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University leaders discuss decision-making in the time of COVID-19

The university’s response to the pandemic has required countless short- and long-term decisions and has drawn on the expertise of hundreds across the campus community.

In the year since Stanford first began grappling with the novel coronavirus, university officials have been faced with countless decisions. Many have been highly visible, with implications across the campus community. Others have been much more targeted and less visible, but no less consequential. These decisions have drawn on the expertise and perspective of hundreds of people across the university, most of them largely unseen by the public.

Provost Persis Drell and Russell Furr, associate vice provost for environmental health and safety, provide a window into the people and processes behind Stanford’s decision-making during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Image credit: Andrew Brodhead)

In a discussion with Stanford News Service, Provost Persis Drell and Russell Furr, who as associate vice provost for environmental health and safety coordinates the university’s response, provide a window into the people and processes behind Stanford’s decision-making during the COVID-19 pandemic.


How is the university making decisions?

Drell: Decisions occur at many levels, and a common thread has been our reliance on faculty, staff and students across the university community. We’ve been informed by many, many people, easily in the hundreds. We draw on everyone we can, from COVID-19 researchers at the School of Medicine and mental health specialists at Vaden to our budget and management specialists and dining hall managers to the many faculty and staff who volunteered on countless working groups. All of them have helped move us forward.

Major decisions, such as whether to close the campus and when to bring people back, have been made by leadership policy groups, who take a host of advice into account, including guidance from people at the operational level. Many other decisions are resolved at the operational level, following priorities set by university leadership. Still others flow up as recommendations to leadership groups for final review. And once a decision is made, these groups work to make sure that people know why it was made and what it means.

Pre-pandemic, the university had a number of existing structures involving the president and provost, deans, department chairs and senior administrative leadership. All of us have remained active in these roles, setting priorities and making decisions as usual. But in the pandemic, we had to make a lot of decisions that were not business as usual, and that affected multiple functions. We needed mechanisms to handle the cross-functional flow of information that resulted.

Furr: As the situation persisted and grew more complex, individual units developed response groups and we brought together cross-functional teams at the university level using the incident response framework described in our emergency management plans.

These teams comprise people with the most relevant expertise and first-hand understanding of operations and the communities they serve. Their function is to anticipate needs and sort out options. This approach has helped push decision-making as close to the action as possible.

The success and effectiveness of Stanford’s response are a clear testament to the depth and breadth of our university community’s expertise and commitment to working through these challenging times.


What are some of the key groups involved in decision-making?

Drell: Generally speaking, there are two categories: policy groups and workgroups. We have a handful of policy-level, decision groups. They typically focus on the larger resource questions and overarching decisions – bringing students back to campus, for example – but also on how best to enable and support the vast and varied workgroups.

Our broad-based operational policy team pulls from across the university, including Finance, HR and LBRE and the academic side. Our academic policy group focuses on students – their educational experience – and the research restart. Lloyd Minor, the School of Medicine dean, chairs an oversight committee on testing and quarantine. Another group leads recovery efforts for the long term, looking beyond when our campus has reopened more fully. And one of our newer groups is the vaccine governance committee, which is charged with assessing how best to support our campus community as vaccines become more available.

Early on, we established the university Emergency Operations Center, which brings together representatives from all major operational units across campus and supports the policy groups. It directs the overall response, helps coordinate operations across the institution and identifies issues needing direction from the policy committees. We don’t use this process during more normal times, but it has been invaluable during the pandemic.

Many of the groups we rely on have overlapping membership. Each one surfaces information and questions as needed. The president and I rely on them to make certain decisions and bring others to us, as appropriate.

Some of these groups were created by policy groups, and others spun up as different units identified a need. Often, they push certain decision-making deeper into the organization, to where people have the best, first-hand knowledge to solve important problems. When cross-cutting policy issues arise, those decisions are elevated to policy groups.

Furr: The operational teams are where much of the hands-on work and frontline decisions happen. Their membership is cross-pollinated and we try not to let traditional organizational barriers or hierarchy stand in the way. They need to be able to make localized tweaks, but this can’t be done blindly, so their decisions require both coordination and communication.

One example is the Student COVID Care Team. Its sole focus is supporting students from the time they test positive, through isolation or quarantine, each and every day until they recover.

We also have research continuity groups focusing both on field research and on clinical research – how to get back into the field and return to campus for labs and clinical trials safely.

Another team assesses the viability of artistic and performance-related academic and cultural activities in light of shifting COVID-related health and safety requirements.

Early on, yet another group tackled upgrades to ventilation systems across campus. That required ventilation experts, industrial hygienists and facility directors and other colleagues who, together, could identify the best options.


What have you learned over the past year about the decision-making process?

