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Irma Becerra is president of Marymount University, a comprehensive doctoral-granting university known for its innovative curriculum.
While Covid-19 continues to spread across the globe, there has been much debate surrounding inoculating the masses against the Delta variant. As the president of Marymount University, an institution that prides itself on personalized and primarily face-to-face education, when vaccines became widely available in the U.S., I faced the decision: Should the university require vaccinations for our students, staff and faculty?
Given the rapid and life-threatening developments of Covid-19, we needed to quickly assess the facts presented by our nation’s leaders and medical experts in making the crucial decision. Leadership calls for evaluating all the critical factors — the positives and negatives — when choosing how best to ensure the safety of our stakeholders.
Last year we moved to a hybrid education model, complete with social distancing, mandated masks and constant cleaning. We continuously operated within the constraints of the advice from national and state health officials and weighed different perspectives across the institution. We knew providing the mode of learning appreciated by our students would likely require the vaccination of our entire community. However, this wasn’t a choice to take lightly, and I learned a few valuable lessons on how business leaders can navigate complicated decisions like these.
Making Complex Leadership Decisions
Fortunately, my STEM training and problem-solving expertise helped me arrive at crucial decisions in the early days of the global pandemic. I have never been one to shy away from complex challenges; after all, strong leadership often entails making controversial choices.
When faced with making critical decisions regarding vaccination requirements, we perceived the situation through a broad lens and did not hesitate to seek the advice of medical experts. A mindset to decision-making requires a pragmatic approach when assessing and analyzing the facts at hand. I strongly encourage all leaders facing complex problems to gather necessary information and analyze collaboratively with experts in order to make timely and precise decisions. I am also a firm believer in joining forces with other industry leaders — in my case with other university presidents — especially when support is in short supply. By communicating and exchanging ideas with other industry leaders, new and vital perspectives on shared problems can be realized.
When Marymount University pivoted to remote learning in the early spring of 2020, flipping our in-person instruction to interacting across a screen was no easy feat. The transition took hard work and determination, but in the end, we succeeded in turning our operations over to unchartered territory in record time. By semester’s end, we asked our students how they handled the transition, and as expected, many of them struggled with distractions that significantly disrupted their ability to learn remotely. It was clear that a return to face-to-face learning was the right choice for our students. Therefore, we moved forward with a hybrid model in the fall of 2020 and returned to face-to-face learning in 2021.
Communicating the Results
Our decision to mandate protection and call for a Covid-19 vaccination requirement for faculty, staff and students would permit our university to return to safe operations in the face-to-face mode that best meets the expectations of our students. We immediately realized the importance of communicating our emergency plans to all stakeholders at once. However, I underestimated how long the road would be. Given the gravity of the situation, we wasted no time in reaching out to everyone impacted; we used email, press releases and published our intentions of the campus-wide vaccination requirement, including in The Chronicle of Higher Education.
I knew leading by example was a vital step, so I shared my picture of getting vaccinated across social media platforms and made public service announcements in English and Spanish. I also moderated a panel with renowned scientists explaining the science behind the vaccine.
Still, there were challenges. I experienced a retaliatory cyberattack; several anti-vaccine groups flooded my university email with messages every three minutes. The targeted attack by way of “denial of service” seriously interrupted my ability to get my work done. After our IT department took appropriate measures to deter further attempts at disrupting my email, I continued with business as usual.
Being an effective leader requires standing firm on sound decisions, even when some challenge your resolve. Not everyone agrees with our required vaccination policy, but my responsibility as a leader is to look out for the best interest of our stakeholders in the best way that I know how, even if not everyone agrees with that decision.
In times of change, leaders must be ready to respond in real time in order to satisfy their stakeholders’ need for further information. In my case, I have a constantly monitored email, so the concerns of our stakeholders can be promptly addressed in a meaningful way. My monitored email provides a clear communication channel, and my students also know they can always utilize my open-door policy. When my students raise objections or have questions regarding our vaccination requirement, I listen to their concerns. In turn, I ask if they are open to hearing what I have learned from the various medical experts on the subject and in me sharing data from science-backed reports.
Business leaders are often called on to make controversial decisions in challenging times. Keeping an open communication channel while simultaneously relaying clear and concise messages will go far in preserving your integrity in the eyes of your stakeholders.