NOBODY WAS PREPARED. COVID-19 swept into our lives first as we heard the news about China and Italy, and then as it spread around the rest of the world. On March 20, our city of Bogotá, Colombia, was declared in quarantine. Everything that was once considered a part of normal operations for a school of management in an emerging economy was transformed by the pandemic and the resulting shutdown.
At Universidad de los Andes, we have been led since July 2019 by rector Alejandro Gaviria, who used to be the Minister of Health and Social Protection of Colombia. He rapidly mobilized significant university resources to find a way through the crisis. The Universidad de los Andes School of Management (UASM) quickly identified two priorities that would provide resilience in unknown and unpredictable circumstances: strengthening the school’s internal community and strengthening its external relationships.
A COMMON PURPOSE FOR FACULTY
To bolster our internal community, we needed to provide support to both students and faculty. But faculty present a particular challenge, because leading a group of university professors can resemble herding cats. University professors are independent and strong-willed; they fight tooth-and-nail for their autonomy. However, frequently they are also strongly oriented toward achieving a higher goal.
At UASM, the pandemic is the catalyst that synchronized 74 full-time faculty toward a common purpose: adapting quickly to the reality of virtual education under exceptional circumstances. They made the switch while still maintaining the school’s usual levels of teaching excellence and rigorous student evaluation.
The pandemic brought about a rejuvenated group spirit, less formal and more adventurous.
Under the imperative of emergency online teaching, professors with extensive experience in developing MOOCs and other distance-learning formats became natural leaders. Before the first week of online classes started, the School of Management had trained more than 200 full-time and part-time faculty and administrative staff to use online platforms and master the intricacies of virtual pedagogy.
Our community became tighter than ever after we launched a chat group that offered psychological support, practical pedagogical help, and quick solutions to technical misfortunes. Most of the communications were about students, which we learned when participating faculty agreed to let us analyze the contents of the group chats that occurred between March 18 and 31. In word cloud visualizations, the word “students” was the most prominent by a wide margin.
During these student-focused conversations, participants discussed how to improve online teaching or offered observations about how students fared in virtual classrooms. For instance, faculty members noted that migrating classes online made the shy and less participative students much more prominent inside the group. Other professors expressed gratitude to colleagues who generously shared online teaching tips and explained how to create online discussion groups, use polling tools, contact guest speakers, and deal with long periods of screen time.
The chat group was also a space to connect on a more personal level. For instance, faculty shared fitness routines, global COVID-19 statistics, and personal writings about the quarantine experience and its consequences. They also used the space to organize virtual artistic gatherings where they could sing, play instruments, and read short stories aloud.
Naturally, it became the channel for faculty members to send short video messages to students saying how much they were missed. These messages were compiled into an institutional video and shared online. As one faculty member put it, “It only took a global pandemic for us to come together and share the way we do now.” Many others noticed that the pandemic brought about a rejuvenated group spirit, one that was less formal, more tech-savvy, and more adventurous, but that was still nurtured by the same core values of excellence, solidarity, freedom, and integrity.
A SET OF CHALLENGES FOR STUDENTS
We also worked to build connections with our students through this difficult time. During the early weeks of the crisis, we provided transportation budgets to students who needed to travel home. We also expanded the services offered by our counselors. We were expecting students to learn online during quarantine, but many students found this stressful, and they needed multiple levels of support.
In addition, we knew that some of our students, particularly those in economically disadvantaged situations, might not have access to the technology required for virtual learning. The School of Management quickly identified the students who benefited from financial aid and contacted them by phone. Those in need were provided with laptops and internet connectivity sets (wifi USBs). The laptops were part of the stock that the university keeps for on-campus lending; the purchase and mailing of the hardware was financed from the operating capital of the technology department.
Another important step was instituting a biweekly monitoring survey to help us assess student well-being. The survey had three main sections: general questions relating to students’ emotional states, whether positive or negative; comparative questions relating to on-campus versus virtual learning; and additional questions relating to how the COVID-19 situation was affecting students’ new routines and presenting associated challenges. For instance, we wanted to learn how students were handling social isolation, balancing schoolwork and housework, concentrating amidst the noise caused by other family members, and dealing with poor-quality internet connections. To encourage students to participate regularly, we offered four pairs of fancy headphones as prizes in a drawing.
Preliminary survey results showed us that students were able to familiarize themselves quickly with virtual learning, even though they generally reported having little previous experience with online classes. Students also reported that they were having stronger negative sensations and emotions during the pandemic. This was especially true for women, possibly because they were finding it much harder to blend online learning with household obligations. However, after the first two-week period of virtual learning, students progressively reported being happier, more relaxed, less stressed, and more willing to learn online.
Student perceptions continued to evolve in subsequent weeks, and we continued to learn. We concluded that we not only should implement virtual learning quickly in response to the crisis, but we also should look toward the future, when we can develop a mixed model of learning that will build equally on the strengths of virtual and on-campus experiences.
OUR COMMUNITY NEEDS US!
Our second priority was to identify external stakeholders that were struggling during the pandemic and that could benefit from interactions with the university. We designed initiatives to aid several distinct groups:
At-risk populations. The closure of our campus was a hard blow to many small family businesses, such as paper and stationery shops, that are located just outside the UASM buildings and benefit from student spending.
Students led several philanthropic initiatives to help these business owners, and faculty supported their efforts. For instance, the School of Management Student Council created a fundraiser that collected US$1,150 and distributed food supplies to 42 families. Many students launched other fundraisers over community networks so they could provide food in depressed neighborhoods that were farther away from campus. As an example, a teaching assistant named Maria Antonia gathered donations through her Instagram account and was able to deliver food to 25 families in a marginal district of the capital city.
