It would be easy to view the past year as one of the bleakest periods in American history. We have lived through a great tumult, filled with political division, social unrest and a deadly pandemic that has threatened our lives and livelihoods. But during times of great challenge, we remind ourselves that there is also a great opportunity for growth, and that we must maintain our perspective on the hardships that we face as individuals and organizations.
While the darkest days of the crisis may not yet be over, there now appears a glimmer of optimism as we move our way towards the spring, and we can perhaps begin to reflect on the lessons we have learned over the last year. As leaders, it is our responsibility to navigate difficult situations and sometimes make seemingly impossible choices to ensure the wellbeing of those we endeavor to lead. As educators, it is also our responsibility to distill and enumerate the lessons we’ve learned so when similar challenges arise in the future, our successors will have the benefit of our mistakes, failures and successes. The adage applies: a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.
The Purpose of a Team is Not Goal Attainment but Goal Alignment
The first and perhaps most important lesson we have learned throughout this pandemic is that leadership through difficult times must begin well before our backs are against the wall and the stakes may have quite literally become the difference between life and death. Leadership begins with creating alignment in our teams and organizations when the seas are calm, so that we can seamlessly shift our sails when the storm arrives. Phrases such as “establishing a culture”, “fostering an environment” and “promoting a climate” are uttered so often that they have become trite; however, like all cliches, they were born from a seed of truth, and this crisis demonstrates why.
A Jesuit education is rooted in the Ignatian tenant “cura personalis”—care for the whole person, or in our case, student. As such, rigorous in-class instruction and close contact between students and faculty have long been hallmarks of Fordham. On this mission, we were not willing to compromise, even when we decided to transition to remote instruction. Each part of the university had to figure out its own place in that transition, and so the faculty, deans and provost worked on what it would mean for us to try and deliver on the promise of a very personalized education.
We were able to do this with fair assurance, but there were stumbles along the way because we had to learn how to translate what we did and adapt to modalities that were completely different. Early on, our faculty realized they would have to learn new things. We offered tutorials and seminars, and the faculty gathered among themselves in small groups to determine best practices. Personnel who were perhaps used to doing things the same way for decades, quickly learned to do them totally different in a matter of weeks.
Our Division of Student Affairs also rose to the moment. Students spend 65% of their time on campus under the student affairs umbrella, and they ensured that all services, such as virtual career planning, virtual counseling, and virtual campus ministry were up and running. This level of alignment was made possible by our devotion to a common set of values, and cultivating that commitment is an intentional process that occurs every day, not just at the outset of a crisis.
Alone We Can Do So Little; Together We Can Do So Much
While the industry of higher education has experienced a shift toward multidisciplinary study and research over the past decade, many— if not most—universities operate as a series of silos. As Kipling might have put it, academics is academics, and athletics is athletics, and never the twain shall meet. But, as Plato (may have) countered, the “true creator is necessity, who is the mother of our invention.”
On the Fordham campus, we have indeed found necessity to be, if not the mother of invention, then the mother of collaboration and creative problem-solving. On the onset of the pandemic, we immediately established subcommittees for each university front. Since then, the athletics department has continually worked closely with public safety, health services, student, residence life, and other areas of campus to ensure our response is aligned and beneficial to the campus as a whole.
In that sense, we achieved three to four years of relationship-building in a condensed six-month timeframe. Now, when we talk about strategic planning or fundraising or facilities planning, we’re that much more prepared in terms of working together and problem-solving creatively. Even though we still have plenty of work to do on the challenge before us, our future endeavors will be immeasurably more tractable because we’ve met the challenges of the current crisis together. There’s now a confidence and a comfort level with everyone working together and picking up slack and having shared ownership of the process.
In his book Heroic Leadership: Best Practices from a 450-Year-Old Company That Changed the World, former priest and longtime JPMorgan Managing Director Chris Lowney described the Jesuit principle of implementing ingenuity as a leadership principle. To Lowney, ingenuity meant eschewing provincialism and other prejudices, as well as shedding attachments to status. Within that context, Lowney writes: “Breaking free of the unreasonable attachments that make it harder to take risks or innovate, (a person who aspires to become a leader) prepares for seizing new opportunities in an imaginative way.”
Among our biggest takeaways from this pandemic has been learning in a fresh way that college students are not rudderless. Their lives are not discursive. They, in fact, are people who thrive on robust schedules, and one of the great anxiety-producers of the past several months has been the disruption of everything familiar to them. In addition to the anxieties associated with moving home mid-semester, there were myriad academic stressors: Would their WiFi be reliable? How would remote instruction impact their grades? And then, of course, there was the anxiety associated with COVID-19 itself.
For student-athletes, the loss of class, practice, games and training was a particularly difficult blow. Furthermore, during a time when they were isolated from teammates, robbed of their seasons and faced with the uncertainty of what happens next, the country experienced an intense period of social and political unrest.
We found that establishing a new structure helped them. Again, we were guided by devotion to our mission. We poured time into student-development and career services. We held virtual alumni events and virtual internships. In every way possible, we adapted to ensure we were delivering on our promise.
Beyond re-establishing a routine, we maintained two psychologists on staff and outsourced further assistance to mental health coaching and consulting firm SportStrada. Perhaps most helpful was an informal-that-became-formal network of people who could tell us what was going on. This included student leaders we could turn to, student affairs staff members and other student-athletes—again, everyone was aligned and devoted to the mission.
We’ve since found that students, in large part led by student-athletes, have found their voice and will say to us with greater ease than before, “I need help.” That’s a difficult thing for a young person to admit, and the more willing they are to reach out, the more possible it becomes for us to support. Moreover, we can better calibrate our operations to provide the best possible care to our students in the future.
The lessons we’ve learned amount to this: Fordham University going forward will be exactly what it was and completely different. The Jesuit mission will be exactly the same. We will promise what we’ve always promised: a transformative education marked by care for the individual student and rigor in the classroom and a reminder always that you have to be bothered every day of your life with what’s going on around you. That won’t change. That’s part of our DNA. What we have learned is that delivery and modality of learning are changed forever. We’ve learned that synchronous and asynchronous learning shouldn’t be seen as two completely different things. So, while we will still engage with the same devotion to our mission, our strategies will be different.
In the midst of the difficulties and challenges of the past year, it is encouraging to note the learnings and insight the pandemic has inspired, and in some cases, required. As we all continue to lead our institutions and athletic departments into the complexities of the future, I hope the determination, ingenuity, and adaptability we all learned in 2020 will be our inspiration.