Policies, politics and pandemics: course delivery method for US higher educational institutions amid COVID-19

Andrew Franklin Johnson (Department of Management and Marketing, Texas A&M University Corpus Christi, Corpus Christi, Texas, USA)
Katherine J. Roberto (Department of Management and Marketing, Texas A&M University Corpus Christi, Corpus Christi, Texas, USA)
Beth M. Rauhaus (Department of Social Sciences, Texas A&M University Corpus Christi, Corpus Christi, Texas, USA)

Transforming Government: People, Process and Policy

ISSN: 1750-6166

Article publication date: 14 January 2021

Issue publication date: 23 June 2021




This paper aims to consider decisions by administrators about how to open US campuses for the 2020–2021 academic year during the COVID-19 pandemic. Proposed course delivery method is considered in relation to the political environment of the respective university/college’s state.


Data were collected on 451 public institutions. H1 and H3 were tested using multinomial logistic regressions. H2 and H4 were tested using moderated binary logistic regressions with Hayes’s PROCESS model.


Results suggest that states with liberal governments were more likely to promote online openings for fall 2020, with the strength of the voting electorate moderating the relationship. Further, state appropriations moderated the relationship between the political party in control of the state legislature and method of opening.

Research limitations/implications

This paper advances work on the relationship between politics and administration by considering political pressures exerted on decision makers.

Practical implications

Results suggest that political forces may influence university administrators’ decisions for how higher education institutions may open for the fall 2020 semester.


This paper addresses one of the numerous social changes caused by COVID-19. It considers the short-term practical implications as well as the long-term theoretical ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic on decision-making in higher education.



Johnson, A.F., Roberto, K.J. and Rauhaus, B.M. (2021), "Policies, politics and pandemics: course delivery method for US higher educational institutions amid COVID-19", Transforming Government: People, Process and Policy, Vol. 15 No. 2, pp. 291-303. https://doi.org/10.1108/TG-07-2020-0158



Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2020, Emerald Publishing Limited

Since late 2019, the COVID-19 pandemic has spread from its origins in China to become a global health crisis (Zhang et al., 2020). As of October 21, 2020, over 40.8 million cases worldwide and 8.2 million in the USA have tested positive for infection (Johns Hopkins University and Medicine, 2020). The medical community is working to learn about COVID-19 including its symptoms, treatment and spread of the infection. Multiple vaccines and treatments for the virus are under development yet may still be months away from completion (Gallagher, 2020). Not all cases of COVID-19 are severe, as many affected individuals have mild symptoms or are asymptomatic (Rothe et al., 2020). These individuals may still spread the virus leading to additional complexities for combating its spread. COVID-19 tends to be more fatal for individuals with compromised immune systems, those with underlying medical conditions and older individuals (CDC, 2020a). Typical treatment for the most severe cases requires patients to be intubated in a hospital’s intensive care unit (CDC, 2020a). Fewer cases have occurred in children, yet it remains unclear the extent to which they can act as carriers of the virus (WHO, 2020). For traditional university age students (18–22), the disease tends to be less severe. However, transmission rates tend to be higher among this group (CDC, 2020a) especially given the proximity students are in while attending universities (CDC, 2020b).

In response to the crisis, “stay home” orders, requirements to wear face coverings, and other measures have been implemented to curb the progression of the virus. The economic fallout has led to closure of businesses, mass unemployment and historic drops in economic activity (Jones, 2020; Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2020; Reinicke, 2020). Universities have not been immune to this effect. Since the pandemic emerged during spring 2020 semester, institutions of higher education have closed physical campuses and moved many courses online. They must now plan for how to re-open for the 2020–2021 academic year. Plans for the fall semester include resumption of face-to-face classes, hybrid delivery and fully online delivery (Chronicle, 2020b).

As universities/colleges continue to plan their re-opening strategies, a variety of factors are considered in the administrative decision. Holding classes elicits concerns over student and employee health, the university’s financial well-being and educational value (Chronicle, 2020a; Roberto and Johnson, 2019). Some institutions may be better positioned for one mode of delivery over another depending on factors such as selectivity, density, size and financial situation (e.g. endowments, state funding levels). Additionally, politics may affect decisions on how to re-open campuses. Pressure from the state government may push university decision-makers toward certain methods for re-opening (Chronicle, 2020a).

