Answering this pandemic demands flexibility, and higher ed must pivot – fast

Dense institutional logistics threaten to hobble colleges’ and universities’ critical responses to the coronavirus pandemic.
By: | October 15, 2020
David Eccles School of Business, part of the University of Utah, introduced a summer admit program for aspiring master’s students who may be displaced by the economic upheaval.David Eccles School of Business, part of the University of Utah, introduced a summer admit program for aspiring master’s students who may be displaced by the economic upheaval.

We do lots of things well in academia. At our best, we’re deliberate and reflective, thorough and inclusive.

But fast? As a sector, we’re not well known for being especially nimble.

Taylor Randall, University of Utah

Taylor Randall, University of Utah

That’s becoming a greater liability during this historic pandemic, as conditions shift by the hour. Dense logistics baked into decision-making in higher education—including prolonged stakeholder engagement and multi-layered approvals—risk impeding our responses precisely when communities need our resources, expertise and aid the most.

In the greatest public health emergency in a century, colleges and universities have an ethical obligation to shed those slowdowns and put our know-how to practical—and public—use as soon as possible. Put simply: How society survives this crisis depends heavily on our ability to pivot and adapt quickly.

As we’ve seen here in Utah, this pivot means reaching outside the academic bubble to bring together philanthropic supporters, public leaders and business partners with subject-matter experts on the faculty. These bonds have empowered the David Eccles School of Business to develop responsive student programs and immediate public outreach that’s helping drive the statewide response to the coronavirus.

Our 14-installment webinar series counseled hundreds of businesses and nonprofits statewide with practical and service-driven guidance.

The collective experience here may be helpful, if not instructive, as our peers and competitors across the country redouble their public service.

You’ll recognize a central tool for our pandemic collaboration: the video webinar. With foundation and private-sector backing, the school set about crafting a 14-installment webinar series that counseled hundreds of businesses and nonprofits statewide with practical and service-driven guidance.

Speed was crucial, the first webinar coming fewer than three weeks after Utah schools closed March 15. The sessions brought clarity and actionable, precise guidance to help the business and nonprofit communities take specific steps to safeguard their resilience and viability amid the unknown.

Specifically, faculty experts joined with business and public-sector leaders in “how-to” discussions that ranged from federal aid programs to reopening strategies, recouping losses and following health guidelines. The webinars have been viewed more than 18,000 times since their debut.

Over time, the effort has helped generate several COVID-19-related projects that continue to reinforce Utah’s public health and economic bounceback. These include a mapping project to track the true spread of the coronavirus, and teams of college students who are helping organizations through the strife.

The tracking effort is remarkable in scope, filling a crucial role in the statewide virus response. Through a partnership with University of Utah Health, its initial goal was to test 10,000 Utahans at random across four counties. The data, which illustrate infection rates in various age groups and job categories, are proving instrumental as public-sector and business leaders navigate how to keep people safe and restore the economy.

At the same time, we’ve joined with the Utah business community in direct mutual support amid mutual need. Through our Hope Corps initiative, students who’ve lost job or internship opportunities to the economic downturn can secure new work in the private and nonprofit sectors. In many instances, the Hope Corps covers their paychecks; in others, students become volunteers.

Participating businesses and other organizations have brought in well-qualified workers in communications and marketing, sales, database management and many other areas. We consider the approach like a Peace Corps for business.

In our own house, meanwhile, we introduced a summer admit program for aspiring master’s students who may be displaced by the economic upheaval. For particular programs, the offering provides savings up to $7,500 and waives the GMAT/GRE during these extraordinarily stressful times.

None of this would have been possible without three core elements: ready collaboration and consultation with our outside partners, quick thinking and an ability to swing into fast action. Because the school is structured to operate with some independence, we could move rapidly without facing a deluge of high-level approvals from the central institution.

We also follow the fundamental standards of the University of Utah—including its hiring practices, for instance—just with easier flexibility to adjust course.

In these times, we simply don’t have the time and luxury to overthink or weigh ourselves down in process. It’s our highest mission as educators to work toward the betterment of society. For as long as we’ve been alive, that mission has never been more urgent.

Whatever it takes to pick up the pace, however we need to reimagine our traditional workflows, we better do it fast. Lives and livelihoods are at stake. Let’s get out there.

Taylor Randall has been dean of the David Eccles School of Business, part of the University of Utah, since 2009. The school’s Marriner S. Eccles Institute for Economics and Quantitative Analysis, Sorenson Impact Center, Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute and Goff Strategic Leadership Center have opened under his direction.