This is a limited series of Q&A’s by Fairfield County Business Journal Bureau Chief Kevin Zimmerman with leaders in various business sectors and industries. It is designed to illustrate how they’re navigating the COVID-19 era, what past experiences they’ve drawn upon, and suggestions they have for those planning for a career in leadership.
With the conclusion of his third academic year as president of Fairfield University just a couple of months away, Mark Nemec found himself in a then-unusual position: Announcing on March 11 that he was basically closing the school and moving all of its programs and courses online, effective March 16. (Coincidentally, Gov. Ned Lamont ordered all of the state’s schools to close on the 16th as well.)
With the future “fluid,” in Nemec’s words, the university is planning on returning to on-campus teaching and instruction in the fall — depending on ensuring the safety of everyone, and on governmental guidelines of course.
Here he discusses how he has steered the Fairfield University ship during this unprecedented time; what lessons he has learned; and how important faith has been during the crisis.
What does it mean to be a leader in the current environment?
“There’s an accountability that’s necessary — there always is — to help give our young men and women a continued sense of motivation. Leadership and mobilizing folks is a large component of the whole. With faculty and staff, everyone has an assigned position but they all know that they can be called upon to do anything.
“I’m always cognizant of that this is a very collaborative effort and this crisis certainly reinforces that. And I also try to keep people focused on the long term — especially for us as an institution, you need to keep people mindful of that.
“There are very, very immediate challenges, but at the same time we are a university that was founded in the shadow of the Great Depression (in 1942) and the shadow of World War II. Resilience is in our DNA.”
How much time do you personally have to gauge your responses to day-to-day developments — or is it more a matter of putting your head down and “just doing it”?
“Both. We’ve effectively had to take some of what we were planning for the next seven years and transpose it to what’s happening in the next seven months. There was already a move toward more modular learning – a hybrid of classroom and online – that we had been talking about and now has been thrust upon us.”
I know some schools have been hearing complaints, particularly from students’ parents, about paying full tuition for online learning — the idea apparently being that since you can do that basically anywhere, why should you be paying thousands of dollars per semester? How do you respond to such objections?
“(On April 29) we addressed the room and board aspect by making equitable adjustments. (Housing adjustments are based on room type and are modified for fixed and direct costs associated with managing the university’s housing program, while credits for meal plans based in part on departure date will be issued.) But online teaching is very similar to what students receive in a physical classroom.
“We are dedicated to providing the same education and innovation to our pedagogy. In the past about 50% of our students have taken one or more online course – this is not the first time we’ve offered that. And I don’t know if every university has been able to stand up the kind of virtual support system that we have. In addition to classes, we have online tutoring, online advising — all part of our experiential approach to teaching and learning.
“And we’re already seeing a nice uptick in students taking summer courses online. We have at least 100 online courses this summer because of the demand — we thought we’d need 50. That speaks to the fact that not everyone has as robust an experience at their home institution.
“Plus we have online career services and we’re offering mental health and other health services across state lines. Even students who are not in Connecticut can still attend a virtual counseling session.”
What past experiences have you drawn upon during the crisis?
“I learned while I was at Forrester Research, and later at Eduventures, to emphasize the impact that tight communications and specificity can have. As stressful as this time has been, it’s really important to be as precise as possible. There can be slight misunderstandings that can throw everything off. At the same time, we are all dedicated to animating our teams to look at the longer term horizon.
“It’s also been important to learn to tolerate ambiguity in some situations. You can just say you don’t know. You can plan for multiple scenarios, but it’s ultimately out of your hands. And admitting that you’re not fully in control is not easy (laughs).
“This is and should be an occasion for creativity. There’s a line in the movie ‘Apollo 13’ that I’ve always liked: ‘I don’t care about what anything was designed to do, I care about what it can do.’ Let’s not just talk about how the organization is structured and how we delivered education before. Let’s think about how it can take place in the current environment.
“Keep in mind that this is a period where a lot of people are struggling and suffering, and in a lot of pain. Being mindful of that contributes to having a long-term sense of purpose.”
How has your team responded during this situation?
“I’d say everyone has blossomed. Everyone has been stepping up, no one has been frozen or paralyzed. The way they have responded to the call, the extent to which folks have been able to sustain that after months of fatigue, has been quite remarkable.
“And that has been a key of leadership at a time like this — maintaining an appropriate sense of pacing. This is a marathon, not a sprint.”
Fairfield is a Jesuit university. How important is faith at a time like this?
“The fine line is that we are a faith-based institution of higher learning, but we are also an institute of higher learning. And we have done a very good job of doing what universities do. Scholarship, research — these are things that continue.
“But as a community we have remained strong as well. We had 750 independent log-ins for our Easter Mass from all around the country. As a Jesuit Catholic institution, we educate folks about how we truly believe that what we are called to do is in the service of humanity. There’s no doubt that that’s a motivating principle that’s needed now more than ever.”
What advice do you have for others in leadership positions, or who are seeking such a position in the future?
“Always recognize that one is a steward, that you’re responsible for the collective and common purpose. Think historically, and plan on how you can leave your institutions or companies better than you found them. My major responsibility at this moment of crisis is to make sure that Fairfield comes out of it even stronger in the long run.”