Drell: In the early months of the pandemic, circumstances were changing very quickly. It seemed that we never had all the information we needed or the time to debate the issues fully. And it felt as though the number of decisions needing to be made was endless.

Our awareness of the impact decisions would have on people – their educational environment, research and careers – made them especially difficult. That was certainly the case in deciding we would be unable to have our frosh and sophomore classes return to campus for winter quarter, as we had hoped, and in our many budget calls, which resulted from having less revenue along with new and greater expenditures.

Through these challenges and tough decisions, we’re learning. Often, they help inform the next decisions, even if they don’t necessarily make them easier. And we believe that, ultimately, they will help Stanford come out of this crisis stronger.

Furr: Looking back, some decisions that seemed difficult at the time now seem very obvious. Limiting in-person gatherings was a “difficult” decision, but that turned out to be nothing by comparison. Last year, in late February and the first days of March, we were agonizing over canceling events and limiting the size of large gatherings. By March 10, we were announcing that spring quarter would be online.


What are some major issues being addressed now in the decision-making process?

Drell: The resumption of campus operations is top of mind, of course, from academic and residential planning for summer and fall quarters to the return of faculty and staff. We’ll learn from experiences this spring, and build on them during summer quarter, which will be even more of a ramp-up period. Then comes fall quarter and, we hope, a greater sense of normal.

As more are vaccinated and as public health rules allow, how do we plan for a safe and orderly resumption of activities? We need to think through various angles, everything from classrooms and offices to dorms and dining halls. We’ll monitor the status of the pandemic and the success of the vaccine rollout, and continue to adhere to health and safety guidelines. And while we’ll be implementing certain structures, we’ll also look for opportunities for different units to experiment and pilot new approaches.

Furr: Decision-making is a balancing act. As the risk decreases, more people come back to campus and density increases. Overall that’s a positive, but it also stresses the need for each of us to be a good community member and follow the guidelines that help us reduce the risk of exposure to the virus.

We also can use the experiences and lessons from the phased return as an opportunity to see how we can work best as a campus, post-pandemic – how, for example, we should integrate working from home with our previously “normal” mode of operations.


How can members of the Stanford community have input into decisions?

Furr: Throughout this process, we’ve heard directly from community members themselves as well as indirectly through units that are working with our faculty, staff and students. The various policy and workgroups have worked hard to integrate input from their communities, their areas of responsibility and their awareness of particular circumstances and needs.

Drell: It’s been gratifying to see the different ways that input has been put to work. VPSA, for instance, is very much aware of and an advocate for student concerns and has collaborated across the board to connect the dots. When we were developing testing procedures, we had the perspective of people on the front lines, such as child care workers and security staff, as well as students, researchers and others across campus.

There are a lot of entry portals, and we hope people will continue to reach out when they have questions, concerns and suggestions. Students have regular channels through the ASSU. Faculty have channels through the Faculty Senate and the leadership of the schools. Staff can reach out to their department leadership. We have a culture in which people feel free to email leaders and provide input directly – and we continue to welcome that.


How has decision-making evolved as the implications became more complex and the timeline lengthened?

Furr: One constant has been that, every day, we’ve had to be willing to reevaluate and change course when that’s been needed to carry out Stanford’s mission and keep people safe.

An analogy is a wildfire. Initially, the focus is on evacuations and getting water to the fire. You have to get people out of danger. But after you’ve done that, you’re faced with a different set of problems. Traffic jams, shelter for evacuees, water leaks, building security – these and other challenges arise from that original decision and must be solved. Contingency planning helps you prepare, but it can’t account for changing circumstances, ripple effects and the downstream impacts of each decision.

That’s been the case with the pandemic. Initial decisions focused on public health and life safety, and the situation evolved so quickly that all we could do was react and focus on immediate impacts. As we moved through spring and into summer, we weren’t just reacting. Rather, we were dealing with the impacts of previous decisions. We needed to reunite students with the belongings they left behind and try to predict how decisions would ripple through the entire academic year.

The hardest thing we’ve had to contend with is the knowledge that every restriction, no matter how necessary in terms of keeping people safe, creates hardships. We’ve worked to minimize those hardships, support the affected members of our community and – going forward – maintain our primary focus of supporting each other as we navigate back to some type of new normal.


How do short-term decisions that were brought on by the pandemic dovetail with Long-Range Vision and other planning beyond the horizon?

Drell: In true Stanford fashion, the pursuit of our long-term strategic priorities has played a crucial role in helping us meet the moment. The university’s Long-Range Vision has influenced every decision. By providing a framework for priorities, it helps us with day-to-day decisions. Certainly, the budget decisions were much better because of that framework.

The priorities among many of the Long-Range Vision initiatives have shifted as a result of the pandemic. But we’re continuing to forge ahead, with an even greater understanding of the problems, the urgency of the needs and the purposeful approach required for Stanford to address them.