MOST HIGHER EDUCATION INSTITUTIONS have protocols in place that they hope will guide them through any number of crises. But these protocols often were created based on either their own past experiences or those of other similar institutions.
But what if a tragedy strikes that is more far-reaching or unforeseeable than a school’s administrators ever imagined?
The summer of 2017 brought many such unexpected and unprecedented circumstances to the doorsteps of several business schools. We spoke to administrators who helped their academic communities “weather the storms”— in one case, quite literally. We asked them how their schools had prepared, how they handled each emergency’s minute-by-minute demands, and what they could have done differently. We also asked them to answer one important question: How should other schools prepare to face the unimaginable if it also happens to them?
‘A DAY OF MOURNING’
Earthquake Strikes Southern Mexico September 19, 2017
NEARLY 370 PEOPLE lost their lives in the 7.1 magnitude earthquake that struck Mexico City and the surrounding region at 1 p.m. Central Time last September. The calamity occurred just 12 days after an 8.1 magnitude quake struck the country’s southern coast, killing at least 61 people—the strongest seismic event in Mexico in a century. And, in a strange twist of fate, it occurred just two hours after Mexico City had run a preparedness drill in commemoration of the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, which struck on exactly the same date. Mexico is prone to earthquakes because of its location on what seismologists call a “subduction zone,” where the layers of the earth’s crust slide beneath one another.
In 1985, an estimated 5,000 people died and more than 3,000 city structures were destroyed. Since then, the city has worked to strengthen its building codes, better organize its emergency response systems, and train its first responders. The 2017 earthquake was a tragic event, taking the lives of more than 360 people. But this time the city was far more prepared than 32 years before, with a disaster response that was both immediate and effective.
Rafael Gómez Nava, dean of IPADE Business School headquartered in Mexico City, is well aware that his school is in a danger zone and views IPADE as extremely fortunate. No one at the school was injured, and none of its buildings suffered damage. Even so, he says, “without a doubt, last September 19 was a day of tragedy and mourning for Mexico.”
Although Mexico City was well prepared, communities located in the country’s interior and more rural regions were disproportionately affected, particularly the states of Puebla and Morelos, each about 80 miles from the city. Gómez Nava explains that the earthquake originated in an area very close to two educational institutions that partner with IPADE Business School as part of its social responsibility initiative: El Peñón Foundation and Montefalco School, both of which focus on educating children and young people. “There was no human loss or injury within the community of schools,” says Gómez Nava. “However, being so close to the epicenter, many homes, communications, and businesses were greatly affected.”
After the earthquake, IPADE’s administrators and faculty faced three major challenges: organizing a response; communicating with members of the school’s community; and finding allies who could assist in reconstructing damaged or demolished homes and providing funds to those in need. The school organized its response around those challenges.
“There has been no lack of support from the community of alumni, participants, and collaborators of IPADE,” says Gómez Nava. “In addition, our efforts have been joined by the Pan American University campus in Mexico City and Guadalajara.”
To better organize those who wanted to help, the school assigned them to one of three subcommittees—one to gather and deliver food, one to communicate with alumni and donors, and one to manage the reconstruction campaign.
Directly after the earthquake, those assigned to the first subcommittee attended to the general community’s immediate needs by opening donation centers at all three of IPADE’s campuses, based in Mexico City, Monterrey, and Guadalajara. Volunteers collected nearly ten tons of donations—including clothing, shoes, water, food, personal hygiene items, and baby items—that it distributed to approximately 500 families that had been affected by the earthquake.
Next, the committee dedicated to reconstruction began working with the two rural schools, where the priority was to discover the status of the families in the community and offer psychological care to those affected. Contacting all of them was difficult, says Gómez Nava, because many lived an hour and a half from the schools, some with little access to communication.
“Both the El Peñón Foundation and the Montefalco School made a census of the families of the students and collaborators, and discovered that 35 houses had to be demolished and others needed repairs,” he says. Next, the reconstruction committee analyzed proposals from nonprofit organizations who could help families rebuild their homes.
