Theses Doctoral

The Unfolding Pandemic on College and University Campuses in Hong Kong, Johannesburg, and New York City: Institutional Response to the Covid-19 Outbreak

Abbasov, Abbas

Higher education institutions (HEIs) have faced unprecedented challenges during the Covid-19 pandemic. This dissertation draws on the comparative case study design to examine the institutional response to the Covid-19 pandemic across seventeen HEIs in three urban contexts: Hong Kong, Johannesburg, and New York. Due to the limited knowledge base about the novel coronavirus and its rapid spread, the institutional response to the Covid-19 pandemic was premised on uncertainty and presented a unique challenge to decision-makers. This study is informed by the systems approach in the three strands of literature I draw from – disaster studies, sociology of risk, and higher education governance. The evidence from this study supports the conceptualization of the Covid-19 response as a by-product of social design and socially constructed events. I take a qualitative approach to study the institutional response through semi-structured interviews, documents, and recruitment survey responses. Guided by organized risk sensemaking, I put forth the following research questions: (1) What policies, if any, have been adopted to mitigate the risk of Covid-19? (2) What decision-making structures, if any, have been mobilized to mitigate the risk of Covid-19? (3) How, if at all, institutional managers have rationalized the decisions adopted in response to the Covid-19 pandemic? and (4) How, if at all, has the external environment impacted the institutional response to Covid-19?

In the first findings chapter, I examine the Covid-19 policies adopted during the pandemic and conclude that the measures taken to mitigate risks associated with the pandemic have counter-intuitive consequences. The Covid-19 response has strengthened HEIs’ place-based identity and underscored the role universities and colleges play in their immediate communities as anchor institutions. The second analytical chapter shows how decision-making structures were established and mobilized during the Covid-19 pandemic within different HEIs. It typifies decision making structures by their focus (general vs. specific) and temporality (permanent vs. temporary). This chapter discusses the challenges and benefits of different decision-making approaches, including the involvement of faculty and staff, the elimination of organizational silos, and the funneling of decisions to higher levels of authority.

Furthermore, I interrogate the institutional managers’ rationalizations of challenges and ethical dilemmas brought on by the pandemic. In this chapter, I present the four emerging attitudes toward the Covid-19 pandemic as a sensemaking framework, illuminating the institutional response as a temporally dynamic phenomenon. Lastly, I focus on the external environment and specifically, the non-state sectoral actors that have played a crucial role in informing and shaping HEIs' responses. The relationships with these actors serve advisory, brokerage, coordination, data collection, material support, lobbying, and translation functions for HEIs. The study contributes to the literature on comparative education by providing empirical evidence on the role of non-state sectoral actors, the decision-making processes of HEIs, and the impact of Covid-19 on higher education. It also highlights the importance of universities and colleges as anchor institutions within their communities.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Comparative and International Education
Thesis Advisors
Pizmony-Levy, Oren
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
June 5, 2024