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J.P. Eggers talks Stern’s Covid response with The Oppy

Over the past six months, the COVID-19 Pandemic has irrevocably altered and destabilized the world we live in. While the obvious consequences are the most tragic — hundreds of thousands of deaths, and millions of illnesses the world over — literally no corner of the globe has been free of its impact. Of course, while the global community grapples with this pandemic, all groups affected have had to consider the logistical challenges of moving forward.

As the Fall 2020 Semester gets underway, New York University and the Stern School of Business are among the thousands of organizations in higher education tackling the thorny, intertwined issues of how to enable students to continue their studies while protecting the health of all members of the NYU and Stern communities.

To gain insight into how Stern specifically has developed its plans for this fall, The Oppy recently spoke with Vice Dean of MBA and Graduate Programs, Professor J.P. Eggers.

How has the virus affected you personally? Is your family ok?

Thank you. We are all fine. Shifting to remote teaching (for me and my wife) and remote learning (for our kids), while doing some home-schooling to make sure things got done was quite a lot at once. But in all of the ways that really matter, we have been exceptionally lucky.

Describe to me what the first few weeks in March were like for administration when it became clear the pandemic was going to be a significant issue. What was the early thought process of how to manage it? At what point was it clear that in-person classes would have to be suspended?

The start of this feels like a decade ago. But February and into early March was exceptionally surreal. We were watching what was happening in China, particularly through information from NYU Shanghai, and trying to think about how this could or might play out here in New York. I think we all vacillated between feeling like we were potentially overreacting to potentially underreacting. We also quickly realized the vast interdependencies — things like plane travel, mask policies, and in person business decisions were all highly intertwined with anything we could do. The early science stressed hand washing and cleaning, so we instantly started ordering more hand sanitizer and sanitizer stations, implemented evening cleaning, etc. And the discussion around whether (and when) to move classes online became a common conversation. Somewhere in there we shifted from biweekly Vice Dean meetings to daily — seven days per week (which continued through May before slowly scaling back to five per week then three per week where we are now). Once NYU Shanghai had closed the campus plus the disease had clearly come to the U.S., I think we all knew that moving classes to remote was going to HAVE to happen. NYU made the call to go online as an entire university. I think the driving factor was really uncertainty — there was a lot we did not know about the disease. I’m really proud that faculty and students made the switch VERY fast — once we had made the decision to go remote, the idea of saying “we’ll go remote in 2-3 more days” seemed utterly irresponsible. So being able to flip the switch when the decision was made was important, even though it was challenging.

You had to transition an entire business school to online while the semester was already in session as a major health crisis hammered New York City. Does this compare to any other crisis management experience you’ve dealt with previously?

This has been far beyond anything I had experienced before. I was a manager on a consulting project during 9/11, and we had all flown out of town before air travel shut down. So there was both “crisis” and “management” in that experience. But the scale then was just our project team — a few consultants. And there have been many big issues to manage within Stern while I’ve been here, but other than Hurricane Sandy nothing comes close to the scale of what we experienced this summer. I’m lucky enough to be an organizations scholar, and so am familiar with some literature on crisis management. For me, a very valuable lesson was the power and agility of decentralized decision making — we have such great administrative leaders in the school, and they needed to be able to make quick, informed decisions.

When did the logistical planning for re-opening this fall begin in earnest?

Within the school, we began full scenario planning for fall almost immediately. But the goal was flexibility — we were planning for how to pivot between fully online and fully in person, with some vague sense of what the middle ground looked like. So most of that pertained to things like class schedules, teaching assignments, etc., and we tried to approach it as a funnel, narrowing down the potential range of options as more info came in. Maybe the most substantial specific step came in June when we formed a set of school-wide committees with faculty, admins, and students to help plan different aspects of reopening (health & safety, special events, classroom tech, etc.).

What was that process like (in so much as you can discuss it), what kind of experts were contacted, what kind of data choices were based on, etc.?

I was mostly involved in classroom planning, and can only talk generally about everything else. I will say that the University provided many of the key expert resources, as much of this was done centrally. The two main leaders were Jack Briggs, the former general who led all defense forces for North America, and who was deeply involved in handling ebola and other disease outbreaks around the world, a logistics and operations expert, and Carlo Citoli, the NYU Langone M.D. who has headed the healthcare aspects of NYU’s response to Covid-19. Through them, we had access to whatever we needed in terms of information and help. Stern has largely been operating within the confines of NYU protocols, which in turn depends a great deal on city and state policies. NYU has been working closely with city and state government throughout.