The relationship between government and public universities/colleges is a long standing one.

For the last four decades, state policymakers have been concerned about securing better performance from higher education institutions in the face of restrained state finances and the growing importance of higher education to economic development (Dougherty and Natow, 2015, p. 1).

Throughout the 20th century, political leaders and university officials have worked collaboratively building expansive state educational system (Loss, 2014). As such, “political institutions, environment, culture, history and attributes of policy makers affect political outcomes and in particular state support of higher education” (Tandberg, 2010, p. 766).

Normatively, the dichotomy of politics and administration seeks to isolate administrative decisions “from the hurry and strife of politics” (Wilson, 1887, p. 209). Over time, the dichotomy has been challenged, as numerous public policies have been affected by partisanship within political institutions. Partisanship in Congress and presidential administrations have impacted public policy, including health-care and education decisions. In policy making, decisions should be neutral; however, during the COVID-19 pandemic, policy decisions relating to health care and education have not been removed from political forces, including state political institutions.

Federal and state political decisions have impacted higher education institutions, particularly in funding, oversight, and regulation. During the COVID-19 pandemic, higher education institutions have faced partisan pressure, challenging the politics-administration dichotomy. For example, a “power struggle” exists in Georgia’s higher-education system, where the Republican Governor’s appointed Board of Regents is conspicuously involved in minute administrative decisions of the system’s 26 institutions. In particular, Regents initially reversed a single campus administration’s decision to suspend face-to-face classes as the pandemic intensified in March 2020 (Vasquez, 2020).

Educational systems are a considerable undertaking for states in terms of funding and administration. Public universities/colleges rely on a combination of state appropriations (though some community colleges rely also on local tax revenue), donations/endowments, student tuition/fees, grants and other revenue (e.g. sports/events tickets) for funding (Pew Research, 2019). As with other state agencies, there is a political element involved in the administration of state universities/colleges. The policies set by these institutions can reflect the desires of stakeholders including those in state governments.

Political motivations are often apparent as leaders of states and those who report to them rely on a political apparatus (e.g. political parties) to maintain their positions and are often guided by principles defined by political affiliation (e.g. party platforms) in their decision making. Thus, the broad policies implemented by top leaders that are reflective of liberal or conservative ideology become the basis for specific actions taken by subordinates even within large organizations such as state governments and institutions of higher education.

Theoretical framework

Decision-making during COVID-19 has called for collaboration among public leaders and public health experts to provide value-free information and create possible alternatives. Although rational theory is a critical concept in making complex decisions and assessing alternative options clearly, decision makers during the COVID-19 pandemic have faced political pressures, ever-changing public health information, safety precautions and scenarios, as well as time constraints. This leads to limitations in knowledge absorption, or “bounded rationality,” (March and Simon, 1958). Individuals do not make decisions based on full information but by drawing upon a set of “givens” that comprises the individual’s assumptions, knowledge of alternatives and understanding of consequences. As the complexity of the situation increases, the more behavioral considerations dominate decision-making (Hambrick and Mason, 1984). In the absence of complete information about a situation and increased time constraints, decision makers are forced to “satisfice”, or select the first optimal alterative that is “good enough” (Simon, 1955; Todd and Gigerenzer, 2003). Decision makers will simplify or satisfice because they operate “within bounds imposed by the limits on available information and by his own computational abilities” (Fry and Raadschelders, 2008, p. 224).

Describing the use of rationality in administrative functions, Forester (1984) notes that not all interests are represented equally. “Public administrators routinely find themselves confronted by diverse and conflicting claims of competing interests, articulated by competing actors” (Forester, 1984, p. 27). In a study of municipal governments’ fiscal responses to a recession, as pressures (identified in the study as a worsening situation, electoral considerations, government restrictions and interest group involvement) compounded decisions became more unpredictable and risk prone (Nelson, 2012). This situation suggests higher rates of “satisficing” in decision-making by government leaders. The conditions surrounding COVID-19 are complex given the many unknowns. The lack of information, rapidly changing situation and few comparable past situations to draw upon make decisions regarding school re-openings particularly difficult (Forester, 1984).

