Transparency, Trust and Common Goals

Julie E. Wollman, Matthew Hartley and Katie Herschede describe the significant benefits that can result from scenario planning about the pandemic with trustees.

November 23, 2020
 
 
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It’s Thursday, Aug. 27, and students, faculty members and administrators, in a very limited capacity, have been on campus for less than a week. Chris, a new first-year student, like all residential students, is living in a single room. He has two in-person classes and three that meet synchronously but remotely. His in-person classes are an introductory biology lab and applied calculus. Both of those classes met today, and in each class, everyone followed campus guidelines concerning masks, social distancing, disinfection and checking for completion of daily reporting through the campus health app.

Chris gets his meals from the main dining hall daily, where students also follow campus rules but need occasional reminders to distance while waiting to enter. Yesterday, he waited in line for 15 minutes at the campus post office to pick up a package from his mom. He didn’t have his mask because he was only planning to take a walk around campus, but while out, he got a text about the package’s arrival. He worried that he was in line for too long with other students, but he noticed that a few others also didn’t have masks on -- which made him feel better. He talked to his fellow students in line and was glad to meet some new people, since living by himself as a first-year student has felt really isolating.

On Friday, Chris had a bad headache and started sneezing: classic symptoms of his constant battle with allergies. That night he ventured out with some other students on his hall to a nearby house party off campus. While most students stayed outside, everyone was drinking from a communal cooler. Chris had his mask in his pocket, but he didn’t put it on because no one else seemed to be wearing one.

By Saturday night, Chris was feeling worse. He called his mom, who asked him about other symptoms. Chris said that even though they had spicy chicken for dinner, he really couldn’t taste it very well. His mom was concerned and directed him to come home.

On Monday, Chris went to his family physician and tested positive for COVID-19.

Insight and Clarity

This narrative is the first of a six-part scenario that a member of the Widener University crisis management team developed in early July to help the team practice and accelerate decision making, bring forward previously unconsidered complications and identify gaps of policy, practice or knowledge.

Based on the latest research about how a COVID-19 outbreak could unfold on a campus, the scenario involves a student who arrived with good intentions to wear his mask and to follow physical distancing and other university expectations for behavior. As the crisis management team followed Chris through the first few days of the semester, it was clear that even minor and unintended indiscretions and undergraduate social norms could have a major impact on the ability of the university to control an outbreak. Each part of the scenario revealed new complications that further challenged the group’s assumptions and decisions.

The scenario provided realistic infection numbers, coupled with practices and policies that had already been established -- for example, behavioral guidelines, number of beds for quarantine and isolation, what caseload would overwhelm our resources for care. Even this group that had spent months wrestling with all aspects of pandemic response on campus found the scenario approach enlightening and revealing of gaps, inconsistencies and unmet challenges.

At the conclusion of the scenario exercise, committee members agreed that it advanced the group’s thinking and preparedness. As a result, we developed a second multipart scenario to explore another probable complication of our pandemic response.

The positive feedback, coupled with the clarity of decision making that resulted from the scenario, also led the university’s senior leadership team to introduce the scenario and work through it with the Board of Trustees to provide a window into our decision-making processes. At the time, trustees had varying views on how the pandemic would and should impact the fall semester. The scenario helped to consolidate and align thinking due to thoughtful questions, new insights and suggestions, and robust discussion among board members. University leaders were able to provide clarity, insight and up-to-date information on the institution’s decision making and contingency plans.

Benefits to the Board and Institution

Our experience with scenario planning in many respects reflects the benefits that scholars have pointed to.

First, scenario planning offered a concrete way of enabling our board to see the complexity of a key issue the institution was facing. In our scenario, the choices of a single student over several days produced a cascading set of events that threatened the health of people across campus given the highly communicative nature of the virus. The scenario allowed board members to see that even with strictly followed guidelines, clear policies around the wearing of masks and stringent cleaning protocols, the interconnected nature of campus life is such that a few individuals’ bad decisions can have catastrophic results.

Second, the process was helpful in revealing gaps in the knowledge of some board members about institutional processes. Who weighs in about various kinds of decisions on campus? What decisions are the purview of the faculty? Of the senior administration? And on what issues would the board need to weigh in? Also, what kinds communication approaches are most likely to result in students, faculty members and administrators understanding the role they might play in minimizing the impact of the virus? The scenario enabled board members to ask such questions before a real crisis occurred.

Third, the scenario allowed the board to understand what degree of freedom the institution has in responding to the crisis. Following health guidelines -- encouraging the use of masks and hand washing, proper cleaning of public spaces, and the like -- are all vitally important. But even with such policies in place, there is still a human factor in any pandemic. An institution can shape some policies (for example, monitoring public places to ensure people wear masks) but it has less certain influence, for example, in convincing students it is their responsibility to protect others from the virus and to make choices that place the health of others above their own interests. Managing a complex crisis like COVID-19 requires attending to concrete policies as well as cultivating a shared sense of responsibility across the campus, yet it is ultimately an uncertain business. Understanding that up front can mitigate the human tendency to engage in Monday-morning quarterbacking and placing blame.

Fourth, the scenario allowed board members to weigh different responses as the crisis unfolded and to explore the implications of those choices -- all without knowing what the next day’s information would bring. What should be done when it is clear students haven’t abided by university policy? What is the responsibility of the university to the larger community? When is it time to begin considering sending students home because transmission of the virus has become too widespread? What are the trade-offs of those decisions?

Seeing the challenges of making decisions with only partial information in an evolving situation showed board members the difficult leadership challenges facing the senior administrators who have responsibility for the day-to-day operations of a campus. It demystified the decision-making process. In our experience, the exercise reinforced the confidence the board has in the administration and its work -- showing that even with good planning, decisions can come undone in a pandemic and that the best-laid plans can go awry due to factors outside the institution’s control.

Fifth, the scenario allowed board members to more fully explore their own views and to consolidate various viewpoints toward a common approach. As we worked through the scenario, board members thoughtfully listened to their colleagues, changed their views in some cases and collectively worked toward a much more unified and clear approach to the campus’s pandemic response than they had before. That gave the administration more confidence in the board’s support as it continued planning and eliminated any concern that competing individual viewpoints might potentially complicate decision making.

‘Now I Understand This Is Really Nuanced!’

What came of the scenario planning, ultimately, was a shared understanding of the complexity of the situation and of the university’s established decision-making processes. It also led to an emerging consensus about the factors that would likely lead to consequential decisions for the institution, especially a decision to suspend certain activities or send students home. In short, senior leaders working through the scenario with trustees provided a window into pandemic decision making, building transparency and trust. And, in the end, our scenario exercise in July turned out to be a very accurate representation of campus life during the pandemic.

Bio

Julie E. Wollman is the president of Widener University. Matthew Hartley is a member of the Widener University Board of Trustees and associate dean for academic affairs at University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. Katie Herschede is vice president for strategic initiatives and chief of staff at Widener.

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