Michael Schoenfeld is the VP for Public Affairs & Government Relations and CCO at Duke University. In this conversation with host and D S SImon Media CEO, Doug Simon, Michael shares best practices for communicating a university action plan regarding COVID to multiple stakeholders in times of uncertainty and avoiding a “blame the student” mindset.
Michael emphasizes the importance of frequently conveying the need for flexibility and the need for resilience. He also discusses how colleges that may lack resources and funding of a top research university with a medical center can manage the ongoing crisis.
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About the Host:
Host: DOUG SIMON
Guest: MICHAEL SCHOENFELD
DOUG: Mike, thanks for being here with us. Duke had an advantage when it came to understanding the dangers of COVID because you have a joint partnership with the university in China. Can you jump right into it there?
MICHAEL: Yes, thanks Doug, and great to be here with you. We do have a university outside of Shanghai in Kunshun, China, it’s about 40 miles outside of Shanghai, that has been developed over the last 10 years or so. And one of the small advantages that we had in the pandemic was that we had started getting advanced notice essentially from our team in China going back to late December that there was an outbreak of a mysterious illness in Wuhan. The reason this was notable for us is because our partner in this venture is Wuhan university. So, I’ve been to on a number of times, we have many colleague and teammates there. Had it happened in any other Chinese city, we might have been a little bit less vigilant about it, but because it was happening in Wuhan, we pay close attention and then went through the whole cycle, the whole process that we ultimately went through here in the US in March and April, but we did that in January and February in China. So, evacuating the campus, transitioning to remote learning, dealing with major national health crisis issues. So we did have a bit of an early warning. We were able to get our systems and processes in place. The other part of that of course it means that we have been meeting every day and dealing with this issue every day since the middle of December.
DOUG: So, let’s jump now to closer to this semester starting. How did you go about putting your plan together for that, as well as communicating what that plan was going to be especially with so much uncertainty?
MICHAEL: Well it’s a great question, and the underscore word there is uncertainty. So, things that we knew in January we would say that that as we were going through January, February, March, something that was inconceivable at breakfast became almost possible at lunch and by dinner was already done. And we repeated that cycle every single day for a period of time. Once we sort of went through that acute phase, we went through thatm we had the heart attack if you will, we then went into a form of rehab, and that form of rehab, which we’re all still going through right now obviously, that form of rehab was planning for and trying to predict a future that nobody could plan for that nobody could predict for. So, if you think about if you think about it that way, in March, April, May, June we were trying to predict what was going to happen in September. Nobody could predict what was going to happen in September. But so nonetheless we actually put in place things like testing regimens, de-densifying the campus, planning for both a combination of remote and an in-person education. But I think most important what we were trying to… and we were communicating all this to our many different stakeholders – students, faculty, staff, alumni, donors, sports fans, patients, because we have always run a major academic medical center throughout all of this. We communicated the details repeatedly, frequently using new channels like video, but very old school, email was the most important… if people didn’t get an email from us about whatever it was, they didn’t believe it. If they didn’t hear from us directly about it, they didn’t believe it. Even if they heard it from other places and other sources, they wanted to hear it directly from the university. So, in addition to the content, probably the thing that we can try to convey most frequently, most emphatically was the need for flexibility and the need for resilience. Where we are today doesn’t look anything like what we expected it was going to look like in March, April and May. And without that flexibility we would have a very very brittle environment. And that’s something that really is part of the education process, whether for us, or any other employer. Flexibility has been absolutely critical in all of this.
DOUG: And if you can give us a quick top line of where you are today which is in mid- September, obviously things can change. We hear different state colleges having major challenges. How are things going and what were the keys to get you to the point where you are today?
MICHAEL: We decided to de-densify the campus, that’s everybody’s new favorite word, we de-densified the campus. So that we have now about half the number of people living here. We also have a number of students living off campus in the community. About two thirds of our classes are online only. There are about a third of our classes that are in-person or hybrid.
DOUG: And you gave the professors the option of teaching in person or going fully online?
