Crisis Response Lessons from Mount Saint Mary’s University


Crisis Response Lessons from Mount Saint Mary’s University

Episode 9

Dr. Ann McElaney-Johnson is the president of Mount Saint Mary’s University, the only women’s university in Los Angeles. She and her leadership team faced a literal trial by fire last fall when one of her campuses was threatened by California wildfires. Through the emergency evacuations and in the days that followed, her team had to manage immediate safety risks, address mental health impacts and logistical challenges, and find creative ways to support students and help them finish out the semester.

That experience served as a dress rehearsal in many ways, for responding to the impacts of COVID-19. Dr. McElaney-Johnson shares her own stories about leadership in a crisis as well as tips on how to change your mindset to meet student needs in new and better ways.

Education leaders everywhere are making fast, difficult, and bold decisions. This podcast episode is part of our Leadership Voices series, where we spotlight leaders who are meeting extraordinary challenges with vision and courage.


00:14 Matthew Pellish: From EAB, I’m Matt Pellish, and this is Office Hours, our weekly podcast exploring the top issues in education today. As we know the COVID-19 pandemic, it forced all colleges, all universities in the crisis mode. For some presidents though, this wasn’t their first time leading through a crisis. And what they found is their past experiences, were now invaluable. On today’s episode, we welcome my friend Mark Shreve from EAB with one such president, Dr. Ann McElaney-Johnson, President of Mount Saint Mary’s University in LA, is here to talk about a literal trial by fire, as her campus dealt with the wildfires last year in California, where they were forced into mandatory evacuations, sounding very similar. And she’s here to tell us about the challenges of safety, of mental health, of logistics and how as a leader, you need to change your mindset to meet student needs in new and better ways. Thanks for listening and welcome to Office Hours with EAB.

01:19 Mark Shreve: Thanks to President Ann McElaney-Johnson for joining EAB’s Office Hours podcast, and especially as we feature our first profile in a new series, Leadership Voices. First Ann, congratulations to you and the entire Mount Saint Mary’s community as you virtually celebrated the graduating class over the weekend. How have you been celebrating with the class of 2020?

01:41 Dr. Ann McElaney-Johnson: Well, we had to find new ways to celebrate this year. Our graduation was actually on Monday the 11th, but what we did was we created a week of celebration that ended on Friday evening. And so every day we had opportunities for our students to come together in different ways to honor students, to reflect on their experience, to lift them up, and it was a really… It was a good week. Not how we anticipated it but we will come together in person and celebrate on the commencement in another time. It’s really important to our students, they’ve expressed a strong interest so we’re rescheduling for as soon as we can all get together.

02:14 MS: That’s great. Now, university presidents like yourself face all sorts of challenges, and most come into the role with some experience of leading through crisis. But this year, your leadership team faced not one but two enormous challenges at Mount Saint Mary’s. Can you share a bit more about what happened last fall?

02:34 DM: Sure. We had started off the year in the ordinary way, with all the excitement of the first semester of the academic year, and at the end of October, we were here in Los Angeles and we were in a really serious fire season and we actually had a fire come and surround our campus so we had to evacuate our campus. We have two campuses, I should say, one on the west side and one downtown. That campus on the west side, where we have about 1,400 students was surrounded by fire and so early mornings of October 28th, we had to evacuate students from that campus. We’re high at the top of the mountain so that can be a tricky thing, but our students… We have strong processes and procedures in place and we followed those and so we were able to get our students safely off campus. And it necessitated though a complete change overnight of how we would do the semester and so we… Because we have the downtown campus, we made the decision to move all classes there. We don’t really have space for that, but we created spaces. We had to also think about where will we house our students so we had a great partnership with a local hotel. And so the Sheraton Gateway Hotel by LAX, some people will know it, it was incredible in accommodating hundreds and hundreds of our students for the rest of the semester.

04:00 DM: And so we created new spaces, we used every nook and cranny of our downtown campus, we had outdoor art studios, we had meeting rooms that were turned into laboratories. We did everything we could to make sure that every one of our students could finish the semester and successfully. It was a strain as you can imagine, but one of the things that we did, which helped us this spring, was several of our faculty said, “I’m gonna take some of my courses either create hybrids or I’m gonna go online to make it easier on our students.” And also because space was so impacted. And so we actually, in some ways, had a dress rehearsal for what was coming this spring with the pandemic. And so we were able to pivot much more quickly than we might have been had we not had the fall experience to really think about how do you care for students in a situation where they are anxious, they’re stressed, there’s trauma? How do you care for students and how do you ensure that the academic program and all the support services around that program continue without a pause? And so that really helped position us to deal with the crisis that we’re in now.

