‘Be Compassionate, Be Creative and Be Flexible’

Donde Plowman hosts a coronavirus briefing.

'Be Compassionate, Be Creative and Be Flexible'

Behind the scenes of the University of Tennessee’s mammoth and rapid effort to move its operations off campus and online.

by jesse fox mayshark • April 6, 2020


Chancellor Donde Plowman hosts a virtual town hall on March 18 for faculty and staff inside the Student Union on the Knoxville campus. (Photo by Steven Bridges/University of Tennessee)

On Wednesday, March 11, University of Tennessee students, faculty and staff learned that for at least two weeks following their upcoming spring break, all classes would be moved online.

A 10-day turnaround to address student academic, emotional and financial needs — from a distance.

Students were told not to return to campus after the break. Faculty, including many who had never taught an online class, were told to begin redesigning their courses for remote instruction. And behind the scenes, the entire university administration mobilized to turn what had until then been contingency plans into concrete action.

In 10 days, UT Knoxville went from offering less than 30,000 credit hours online to more than 350,000. 

“It was really just a sense of urgency and necessity, and faculty just realized, ‘OK, I've got to do it,’” Chancellor Donde Plowman said in a group video interview Friday along with other campus administrators.

By March 16, online-only instruction had been extended through the end of the spring semester. Last week, UT President Randy Boyd announced it would continue through summer sessions as well.

But Plowman and her staff emphasized that the sudden transformation of their operations couldn’t have happened without months and, in a lot of ways, years of preparation. The details of the coronavirus pandemic may not have been precisely foreseeable, but the possibility of wide-scale disruption had been long contemplated.

“You don't pull something like this off without building the relationships and having the training in place,” said Chris Cimino, senior vice chancellor for finance and administration.

Planning for a Crisis

The seeds of UT’s rapid response were planted a decade ago, with the creation in 2010 of a campus Office of Emergency Management. Then-Chancellor Jimmy Cheek hired Brian Gard, who had been the UT System director of special events, as the office’s first director — a position Gard still holds.

“I've had support from the very beginning to get us a structure and a system that works for any kind of disaster, not just the pandemic,” Gard said Friday. “And the work paid off, starting at the end of January.”

That was when UT officials started seriously considering the possible impacts of the novel coronavirus, the effects of which at the time were largely confined to the Hubei province of China. 

“We have international students, and that was a big part of the early focus,” Gard said. “And as the pandemic grew and got out of China, we started bringing in more people, more subject matter experts.”

On Jan. 29, the campus publicly announced that it was monitoring the outbreak. Gard started activating the campus Emergency Operations Center for limited amounts of time, at first meeting in conference rooms on campus. UT made a series of escalating decisions in February, suspending its study abroad programs in China, South Korea and Italy as the virus spread in those countries.

In early March, it launched a website to serve as a comprehensive COVID-19 resource for the campus community. Gard’s EOC meetings became more frequent and larger and turned into a full-time activation. Scenarios that had initially been considered as last resorts — campus closure, online instruction — came increasingly to the fore.

As physical distancing recommendations started to emerge in the lead-up to spring break, Gard had to move his growing operation, which by this point numbered in the dozens.

“It was getting crowded in that room, there’s a lot of players at the table,” he said. “So over the weekend, we moved the whole thing into the Student Union, spread all the tables out, created a bigger space for the policy group across the hall.”

Dr. Spencer Gregg, UT Knoxville’s director of Student Health Services, said the quick spread of the pandemic and the changing recommendations from federal, state and local officials presented challenges.

“Most other pandemic issues that have arisen in recent history have been things that we've been given a lot of lead time on,” Gregg said. “So you kind of know what to expect. The nature of this has made it a very fluid issue from a standpoint of providing health care guidance.”

Plowman said the campus response was divided between a policy group, consisting of herself and senior staff, charged with making the big picture decisions, and an operations group charged with figuring out the details of those plans.

“So for example,” she said, “when we were facing the decision to extend the online-only (instruction) through the end of the semester, that required so much information from health and wellbeing, which Dr. Gregg was able to provide, to where are the students, how many will need to come back and get their things, just the logistics.”

Eventually, the EOC — which is still active — moved to an entirely online set-up. At this point, out of the nearly 30,000 undergraduate and graduate students enrolled at UT Knoxville and the more than 1,500 full-time instructional faculty, just a few hundred remain on campus.

As of Friday, there were 116 students in campus residence halls — with appropriate spacing — because they had no other good options for living quarters. Some faculty and graduate students who need access to laboratories and other facilities are permitted to continue their work. The T campus bus line is running a limited schedule, with physical distance requirements for riders, to serve the small campus population and students still living in Fort Sanders.

Setting Priorities

But almost all the rest of the normal life of campus, from classes to administrative meetings, has been moved into the virtual realm.

Plowman said in making decisions at each point, she and her team set themselves some key principles: providing frequent and clear communication, keeping students on track to graduate, and “encouraging our community to be compassionate, be creative and be flexible.”

“And those sound like, ‘OK, great,’” Plowman said. “But the truth is, being flexible for big organizations is not easy to do. And sometimes being creative we think of as being isolated to some areas of a university. But I've been really impressed with how, across the board, people have just been creatively rethinking their jobs, creative about ‘How do I take my work home,’ creative about ‘How do we refund students?’”

For faculty and staff whose day-to-day jobs don’t easily lend themselves to working from their living rooms, Plowman has asked them to spend some time thinking about ways to improve their operations, looking for ideas from other institutions and sectors that they can bring back to campus with them when they’re able to return.

“Our hope is that actually we can use this time to make this great university even greater and stronger, and transform ourselves while we're fighting the virus,” Plowman said.

So far, campus information technology services have managed to keep the online operation running without major disruptions. 

“One thing we quickly realized,” Cimino said, “is that not all of our students have the technology requirements that are needed at home, whether that's a laptop or broadband internet. And so providing them with hotspot WiFi cards as well as laptops was something we set out immediately to do. We today have fulfilled all of the orders that students have asked for.”

And not just academically. Aware of the stress and anxiety all the uncertainty is likely to produce for students already dealing with, the campus Office of Student Life has from the beginning of the disruption conducted ongoing outreach.

“The plan is for every student to get a phone call from someone, checking on them,” Plowman said. “On day three of this, our Student Success area conducted a pulse survey, one question: ‘How are you doing?’ A. I’ve got this, I’m rocking it. B.) I’m nervous but optimistic. C.) I need help. And the first people who got a phone call were all those students who said, ‘I need help.’”

The university’s large administrative structure is also operating remotely.

“It’s kind of the new norm,” Cimino said. “We're having to manage the pandemic and our response to that, but at the same time, we are having to still do payroll, we're having to do budgets, we've got board meetings coming up. We're having to still get back into our regular routine, it’s just moving it to a more virtual scenario.”

Throughout, Plowman — who is still in her first year as chancellor — said she has been impressed by the resolve and adaptability of students, staff and faculty. From virtual drop-ins during online classes by famous alumni like Peyton Manning and Josh Dobbs to creative workarounds by instructors and administrators, she said the Volunteer spirit has shone through.

“The sense of place is really important about UTK,” Plowman said. “And so we want to try to preserve that and let students take that with them.”