During the COVID-19 pandemic, “not all alternatives can be known and considered, not all preferences or values can be reconciled, and not all alternatives can be considered” (Frederickson et al., 2016, p. 174). Decision makers involved in higher education re-opening plans have been faced with bounded rationality and have had to “satisfice” in their decision-making due to political and economic feasibility as well as uncertainty regarding the consequences of present actions, possible future consequences and future decisions.


With high levels of political partisanship in the USA (Mason, 2015), even responses to the COVID-19 pandemic have been influenced by politics, including attitudes and regulations around social distancing and wearing a mask (Adolph et al., 2020; Barrios and Hochberg., 2020; Grossman et al., 2020). Broadly speaking, conservatives have moved for a more complete and faster re-opening of the economy and associated activities than their liberal counterparts (Lawder, 2020; Kumar, 2020; Stein and Costa, 2020). Republican controlled states (e.g. Georgia, FL, TX) were the first to lift stay-at-home orders, encouraging a return to “normalized” activity (BBC, 2020).

During this continuing public emergency, the political will of decision-makers may affect how campuses will re-open in fall 2020:

Institutions are embedded within a larger political environment, and it stands to reason that that environment will likely influence policy adoption patterns in postsecondary education in meaningful and measurable ways (McLendon et al., 2009, p. 688).

The re-opening of higher education institutions is symbolic of a return to normalcy and a driver of economic activity for the communities where campuses are located as well as the state. Not physically re-opening these institutions – only providing online delivery – could leave states liable for filling large shortfalls in institutions’ budgets resulting from the decreased revenue. Governors, as states’ chief executives, have authority over higher education public policies. Further, governors may use their influence on university leaders, often direct or indirect gubernatorial appointees, to encourage policies that align more closely with their political views:


States with more conservative governors will be more likely to plan for face-to-face delivery.

The political extremity of the state’s electorate is an additional consideration. Some states may be solidly Republican or Democrat, while others are more centrist in makeup (often referred to as “swing states”). Governors may enact policies designed to appease their majority electorate (Fredriksson et al., 2013). A governor presiding over a decidedly conservative or liberal state may feel more confident and supported in advocating one type of re-opening over another. In states where the electorate is more balanced, governors may be less extreme in their position. Thus, the level of political extremity within the state may moderate the relationship between a governor’s political affiliation and the university’s plans for opening:


The strength of the state’s political electorate will moderate the relationship between the governor’s political party and plans for fall course delivery.

The level of appropriation for higher education is a matter of public policy. Higher education appropriations are affected by a state’s economy (Weerts and Ronca, 2006) especially indebtedness and Medicaid expenditure (Okunade, 2004). State Legislatures have an increasing role in shaping how much support a state will provide to higher education institutions. Typically, Democratic legislatures are more sympathetic to higher education needs (Okunade, 2004), while legislatures with Republican controlled senates promote funding reductions (Weerts and Ronca, 2006).

The need to generate revenue from tuition and fees may be an important driver for institutions to physically re-open campuses. Should classes be moved fully online, revenue from parking fees, student housing leases, recreational facilities, meal plans and other fees may not be charged or collected. In cases where the state contributes a larger portion of the students’ educational cost, institutions may be better financially positioned to promote online delivery, limiting on-campus offerings and subsequently forgoing associated revenue. Financial feasibility is a primary concern in decision-making:


States with more conservative legislatures will be more likely to plan for face-to-face delivery.


State funding will moderate the relationship between the controlling legislative party and plans for fall course delivery.


Sample and variables of interest

State variables.

Political party of the governor, coded as either Democratic or Republican, was collected from Ballotpedia.org. Collected from Politico (2016), electorate extremity is derived from the number of votes that major party candidates received in the 2016 election. A ratio of Democratic to Republican votes provided a gauge for the conservativeness of a state electorate. Appropriations by states for full-time equivalent enrolled students was collected from the State Higher Education Finance Report (SHEF, 2020).

Method of delivery.

An institution’s proposed method of class delivery for fall 2020, was collected from The Chronicle of Higher Education June 2020 institutional survey. Only public universities/colleges were included, leaving 451 institutions combining for over seven million students enrolled. There were four categories of decisions for delivery: no decision made, online, hybrid and face-to-face/in-person [1].

