First Person

President Ferrini-Mundy faced unprecedented challenges

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As the threat of COVID-19 loomed, University of Maine President Joan Ferrini-Mundy and her cabinet had to quickly re-engineer UMaine’s ability to teach, conduct research, and serve the public. She assembled an ad hoc team of administrators, faculty, and staff advisors to identify every conceivable issue and to plan appropriate responses. The size of the group, which initially met daily for weeks, eventually grew to more than 40.

In June MAINE Alumni Magazine asked Ferrini-Mundy to share how she and her response team approached the enormous challenge of leading during this extraordinary period. Excerpts from those responses follow.


Trouble on the Horizon

As early as January, news from Wuhan was circulating. Evidence was not yet pointing to the possibility of the virus having much impact in the U.S. It was something we watched with concern.

By the end of February, it was becoming clear that the virus was traveling faster and [was] far easier to spread than we had initially understood. We would likely need to get ready for major adjustments in the short term. University of Maine System Chancellor Dan Malloy and I, along with other presidents, began to talk about what it would take to prepare if the state health guidance required us to close the universities.

In a conversation with the chancellor and presidents around that time, the recommendation was first made that we suggest students not leave campus for spring break in March. Shortly thereafter, we began considering a different plan — that they should actually return home for the semester.

Colleagues and I constantly discussed what this pandemic could mean for the university. I realized also that, while all of us were beginning to think about the instructional and residential parts of our mission, I needed to think specifically about UMaine’s research enterprise — how it could help with the pandemic challenges in Maine and how the pandemic could slow and disrupt that research.


Making the Call

Chancellor Malloy and campus presidents were in constant contact about how to proceed. On March 11, we announced that all courses would be conducted online or remotely. Students would need to move off campus, and faculty and staff would shift to working remotely unless it was physically impractical or impossible to do so.

As we prepared for the announcement, I remember emphasizing the importance of “educationally appropriate” instruction. We were all concerned about the clinical placements, lab courses, performance courses, and how/whether we could do that well. There were also instructional support needs to consider. Would students have access to technology to receive instruction, etc.? Things were moving very quickly.

We made the challenging decision to halt events scheduled for that weekend. We had [sports] teams traveling, and NCAA and conference officials were quickly trying to figure out their guidance. We were also hosting events at the Collins Center for the Arts, as well as the Eastern Maine Sportsmen’s Show in the Field House. No one was excited about canceling those, but swift action was clearly necessary.

It was a complex time. Everyone was facing something completely new and the reactions were predictably varied —some very self-focused. We worried about how students who had already left for break could safely return to pick up their things. We had students who had nowhere to go and many who lacked resources to get by. Fortunately, we had initiated the Student Crisis Fund at my suggestion very quickly.


Dealing With the Complexities

There were many decisions to be made — some that needed to be system-wide and others made at the campus level. We needed to consider faculty governance, safety concerns, and communications. Our daily morning meetings via Zoom helped me stay in touch with the concerns and challenges at hand and strongly informed my decision-making. The swiftness with which we needed to make decisions didn’t afford much time to reflect. I focused on what we all needed to do in the moment, putting the safety and well-being of our students, faculty, and staff first. I felt it paramount to convey calm, confidence, and openness to listening, but still be willing to make necessary decisions. I remained conscious, too, of how decisions and conditions might affect enrollment.

I experienced two government shutdowns during my time at the National Science Foundation, the latter occurring while I was its chief operating officer. The government has well-established plans for orderly shutdown and re-instatement — similar to what we have here at UMaine with our Emergency Operations Center, but more expansive. My experience with that level of planning was all helpful. Of course, a big difference here during the pandemic is that we have students, which expands the scope of responsibility of the organization. Unlike government offices during shutdowns, the university didn’t shut down. We remained in operation, just in new ways.


What Lies Ahead

Planning for reopening campus operations is critical. In addition to the demand to resume research, repairs, and other projects that were put on hold, we have new work necessitated by the pandemic, and all need to be completed in a short period of time. I am cognizant of our need to sustain research and enrollment, and the challenges in doing so.

UMaine has more than risen to the occasion in terms of supporting public health and safety, and attendance to economic needs. This pandemic has clearly illustrated the nimbleness with which UMaine is able to adapt to community needs and promote economic security. Our work has not escaped the attention of our state and federal policy makers and leaders. I have engaged in conversation and co-planning with policy making officials and continue to forge good relationships with them that I believe will support UMaine’s efforts.

I am impressed with the strength, commitment, and hard work of our faculty and staff. I am grateful to be part of this community and proud to lead such an amazing group of people. This unprecedented time could have been far more challenging, but it was made infinitely more manageable by the efforts of thoughtful and intelligent colleagues who have approached these challenges in collaborative spirit and with great insight.

Caution will weigh heavily in the daily activities and experience of students, faculty, and staff. It will be vital to ensure that the delivery of coursework and support services accommodates students where they are. I am confident that we are prepared and continuing to prepare for the flexibility that will be required while providing our students with the highest quality educational experience.


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