The reconstruction committee decided to enlist the support of ¡Échale! A Tu Casa (Go for it! It is your house), an association that has been working on reconstruction for more than 20 years, to repair or reconstruct homes. While many nonprofits focus on rebuilding after earthquakes, ¡Échale! A Tu Casa is unique, says Gómez Nava, “because it makes two- to three-bedroom adobe houses while also creating temporary jobs within the community.”
The nonprofit uses an inexpensive, modular, and energy-efficient “Ecoblock construction system.” With this system, a two-bedroom home can be built using only 2,200 Ecoblocks, which are energy-efficient and earthquake-resistant. According to the nonprofit’s website, a single home costs only MXN22,000 (about US$1,150), and the organization can build 50 homes in three to four months. IPADE has now embarked on a fundraising campaign to pay the cost of rebuilding the 35 homes.
A SOCIAL COMMITMENT
IPADE Business School is now looking to the third stage of its response, in which it will grant emergency scholarships to families whose financial livelihoods have been negatively affected as a result of the earthquake.
“It is estimated that about 70 percent of the parents will not be able to cover the quota allocated to them as payment for tuition,” explains Gómez Nava. The business school’s board of trustees, which is composed primarily of IPADE alumni, is now promoting the work of the school and the needs of the families, with the goal of attracting funding for scholarships to help students continue with their studies.
The process has been difficult, says Gómez Nava, but it also has brought to light how much IPADE’s students, faculty, and administrators are a part of the community—and how a business school can help that community emerge stronger after a crisis.
“We view social responsibility as a founding principle of IPADE Business School,” says Gómez Nava, “and we seek to carry out that principle within the community.”
‘ THE OTHER SIDE OF TRAGEDY’
Wildfires Ravage Northern California October 2017
NO ONE IS SURE what started last fall’s wildfires that engulfed much of wine country in Sonoma Valley, California. But as of late October, the result was 44 people killed, an estimated 8,900 structures burned, and at least 245,000 acres of land destroyed, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
The fires came close to, but did not directly impact, Sonoma State University. A field across the street from campus burned, but most of the fire’s major activity was limited to the nearby hills, says William Silver, then dean and now professor of leadership at Sonoma State’s School of Business & Economics (SBE). Even so, the campus community was evacuated to make sure everyone was out of harm’s way. More dangerous than the fire was the cloud of smoke that hung over the campus and surrounding area. For that reason, anyone in the area was asked to wear a mask to filter the air.
“We’ve been under threat of fires in the hills and off in the woods, but we’ve never had a fire that took out so many homes and flared in so many different areas,” says Silver. “It’s tough to see a chimney standing or slag glass and know that was a person’s home. I can only imagine that’s what war looks like.”
The university had general emergency response protocols prepared, in terms of closing campus, for example. But the business school “didn’t have a dialogue that spelled out what to do during a crisis like this. We have been more focused on what to do during an economic fallout, such as California’s tremendous budget crisis that happened when I first got here in 2008.”
But the wildfires highlighted a real need to have such a plan in place. Sonoma State University is the only comprehensive university to serve six California counties, where the population is both suburban, in cities such as San Jose, and agrarian, in areas devoted to farming and wine production. “If you’re in a place with 50 other universities, it’s a different story, but here we’re the only educational catalyst of economic prosperity,” says Silver. “We’re the one that has to make things happen.”
GETTING THE MESSAGE OUT
As the fires intensified, Silver’s first order of business was to send a message out to everyone on the SBE’s mailing list—which included faculty, staff, and students, as well as alumni, businesses, and practitioners—both to ask if each person was safe and to make clear that the business school could offer help if needed. In addition, within the first two days of the fires, the SBE started a Facebook group where people who needed help, such as a place to stay as hotels quickly filled, could connect with those who could offer it. At that point, Silver explains, the university began to take a more formal leadership role, which included collecting data on each individual community member’s status and assessing his or her needs.