Control variables.

The analysis included two control variables. First, the severity of the COVID-19 impact within the state was measured using the number of cases as a percentage of the total state population through June 15, 2020 (NYT, 2020). This date coincided with the collection of the institutional data. Second, the institution’s prior year student enrollment, from College Source Online database, accounted for larger student population and a consideration for increased risk of COVID-19 outbreaks.


Categorical variables were dummy coded or followed the Hayes and Preacher (2014) guidelines for multi-categorical variable coding. H1 and H3 were tested using multinomial logistic regressions. H2 and H4 were tested using moderated binary logistic regressions with Hayes’s PROCESS model 1. Analyses were conducted using SPSS v26.


Results for H1 [χ2(9, N = 442) = 104.72, p = 0.001, −2 Log likelihood = 875.37] and H3 [χ2(9, N = 442) = 229.25, p = 0.001, −2 Log likelihood = 750.90] demonstrated good model fits, suggesting that universities in states with Republican governors and legislatures were more likely to promote face-to-face delivery for the fall 2020 semester, compared to online or hybrid delivery methods in Democratic controlled states (Table 1).

Results for H2, Model 1 (−2 Log Likelihood = 169.92, p < 0.001) and Model 2 (−2 Log Likelihood = 384.43, p < 0.001) each demonstrated good fit, suggesting the strength of the voting electorate moderated the relationship between governor political affliction and a university’s choice for online delivery (b = 5.93, se = 2.24, p < 0.00, CI: 1.53 to 10.33) or face-to-face delivery (b = −3.68, se = 0.95, p < 0.00, CI: −5.55 to −1.81). The stronger the Democratic electorate, the more likely universities in states with a Democratic governor were more likely to advocate online delivery methods for fall 2020. The stronger the Republican electorate, the more likely universities with a either a Republican or Democratic governor were to choose face-to-face delivery.

H4 Model 4 (−2 Log Likelihood = 182.73, p < 0.001) and Model 6 (−2 Log Likelihood = 384.43, p < 0.001) each demonstrated good fit; however, it was not a large effect. This suggests that level of funding moderated the relationship between legislative dominant party and a university’s choice for online delivery (b = −0.14, se = 0.04, p < 0.00, CI: −0.23 to −0.06) or face-to-face delivery (b = 0.11, se = 0.02, p < 0.00, CI: 0.07 to 0.14). As funding increased in Democrat controlled legislatures, universities were more likely to choose an online delivery method as opposed to face-to-face. Funding had less of an effect in Republican controlled legislatures, a small slope showing that universities typically still opted for face-to-face delivery. No significant interactions were found for Models 3 (no decision) and 5 (hybrid format).


The public health crisis and economic toll resulting from the pandemic are immense. Governments and nonprofit entities are facing fiscal challenges (Johnson et al., 2020). The pandemic is affecting governments across multiple issues including the relationships among government actors within nations (Visvizi and Lytras, 2020). Further, the pandemic has numerous social implications (Holmes et al., 2020) including increased risk of suicide (Gunnell et al., 2020), discrimination (Devakumar et al., 2020; Roberto et al., 2020; Matache and Bhabha, 2020), family well-being (e.g. Rauhaus et al., 2020; Van Lancker and Parolin, 2020), school closures (Esposito and Principi, 2020) and political fallout (Barrios and Hochberg, 2020; Carter and May, 2020; Johnson et al., 2020; Grossman et al., 2020). This study has measured some of the ramifications for higher education. There are many other lasting changes that institutions may experience. Post COVID-19, the environment of higher education, including oversight of government entities, will likely be altered with a greater emphasis on higher education budget cuts (Blakenberger and Williams, 2020).

