Boston University School of Public Health

Boston, MA

In March of 2020, the Office of the Dean at Boston University School of Public Health hosted a public health conversation to provide information to the public on the newly emerging threat of COVID-19, when that term was still novel to most. As the world transitioned to remote work and learning, the school shifted to using Zoom in place of classrooms and began planning for remote work for the community. In the dean’s office, they quickly prepared a page on their website dedicated to COVID-19 updates, as they realized clear and frequent communication was what the community needed. They were honest with the community about what they did not know and aimed to be responsive to the data that was rapidly changing. 

“The school leadership was required to be nimble in adjusting to the pandemic, beginning with moving traditional in-person courses to virtual,” says writer/editor at SPH School News, Mallory Bersi. “Our education team compiled resources and provided trainings for our instructors on teaching remotely to help with the quick transition. The administration also worked to provide clarity on remote work and provided resources to employees to help support this transition. We also began to host frequent ‘Community Conversations,’ open to all staff, faculty and students, to meet with the school leadership and ask questions.  

But there were challenges, says Meredith Brown, director, strategy and planning. “The biggest challenge was that there were strong differences of opinion about how to handle the pandemic, and while that was certainly true for universities everywhere, it was particularly true in schools of public health. In the fall of 2020, there was a strong push to be fully remote, but it was important for us to implement a hybrid model because a lot of our students could not engage in an exclusively remote learning environment. This decision resulted in over a year of community debate, with many passionate members of the community making arguments for equity on both sides of the conversation. Another significant challenge throughout the pandemic has been continuing to look forward, when there is so much happening in the present. We often use the framework of balancing the urgent with the important. Much of the COVID response was urgent; we needed to prioritize adjusting to the pandemic, keeping our community safe and connected, but we could not abandon ‘the important’ during this time, as would have been easy to do. The school celebrated its 45th anniversary in 2021, an important milestone to be recognized as a community, and we are now preparing for our 50th anniversary, thinking about ways that the school can continue to be the best community and the best place to be. Our community has done a tremendous job in continuing to look to the future with optimism. On a personal level, one of our biggest challenges in the dean’s office was the steep learning curve to hosting remote programs and remote community gatherings. We had just days to pivot all our external and internal programming to virtual, with no prior experience.” 

She concludes, “The pandemic made it clear that the fundamentals of leadership are 1) clarity of vision, 2) executing that vision and 3) communicate, communicate, communicate. In a time of immense uncertainty, never was it more clear that communities need leadership to act on these three fundamentals to get through difficult times with the opportunity to emerge stronger.” 

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