Fall Dean's Letter October 2021
Dean MacKenzie’s Fall 2021 Letter: How Collaborative Leadership Is Helping Us Through Tough Times
Fall Dean's Letter
“Our resilience undoubtedly will be tested in the coming months and years.”
Four years ago, I wrote those words in my first dean’s letter. Even in those early days at the helm of this magnificent institution, I knew honeymoons never last and difficult times are inevitable. One of my first goals as dean was to ensure the School was ready for adversity and the sudden shocks that are part of life.
The pandemic delivered a once-in-a-lifetime shock and ample amounts of adversity. The past year and a half has challenged us as individuals and members of the Bloomberg School community. We have all struggled—myself included. Every day brought new tests, new stresses, and new uncertainties.
The pandemic has been my greatest test as a leader, but I took comfort in knowing I wouldn’t be making decisions alone.
I have always believed in collaborative leadership, and I have never valued it more than during this pandemic. I have relied on colleagues since early January 2020 when we first heard of a virus outbreak in Wuhan, China. The pandemic quickly forced us to consider major questions: How do we keep our community safe while continuing our education, research, and practice missions? How do we rapidly shift to an all-virtual curriculum? How do we best communicate our vital knowledge about the coronavirus, disease transmission, and vaccines to a world desperate for accurate information?
Collaborative leadership was essential to facing these challenges. What does it look like? It’s not just one or two people making decisions, but a team of people representing all facets of the School. The deans, chairs, and representatives of the Faculty Senate and Student Assembly met frequently to discuss tough issues that had no clear answers. They, in turn, went back to their own teams to get input and pressure-test possible solutions. We brought all stakeholders together to make shared decisions. We listened to the pros and cons. And in most cases, after everybody weighed in, consensus evolved.
Impossible decisions become possible. Disparate opinions become united action.
As we tackled multiple challenges daily, we saw that our staff—the lifeblood of our organization—were not adequately represented. So, we established a formal Staff Assembly that is now recognized as a deliberative body to advocate for policies and procedures that will reflect staff interests.
There were few easy decisions. After the University decided to send students home in March 2020, we grappled almost immediately with plans for the fall. After much discussion and debate, we agreed that safety and health required remaining fully online. Then as we continued to learn more about how the virus spread and benefited from the advent of vaccines of incomparable effectiveness, we aligned on a plan for a limited return to campus in the spring and summer with the hope of a more robust return this fall. And now, as I write this letter, the Delta variant has added yet another twist to the course of the pandemic that will call on us to revisit our policies and procedures.
The experience has reinforced my belief in the importance of collaborative leadership. It inevitably leads to quality decisions that incorporate the multiple perspectives so critical to our mission. We are not perfect—but we are making eyes-wide-open decisions about mitigating risk and charting the best course for the School.
We quickly realized it isn’t enough for us to make the hard decisions. We have to share and explain them to our School community via clear and frequent communications. This is especially important in a crisis. In addition to the usual emails and town halls, we launched the SPHeed Read, a twice-weekly communication for faculty, students, and staff to easily stay up to date on important School news and our important work to address the pandemic. It’s helping us all stay informed and connected.
Throughout the pandemic, I’ve been reminded again and again of our School’s resilience. We have remarkable physical infrastructure and a strong financial base—we owe much to our alumni and friends who in the past year and a half supported the School in ways never before seen in the history of the School. We also know our strength is our people and our binding sense of purpose. Our faculty, students, staff, alumni, donors, and community connections in Baltimore and around the world are a far greater strength than bricks and mortar or silicon and servers provide. Our people bring the intangibles—knowledge, imagination, commitment, generosity, and grace—that are essential to institutional resilience.
Together, we are not only weathering the storm unleashed by the coronavirus, we are creating a more vibrant culture of collaboration and problem-solving that will further strengthen us for the years and inevitable challenges ahead.
For your every effort, I am grateful.
Ellen J. MacKenzie, PhD ’79, ScM ’75
Bloomberg Distinguished Professor
PS – If you’d like to connect further, please contact me at JHSPH.firstname.lastname@example.org.