L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs

L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs



Leading During a Confluence of Crises

April 6, 2021

By Briana Williams

In the “wink of an eye” last spring, professional schools around the country completely transformed the way they operate. They had to rapidly adjust to the challenges of remote learning; assist students with urgent needs related to a range of issues; develop concrete action plans for the eradication of systemic racism; swiftly adjust budgets and plans in the face of a massive economic downturn; and much, much more. Last month, Wilder School Dean Susan Gooden sat down with two administrators from top schools of planning for a keynote panel hosted by the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning (ACSP), as part of the association’s 2021 Administrator’s Conference. Gooden was joined by Jim Spencer, vice provost and dean at Louisiana State University Graduate School and Kevin Hamilton, dean of the College of Fine Arts at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign.

They talked about a range of issues from crisis management to present and historical inequities in the academy, to increased scrutiny over community policing and Title IX challenges. What follows is a condensed version of their remarks, edited for clarity.

Decision-Making at the Onset of the Pandemic

As leaders at their respective universities, Gooden, Spencer and Hamilton each experienced having to shift their priorities at the onset of the pandemic and expressed how their thinking was affected by crisis.

Dean Gooden discussed her transition from interim Dean into the official role at the Wilder School and how it played a role in her leadership style and decision-making during that time.

“I knew regardless [of] whether I was selected for the position, I was in an important position of leadership at the time,” said Gooden. “Although I had done a presentation of what I was going to do in the first year, all of that went out of the window with COVID.”

“It can be kind of a lonely business. You may be alone in a stance and have to get parts of your community to get on board with the decision. In the crisis moment, we had to make decisions and set up protocols in the absence of information, and be clear about what you don’t know and still communicate in a way that people can receive it,” said Spencer.

“I had to stop making it so much about me and who I am, but more about the role -- understanding myself as a leader and authorizer,” stated Hamilton

The deans agreed that ensuring that the needs of students, faculty and staff were prioritized in the transition was critically important.

“Our IT staff member suggested that we do a practice telework day that ultimately helped to test connections, see what people needed and order items that people needed to be able to work from home to create accessibility. It gave us a sense of what were our needs in terms of supporting staff,” stated Gooden.

Further expanding on the theme of support, each panelist discussed the importance of monitoring the safety and health of the staff, faculty and students.

“We had 100 students in Italy and we had to get them home. First question was -- who is paying?” said Spencer. “We had to just pay it and figure it out later. What that crisis really showed is that no one knew what to do, but they knew how you talked to them when trying to figure it out and that’s what people remember.”

“I tried to be as transparent as I possibly could with information that I had and understand that everyone was being impacted by COVID and some more than others,” said Gooden. “My principle has been to really be authentic and demonstrate that I understand and care about the challenges that they face and although we are connected by the Wilder School and VCU, we are connected as humans and in the professional community.”

“Our folks understand care, health and privacy. I asked myself, ‘How can I get care in the institutions?’ When we put care forward, it costs the university less,” stated Hamilton.

Acting Towards Social Justice and Racial Equity

The police murders of unarmed African Americans during the summer of 2020 also presented an opportunity for panelists to activate community discussions about social justice and to develop plans around racial equity.

“After the George Floyd murder, we came together and created a racial equity action plan (REAP). With everything that was taking place and thinking about our namesake, we wanted to make sure we took seriously the challenges that were before us,” said Gooden.

“The months after the George Floyd murder were emotional management. We are often taught to be very practical and solve problems but, in that citation -- those are not things we can solve, but instead figure out how to relate to people, give them hope and quiet,” said Spencer. “That moment gave people who had been working on these issues for years some spotlights and to really be heard, so we organized focus groups to give a space for people to have those conversations.”

“I had to ask ‘What does it mean when I say Black Lives Matter and it is not in our practices, in our policies, etc.?’ It was doing more harm than good at the time and firing up convictions of people in school,” said Hamilton. “We are disoriented in the institution. We need to reorient ourselves and learn the history -- looking evermore in the moment and asking how can I dismantle white supremacy?”

Moving Forward

The panel agreed that the parameters, guidelines and policies of higher education have changed drastically over the last year and how it's important to keep the momentum moving in the right direction.

“Higher education was not on a great pathway before the pandemic. I think that there is a critical mass of people thinking big now,” said Spencer.

“There have been silver linings that have come to bear at the macro level seeing all of the policies being implemented that otherwise would never have been. Opportunity to have telehealth, GRE scores, etc. A lot of the things from an equity and public policy standpoint that people had worked on were just stripped away in a matter of seconds,” stated Gooden.

“How are we going to reshape what’s going to last? What are we going to go back to? What are some of the things that we want for our students? There are tremendous opportunities structurally to see how we will go back.”