Examining Public Organization Communication Misalignments During COVID-19 Through the Lens of Higher Education

AuthorHaley Collins,Darrell Lovell,Stephanie Dolamore
Published date01 February 2022
Date01 February 2022
Subject MatterArticles
Administration & Society
2022, Vol. 54(2) 212 –247
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/00953997211026949
Examining Public
Misalignments During
COVID-19 Through the
Lens of Higher Education
Darrell Lovell1, Stephanie Dolamore2,
and Haley Collins3
COVID-19 is forcing alterations to administrative communication. Higher
education institutions transitioning online during the pandemic offers a fertile
ground to analyze what happens to organizational communication within
administration when the mode is primarily remote. Using a content analysis
of emails and participant interviews, this work finds that while administrators
intend to communicate empathy, messages fall short of fostering connection
with faculty due to failing to cultivate buyin through quality feedback
channels. The takeaways of this study of remote communication is that
despite its mode, communication must be two way, and the authenticity
of organizational communication becomes more important under pressure-
filled circumstances.
internal communication, higher education administration, administrative
misalignments, street-level bureaucrats, higher education
1West Texas A&M University, Canyon, USA
2Gallaudet University, Washington, DC, USA
3Alvin Community College, TX, USA
Corresponding Author:
Darrell Lovell, West Texas A&M University, 2409 Russell Long Blvd, Canyon, TX 79016, USA.
Email: Dlovell@wtamu.edu
1026949AAS0010.1177/00953997211026949Administration & SocietyLovell et al.
Lovell et al. 213
The rapid onset of COVID-19 transformed how public organizations com-
municate. As public organizations and institutions shifted the dissemination
of internal information and administrative mandates primarily to emails, it
introduced an area of public administration and organizational communica-
tion that bares specific examination. When remote communication is the only
option, what happens to the transfer and reception of administrative decisions
and directives?
Higher education administration provides a unique area of public admin-
istration to assess these pandemic-related shifts. Communication within
higher education has traditionally been face to face. Contemporarily, fac-
ulty and staff are bureaucrats, specifically street-level bureaucrats, carrying
out policy that has the advantage of proximity and shared experience with
their administrators. There are also clear examples of administrative dis-
content despite this proximity. Discontent with campus carry legislation in
Texas (Lovell, 2018), equity-based policies including affirmative action in
California, Michigan, and Texas (Gratz v. Bollinger, 2003; Grutter v.
Bolilnger, 2003; Hopwood v. Texas, 1996), and funding discontent sur-
rounding performance-based approaches are well studied in public and
higher education administration research (Baker, 2019; Jenkins & Fink,
2016; Kelchen, 2018; Li, 2017). As institutions worked toward moving
their work online in spring 2020, the paradigm of communication shifted as
directives changed. Proximity benefits faded away as administrators made
the necessary shift to virtual meetings and remote communication muddied
by personal and academic challenges for bureaucrats.
Higher education administration faced new challenges in the public and
organizational academic spaces during the Spring of 2020. The goal of this
research is to explore the perceptions of meeting these challenges. This
research takes a two-tiered qualitative approach using content analysis of
emails from a cross-section of 20 institutions and interviews with seven
respondents to assess how remote communication was carried out and how it
was received by street-level bureaucrats carrying out policy, the faculty. The
scope of this project requires both theory-based and descriptive approaches.
The central theoretical query focuses on how misalignments in pandemic
communication have manifested despite shared goals and public service val-
ues between administrators and faculty who serve as implementing policy?
Specifically, this study addresses the following focused questions: How do
misalignments in internal communication manifest in higher education dur-
ing a period of crisis? How are street-level bureaucrats, faculty, internalizing
and reacting to this communication? We test the hypothesis that internal
214 Administration & Society 54(2)
communication is misaligned between administrators and faculty. We expect
to find that communication patterns will stray more toward institutional nar-
ratives and away from faculty’s bureaucratic focuses as a result of increas-
ingly misaligned communication patterns.
To frame this study, we begin with a review of literature on street-level
bureaucrats and organizational communication during times of crisis that
highlight the characterization of faculty in the policy implementation pro-
cess and how administrative institutions interact. This literature sets up the
analysis of communication misalignments between administrative levels
during the early months of COVID-19. These misalignments represent the
traditional communication realm, and when they are applied to remote
communication with street-level bureaucrats, they amplify the strain of the
pandemic. It is our expectation that administrative communication that is
remote will be difficult to translate without context and elicit negative reac-
tions and internalizations from street-level bureaucrats despite intention
because of these misalignments.
The goal of this study is to unpack the effect of internal organizational
communication of pandemic-related decisions. In addition, the study seeks to
expand the understanding of efforts made by administrative representatives
(university and college system administrators) and how they align with street-
level bureaucrats carrying out these shifting policies (faculty). Researching
this communication and how it is received adds a layer to the administrative
scholarship where email is the central tool of conveying empathy and direc-
tives in an organization (Dolamore et al., 2020). During the spring of 2020,
administrators attempted to connect to the feelings of others in emails using
statements such as:
We acknowledge that these are extraordinary times that require exceptional
measures to deal with a health risk that affects all of us. Thank you for all that
you have done and will do to show care and compassion as we confront the
challenges that COVID-19 poses in our community. I appreciate your patience
and cooperation. We will get through this together (Anonymous email).
While the intention of these statements is to convey empathy, the impact of
the message depends on the connection between the sender and recipient.
More specifically, a lack of connection in the administrative relationship
makes the statement devoid of real empathy and jeopardizes the impact of
other information in the email. Yet little attention has been paid to these types
of empathic communication elements, which are often perceived as perfor-
mative and not genuine, within these electronic messages during this period
of intense crisis (Dolamore et al., 2020). This lack of connection shows a

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