Leading With Faith: Inside Wiley's Decision to Become the First HBCU to Close in Response to the Coronavirus Pandemic
February 25, 2020
What was a seemingly routine weekly cabinet strategy session ended with what would unknowingly alter the trajectory of our semester, our college, our lives, and our world. I left the team with a fairly innocuous directive, “I need you all to put together a proactive emergency management plan regarding this Coronavirus thing.”
Immediately after the cabinet meeting I called our Associate Vice President for Student Health, Counseling, and Wellness and requested a briefing for the cabinet. Wiley is fortunate to have a health and wellness operation that is staffed with a clinical psychologist and a nurse practitioner. Their plan included educating our campus, providing emotional support, issuing guidelines on safety, and reminding us of the signs of infection.
The unspeakable toll that this global pandemic would place on our students also triggered a call to the Dean of Chapel to be “at the ready” to provide spiritual support and guidance for the college as well. Our Executive Cabinet deliberated ad nauseam about several plans until at last, we were resolved with our final decision. We would close the college for the duration of the semester, a decision which would make Wiley College the first Historically Black College or University to close, send students home, and complete the year using online instruction.
While this seemed premature or driven by understated motives, my faith prevailed. I am grateful for the governance and support of the Wiley College Board of Trustees, the support of our outstanding alumni, the critical analysis of our executive cabinet, the teamwork of the entire Wiley College family, and most importantly, the resilience of our students.
In early March, I made the decision to cancel all external travel for the College and its members. This impacted our Great Debaters, The A Cappella Choir, faculty and staff professional development, and research conferences, and more. The following week we canceled all travel for our athletic teams, effectively ending their conference competition and championship hopes.
Students, faculty, and staff were somewhat taken aback at what seemed abrupt and premature. Parents wasted no time in sharing their sentiments. “What about my child’s eligibility?” “We have no known cases anywhere around us!” One parent suggested, “I suspect this isn’t about student safety, this is more about saving money.”
I knew that our college would not be the best place for our students and teammates, nor could I protect them in the way I would want my family protected.
My next step was to call the Chairman of the Board with the decision and to seek his support. He inquired, expressed his unconditional support, and I composed a memo, requesting a conference call with the full board pursuant to their by-laws. The date was set, and now the real work began. During the seven days between the initial notification and the scheduled board call, there were so many essential questions to determine. I visited with local board members, and responded to emails and phone calls with answers to questions, while simultaneously seeking their support for the aggressive approach I was to share with our Wiley family. I also called my predecessor and shared my thoughts with my village of presidential peers.
We looked at what assistance students would need. Did we have the infrastructure to deliver instruction completely online? How would our students manage if broadband access and laptops/pcs were not available in their homes? How would students get home? What impact would this abrupt decision have on their health and wellness? We than asked, what would this mean for those left behind after students departed 711 Wiley Avenue.
March 11, 2020
The virus and its impact on the glob had progressed rapidly. The board peppered me with questions. I answered them affirmatively and transparently, given the level of preparation and exhaustive table-top like planning the executive cabinet had experienced over the previous past seven days Ultimately, the board unanimously agreed to effectively close the college, instructed our students to depart all residence halls, switch to on-line instruction, and proactively ensure the safety of our teammates and students.
Immediately after my call with the board, I made my way to the Dr. Julius S. Scott Jr. Chapel where our entire Wiley College family awaited. I was nervous given the students, faculty, staff and even a few alumni were assembled, with bated breath, to learn of our new normal. I shared the college’s decision to close for the duration of the semester. I described for our students the need for them to move off-campus and begin online instruction. Knowing how difficult this would be, I went on to describe how committed we were to help them make the transition. Wherever we could and with the resources available, we would, as a family support one another.
I informed students that we would be assisting in their travel. We would purchase airline tickets for international students, and purchase domestic fares, bus and train tickets, for individuals who would otherwise go without. Additionally, we would help with gas, pay air, train, and bus baggage fees. Ultimately, we even provided individuals with resources to purchase meals while they were traveling. Equally critical was the availability of our licensed mental health official and our ordained clergy to aid them with any trauma this decision may have caused.
Our commitment to our students’ transition extended beyond travel. With 90% of our students identifying as first-generation college students and 85% Pell Grant eligible, I recognized neither our students nor their families would have the resources to pick up and move immediately. We strategically allowed a time frame of one week after the announcement for students to transition home. This would give us time to ensure that all faculty members were trained to provide effective instruction in Canvas, our learning management platform. Critically important as well, this week provided the college and our students ample time to work out all the foreseeable and unforeseeable challenges in delivering instruction online.
The college purchased laptops, connected students to broadband carriers, contacted social workers, parents, and friends all to bring calm and normalcy (as much as possible) to the chaotic upheaval that neither we nor our students were prepared to handle. This aggressive decision was made with foresight, in the midst of a whirlwind of events we did not anticipate. Despite the enormity of pressure placed on our students and our faculty and staff, I began to feel more confident in how we would deal with challenges collectively and move forward with the assurance of faith in order to thrive.
As each student departed, I felt the weight of the world being lifted. By the time our very last student had their last meal in our Student Union and departed our campus, I stood with bated breath wondering if the virus would breach on our campus.
The inevitable has happened. One of our beloved team members has been diagnosed with the first case of COVID-19 here in Harrison County. It is devastating to know that one of our members has been infected with this virus and we pray for the family. I cannot imagine the grief I would have felt in writing this had I not made what I thought to be a prudent decision. We do find a silver lining and reflect upon the rocky and turbulent uncertainty surrounding our decision to act aggressively to save our students from this global pandemic. As it turns out we trusted God and he saw us through.
Fortunately, I have learned invaluable lessons from time served in the United States Marine Corps and have resolved that strong leadership requires that leaders gather, digest, analyze all information, decide, and commit to what is most prudent, even in the face of uncertain resistance. Responding to the looming pandemic known as COVID-19 was inevitable and required the response of strategic leadership.
In moments of crisis, decisive and lifesaving leadership requires prudence, but that prudence can create isolation and criticism. Ron Carucci wrote in 2018 that too many leaders avoid making tough calls in an effort not to upset others or lose status in the eyes of their followers. They concoct sophisticated justifications for putting off difficult decisions, and the delay often does far more damage than whatever fallout they were trying to avoid.
Thankfully, my faith prevailed over my fears, ultimately guiding me to answer the call.