Building Community in Times of Crisis

Drawing on chalkboard depicts people working together to complete puzzle pieces

Communication is a vital part of any organization, and this is especially the case at institutions of higher education. Without frequent, focused, and public communication, it is nearly impossible to organize at all. While weak or stressed systems are ill-equipped to respond to rapid change, dependable and robust networks can provide stability that weathers storms. Catastrophe is so clearly associated with organizational entropy that neglecting communication networks, both technological and relational, virtually guarantees failure under stress. As El Khaled and Mcheik explain, “failure of CS [communication systems] is widely known to occur in almost all extreme conditions” (2019).

Organizational communication and power

The Center for Faculty Development (CFD) at Seton Hall University used both existing and newly developed online communication techniques to face the unprecedented challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. Communication, of course, is about much more than messaging or distributing information, and communication structures are never neutral. At their best, educators create systems that reach past the content level to engage participants and form communities (Jennings, 2020). When university leaders approach organizational communication simply as a matter of distributing unilateral email announcements, the recipients generally feel disempowered and isolated. In contrast, when administrators set up multilateral exchange dynamics that explicitly acknowledge, enable, and invite engagement, bonds can begin to form and the communication system can even begin to sustain itself. In organizational theory this dynamic is termed “the paradox of power,” where the average manager sees sharing power as a “loss,” and the wise leader recognizes there is much more to be gained in vibrant synergy than is ever possible in a rigid structure. Over-control weakens systems and reduces their ability to deal with challenges. As Wilmot and Hocker (2012) explain, “Equity in power reduces violence and enables all participants to continue working for the good of all parties, even in conflict” (p. 371).

Development and community

Since its inception at Seton Hall in 2015, the CFD has focused primarily on building community as opposed to serving as a conduit for information, which is the case for other faculty development centers. In fact, in the last few years there has been increasingly greater management and centralization of information, including information going out to the faculty. Where once upon a time a unit director could email the community at will, that was now no longer the case. This control was in part a response to those who complained (rightly) about the amount of email they received daily. However, when the pandemic struck, administrative communication policies became a way to control messaging in order to ensure consistency and accuracy. Unfortunately, one ancillary effect was to make free and unrestricted communication with faculty much more challenging for those attempting to forge community and, ironically, at a time when the yearning for a sense of community was increasing. For example, unlike previous summers, when faculty tended to retreat to their research and other projects when classes ended, in summer 2020 they wanted to stay in touch. Therefore, despite the constraints, finding ways both to communicate and build community became even more important. There were several strategies adopted by the CFD to do both.

Strategies: Teams, Hours, Retreats, A-Ha! Moments

The first of these was to take advantage of the Teams platform used by the university to create various sites where faculty could find information and resources and communicate with one another at their convenience. Members of the university’s Teaching, Learning, and Technology Center were added to these Teams so they could post materials, creating a cross-walk between the CFD Teams and theirs. Teams were also created for every group that came under the CFD umbrella, such as the Diversity Coalition and the CFD Advisory Board. In addition, the CFD blog became a central conduit for information about forthcoming events and activities, especially since, for the first time, events were taking place in the summer months. Once someone followed the blog, they automatically received an email when a new post was created. And while the university calendar had always been a place to advertise CFD events, to make sure faculty were aware of the various resources available to them, every calendar announcement now also included links to the CFD website, the blog, and the CFD Teams.

In addition to communication strategies, it was important to find other ways to help faculty connect. One result was a weekly CFD virtual “Office Hour” where faculty could come together for an hour to talk, ask questions, or simply vent. These continued throughout summer 2020 and then into the 2020-21 academic year. (They have now become monthly events with the shift to in-person teaching.) Yet another forum for faculty connection was our summer-long, virtual Write Club. When the CFD’s annual three-day Summer Writing Retreat, typically held in late May, went virtual in summer 2020, it proved to be such a success that faculty asked for it to be continued. A daily space was created in Teams (9am – 3pm) for the remainder of the summer, and faculty could continue to join when time allowed. Some entered the space the same time every day; others came and went more sporadically. But however they chose to participate, Write Club became a way for faculty to stay focused on various projects, whether it was research or prepping a course for the continued uncertainty of the 2020-21 academic year. When we started the fall 2020 semester, the daily blocks became a weekly, three-hour block on Friday mornings so faculty could continue to come together as a “community.” This happened again in summer 2021 and into this current academic year.