Silver was among those who had to evacuate from their homes, but even while he was displaced he remained in close communication with the SBE community throughout the crisis. He admits it was tricky to strike the right balance between helping people handle the immediate emergency and looking ahead to what needed to be done next.
“How do we strike that balance when we’re still in the middle of the crisis, with new fires emerging?” he asks. “Yet, we needed to look toward the future and send out a message of hope and positivity. We needed to express that we’re going to emerge from this, that we’re going to be OK. We had to be sensitive to those who were still in crisis, but we couldn’t convey that we were in a disaster zone that was never going to recover.”
He points to news stories that often focus on the most negative images from any disaster, not the parts of the community that remain unaffected. “National media coverage often is sensationalized to the negative,” he says. “While there has been a tragic loss of homes, most of the homes in Santa Rosa—95 percent—are still standing. Most of our land was not burned. On the other side of this tragedy, the fundamental foundation and infrastructure are still here.”
Many at the university were personally affected, including Sonoma State’s president, Judy Sakaki. Sakaki and her husband woke up at 4:30 on a Saturday morning to discover their house was on fire. They ran from their home with just the clothes on their backs, only to find that the other houses in their neighborhood also were aflame. “Fortunately, a fireman who came by to do a final sweep of the area picked them up,” says Silver. “They had missed the evacuation call that came two hours earlier. They just got out with their lives.”
With so many people who had been evacuated, or who had lost their homes altogether, the university set up an emergency operations center to help people through the first couple of days. Silver says that almost everyone he knew was helping out, in whatever way they could. “My kids and I delivered Drumstick ice cream cones to the police officers who were there to quarantine the area, protect homes from looters, and help with further evacuations,” he says. His wife, a pediatrician, helped with people’s medical needs, and many in the university community delivered food and provided emotional support at emergency shelters.
OPPORTUNITIES TO LEARN
The week after the fires were contained, the SBE’s leadership joined the regional rebuilding effort. On October 25, the SBE’s Wine Business Institute (WBI) held a meeting of regional wine industry leaders, who assessed the damage and discussed recovery strategies. In addition, Silver joined a newly created nonprofit called RebuildNorthBay.org (RNB), a group of community leaders that plans to work “to fully understand and critique … how the disaster was managed by both the public and private sectors and establish policies and procedures for the future,” according to an RNB statement. As its first step, the organization retained a consulting firm with expertise in disaster preparedness and recovery to assess how well the community responded to the wildfires, managed communications, and deployed resources.
The SBE faculty want to keep these conversations going, because the biggest danger to rebuilding is lack of action, Silver stresses. He points to advice he received from SBE faculty member and humanitarian logistics expert Anisya Fritz. “She has advised us that, in the beginning, a lot of people are setting up funds and doing the urgent and immediate humanitarian work, but those efforts can fall apart in the mid- to long-term,” he says. “We now must figure out how we can best use our leadership role for the rebuilding effort.”
Through the WBI and RNB, the business school community will work closely with public and private sector leaders to address immediate funding needs and help shape effective legislation and regulation related to helping the region rebuild. “By gathering leaders across sectors, we can address environmental issues, help shape economic development, and partner with organizations that are raising funds for those impacted in the various communities,” Silver says.
Like leaders at other business schools affected by tragic events, Silver says that one of the greatest lessons he has learned is just how strong a community can be in times of crisis. “For all the differences we hear about in the world right now, to be part of something where people are coming together is just inspiring,” he says.
