June 30, 2020

Education researcher believes university has demonstrated strong crisis management in face of pandemic

Glory Ovie credits leadership with applying lessons learned during past emergencies to current plight

While contending with the COVID-19 pandemic has been challenging, Glory Ovie believes the previous hardships faced by the University of Calgary have left the campus community better prepared to meet the continuing demands.

Ovie, who recently completed her doctorate in the Werklund School of Education, examined how the institution responded to the 2013 Calgary flood, Brentwood tragedy and 2016 Alberta wildfire by interviewing individuals who were actively involved in addressing these crises, including UCalgary leadership, staff at a nearby elementary school and a member of the Calgary Emergency Management Agency.

Ovie complemented her narrative inquiry work by sourcing public documents detailing the institution’s actions in order to corroborate and augment the accounts collected. The candid exchanges coupled with media reports revealed how the university performed in terms of leadership, communication, reputational risk and mental health.

The findings built on previous research in this area and reflected Ovie’s understanding of the need for deft handling of a calamity when the stakes are high — knowledge she gained first-hand as an educator responding to the Boko Haram crisis in Nigeria. Enduring a deadly religious riot led her to Canada and set the direction for her graduate research.

Leadership is fundamental

“Leadership is fundamental to saving lives and property during a crisis,” she says. “Crisis response is a delicate and sensitive issue as there are many unanticipated and unexpected circumstances.”

Hosting evacuees, closing the university and collaborating with external agencies were among the dilemmas the university has had to take on.

Ovie says the university’s long-standing practice of providing emergency management training was instrumental in terms of cultivating personnel capable of addressing the difficulties presented by the flood. Each UCalgary staff member she interviewed confirmed the value of the tabletop exercises, simulations and guest speaker presentations.

“Participants explained that the benefits of the training included opportunities to ask questions, to be open and not afraid to make mistakes, to build collaborative relationships and to get to know each other’s capabilities.”

Creating a culture of concern

Though these drills helped prepare staff for many potentialities, the scope and particular exigencies posed by the flood were unprecedented in the university’s history.

“The flood was the first major crisis, so the university had no previous experience in handling crises on such a large scale. As with everything in life, there were a few shortcomings.”

Internal and external communication was one of the shortcomings. Ovie’s interviews revealed that the university worked to disseminate information with stakeholders but some leaders had difficulty sharing instructions, while others expressed concern over the implications of relaying incorrect messaging.

“Everything depends on communication in a crisis,” says Ovie. “Crisis response requires that effective, timely and accurate information be disseminated — especially when lives are involved.”

She adds that accurate information sharing creates a culture of trust, care and concern while also reducing speculation and rumour, which tend to exacerbate the situation. What’s more, Ovie says there is a direct correlation between communication during an emergency and an organization’s reputation. 

“One major fallout to a crisis not properly managed is the negative reputation. The university could lose its leadership position and ranking within its community and nationwide.

When universities act as leaders, it creates value, relationships and connections with the community.

Ovie credits university leaders for applying insights gained during the flood to the hardships that followed, and for maintaining a constructive outlook in the face of adversity. “It was clear that lessons learned from the flood informed responses to the wildfire and tragic murders. Despite these challenges, the approach was to turn the challenges into moments of learning and opportunities to make strategic changes.”

Pandemic response flexible, innovative, open

So, how has the university fared in managing the COVID-19 pandemic to date? Is administration drawing upon past experience? Ovie has been monitoring the university’s actions and gives high praise.

“The university has been frequently disseminating thoughtful and current information using several communication tools. Additionally, several virtual town halls have kept the university community abreast with information, and care has been taken to answer concerns and questions.”

In addition to making communication a top priority, mental health supports have been improved upon, and she sees evidence of responsive governance.

“There has been flexibility in decision-making, innovation and an openness to implement new things as the pandemic evolves, indicating that leaders are following the situation closely and adjusting their responses as they learn more. Stakeholders are then reassured that leaders are confronting the crisis.”

Recommendations for crisis managers

If Ovie were to offer advice for those dealing with the pandemic, it would be to take time for personal wellness.

“It is critical that crisis leaders practise self-care to better manage the high stress levels they may go through, rather than leading at the cost of long-term harm to themselves.”

Lastly, she advises senior administrators to look to the institution’s raison d'etre. She says despite the disruption to campus, the academy still has a duty to its community, but this duty can be an asset.

“Universities still have a commitment to students, faculty, postdocs, researchers and staff to continue their academic mission during a crisis. Honouring that commitment in ways that are thoughtful and innovative, while at the same time adapting and responding to the crisis demonstrates the university’s dedication.”

“The academic mission can serve as a framework or guide and is a valuable tool to inform the direction and decisions made.”