Your institution may have existed since 1785. But its leaders haven’t.

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Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash

I live in Boston where gravestones from 1693 and even earlier are common sights. Oh, how we revel in our colonial roots! We’ve built an entire tourism industry around nostalgia, which serves us well in times of non-pandemic.

In a time of pandemic, though, history can only help us so much.

Yet a reliance on history to sustain our institutions seems a popular view. I’ve heard many folks, from school leaders to government agents, assure me that the organizations we have relied upon for hundreds of years have weathered great crises before, and will weather this country’s current public health catastrophe in kind. Messages to the tune of, “This storied academy has survived the Spanish Flu. World Wars, recessions and the Great Depression. Coronavirus isn’t going to bring us down.” These bastions have faced the financial, managerial and emotional setbacks of wartimes and other crises and emerged more resilient.

These kinds of extrapolations baffle me, because they exclude a very important variable: the people. As leadership has proven a key determinant in whether countries have managed to flatten the curve of COVID-19, the people are the secret sauce. It’s true that many corporations and non-profits have withstood epic storms and unforeseen horrors. However, it takes an especially dangerous hubris and shortsightedness to believe that these institutions can persist through this pandemic because of their longevity alone.

A cursory glance at the number of colleges and universities in the U.S. at risk for closure offers a dim view indeed. Enrollment numbers and endowment figures factor into projections for the future, but what about the fearless leaders? Most have not found themselves at the helm of a ship that needed to be transformed to a virtual one at a moment’s notice.

I’m quite certain the same deans and faculty who taught newly minted veterans of the Great War are no longer in the classroom. It is probably fair to assume that the same legislators who helped President Franklin D. Roosevelt shape and execute The New Deal are no longer shaping our country’s policies. Or, perhaps I am mistaken. Perhaps you are a 102+ year-old leader who lived through the Spanish Flu and know exactly the course forward. You may very well own the playbook for post-wartime reconstruction and your job and your employer’s future are secure.

For the rest of us mere mortals, navigating quarantine has been unprecedented. As a college professor, I had taught online before spring 2020, but I had not done so with my particular cohort of students, many of whom who had just graduated high school months prior. My students, largely from underresourced neighborhoods and low-income households, had come to rely upon the physical resources (the library, computer labs, etc.) at the college to complete their work. They were suddenly thrown into a tailspin and we navigated it together, but oftentimes poorly.

As we begin another school year, I trust we we are all grappling with uncertainty and feel as though we are drowning in our own self-doubt. In our precarity, of course we want to cling to the things we know for sure. But the buoying forces that have kept our country’s great bulwarks afloat in the past may not be accessible anymore. The very ingredients for which those sustainability recipes call (which often include luck and generational wealth) may not be available. I think we are better off accepting this. I am much more inclined to trust leadership that is transparent even in its shaky resolve than it is resting on the wilting laurels of its past.

Yes, humans are a resilient lot. We’re also mostly amateurs in the ways we are called to lead. We are keenly gifted at not learning our lesson the first time. We are known to call an audible during the Super Bowl. I don’t necessarily believe that history repeats itself, but I do believe, as Mark Twain wrote, “it often rhymes.”

The University of North Carolina has written a rhyming couplet, for one. Its own President Edward Kidder Graham in 1918, even though he had just assured families of students that the incidence of influenza was rather small, died a week later from the outbreak. The same university has just informed its students, two weeks after move-in began, that its classes were shifting to being fully remote. The University’s campus quarantine dorm was nearly at full capacity after the campus had confirmed 135 new cases of COVID-19 between Aug. 10 and Aug. 16.

The rhyming story of UNC is not a brazen cautionary tale. I believe it is an institution that has done its best with the information it had available. Wherever we place our faith at this seminal moment, whether in science or God or history or beauty, I believe we owe it to one another to be as truthful about what we know and what we do not.

Written by

Writer of essays, collector of vintage, reader of books, wife of one, mother of two. Subscribe to my monthly love letter:

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