At the same time, Silver cautions other business school leaders to be careful of the language they use as they communicate to the community during a widespread emergency. “To me, these fires were a crisis, but not necessarily a disaster. And in any crisis come opportunities and lessons learned,” says Silver. “I don’t want to diminish the tragedies of those who have lost houses, or even their lives. But I’m a naturally optimistic person, and I think that when we use a word like ‘disaster,’ it can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
‘THEY CHANGED THE SCRIPT’
White Supremacists March in Charlottesville, Virginia, August 11 and 12, 2017
WHEN MOST PEOPLE BEGIN A JOB at a new organization, they have a little time to settle in. That wasn’t the case for Martin Davidson, senior associate dean and global chief director of diversity at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business in Charlottesville. When he assumed his new post last July, his first order of business was no small task—he was to help the school respond to two white supremacist marches scheduled to occur in Charlottesville that summer.
The first, on Saturday, July 8, was planned by the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan; the second, on August 12, was organized by Unite the Right, an extreme right-wing organization. Both organizations were coming to Charlottesville to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate Army during the American Civil War. The statue stood in Emancipation Park, formerly known as Robert E. Lee Park, located a few miles from campus.
“Welcome to my new job!” says Davidson. “But I do a lot of work on difference and diversity as part of my scholarship and thought leadership. Given the situation, it was helpful that I had past experience with these kinds of things.”
Although UVA administrators knew of these events in advance, they did not expect the campus to be directly affected. “We knew full well that these marches would challenge people intellectually and emotionally,” says Davidson. “But we were thinking about them not from a social unrest perspective, but from an educational perspective.” In response, the Darden School scheduled two “community conversations” for the Mondays following both weekend rallies. The intention was to provide forums where its community could talk about the social issues driving the rallies.
As it turned out, these conversations took on heightened significance when the August rally turned violent. Suddenly, the University of Virginia found itself at the center of a national conversation about race relations in America.
A CHANGE IN PLANS
The KKK rally on July 8 was held at Justice Park, just more than a mile from the UVA campus. It attracted about 1,000 people and resulted in 23 arrests, but overall the event went as expected. Administrators expected about 25 people to attend Darden’s first community conversation on July 10, but “to our surprise, 75 people poured into the room,” says Davidson. “People of all backgrounds told their personal stories.”
No one in Charlottesville expected the August 12 march to go any differently. Unite the Right had a permit to gather at McIntire Park, about three miles from UVA. “We had a game plan,” says Davidson. “The university’s preparations were actually fairly extensive, and there was going to be a National Guard presence in the area.” But that plan was disrupted when Unite the Right leaders quickly mobilized on Friday night, August 11, in an unplanned march that came unexpectedly to UVA.
“Should the university have been on top of that? Absolutely,” says Davidson. “But the marchers changed the script at the last minute. It was less about the university’s lack of preparation than it was about a very nimble protest movement. Little did we know it would become as destructive and lethal as it did.” Marchers came to campus carrying torches, with the unrest continuing into Saturday, when a man with ties to white supremacist groups drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one and injuring 19.
Darden administrators had no idea how necessary the school’s August 14 gathering would be. About 300 students, faculty, staff, and alumni indicated they would be attending, requiring the school to move the event to an auditorium large enough to accommodate the crowd. As it happened, the march occurred at the beginning of Darden’s orientation for full-time MBA students, and all of its executive MBA students were on campus. Many international students had just been in Charlottesville a few weeks, and this show of violence was one of their first experiences at the school. Scott Beardsley, Darden’s dean, was one of the first to speak to the crowd, stating that “We at the University of Virginia and the Darden Graduate School of Business are not defined by the hate this weekend.”
Davidson facilitated conversation among attendees, both in small groups and in the larger forum. Some talked about their own experiences with racism—including what it was like to live through the civil rights era in the 1960s; some stood up for the police officers who had to protect the marchers. Others reminded the group that racial injustice was a far bigger problem than a single violent rally—that people in America have been experiencing racial injustice for decades. Many international students wanted to know the historical context that had led to the rally in the first place.
