What the Pandemic Taught Us
Empathy, wisdom, and connection are as vital as ambition, data, and self-sufficiency
January 26, 2022
The COVID-19 pandemic and recent racial reckoning have accelerated educators’ reflections on what matters most to us and our institutions. In my experience as a university president, the cascade of organizational decisions was inextricable from the human elements—our employees, their families, and our communities. Decisions involved more than formulas, algorithms, and checklists. The pandemic revived the ancient truth that the health of each of us depends on the health of all of us. Empathy, wisdom, and connection are as important as ambition, data, and self-sufficiency.
Amid the stress of the pandemic and the nation’s recent reckoning with racism, there never seemed to be a single right answer for higher education leaders, although there were plenty of wrong ones. I found myself returning to the basic liberal arts elements of my undergraduate education as a physics major. I have always championed the liberal arts and their capacity to improve students’ critical thinking, ethical reasoning, sound moral judgement, and clear communication and storytelling. But during the pandemic, I gained deeper insight into their application to leadership. The last two years have been a living laboratory for the leadership value of a liberal education.
Before COVID-19, some predicted the waning of liberal arts education as governments and institutions directed more resources to the professional fields. I think future scholars will study how liberal arts powerfully impacted decision-makers, moved organizations, and elevated communities during the pandemic. My own liberal arts background empowered me to deal effectively with connection, ambiguity, communication, and DEI from a foundation of purpose, virtues, and civility.
Connection. The fight against COVID-19 required collaboration not only across science and medicine for vaccine discovery but also across corporations, governments, not-for-profits, and others for production and distribution. The push that brought the vaccine rapidly from the laboratory to the clinic also required ethical decision-making across multiple disciplines. Training in the liberal arts, which encompasses many disciplines, prepares individuals to engage across boundaries to make connections and embrace transdisciplinary thought, share methodologies, welcome innovative ideas, and consider ethical quandaries—not only what we can do, but also what we should do. Those practices were integral from quarantine to vaccine.
Ambiguity. The pandemic presented a singular challenge to leaders and teams—events moved too fast for the usual reflecting and vetting. Education moved online; manufacturers faced disrupted supply chains; healthcare dealt directly with life-and-death decisions. We had to act with the best information available rather than waiting for certainty. Universities struggled with bringing students back to campus, weighing the risk of infection in close living quarters. The liberal arts, because they involve human thought, choice, and action rather than simply the physical world of formulas, laws, and processes, equip leaders and collaborators to manage subjectivity, competing reasonable narratives, and multiple possible interpretations that call for critical thinking. This stance empowers progress based on the best available evidence. Effective leadership requires acting with confidence even without guarantees—and remaining ready to pivot as evidence evolves.
Communication. The pandemic shut down in-person meetings and interactions, increased email correspondence, and moved teams to often-unfamiliar online communications like videoconferencing. Such an environment, with people typically working from home, heightened the risk of misunderstanding and missed messages. The liberal arts, with reading, writing, and discussion at their heart, sharpen one’s communication tools for any setting, including cyberspace. Writing is the most rigorous in its demands for coherent, logically structured, accessible, and inviting rhetoric. Those habits of mind yield clear, unambiguous, empathetic, and accountable communication in any context, from email threads to Zoom meetings, that became central to organizational and leadership effectiveness.
Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. Amid the pandemic, the murder of George Floyd and other Black citizens unleashed an unprecedented reckoning on racial inequity. COVID-19 revealed gaping inequities in the healthcare system, amplifying inequities in economic, social, educational, and legal structures. Diversity and inclusion initiatives expanded to ensure real equity and equality. The liberal arts habituate a person to honest, evidence-based investigation of historical contexts, sociological trends, and other factors that underline contemporary inequities. Some, like literature and philosophy, elevate the impact of the American declaration on equality. Others, like sociology and anthropology, promote solidarity and common good.
Virtues. Leaders depended on personal qualities like perseverance, resilience, and courage. They were driven to the bedrock of their own character, more valuable than particular skill sets. The liberal arts call those character qualities “virtues” and elucidate how to develop them. Aristotle’s account describes habits gained through practice that support well-chosen decisions even when enacting them grows difficult. These virtues guided leaders through COVID-19, including grit and wisdom to sustain our efforts and humility, optimism, and empathy to unite and encourage our teams.
Purpose. COVID-19 called for sacrifices by many people. Organizations that united against the pandemic as a common opponent prevailed. They shared a common purpose beyond earning money and satisfying a marketplace or industry need. Many were saving lives, providing essential services, educating, and sustaining the economy. Their extraordinary work had meaning. The liberal arts articulate this human impulse to act on goals. They provide models of heroic sacrificial action. They teach leaders the value of a vision that unites useful work and meaningful life—like the parable of the stonecutter who was building a cathedral, not just cutting stones or making a living.
Civility. The pandemic and the racial reckoning exacerbated the political divide in the United States. Universities have a responsibility to promote truth and convene inclusive dialogue, engage opposing viewpoints, and transcend either/or and zero-sum approaches. They should be spaces of humility, evidence-based claims, and transparent accountability. The liberal arts provide historical perspective, philosophical frameworks, and more. They promote academic inquiry, mediated dialogue, and free speech. They equip universities with social, historical, and other resources to achieve progress.
The liberal arts were my guide during a pandemic with no playbook, case study, data set, or mentor’s advice. They empowered leadership through challenging times unprecedented in our lifetime. Now I have concrete examples from my pandemic leadership—budgeting decisions, teamwork with health professionals, unifying scattered students and staff, and more—to make the power of the liberal arts vivid.