Leading with Faith During a Global Crisis: Wiley College President Dr. Herman J. Felton On Response To COVID-19

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In moments of crisis, decisive and lifesaving leadership requires prudence, yet leadership at times can find you in isolation and criticized for your decisions. Ron Carucci (Harvard Business Review, 2018) writes that too many leaders avoid making tough calls in an effort not to upset others or lose status in the eyes of their followers. They concoct sophisticated justifications for putting off difficult decisions, and the delay often does far more damage than whatever fallout they were trying to avoid.

Fortunately, I have learned invaluable lessons from time served in the United States Marine Corps and have resolved that strong leadership requires you gather, digest, analyze all information, decide, and commit to what is most prudent, even in the face of uncertain resistance.

Responding to the looming pandemic known as COVID-19 was inevitable and required the response of strategic leadership. Thankfully, my faith prevailed over my fears, ultimately guiding me to answer the call.

The Decision

February 25, 2020. What was a seemingly routine weekly cabinet strategy session, ended with what would unknowingly alter the trajectory of our semester, our College, our lives, and our worlds as we once knew them. I left the team with this fairly innocuous directive, “I need you all to put together a proactive emergency management plan regarding this Coronavirus thing.”

Immediately after the cabinet meeting I called our Associate Vice President for Student Health, Counseling, and Wellness and requested a briefing for the cabinet. Fortunately for us, Wiley’s health and wellness operation is staffed with a clinical psychologist and a nurse practitioner. Their plan included educating our campus, providing emotional support, issuing guidelines on safety, and reminding us of the signs of infection.

The unspeakable toll that this global pandemic would place on our students also triggered a call to the Dean of Chapel to be “at the ready” to provide spiritual support and guidance for the College as well.

Our Executive Cabinet and I deliberated ad nauseam about several plans. Until at last, we were resolved with our final decision. We would close the College for the duration of the semester, a decision which would make Wiley College the first Historically Black College or University to close, send students home, and complete the year using online instruction. While this seemed premature or driven by understated motives, my faith prevailed.

I am grateful for the governance and support of the Wiley College Board of Trustees, the support of our outstanding alumni, the critical analysis of our executive cabinet, the teamwork of the entire Wiley College family, and most importantly, the resilience of our students.

The Process

In early March, I made the decision to cancel all external travel for the College and its members. This impacted our Great Debaters, The A Cappella Choir, Faculty and Staff professional development, and research conferences etc. The next week we cancelled all our athletic teams’ travel, effectively rendering a blow to their conference competition and championship hopes.

Students, faculty, and staff were somewhat taken aback at what seemed abrupt and premature. Parents wasted no time in sharing their sentiments. “What about my child’s eligibility?” “We have no known cases anywhere around us!” and one parent suggested, “I suspect this isn’t about student safety, this is more about saving money.”

I knew I was entrusted to lead, and our College would not be the best place for our students and teammates, nor could I protect them in the way I would want my family protected.

My next step was to call the Chairman of the Board with the decision and seek his support. He inquired, expressed his unconditional support, and I composed a memo, requesting a conference call with the full board pursuant to their by-laws. The date was set, and now the real work began.

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During the seven days between the initial notification and the scheduled board call, there were so many essential questions to determine. I visited with local board members, and responded to emails and phone calls with answers to questions,  while simultaneously seeking their support for the aggressive approach I was to share with our Wiley family. I also called my predecessor and shared my thoughts with my village of presidential peers.

We looked at what assistance students would need. Did we have infrastructure to deliver instruction completely online? How would our students manage if broadband access and laptops/PC’s were not available in their homes? How would students get home? What impact would this abrupt decision have on their health and wellness? We then asked, what would this mean for those left behind after students departed 711 Wiley Avenue.

D-Day

March 11, 2020. The virus and its impact on the glob had progressed rapidly. The board peppered me with questions. I answered them affirmatively and transparently, given the level of preparation and exhaustive table-top like planning the executive cabinet and I experienced the past seven days  Ultimately, the board unanimously agreed to effectively close the college, instruct our students to depart all residence halls, switch to on-line instruction, and proactively ensure the safety of our teammates and  students .

Immediately after my call with the board, I made my way to the Dr. Julius S. Scott Jr. Chapel where our entire Wiley College family awaited. I was nervous given the students, faculty, staff and even a few alumni were assembled, with bated breath, to learn of our new normal.

I shared the College’s decision to close for the duration of the semester. I described for our students the need for them to move off campus and begin online instruction. Knowing how difficult this would be, I went on to describe how committed we were to help them make the transition. Wherever we could and with the resources available, we would, as a family support one another.

I informed students that we would be assisting in their travel. We would purchase airline tickets for international students, and purchase domestic fares, bus and train tickets, for individuals who would otherwise go without. Additionally, we would help with gas, pay air, train, and bus baggage fees. Ultimately, we even provided individuals with resources to purchase meals while they were traveling. Equally critical was the availability of our licensed mental health official and our ordained clergy to aid them with any trauma this decision may have caused.

Our commitment to our students’ transition extended beyond travel. With 90% of our students identifying as first-generation college students and 85% Pell eligible, I recognized our students nor their families would have the resources to pick up and move immediately. We strategically allowed a time frame of one week after the announcement for students to transition home. This would give us time to ensure all faculty members were trained to provide effective instruction in Canvas, our learning management platform. Critically important as well, this week provided the college and our students ample time to work out all the foreseeable and unforeseeable challenges in delivering instruction via online.

Moreover, the college purchased laptops, connected students to broadband carriers, contacted social workers, parents, and friends all to bring calm and normalcy (as much as possible) to the chaotic upheaval that our students were not prepared to handle (and quite frankly neither were we). We believe in their ability to succeed and know it is our responsibility to equip them with the tools for academic, emotional, and spiritual support during this time.

This aggressive decision was made with foresight, in the midst of a world wind of events we did not anticipate. Despite the enormity of pressure placed on our students and our faculty and staff, we have dealt with challenges collectively and are moving forward with the assurance of faith that we can thrive.

March 23, 2020. As each student departed, I felt the weight of the world being lifted. By the time our very last student had their last meal in our Student Union and departed our campus I stood with bated breath wondering if the virus would breach on our campus.

The Call

The inevitable happened. One of our beloved team members has been diagnosed with the first case of COVID-19 here in Harrison County.  I cannot imagine the grief I would be facing as I pen this letter had I not made what I thought to be a prudent decision.  Emphatically, I assert this truth – my faith grappled with my fear and won.  As I continue this privilege of leading, the omnipresent certainty for me is to remember that lesson.  I could not have afforded to let fear win then, nor will I ever have that luxury.

It is devastating to know that one of our members has been infected with this virus and we pray for the family. We do find a silver lining and reflect upon the rocky and turbulent uncertainty surrounding our decision to act aggressively to save our students from this global pandemic. As it turns out we trusted God and he saw us through.​

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