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Unsung heroes: Employees discuss powering W&M through pandemic

  • Marjorie Thomas in center with microphone surrounded by eight other seated panelists
    Unsung heroes:  William & Mary Dean of Students Marjorie Thomas (center) speaks as panelists at the April 22 Board of Visitors meeting describe collaborating across departments to guide the university through the past year of pandemic.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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Strands of pride, collaboration and trust ran through numerous reflections as William & Mary employees looked back on powering the university through an extraordinary year.

During a panel discussion at the April 22 Board of Visitors meeting at the Alumni House, 12 employees shared their experiences working behind the scenes to keep W&M operational during the pandemic. President Katherine A. Rowe moderated the discussion and board members asked additional questions.

“One of the key aims as we went into strategic planning before pandemic was to break down silos,” Rowe said. “It was the number one thing that human beings at William & Mary raised as the obstacle to their work at William & Mary. And what we have seen under pandemic — and this you will hear from them — is an extraordinary bridging of different functions, an extraordinary transformation of work.

“Everybody here has been right at the heart of that in one way or another. And one of the things you’ll hear from them is what it’s felt like to build true collaborations and deep trust across functions and across domains at William & Mary. It’s something that we feel immensely proud of. And so I put that forward as one of the gains that we had hoped that strategic planning would get us to and we have made in a very deep way.”

Panelists were David Dafashy, medical director and staff physician, Student Health Center; Joshua Erlich, professor of physics; Sam Hayes, chief facilities officer; Greg Henderson, assistant to the vice president for student affairs and chief of staff; Michael Luchs, Henry & Phyllis Shook Professor at the Raymond A. Mason School of Business; Sallie Marchello, associate provost and university registrar; Mariellynn Maurer, director of conference services; Kathleen Mazzitti, director of advancement events; Corinne Picataggi, chief technology officer; Marjorie Thomas, dean of students; Cortney Will, executive communications & special projects manager; and Janice Zeman, professor of psychological sciences and dean of undergraduate studies.

Rowe framed the discussion around ideas of how the university has matured, what should be carried forward or laid aside, and key success factors for maintaining momentum gained under pandemic. She closed with a lightning round, in which each panelist described how they had changed in the past year.

Panelists opened with statistics from the past year that included 7,689 face-to-face deliveries to students in quarantine and isolation housing, administering more than 68,000 COVID-19 tests in person and by mail, and 563 rooms in 33 buildings being cleaned with fogging mist nightly.

How has W&M matured?

Panelists described layering new procedures and processes to address pandemic concerns on top of the university’s need to maintain teaching and learning and all other normal university functions.

“We learned more about what we can do versus what we can’t do,” Thomas said.

Ehrlich said faculty developed a “confidence that we can weather any storm” and described several examples of normal tasks still proceeding amid very challenging conditions. Luchs added that faculty relationships with students have evolved with less hierarchy and more of a sense of partnership.

What should be carried forward?

“Collaboration comes out of necessity,” Dafashy said.

Dafashy described treating students with COVID-19 who either stayed at W&M or chose to go home, saying that regardless of their level of illness, their positive test was a “frightening thing” for them.

“I think we all surprised ourselves just in how long we could keep it going,” Picataggi said. “It just never stopped.”

A planner by trade, Mazzitti said, she learned to do things a lot faster. She, Maurer and Picataggi pivoted from their usual roles to organizing quarantine and isolation housing, the COVID-19 testing program, and new technology for numerous needs, as well as most recently vaccine opportunities for faculty, staff and students.

Henderson described standing up a call center in four hours for families with questions during campus move-in, with Will adding that a feeling of deep trust was built in working on such projects.

 “There is nobody at William & Mary that I can’t reach out to now,” Will said. “And I will assume that they are going to be there, they are going to see it through.”

As soon as faculty had to pivot to fully online teaching last spring, Luchs said, they had to redesign their courses. A lot more faculty are now confident in developing different modalities of instruction.

“The ability to have been given permission to think differently was huge … and the pride that comes with that stretch,” Maurer said.

What can be laid aside?

Use of telemedicine during pandemic has assured that medical services will not return to the same pre-pandemic ways of operating, Dafashy said. More students have also participated in virtual office hours with faculty than previously did so in person, so that should continue to be an option, Zeman said.

Aversion to risk can also be laid aside, Picataggi said.

“There was no time for perfection; we had to settle for really, really good,” Picataggi said.

What were key success factors?

“The place matters because of people,” Thomas said, and in the past year the university has proven that by showing how committed people are to one another. Facilities staff has proven to be an integral part of the whole, Hayes added.

Success helped keep the momentum, Maurer said: “We were always looking forward to something.”

Acknowledgement of one another’s humanity and a sense of camaraderie helped offset long hours, Will said.

“There were times when our values really came into play and helped us make decisions,” Marchello said.

How have you changed?

“I learned to give myself some grace,” Mazzitti said.

Panelists described becoming more adaptable and flexible at work, while learning to care for themselves and be content at home within the limitations of the pandemic. They reflected on gaining renewed confidence and new wisdom, as well as coming to appreciate giving students more of a sense of agency and options as part of their experience.

“Having observed how my colleagues in this room and across the university have worked collectively to navigate us through what I hope is the worst of the pandemic, I have never been more proud to be a professor at William & Mary,” Erlich said.