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University Leadership in the Time COVID-19 and the Reckoning of Systemic Inequity in Higher Education


The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted higher education in ways that were previously unfathomable and has brought to light the systemic racism and inequity that is pervasive in American society and the educational system. As the world entered its’ third year of the COVID-19 pandemic, long-existing systemic racism and inequity in institutions of higher education remained prominent. At the center of these challenges is leadership—operating at the individual level and as a dynamic institutional process responding to constantly shifting pressures. The purpose of this study was to describe and understand the experiences of university leaders during the COVID-19 pandemic in the context of systemic racism and inequity in higher education in a large public research-intensive institution. Using a qualitative approach, this study specifically investigated the decision-making processes of leadership, how institutional culture and structure facilitated or hindered those decisions, and whether and how university leaders prioritized addressing systemic inequity as the COVID-19 crisis unfolded. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with ten university leaders along with a review of additional qualitative documents related to the participants’ leadership. Five themes emerged: culture of care; authentic leadership; communication and engagement; innovation, collaboration, and adaptation; and centering equity. This study contributes to an extensive body of research on higher education leadership and leadership during crises, while providing an additional perspective on shared leadership and shared equity leadership in preparing leaders to face long standing challenges in higher education.

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