On a different level, the school leadership team collaborated with key private-sector actors in its network of alumni and faculty to create a positive impact on the most at-risk communities. The school acted as an intermediary in a private business initiative to supply food to the most vulnerable Colombian households. In association with prominent players in the agrifood industry, the school launched an observatory to monitor and scale up initiatives that address hunger among vulnerable citizens and maintain the rural communities that provide fresh produce to dense urban areas.
Big businesses. The school organized small groups of professors into Rapid Response Teams designed to support organizational decision making in the largest and most productive Colombian businesses and organizations. For instance, at a multinational corporation in Colombia, the director of corporate affairs and the president of the foundation needed to rethink how to manage their supply chain, from farmers and suppliers to retailers and recyclers. The company sent UASM an initial list of the real-time problems it needed help resolving. The school formed a task force of faculty with relevant expertise, and this group started holding weekly meetings to address the challenges.
Professors formed Rapid Response Teams to support Colombian businesses.
It is possible that these team collaborations will continue after the COVID-19 emergency is resolved. In the “new normal” that will follow, both the corporation and its foundation will need to rethink their strategies in community management and environmental policy—areas where the school can provide insights and resources for more sustainable management and consumption practices.
Small businesses. During the pandemic, the school reached out to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and to individuals, including alumni. The school launched a blitz survey of these groups to pinpoint their specific pains at this time, and also to discover what they needed to enhance their resilience and post-crisis competitiveness. The survey showed that, across industries, companies were worried about resource availability and were looking for ways to improve their crisis management skills. We believe this highlights the need for industry-specific interventions that could palliate the effects of the COVID-19 quarantine. The school plans to share survey insights with policymakers to help them fine-tune government programs.
Moreover, because cash and credit are scarce in the current situation, the Small and Medium Enterprises Program at the School of Management launched a universitywide initiative for in-kind exchange. SMEs are granted access to an online marketplace once they complete an authorization process that includes the acceptance of a code of ethics. In this marketplace, they can exchange their products and services for ones that they need. The social capital inherent in the university community serves as a disciplining mechanism and stimulus for responsible and ethical behavior.
The broader community. During periods of great uncertainty, social networks are flooded with negative conversations filled with fear and anxiety. But fake news and uncertainty are the worst advisors. In such times, the insights of trusted thought leaders—such as academic faculty—acquire special relevance. We believe our expertise is needed now in open public spaces as much as it is in our virtual classrooms.
Therefore, to keep the public well-informed, the university created a dedicated COVID-19 website where we could post daily webinars, step-by-step guides for crisis management, and short expert papers. The webpage was created under the leadership of the vice rector for research, who led a large multidisciplinary team of faculty members. They developed an ongoing research agenda with very short publication cycles to produce informative and concise documents. These were meant to help public and private decision makers, as well as ordinary citizens, manage the crisis.
Our urgency to give daily solutions and adopt a fast-paced working style made it possible for UASM personnel to collaborate across silos. For instance, 26 faculty and staff members only needed 24 hours to create a guide for agile and productive interaction. This guide gave rise to an e-book that all the participants recognize as their collective intellectual contribution—and that was featured in the regional specialized press.
While the coronavirus pandemic has brought great suffering to many, it also has led many institutions to re-evaluate their roles in society. At UASM, we not only have addressed the new problems that were born in this unexpected context, we have realized some unexpected benefits:
We have revitalized relationships with many old and new stakeholders. Because we strove to be empathetic about the needs of our stakeholders, we achieved a deep understanding of their problems. This allowed us to quickly publish editorial material that was genuinely useful for the business community in this time of uncertainty.
At the same time, stakeholders learned or were reminded of the value of working with an academic institution of excellence. As all activities in Colombian society became virtual and people were confined to their homes, UASM noted rising interest in the views and opinions expressed by academic experts. We saw marked growth in the circulation of our articles and the viewership of webinars by UASM faculty and guests. In fact, on several occasions, the available platforms could not accommodate the number of interested participants. Thus, even as we created material designed to support our community, we generated impressive media impact for our school.
The pandemic led us to reassess many aspects of our operation and our personal lives.
We have radically improved our understanding of our students’ experiences. Ironically, being confined with and homeschooling our own children has helped us to gain better insights into our students’ learning challenges and academic loads. It has exposed us to multiple pedagogical strategies and helped many of us develop an online teaching style and philosophy—something that was previously unthinkable for many of the more tradition-bound faculty among us. For instance, we saw how our own children needed a continuous flow of diverse activities if we wanted them to keep paying attention, so we realized how important it was for us to frequently change online activities and the pace of learning to keep the attention of our college students.
We have examined our internal processes. The challenges posed by COVID-19—particularly those related to virtual management of value chains—have caused UASM to rethink some of our strategic priorities and redefine a large number of our research projects. We also have redesigned many administrative processes, including those related to admissions, which we now structure around the framework of the student journey. In many ways, the pandemic has contributed to our goal of improving institutional effectiveness and service satisfaction.
The school didn’t change its mission or its strategy in response to the pandemic, but we found new meanings in both. By embracing an antifragile approach to the chaotic COVID-19 situation, we have strengthened our resolve and reaffirmed our mission of educating responsible leaders.
In the end, the pandemic gave us the opportunity to reassess many aspects of our operation and our personal lives. We are now more attuned to the interdependencies that support our well-being; at the same time, we have become more conscious of the things that matter to each of us individually. For many of us, this means we have found meaning in serving others: our students, our community, and our planet.
Vinciane Servantie is vice-dean for academic affairs and Veneta Andonova is dean of the Universidad de los Andes School of Management in Bogotá,
This article originally appeared in BizEd's July/August 2020 issue. Please send questions, comments, or letters to the editor to email@example.com.