“People of color spoke, white students spoke. They talked about times when our classrooms didn’t seem inclusive, when comments were made or when so-called microaggressions happened that made people feel discounted by virtue of their race or gender or sexual orientation,” says Davidson. “Some people pointed out areas where the university could be more active in its efforts around diversity and education, such as bringing in more faculty of diverse backgrounds.”
He notes that the conversation seemed to be the “start of an energy, a sense of momentum.” Although the march took the campus by surprise, it has started new conversations, about both ensuring student safety and bringing issues of race and diversity to the forefront.
In the week after the march, many criticized the university for what was interpreted as an inadequate response— especially regarding the slowness with which it informed its community of Unite the Right’s change in plans. UVA already had adopted a system of notifying its community of an emergency via text, email, campus displays, and public address, features put in place after a 23-year-old gunman shot and killed 32 people on the campus of Virginia Tech in 2007. However, the university is now refining its policies involving how—and when—to use that system.
“As we look back, we know the system could have been used more efficiently when the first torch bearers began walking around,” says Davidson. “The university wants to make sure those official notices go out sooner, so that the community is aware of what is happening and can mobilize more quickly.” UVA also is re-evaluating its campus safety measures, from the sufficiency of pathway lighting to the distribution of emergency call boxes, to ensure that people feel secure and can notify police quickly if they need assistance.
Since the march, the business school has held sessions with faculty to explore how they can address issues related to diversity in their classes, even in subjects that might not immediately lend themselves to the topic. Administrators also have made themselves as accessible as possible to students, many of whom will remember the march as one of their very first experiences at Darden.
“We’ve been discussing with students long-term institutional changes that we can make toward adopting more inclusive practices,” says Davidson. “This event has opened up a dialogue. We’re asking, ‘What does it really mean to value difference and diversity? What’s most important in terms of equity and inclusion?’”
A group of students has suggested several ideas for change, including creating formal forums where they can discuss issues of diversity and discord. “Our students are saying that we need to stop pretending that none of this is happening—that these feelings aren’t out there in the world as part of some weird fringe radical movement. Frankly, they’re among us here in the building, carried by people within our walls.”
Davidson has been most surprised by the resilience and energy of the school’s community in the face of these turbulent events. “People are saying, ‘Let’s roll up our sleeves and deal with this, because this is not OK,’” says Davidson. “That’s been really exciting.”
To view a video about the August 14 conversation, visit www.youtube.com/watch?v=GCKSz0NLybs.
‘ IT WOULDN’T STOP RAINING’
Hurricane Harvey Hits Houston, Texas August 26, 2017
FOR THE MOST PART, hurricanes give fair warning that they’re coming—the problem is that their paths are so uncertain, even meteorologists can’t predict exactly where they will arrive or how strong they’ll be when they get there. That was the dilemma that universities in Houston, Texas, faced as they tracked the path of Hurricane Harvey last August.
“We began following our protocols for severe weather, which principally involve deciding when and whether to hold classes, when to make an announcement about that, and when to reopen,” says Peter Rodriguez, dean of the Jones School of Business at Rice University. “Texas is a big state, and there were indications that Harvey might not be so severe or that it might take a path that left us almost dry.”
Harvey’s path was so capricious, the university had closed its campus the weekend before the hurricane struck— days that turned out to be dry. The Jones School set up a website at business.rice.edu/harvey, where it posted ongoing updates of campus closings. On Friday, August 24, Harvey was upgraded to a Category 2 hurricane, and the university announced that while city government did not recommend evacuation, Rice would close campus as of 3 p.m.
Normally, when it comes to hurricanes, officials are most concerned about wind and hail damage to structures and power lines. But by the time Harvey made landfall in Houston, its wind speed had decreased and it had been reclassified as a tropical storm—one that had become intractably stalled over the region. “It just wouldn’t stop raining,” says Rodriguez. “Meteorologists with the weather service had to put new colors on their graphics, because they didn’t have a color dark enough to represent this level of rainfall.”
In the end, Harvey dropped 51 inches of rainfall on the Houston region over just a day and a half—the most rainfall ever recorded from a single storm in the continental U.S.
