The Higher Ed Workplace Blog

Preparing for the Return to Campus: Two Institutions Share Their Approach

In March, many colleges and universities had policies and procedures in place that provided guidance for moving to online instruction and telework arrangements while ensuring that their communities stayed safe and well. However, now, as we pivot toward fall, we’re in uncharted territory. Enrollment and budget shortfalls are likely, and COVID-19 will continue to be an issue for the foreseeable future. The path forward is anything but clear.

HR leaders — along with campus leaders in the chancellor’s office, student affairs, academic affairs, facilities, public safety, and other critical areas — are on the front lines of the return-to-campus conversation. Yet, how do we navigate with so many unknowns? Jay Stephens, vice president for human capital services at Kansas State University, and Jeff Herring, chief HR officer at the University of Utah, recently shared with us their approaches to this unprecedented planning challenge.

Start With the Principles That Define Your Institution

“I think the biggest thing is having guiding principles that fit your institution, putting the right folks on the team and following good guidance on the phases of re-entry,” Jay Stephens said in a recent video chat with CUPA-HR’s Rob Shomaker. “Kansas State has five guiding principles that we look at in terms of making decisions now and for the future, and number one on that list is the health and safety of our community. We evaluate every decision we make in terms of those guiding principles.”

Kansas State University’s guiding principles are:

  • Preserve the health of our university community and our host communities.
  • Maintain and deliver the land grant mission of education, research, and extension/outreach. During the limited operations period in response to COVID-19, our priorities are to teach and advise students through the spring semester and beyond, continue to recruit and enroll students for the next academic year, and conduct limited mission-critical research and engagement.
  • Preserve and maintain university operations necessary to support mission-critical activities.
  • Honor our unique university culture. Students, faculty, and staff are at the heart of our university. Take care of our employees to the extent possible while remaining fiscally solvent now and into the future. Treat employees fairly and equitably.
  • Preserve the fiduciary capacity of the university to deliver on mission-critical activities for the long-term fiscal health of the university.

With those principles front and center, Kansas State is developing a framework for decision-making that will let different campus units make localized decisions using consistent criteria.

Build a Framework of Decision-Making Criteria That Can Be Used Across Units

The University of Utah is preparing its return-to-campus framework, too. The guiding document they’ve developed is a work in progress. Each color-coded section features guidelines for different areas of campus. The red section of the framework describes where most institutions are now, having only a very specific group of employees and functions operating on campus. The goal is to get from red to orange — and eventually to the yellow and green stages.

Like Kansas State and most institutions, Utah’s core guiding principle is the health and safety of students, faculty and staff.

“We have an excellent partnership with our state and local officials, who have given a good framework for many industries in Utah. We are taking that guidance and then making it specific to higher education and the University of Utah,” said Jeff Herring. “Fortunately, we have experts in many of these fields on our campus, so we can coordinate with our researchers and public-safety experts as we apply these guidelines to the various areas of our campus.”

With the COVID-19 situation evolving rapidly both nationally and locally, flexibility has been vitally important, as have communication and collaboration.

“This is a true ‘One U’ university-wide effort,” Herring added. “We have representation from student affairs, academic affairs, facilities, research, public safety and emergency management, faculty affairs, health sciences, athletics, and marketing and communication.”

A New Normal That’s Not at All Normal

We would love to hear how your team and institution are approaching fall planning. We hope you’ll join your HR peers in the General Discussion in CUPA-HR’s online community, where you’ll find several threads like this one on COVID-19 Transition to Work Plans.

You can find all the latest resources CUPA-HR has developed and curated on the topic of returning to campus on our COVID-19 Resources site. Be sure to check out:

Other Related Resources


The CUPA-HR national office will be closed July 4 in observance of Independence Day.