The results of this study cumulatively suggest that politics has a significant influence in how campuses plan to deliver courses for the fall 2020 semester in response to the pandemic. This is an important finding as it counters administrative theory that prescribes good governance as premised on political neutrality. This case illustrates that given the limitations imposed by bounded rationality, certain decision makers will prioritize political influence over other information. In practice, decision-making in public policy should be value-neutral and evidence-based, especially during public health crises. However, politics-administration is not strictly separated and in making public decisions, administrators should select among alternatives, which inevitably allows for values to influence decisions (Waldo, 1952). In this study, the health data, as measured by the number of cases as a proportion of the population, was a less powerful consideration. This is disturbing as the opening of campuses without regard for the local health situation may lead to an increase in COVID-19 cases among students/faculty and ultimately deaths (Cai et al., 2020). During the COVID-19 pandemic, prioritization of politics over public health has potentially calamitous consequences. Models indicate that US states are susceptible to shortages of hospital capacity (Covid Act Now, 2020). By not actively taking health data into account during the decision-making process, bringing potentially thousands of students to a single dense campus from various other locations could break a community’s already taxed health-care system. These actions may have dire consequences if students, faculty and staff contract the virus hospitalizations and deaths will occur.

Results from this study further suggest that state-level political party control influences the type of course delivery. Generally, universities under conservative controlled governments are more likely to choose face-to-face delivery. Universities in more liberally governed states, particularly with higher state appropriations, tend towards online delivery. However, it is important to note the federal-level Republican administration is applying pressure to all governors to reopen universities/colleges in the fall (Murakami, 2020), including threatening the coveted revenue generated from international students (Cohen, 2020). Accordingly, states with large conservative electorates and Democratic governors (e.g. Montana, Kansas, Kentucky) may tend towards face-to-face delivery along with Republican controlled states. The findings of this study emphasize the role political ideology plays in public policy and ultimately affects individuals lives – in this case to a staggering degree.

More broadly, the influence of politics in decision-making may lead to increased prejudicial treatment rooted in political ideology. This could occur on a societal level as public goods might be directed to or from local governments based on their favorability with the decision maker (Visner and Kim, 2018). Individuals may also face prejudice or backlash based on their political ideology in a similar manner to how individuals are stigmatized based on religious affiliation (Johnson and Roberto, 2018).

Political pressure and ideologies affecting decision-making is not limited just to the public sector. Theory from the study of management and organizations indicates that political ideology may influence a range of decisions within the organization (Bal and Dóci, 2018; Johnson and Roberto, 2018; Roth et al., 2017). Research has considered decisions at the micro-level in organizational behavior and human resources (Bermiss and McDonald, 2018; Carnahan and Greenwood, 2018; Briscoe and Joshi, 2017; Johnson and Roberto, 2019; Roth et al., 2020) as well as decisions made at the organization level (Gupta et al., 2017; Hutton et al., 2014; Chin et al., 2013). As in the case of corporate social responsibility (Chin et al., 2013), these corporate policies align with political aims of the party with which top decision makers closely identify with on a personal level. These works collectively suggest that even in organizational settings, political affiliation affects decision-making of leaders. It can lead to actions that advance outcomes that are politically favorable, further challenging the dichotomy of politics and administration in practice.

Politics is subject to faster and greater shifts in values and behaviors (Strandberg et al., 2018) than institutions of higher education (Basken, 2009). Typically, slow changing institutions can somewhat insulate themselves from the flavor-of the-minute brand of politics. However, results of this study suggest the dichotomy between politics and administration may be less defined today. Future research should consider how politics and elected leaders are infringing upon other supposedly politically impartial, or value-free, government entities’ (e.g. US Postal Service) ability to function and make self-regulating decisions.

The line between elected politicians and the administrators charged with carrying out the functions of government have been blurred. Other evidence suggests the extent to which elected politicians may work to influence purportedly politically neutral institutions. For instance, a proposed 2017 bill in Iowa tried to impose upon state universities an additional requirement for selection of new faculty based on political factors not related to their ability to perform job functions (Pfannenstiel, 2017). During times of crisis when the political world’s power solidifies and expands, it becomes more imperative that institutions of higher education demand the politics/administrative practice dichotomy remains steadfast to maintain the ability to make decisions about what is best for the institution and its stakeholders. The encroachment of politics into higher education could eventually affect not just policy and procedural decisions (e.g. how to deliver classes, selection/job requirements) but political pressure threatens academic freedom in teaching and research.