By the evening of Saturday, August 26, the city was grappling with severe flooding in its 100- and 500-year flood plains. Rodriguez and other Jones School staff members started getting texts and emails from many students, faculty, and staff who had to abandon their homes or seek higher ground on second floors.
“We quickly realized that we didn’t have the sort of all-out communication procedures we should have put into place earlier,” Rodriguez explains. “We designated people to make contact with different groups. We asked the leaders of each student cohort to try to reach out to students, while my team worked on faculty and staff. We had other staff members try to connect to alumni.”
As they sheltered at home, these individuals at first coordinated their activities via conference calls; soon, they centralized their efforts, importing the Jones School directory into a shared online Google spreadsheet and filling out columns to track each person’s most recent contact information and status; whether he or she was in need; and, if so, what that need was.
Little by little, they connected with almost everyone in the directory. There were only a handful of people they couldn’t locate. “Those are the ones that haunt you,” says Rodriguez. For example, a student known to live in a risky area could not be reached, but eventually it was discovered that his cell phone battery had died. He had ended up at a Red Cross evacuation station in Beaumont, Texas, with his parents. Eventually, everyone was accounted for.
As Rodriguez and his team fielded these calls, one thing became clear: When people are cut off by floodwaters, help is inherently local. “It wasn’t enough that we knew that someone had lost power, or that someone’s first floor was flooding and that person needed to be moved to a safer place,” says Rodriguez. “We also had to know someone nearby who could help. We had a tremendous outpouring of people willing to help, but most people couldn’t go more than a mile or so. We had faculty tell us, ‘I’ve got a canoe. I can get there.’”
Rodriguez himself answered a call from an international student who had been in the U.S. for only five weeks. His apartment was flooding, and he needed somewhere to go. “Luckily, he was close to me, so I picked him up and took him to the apartment of another student, who was happy to host him.” When Rodriguez and his team couldn’t help someone directly, they shared the person’s status and need with the proper authorities.
Rice University also adapted, so that by Monday afternoon it had set up a centralized assistance website to make it easier for people to connect.
By August 27, the storm had passed. Fortunately, the Rice University campus sits on high ground, so while the floodwaters surrounded campus, they never reached it; its buildings never lost power. A few homes in Rodriguez’s nearby neighborhood were flooded, but his home remained dry.
Those who lived on and around campus were confined to campus for several days. “Our food supplies got a little thin, but they were never threatened, so that was good,” says Rodriguez. The school had prepared itself to be an evacuee site, with cots to accommodate up to 450 people, but that proved unnecessary.
SWITCHING TO THE LONG TERM
In the days after the storm, the university switched from dealing with the short-term crisis to formulating a long-term response. Most people’s lives returned to normal, says Rodriguez, “but the lives of 6 percent or 7 percent of our students and faculty had been completely overturned—their homes had been damaged or they had lost pets. They were in a state of shock. For them, the emotional toll was as big as the physical toll. We had to ask how we could comfort and support the people around us who were experiencing deep loss.” The Jones School staff connected people to mental and financial counseling services as needed.
Staff also helped many who were affected find short- and medium-term housing, re-home pets, borrow vehicles, and secure cash for food or clothing. Teams of students, staff, and faculty helped homeowners and businesses with repairs, such as removing sheetrock and carpet ruined by water and mold. They even helped purchase birthday presents for a nine-year-old boy whose belongings had been destroyed.
In addition, the Jones School established an online fund dubbed ARK, for those who wanted to donate money to help the university community. The fact that the fund’s name sounds like a deliberate reference to Noah’s Ark is a coincidence, says Rodriguez. “The Jones School had been using the term ARK as our motto for the last year,” he says. “It stands for ‘attentive, responsive, and kind.’” As of September, the school had raised about US$30,000, which it used to provide grants and loans to students, faculty, and staff in need. Rice University has managed the ARK fund, handling the legal requirements so that the Jones School can provide the funds tax-free.
