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President Drake discusses leading in unprecedented times

“We could see what was going to happen”

As Ohio State University leaders entered a rapid decision-making mode in early March to prepare the university’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, President Michael V. Drake’s goal, given the very high stakes, was to “overreact slightly rather than under-react at all.”

Drake revealed this strategy and shared insights about leading the university through the pandemic during a webinar presented last month by the Leadership Initiative at Fisher College of Business.

Drake has been a leader in higher education for nearly four decades, serving as chancellor of the University of California, Irvine, for nine years prior to his summer 2014 arrival at Ohio State. He is chair of the NCAA Board of Governors and past chair of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, the Association of Academic Health Centers and the Association of American Universities.

Below are excerpts from Drake’s conversation with Timothy Judge, executive director of the Leadership Initiative, and his responses to questions submitted by viewers of the webinar titled “Leading in Unprecedented Times with Ohio State President Michael V. Drake.”

As the nation watched the COVID-19 pandemic sweep out of China and unfold around the world over the winter, and then to the west coast, Drake said he knew it was time to act in early March.

“It became clear to me this was a ‘when’ rather than an ‘if.’ And the steps that we were going to need to take would be moving classes to online, and ultimately moving students off campus, and finally we needed to restrict staff from coming to work. My view was we could close the barn door after the horse had gotten out or before, and I thought it was a better thing to do that before.

“We had a meeting on Sunday, March 8. I pulled together a cabinet meeting, heard what everyone was thinking and then I did some thinking and talking with colleagues overnight and then called a meeting on Monday morning. By noon Monday we knew it was clear what we had to do, and, what does it even mean – we’re going to go to online?

“I was feeling we were in a race and every day made a real difference. I knew we were out front. ... A couple of places had done this before but they had cases on campus and we were trying to do this prior to having a case on campus or in our community. And the concept is we had to do this as quickly as we could.”

Ohio State stayed ahead of the curve, moving against the pandemic long before any other Big Ten schools reacted. In his role as chair of the NCAA Board of Governors, he said there also was little doubt the pandemic would affect basketball tournaments.

“This was tournament week for the Big Ten and March Madness was about to start. March Madness for the NCAA is like ‘The Nutcracker’ for ballet companies. That’s where the funding comes from for your organization for the year. It’s unthinkable not to have the tournament.

“In my conversations with the president of the NCAA and select board members, and then the board, we made the decision first on Wednesday, March 11, that we’d limit this to only coaches and teams, play with no spectators – and we were thinking about that overnight. Then we thought, actually, is that going to be enough? And the answer was no. We have to do the unthinkable, which was cancel the tournament.

“We could see what was going to happen and the answer was, what can we do to make sure we’ve done all we can to mitigate it.”

Were these the right decisions? Drake says leaders routinely have to make difficult decisions without all the information.

“I will say that … given the stakes, my goal was to overreact slightly rather than under-react at all. From the time we made the decision, it’s been forward. We haven’t looked back.”

Drake said the university is expecting students back in the fall, with modifications.

“I believe that the most important message for our students to incorporate in the fall is that their individual behavior affects the ability of the university to continue with business ‘as close to usual.’ If we have students living in our residence halls, their behavior might impact how the virus spreads, but more than that, their behaviors affect whether we can have students in the residence halls. If they behave in a way that allows this virus to gain a foothold and spread, then we can’t have students in the residence halls and this whole thing has to stop.”

The full web interview is online at https://www.facebook.com/FisherLeads/videos/927033194386620/

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