Event Planning in Higher Ed in Our Volatile Era

Karen Costa
4 min readAug 17, 2022


Some thoughts on designing, leading, attending, and planning for events

If you’d have told spring of 2020 me that I would ever be nostalgic for any aspect of the early pandemic days, my response would’ve been:

alt-text: Gif where Elf says “You sit on a throne of lies.”

And yet, here we are.

Remember when every meeting started by asking people how they were faring, really faring, and offering each other support? Places where I worked sent out emails, assuring us that if we got sick, or a family member got sick, that our work would be covered, no questions asked. We could also volunteer to be the person who would give our colleagues that coverage. When making plans for events, we would discuss game plans in case people were unable to present or attend. We talked a lot about giving each other grace.

Y’all. We were there! We were right there. And then…

We entered the “post-pandemic” era. Unfortunately, we chose to do so while still battling the COVID-19 global pandemic, while still battling existing pandemics of racism, misogyny, transphobia, kakocracy, and climate catastrophe.

In the past few weeks, several of my friends and colleagues have had to cancel events at the last minute due to sickness . Some COVID. Some not. Some COVID in themselves, some in family members. The reactions to their cancellations have been mixed.

Remember when we planned for reality and not for some fantasy post-pandemic world? Remember when we gave each other grace?

I define grace as the space between what we think needs to be done and what we are able to do. I think we have to have this event at this time and in this place with this facilitator. We must! But, life has other plans. We get sick. Our child gets sick. We are in the fog of long COVID. We are not able to participate in or lead that event. In between these two stories is where we can allow grace to enter. To let it be. To stop arguing with reality and start living life on life’s terms.

Photo by Chris Lawton on Unsplash

Some practical thoughts for those of you who lead events, host events, or attend events:

  • Design for reality. We are living in an increasingly volatile era. The COVID-19 global pandemic persists. As we begin to experience more severe climate catastrophes, including but not limited to pandemics, we should expect the unexpected.
  • Consider a back up plan. Talk to each other about what you will do if someone has to cancel at the last minute, on either side of these event agreements. Will you postpone indefinitely? Reschedule? Investigate back-up speakers?
  • As someone who presents regularly, I have a list on my desktop of ace facilitators who I recommend to clients if I’m unable to meet their ask. If time allows, in the event of a cancellation, I would be open to reaching out to these folks for backup. Again, we can keep such lists as both clients and facilitators.
  • Recognize that on-site events are inherently more risky. Aside from COVID, if you are asking someone to get on a plane, you’re rolling the dice. I continue to argue that we should be thinking with a virtual-first mindset and only weaving in on-site offerings when that is what truly makes the most sense for our learners and educators/facilitators.
  • Reschedule for a later date that works for all parties. Learning is important, and it can wait.
  • Turn it into a positive by using the cancellation as a model for how to prioritize care and well-being. Show your community how you give yourself and others grace.
  • Just. Freaking. Cancel. I can promise you that cancelling an event will do no lasting harm. Prioritizing well-being is the only way forward, and if your brain starts to tell you another story around the idea of “we must,” remember that the only thing we must do is to take care of ourselves and each other.

Anyone who’s shared space with my lately knows that I am leaning heavily on the work of adrienne maree brown and the philosophy of emergent strategy. brown writes:

“Loving life means committing to the adaptation to stay alive, rather than the stubbornness to stay the same.”

Those who will succeed (and my baseline definition of success right now is sticking around to continue to live, fight, and create) in our volatile era, whether individuals or institutions, will be those who are willing to adapt to reality, rather than those who stubbornly fight to stay the same. I imagine a future of higher education where we gather together often to learn from one another, and those gatherings must be designed with our shared humanity in mind.



Karen Costa

I write about higher education. Here for my work through 100 Faculty, LLC, supporting faculty, staff, and student success.