Was there ever a concern about the resources that would be necessary to have full-scale testing set up outside KMC?

NYU has generally not wanted to overpromise, but by focusing on NYU Langone’s own testing and processing capability, we’ve been able to be much more self-sufficient (though we certainly use outside vendors as well). I’ll note that, on the first day of testing there were long lines outside KMC around multiple blocks, as there was far too much demand for testing. But on day two, the university dramatically increased capacity there, and added tents to provide shade from the sun, such that lines were almost non-existent that second day.

Was there consideration given to shifting the academic schedule to end the semester prior to Thanksgiving as some schools have done?

Starting early and finishing early would have been difficult, as (a) the state didn’t give official permission for NYC universities to open until pretty late, so we would have been at risk of not being able to start on time, and (b) the number of summer classes that Stern offers makes it hard to start early unless we start canceling classes. But we have effectively suggested to students and faculty that we largely shift to remote instruction post-Thanksgiving, as a solution that solves the same problem but from a different perspective.

As you acknowledged in your school-wide e-mail, canceling January DBi trips is going to cause issues for students that included those credits as part of their academic plans. You’ve said the school may offer more intensive course options to fill that void. Can you go into the thought process behind which courses are being considered? Were there other alternatives considered with hopes that they might approximate that DBi experience?

A huge part of the entire reopening plan has been trying to figure out ways to match supply to demand, and January is no different. Our approach has been to ask all departments for 2-3 1.5 credit electives that they MAY be able to offer in January, and then poll students to assess demand (both overall and for those specific courses). Once we have those data, we’ll go back to departments and talk about actual logistics — who do we have, who can teach these, and when can we offer them. We are going to prioritize some international-focused courses, but mostly trying to look for some more unique courses that might fly under the radar in normal semesters. Given that we run our DBis through partner schools overseas and not using NYU Stern faculty, the idea of creating virtual DBis would honestly be prohibitively labor-intensive, especially given the challenge of fall on top of this. Building new courses right takes a lot of work.

How long is the University prepared to operate in the current model?

I think as long as necessary. We will continue to focus on educating students and maintaining health and safety, obviously. We are planning for spring, but once again trying to maintain as much flexibility as possible.

Is there a potential scenario in which an unexpected spike causes all courses to shift back to remote learning? Or is the school fully committed to keeping the current model in place for the duration of the Fall Semester?

The governor has already publicly communicated that on-campus spikes at universities will necessitate a temporary (at least) shift back to remote learning. This is part of what makes fall so challenging — every single course needs to be ready to shift to remote at any moment.

If caseloads continue to trend low in the New York metro area, does the University have any plan on making all courses in-person at any point during the 2020-21 academic year regardless of a vaccine?

Right now, the guidelines on physical distancing in classrooms come from New York State, If the state changes its guidelines, we are prepared to assess that when we hear about them. We have planning in place for how we would pivot back to in person classes if we had the opportunity.

If a vaccine is approved by the end of the year, as many healthcare professionals are anticipating, how long is Stern projecting it will take to return to pre-pandemic circumstances in terms of in-person attendance?

Safety and efficacy will be the major concerns. Once NYU and New York State feel confident that any hypothetical vaccine is effective and in place, we believe we can pivot back to in-person education pretty quickly. 

What changes prompted by the pandemic do you see becoming continued, sustained parts of the Stern experience?

Hopefully, a lot. As faculty and students get more used to online courses, I hope that we can continue to experiment with hybrid formats (some sessions in person, some remote). The Learning Science Lab already offers a series of best practices that I have already heard faculty want to continue to use even when back in the classroom. Doing that right allows the faculty to focus on the types of content and activities that work best for the method of delivery, improving the learning experience. I also hope that we continue to feel comfortable inviting some guest speakers remotely, as this format allows for a FAR broader range of potential speakers. And I think we know that, for our students with full time jobs, the potential for both online classes and online activities/meetings/appointments can be pretty compelling.

Can you see Stern ever offering a crisis management course based on its response to COVID-19?

I do think that we need to enhance our crisis management offerings, and I think NYU’s response to Covid-19 should play a role in that conversation as a case study. Clearly, we’d want the class to be broader than just about this, though.

Photo credit: Neil Rader/NYU

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