowns are a stressor. It keeps me up at night because I think that the unknowns create more stress for our workforce too. And so there are worries that get introduced into the climate. When employees, faculty, staff, students are stressed, then we can't be our best selves. And that's just our harsh reality right now. And so what that new normal is going to look like, and that being such an unknown is a challenge. I do want to us to be able to look back and know that we were supportive and flexible for our workforce.

I was having a conversation just this morning with one of my direct reports. And we were reacting to a change by one of our local county school systems. They announced a change where now students are going to come back on Mondays and Wednesdays and Tuesdays and Thursdays. And so it's a new schedule for our parents to have to adapt to. And I said, what we want to look back on is that we did everything we could to support the parents who had to pivot with this new change presented to them. And so what can we do along the lines of flexibility and creativity so that we're keeping our faculty and staff again at the center? So what are we going to now think about doing creatively so we can help them respond? And so that's just an example of it's ever changing.

Sherri Hughes: Well, unfortunately we have to keep this to a rapid response, because I think we could all talk for at least another hour or so. But I just want to say Susan and Andy, thank you so much for your time today. It has just been a real pleasure to talk with you. And as Philip said, I think we are all grateful to have you all on the front lines, working with our institutions and supporting the higher ed workforce that is so important to the success of our students and the success of our communities. So just thank you for the work that you do and for taking the time to be with us today.

That concludes this special rapid response episode of ACE Engage Conversations. You can listen to the other podcasts in the series at and register on our Engage platform to listen to previous episodes of Engage Conversations and more including plenty of content on COVID-19 at Thank you again for your time. We look forward to bringing you more interesting conversations on the Engage platform to help you learn and lead in the flow of work. Goodbye.

About the Podcast

A short podcast series from ACE focused on reopening college campuses this fall as COVID-19 cases continue to surge in many regions of the country. Hosts Philip Rogers and Sherri Hughes talk with college presidents and chancellors and other members of the higher education community about how to ensure campuses are safe and workable for students—and when to make the decision to remain all-online. They unpack monitoring, testing, tracing, cleaning, teaching and learning, responding to the needs of faculty and staff, intercollegiate athletics—and the all-important question of how you get students to social distance in dorms, at parties, and everywhere they go.


This podcast series is generously supported by Jenzabar.

Listen and Subscribe