All research contains limitations. With the available data, this study cannot separate decision-making by level of administration (e.g. system/university/campus). At higher education systems, the response may be uniform across campuses, or campus administrators may have latitude in decision-making. The pandemic presents complex circumstances where even with re-opening plans, they may not materialize as the situation evolves. Simultaneously, medical advancements may provide safer in-person experiences.

Conservative states saw fewer cases in the beginning of the pandemic compared to Democratic leaning states (e.g. Washington, New York, CA). While the study does control for the propensity of cases within each state, the data does not control for the timing of cases.


The global pandemic has caused a drastic change for how society, businesses, government and higher education will proceed in the future. Administrators must consider numerous factors to deliver post-secondary education to millions of students in the 2020–2021 academic year. As COVID-19 presents a major health crisis, it is important for decision makers to first consider the health and well-being of stakeholders in the campus community. As politics influences these decisions, priorities obfuscate. State governments may interject political priorities onto an otherwise neutral administrative decision at the university level, which hinders challenges the politics-administration dichotomy. This study provides insight into administrators’ decision-making, including political interests, as the country continues to grapple with the pandemic.

Multinomial logistic regression analysis for effects on university openings

β SE β Wald χ2 df p eβ
H1 Model
Waiting on decision
Intercept −2.79 0.375 55.30 1 0.00
COVID cases by population 0.04 0.021 3.94 1 0.05 1.04
University student
0.00 0.00 3.546 1 0.06 1.00
Governor political affiliation 0.76 0.34 5.02 1 0.03 2.14
Online delivery
Intercept −3.04 0.556 30.018 1 0.00
COVID cases by population −0.153 0.06 7.69 1 0.01 0.86
University student
0.00 0.00 2.39 1 0.12 1.00
Governor political affiliation 3.17 0.49 42.18 1 0.00 23.68
Hybrid delivery
Intercept −2.42 0.33 52.78 1 0.00
COVID cases by population 0.02 0.02 0.93 1 0.34 1.02
University student population 0.00 0.00 5.49 1 0.20 1.00
Governor political affiliation 0.96 0.30 10.52 1 0.00 2.60
H3 Model
Waiting on decision
Intercept −2.97 0.36 68.61 1 0.00
COVID cases by population 0.03 0.02 1.79 1 0.18 1.03
University student
0.00 0.00 4.78 1 0.03 1.00
Legislative dominant
political party
1.97 0.37 29.01 1 0.00 7.14
Online delivery
Intercept −3.53 0.58 37.01 1 0.00
COVID cases by population −0.18 0.05 12.25 1 0.00 0.84
University student
0.00 0.00 4.76 1 0.03 1.00
Legislative dominant
political party
4.90 0.52 88.33 1 0.00 134.23
Hybrid delivery
Intercept −2.54 0.32 62.87 1 0.00
COVID cases by population 0.00 0.03 0.01 1 0.94 1.00
University student
0.00 0.00 7.02 1 0.01 1.00
Legislative dominant
political party
2.19 0.33 45.45 1 0.00 8.95



This data is reflective of plans for institutions as of June 2020. The final decisions on course delivery and ultimate execution of these plans may vary as fall nears and conditions surrounding the pandemic change.


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Further reading

Cyert, R.M. and March, J.G. (1963), A Behavioral Theory of the Firm, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ.

Stone, D. (2017), “Health equity in a Trump administration”, Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law, Vol. 42 No. 5, pp. 995-1002.

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Corresponding author

Andrew Franklin Johnson can be contacted at: andrew.johnson@tamucc.edu

About the authors

Andrew Franklin Johnson (PhD, University of Texas at San Antonio) is an Assistant Professor of Management at Texas A&M University–Corpus Christi. His primary areas of research are corporate political activity, the role of political ideology and social change in organizations. He has previous experience in state and local government.

Katherine J. Roberto (PhD, University of Texas at Arlington) is an Assistant Professor of Management at Texas A&M University–Corpus Christi. Her primary area of research is diversity in the selection processes, primarily revolving around political ideology, generational differences and education. She also studies stereotyping and stigmatization in the workforce.

Beth M. Rauhaus (PhD, Mississippi State University) is an Associate Professor of Public Administration and MPA Program Coordinator at Texas A&M University–Corpus Christi. Her research explores public administration theories and issues of gender, diversity and representation in public administration.

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