A suggestion from the provost in April 2020 led to another new communication venue: a weekly series titled “Aha! Moments.” Faculty could submit brief descriptions of teaching strategies, tools, and tips that came about as a result of their pivot to virtual teaching. While the primary goal was to focus on teaching successes, the Aha! Moments also acknowledged the challenges of virtual and hybrid instruction and the strategies that had not worked so well. The submissions were then collected into an e-brochure that was shared with all faculty at the end of summer 2020. This communication venue proved to be so popular that Aha! Moments continued as a regular feature throughout the 2020-21 academic year; the contributions were again collected into e-publications at the end of each semester and posted on the CFD website and in Teams.

While emails directly to the faculty-at-large were no longer a viable option, a new weekly newsletter created by the Office of the Provost did contain news and announcements from various units, including the CFD. The newsletter was another effort to organize the flow of communication going to the community, but it did provide a regular forum for information sharing. Starting in fall 2020, the newsletter featured a CFD section with events, announcements, calls for participation, and the Aha! Moments, as well as a new feature, the “CFD Miscellany.” The “Miscellany” contained links to items of general interest in the areas of teaching, scholarship, and work-life balance. It became a way to share information about fun things to do in a time of great stress—virtual museum tours, free online exercise programs, how to play games in Zoom—as well as practical advice about hybrid teaching, grant-writing strategies, and new research tools. It also benefitted from faculty recommendations, which spoke to yet another form of community engagement.

Mission and community

While working within institutional constraints proved challenging, it also forced many of us to rethink how we communicate and why. Before the pandemic, CFD communications tended to be a one-way channel, but it is now dynamic and integrates participants into the process. The strategies succeeded because they foregrounded a relational awareness, treating the faculty as a community to be built up and empowered. This was evident in several ways: faculty who had never done so before attended CFD events and participated in its initiatives; more faculty took advantage of the CFD’s consultation and other services; and there was a stream of positive feedback from faculty, both oral and written. Ironically, in a time of severe isolation, the pandemic raised the profile of Seton Hall’s relatively new faculty development center, and it became an integral tool in a web of communication and community-building strategies at the university.    

Embracing the “paradox of power,” where shared control yields new synergies, has proven a best practice for fostering online community. Moving from unilateral systems toward shared control and invitational collaboration can raise important questions about faculty and mission: What exactly are faculty and what is their purpose? What is the end or telos toward which faculty development efforts are directed? With increasing corporatization, universities can seem to function as knowledge transmission businesses, so faculty begin to look like relays whose value is limited to efficient knowledge distribution. In contrast to the current corporate mode, most universities also have a mission that involves collective well-being and shared growth. In his landmark book on academic vocation, Exiles from Eden, Mark Schwehn (1993) traces the history of universities and re-frames our knowledge questions in terms of community:

[O[ver the course of the last twenty years or so [1970->], the question of community has replaced the epistemological question as foundational for all other inquiries. The answers to basic human questions, such as, What can we know? or How should we live? of In what or whom should we place our hope? have come to depend, for a large number of intellectuals, upon the answer to a prior question, Who are we? (p. 23)

Mark Schwehn

Within such a community frame, what we really need to know is one another, and this unifying telos is never more crucial than during a crisis. In the mid-nineteenth century, Seton Hall’s founder, Bishop James Roosevelt Bayley, envisioned the university as “a home for the heart, the mind, and the spirit,” and this vision has at its core open and mutual communication. This motto has also become the animating idea behind Seton Hall’s CFD and a fitting reminder of who we are.

Mary McAleer Balkun is a professor of English and director of faculty development at Seton Hall University. Jon Radwan is an associate professor of communication at Seton Hall University.


El Khaled Z. & Mcheick H. (2019). “Case studies of communications systems during harsh environments: A review of approaches, weaknesses, and limitations to improve quality of service.” International Journal of Distributed Sensor Networks 15.2

Jennings, W. J. (2020). After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging. Eerdman’s Publishing Company.

Schwehn, M. (1993). Exiles from Eden: Religions and the Academic Vocation in America. Oxford University Press.

Wilmot, W. & Hocker, J. (2012).  Interpersonal Conflict. In J. Stewart Editor Bridges Not Walls 11th ed. (pp. 359-374). McGraw Hill.