Finding a Compass in the Dark
What is the right path when you enter unexplored territory? It depends upon who you are, why you are there, and where you want to go.
This is the journey facing virtually all organizations as we begin to come to grips with the COVID-19 pandemic. This is definitely unexplored territory for all of us, and it is ripe with uncertainty. Every business faces its own set of challenges, but colleges and universities — because they are extraordinarily complex collections of enterprises — find themselves encountering especially robust matrices of decisions to be made.
We are complex enterprises, but first and foremost, we educate students in a wide range of subjects, each with unique disciplinary needs.
We provide career and professional support; we provide medical and counseling services; we run elaborate food-service and housing operations; we support a wide variety of research centers, laboratories, performance and athletic venues, galleries, greenhouses, farms, and studios; we run radio stations, we are publishers; and we are fundraisers. We are fundamentally small cities with significant infrastructure and staff to support them ranging from scholars, artists, and scientists; to public safety officers, tradespeople, and gardeners; to physicians, IT specialists, and animal-care technicians.
When our governor wisely issued the shutdown order for all non-life-sustaining businesses, it included colleges and universities. How do you stop a university that operates like a city? The truth is, you can’t.
Many of the enterprises must continue. Faculty and staff continue to work in support of the university. For colleges, instruction can go online, as it has. For students in applied disciplines, there will be necessary compromises, but we will be patient and creative.
We can continue to provide a sense of security for our students. Most could return to their families’ homes, but for some, our campuses are their homes. We are sometimes also students’ main protection from food insecurity. We were called to close, not abandon, and we are committed to protect our campuses and our people.
This brings us back where we started: What is the right path when you enter unexplored territory? It depends upon who you are, why you are there, and where you want to go…
There is your compass!
We are here because of our mission. At Susquehanna University, our mission is to educate students for productive, creative, and reflective lives of achievement, leadership, and service in a diverse, dynamic, and interdependent world.
It drives the choices we make as an institution. Thus, we must model institutional behavior that is consistent with the behavior we are called to cultivate in our students.
How should we achieve, lead, and serve productively, creatively, and reflectively in a diverse world that has suddenly become much more acutely dynamic and interdependent?
The first order of business is that we need to take care of our people – students, faculty, and staff. We need to do all we can to keep them safe, to keep them whole, and to keep them employed.
We need to make every effort to sustain the best education we possibly can for our students. We need to nourish their minds and do all within our power to feed their souls. We have the capacity to bring metaphorical light and space into their and our temporary confinement.
We also need to be good neighbors. We will share what we can to help our surrounding community and, in turn, they will help us. We are a university of the community.
“Community” comes from the Old French, comunité, meaning everyone, which in turn comes from the Latin communitas. It is also the source or the word common, meaning shared — we are in this together. We must make decisions in the best interest of all.
As leaders, we need to communicate with all of our constituencies. We need to help them understand the decisions we have to make to sustain those commitments to our people and our commitments to education. We have to let them know that we don’t have all of the answers, but that we do have all the love for them we can muster as we strive to do what’s best for our living-learning communities now striving to move ahead as a diaspora of sheltered exiles.
We must also give our students and our colleagues hope for the time we return to a new normal. Even though history has taught us that we won’t return, we will find a new normal. It will shaped by the challenges we face, but more importantly, it will be defined by the choices we make.