Building the Plane

Kipp Van Dyke
Iowa State University

It is often joked about that “universities move slowly” in terms of even simple tasks let alone when it comes to major changes happening.  We rely on committee meetings to inform decisions, these meetings get cancelled often, people don’t show up, or decisions are “put on hold” until an administrator can “weigh in.”  This can be frustrating for many, can slow progress, and can create a convenient excuse many of us are able to lean on when the work or tasks do not get done. 

I work at a large, research university and am fortunate to be in a leadership role within the Dean of Students Office.  As part of that role, I also serve on the university’s Critical Incident Readiness Team (CIRT).  This team discusses situations ranging from threatening weather, technology attacks, civil disturbances, violent incidents, and disease.  CIRT does tabletop exercises and creates processes while hoping none of these plans will be needed.   I can recall as I took over chairing this group as our Assistant Vice President/Dean of Students departed in January, my first meeting agenda had a single bullet point: “Discuss COVID-19” which was to be a brief update.  As the meeting approached, that bullet point became the singular focus and included enacting our Emergency Operations Center and implementing processes we’d only talked about in previous years.

As noted above, universities move slow.  To see our campus community respond and implement major changes impacting every aspect of the university in a matter of days still amazes me.  There were certainly processes starting to occur such as getting students home from study abroad and monitoring employee travel, but watching how – in a matter of days – a campus of over 35,000 students, faculty, and staff become an online institution was remarkable.  There have been so many considerations from all stakeholders that needed to be assessed, prioritized, and addressed.  As a colleague has reminded us many times, “We are flying this plane as we are building it!”  Every stakeholder has impact, with students being on the forefront of decisions, but the impact to faculty, staff, community partners, family members, vendors, and others are also real. The dedication of people to ensure these perspectives are heard and valued has been amazing to see, knowing that all decisions will have impacts given the pervasive nature of COVID-19 on the entire country and world.

CIRT quickly created working sub -groups to brainstorm and come up with solutions to provide back to CIRT and, ultimately, senior administrators.  These began in person and quickly became virtual.  Using student needs as the initial lens to then inform the impact to other stakeholders proved to be a great staring point.  Seeing partnerships form, inviting new members in based on new information, sharing updates quickly (sometimes things were changing by the hour), all while managing new technology learning curves.  These collaborative, real-time conversations did not follow an organization chart or committee structure, they happened based on judgement calls and relationships. The relationships that I had and others have outside of this crisis allowed individuals to trust each other and move quickly. 

Working in Student Affairs, I have always been comfortable in the “gray area” and navigating situations that do not have a manual or clear policy or procedure. I have leveraged those experiences to support my team and our campus.  A few things I would encourage folks to remember as we navigate the situation and move toward recovery:

  1. Follow your mission. Use the existing mission for your areas and your institution as guides. Lots of decisions need to be made and they can be tough given resource availability and capacity. It’s ok if in the next few months you don’t create new programs or initiatives. It is okay to let things go and focus on the primary needs and priorities of your role.
  2. Focus on the task at hand. There is a time to think forward, but speculation can quickly derail process and outcomes.  We are still very much in the unknown stage of how long we will be navigating this crisis.  Remember, control the controllable.  In times of unknown, there are things you do have control over.
  3. Reach out and collaborate to find answers. I saw people that never used video calls have to figure it out – sometimes in real-time! Times like this can expose your strengths and areas of growth professionally.  Now is the time to reflect on those areas of opportunity and strength. Even in this time of social isolation, we cannot afford to be professionally isolated around crisis response. 
  4. What do you need? Take time to figure out what you need to navigate the unknowns, professionally and The impact of this crisis runs deep.  Explore options for taking vacation days. Working from home is not vacation. In many ways it is more difficult than working in an office away from kids, cats, chores, and constant reminders that things are not status quo. Seek other existing resources that are likely needed even more given this crisis. What opportunities does your institution provide around mental health, wellness programming, and other critically important support needed during times of crisis? Make use of what your institution has in place.
  5. What works? As we’ve all quickly transitioned to this current style of work, look for things that are working and consider using those in the future. I know I have already started noting things which, as a result of this situation, I will implement in our standard processes as we recover.

This event will be one that we all remember for the rest of our lives as it will impact us all on a professional level for sure.  As we continue to move through this crisis, take care of yourselves and others.  Take time to reflect on what you are experiencing and observing in your campus community and give yourself and others grace as we all are “building that plane as we are flying it.”  We don’t know how long this “flight” will continue, but remember even with turbulence, most flights offer views you don’t normally get to see that can offer perspective flight stabilizes.

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