A MESSAGING GAP
Once administrators had time to evaluate their response to the crisis, they realized that their biggest challenge had been communication, says Rodriguez.
He and his staff had initially used phone calls, email, Facebook, and LinkedIn to contact people. However, they soon discovered that most students were connecting via messaging apps such as WhatsApp, WeChat, and GroupMe, where the Jones School did not have an official presence. “I had used WeChat when I traveled with student groups, but it didn’t dawn on us to use it more formally,” says Rodriguez.
He adds that as members of his team reported on someone’s status during the storm, it often wasn’t clear whether they had heard directly from that person or had heard about that person through someone else. “We wanted to hear information as directly as possible. On WeChat, it was clear that students were on this chat thread, using their own cell phones,” says Rodriguez. “It’s an essential communication channel, and we just weren’t on it. We should have been.”
Once Rodriguez and his team began using all three messaging apps, they discovered that students already were organizing help for each other using GroupMe. Overall, the apps proved to be far more effective, with students responding to queries much more rapidly than to conventional email messages.
The Jones School plans to add WeChat and similar apps to its communication protocols, perhaps assigning an associate dean or student leader to serve as a point of contact during a crisis. “We don’t plan to have such a regular presence that it interferes with the privacy of student conversations,” Rodriguez says. “But we have to adopt these platforms as the primary way we communicate with students during an emergency.”
While Hurricane Harvey brought to light areas where the school was not fully prepared, Rodriguez has been heartened to see how capable Jones School staff and students were at bringing a plan together so quickly.
“We have a greater sense of connectivity and pride, which comes from an acknowledgment of our shared vulnerability,” he says. “With all the rancor and pain in the world—and last summer was pretty tough, in terms of news stories— this was a moment when we stopped thinking about anything but caring for each other, which gave everybody a noble purpose. This opportunity for us to see each other rise to the occasion has helped build a strength in our community that wasn’t there before.”
LEARNING FROM EXPERIENCE
Rodriguez has this message for his fellow deans: The time to create a crisis action plan is before a crisis hits. He recalls talking to Angelo DeNisi, who was dean of the Freeman School of Business at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana, when Hurricane Katrina hit that city in 2005. “I talked to him many times, but the lessons he shared were not in my immediate memory,” he says. “I now realize that talking through these experiences is valuable. We learned a lot in this one. I take these preparations more seriously today than I would have in the past.”
Another lesson: All business schools can be of special value to their communities in a crisis—their students, faculty, and staff can provide leadership, mobilize teams, work with local agencies, provide financial assistance, and help navigate government relief systems. After Harvey, some Houston businesses contacted the Jones School just to ask for volunteers to help them restock inventory or put stores back to rights.
“We realize how thin small and medium-sized enterprises can be when the system is shaken or when they lose a week or two weeks’ worth of sales,” says Rodriguez. “Business schools are far more than just our missions and our tasks. We’re collections of people in society, and we’re affected by anything and everything around us. Doing a great job for our students means understanding how to respond to events like these. Business schools should be working with each other to do better.”
Once the hurricane had passed, within 24 hours Rice University created an action center as a hub that matched student volunteers with those in the community who needed help. A video about this effort is available at www.youtube.com/watch?v=gDkvXr2VtWo.
As natural disasters and social tensions mount worldwide, it’s inevitable that more business schools will weather unexpected, and potentially severe, states of emergency. Through sharing their experiences, the b-school leaders featured here believe they can better refine their protocols for the future. They also hope their stories will not only help other academic leaders learn more about what it takes to adopt spontaneous action plans, but also inspire them to put plans in place before they find themselves and their schools facing similar threats. Then, once they’ve created those plans, they can only hope that they’ll never need to use them.
This article originally appeared in BizEd's January/February 2018 print issue. Please send questions, comments, or letters to the editor to [email protected]