MICHAEL: Yes, we gave every faculty member in all of our schools the complete option. They did not have to apply for an exemption, they did not have to apply for an accommodation. If they wanted to teach online, they could, if they wanted to teach in person they could. We also developed a very comprehensive and still changing testing regimen. Testing and contact tracing obviously identified as two of the critical things. You can’t do enough testing in the environment that we have. So, we tested… we urged students to get tested before they came to campus, we tested every student when they came to campus, and we have a surveillance testing program that will test every student and many faculty and staff who were on campus, probably an average of once a week, although for some it will be greater. We have 43,000 employees. So, 20,000 or 25,000 or so are in our health system, so they are working all the way through. The remainder of our staff, unless you have a direct on campus need – you’re involved in utilities, or you’re involved in security, or you’re involved in I.T., or other things that have to be on campus, or you’re working with students, we have a good two thirds of our non-healthcare workforce, more than that actually, three quarters probably, is working from home every day and have not been on campus since March.
DOUG: And that’s been working well for you. Now Duke obviously is in somewhat of a unique position as a top private institution with its own medical center that it’s affiliated with. What are lessons learned, things that could possibly be applied for schools that may not have your resources simply put, whether it’s a state university or other school?
MICHAEL: Well that too is a great question. There are almost 5,000 colleges in America. If you’ve seen one college, you’ve seen one college. Every place has its own unique environment, every place has its own constituency, every place has its culture, every place has a different kind of community where it’s engaged, and every place has a different political and governance structure. So, if you look at, for instance, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, one of the great public universities in the country, 8 miles down the road, did things very very differently than we did. They invited back all the students, they filled all the dorms, they did no testing, and there were a number of reasons behind that. And very quickly the environment there collapsed, and unfortunately, they had to send all of their students home and go completely remote. So, there are a lot of different factors that come into play here. Clearly testing and the ability to do testing, to do contact tracing and to do that on a consistent basis is helpful. Having a medical center, as you point out, and having the tremendous world class expertise here, but also available for those universities that don’t have medical centers, there are a lot of them around that are interested in and willing to assist. And then I think there’s an atmospheric and cultural aspect. And again, everybody’s students are different. It has become very vogue to essentially beat up on your students and tell them that they are the only thing standing between life and death, success and failure. We didn’t take that approach, and that worked. We worked very closely in partnership with our students. Our students were part of the planning process, and part of the whole effort. Our return to campus campaign was called Duke United. And if you go online, if you go around the campus, if you look at the signage, if you look at the information, everything is around Duke United. We were united around this. And so far, that has worked. Not without… look every place has knuckleheads, and we have our knuckleheads too. But not in the way that has endangered the integrity and the ability of the university to function. And that’s why this week we have a grand total of six active cases among our students. And that’s been about what we’ve had for the last four weeks. So, the last thing I’ll say is never underestimate the value of luck. We did a lot of planning, but we’ve also been incredibly lucky. For college basketball fans out there, for us this is a bit like a tournament. You survive and advance. And we survived and advanced to today, and we’ll survive and advance to tomorrow.
DOUG: And I think the lesson, the takeaway for others watching is one, you need to have a clear communications plan about what you do that engages the students, the parents, the key constituencies. And for those that don’t necessarily have those resources part of that communication has to be how you can get the necessary resources to do what can be to limit the potential damage and challenges that COVID faces which are enormous.
MICHAEL: And I would say that an important part of that communication strategy is repetition. We have a large organization, we have to repeat things many many times, but that goes to place that applies as well for small institutions. Speed, in a world in which information, particularly information about colleges, which are really in the spotlight right now, gets magnified and multiplied, you have to be out there quickly with your constituents. Third, internal communications is absolutely vital. We have an environment, and I’m sure this is the case with many universities, they may see it on TV, they may see it on the internet somewhere, they may see it as a news source, they may hear it from a neighbor, but until they hear it from us directly it
almost doesn’t sink in. So, we have to communicate directly with people.
DOUG: And that’s a model that works for corporations, communicating internally has grown more important. Thanks so much for spending time with us.
MICHAEL: You’re welcome. Look forward to seeing what happens in a month, or two, or three.