March 18, 2021

How We Managed: University Leadership Reflects Back on Their Most Challenging Year

Our CannonDesign education team recently invited three leaders from different universities from across the Mid-Atlantic region to reflect on the one-year anniversary of the period that the pandemic hit the United States.

Moderated by CannonDesign’s Baltimore Office Practice Leader, Mike Glaros, the three university participants included Eric Berkheimer, Associate Vice President of Facilities & Capital Management at Salisbury University; Terence McCann, Director, Planning, Energy, and Sustainability at Towson University; and Chris Wise, Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs at Virginia Tech University. 

The group discussed that pivotal moment in 2020 when news began to break that the novel coronavirus had made its way to the United States. For many of the universities, it was right before or during their spring break and so much was still unknown. While this period was very reactionary, each university carefully and diligently took steps to quickly transition to online learning—some went fully online while others drastically reduced capacity. Careful considerations were made for programs that needed to continue in-person—namely, clinical, research and laboratory studies where specialty equipment was needed. Contact tracing and massive testing efforts were quickly deployed.  

Over the summer months, a period of intense planning for the fall semester was undertaken. During this time, information was constantly evolving, requiring quick planning cycles to adapt to new guidance and evolving models of the projected impact of the virus. The summer of 2020 featured actions including the development, refinement and re-evaluation of numerous operational plans, distribution and analysis of student, and faculty polling, the assessment of occupancy standards for every existing campus space and the creation and deployment of tens of thousands of pieces of new signage to prepare everyone for their return in the fall. As summer closed, there was still so much uncertainty about whether there could even be a new school year despite all the careful planning and preparationKeeping pace with new information became a challenge, fall sports were in major question and testing needed to be ramped up significantly. 

Now, a year later, the participants reflected on all the work they and their respective universities did in a time of crisis. They all agree this pandemic will change many things including the ability of students and faculty to teach and learn remotely when needed, the flexibility for staff to work remotely, the potential to rethink space planning on campus and planning for the next big crisis event. Ultimately, they all believe their institutions and campus populations are founded on a culture of face-to-face learning and hope to return to a time where professors and students can interact in person, and student life will be fully restored once again.