05:09 MS: And you and I had the chance to connect earlier this January at a conference and at that time, we had no idea the events of the fall term, would be a dress rehearsal, as you just put it, for how you’d respond this spring. Can you share more about the student experience throughout that crisis?

05:24 DM: Sure. Yeah, I always… When you’re going through a very difficult experience, I’m always trying to think about, one, how do we deal with it? How do we get through this, but also then how do we learn from it? And so I would say that the Getty fire that we experienced really was like a… Because it pushed us, it forced us literally overnight to reimagine the way we do education at Mount Saint Mary’s, to reimagine how to support students in a way that we hadn’t anticipated. And when your focus becomes fully on how do you support students and you let go of all the things that you just think are essential and critical, and this is the way we always do it, and we must do it, this is what higher ed looks like.

06:08 DM: When you focus on students, you have to let go of those other things. And you have to be willing to say, “How do I meet the needs of these students today?” And that opens up a whole new imaginative way of thinking, quite honestly. And so our experience in the Getty fire and having to truly accommodate 1,400 students on a campus that was not their campus, that actually didn’t have the capacity, and space to allow them to live in a way they would normally have on their home campus and to do that so our students felt supported, they felt comforted and they felt prepared to continue through the semester, that allowed us to think very differently about what student needs are today and what’s truly essential in the educational experience. And that certainly has informed everything we’ve done in this pandemic.

07:00 MS: So with that no one can say with any certainty how long this crisis will last. So, how are you continuing to lead and inspire your team in the face of these threats to Mount Saint Mary’s that include perhaps financial risk, health risk to not only the institution, but also to the students, faculty, staff, and others who are part of the community?

07:25 DM: Boy, that’s a multifaceted question in a multifaceted response. I guess. So, I’ll touch on a few things and then we can go deeper where you think it might be of interest. First of all, I think the thing that is most difficult in higher ed, but this is actually across every sector right now, is there’s no absolute knowledge of what’s going to happen and the timetable of what’s going to happen. And every time we try to put a timetable to it and try to schedule something, the virus beats us on that one and outfoxes us. And so we actually have to change that timetable. So that is not being able to truly plan for an absolute future, even within the absolute terms of absolute that we like to try to believe that we have some control over has been challenging for all of us in higher ed. So I think how do you lead through that and how do you inspire confidence? One, on a practical level. I think it’s critical to be absolutely honest.

08:24 DM: I think we’re in a different place now. And I’ve heard so many colleagues speak similarly that this is a time for real honesty, this is a time where we need to have confidence in a way forward. But we also have to be open to the fact that we literally are working through a situation that has so many unknowns globally, and that the science is gonna lead us forward, and we can’t hurry that. So I believe it’s critical that we’re honest with all the constituents that, we have plans and what I think all of us are doing we at Mount Saint Mary’s is we are doing scenario plan. So we have many scenarios that we keep looking at to say, “If this, then here’s a way forward. But if not, here’s a way.” And that’s asking a lot of our people, if you can imagine, to plan for lots of different ways the fall can look. But probably more importantly to your question, Mark, is how do you… That gets to the practical planning and we’re all doing that.

09:18 DM: But I think the most important thing is how do you lead in a time of crisis? And what I learned in the fall… Because that was an experience. Our students literally were in a very traumatic situation, and they came through incredibly strong. They’re resilient, and they came through really well. But I kept thinking then, “How do you help a community that’s really reeling?” And it seems that the the most effective approach is to really think about, “What is your mission? Where do you come from? And how do you deal with crisis through the lens of your mission?” So Mount Saint Mary’s is a university that was founded by women religious, the Sisters of St. Joseph. And what’s really important to our founding is, they created us in 1650 in this little town in France that was just coming out of a plague and just coming out of a Hundred Years of War. And what they did, these women came together and they had this radical notion of serving the community in which that they lived, but they wanted to do it in a way that was different. So women at that time, if they wanted to be a group of women religious, nuns, they would go behind a cloister and they would gather as a community, separate from society.

10:34 DM: These six women decided they wanted to live within the community they would serve. And they had this idea that they would go out and ask the community, “What do you need us to do. How can we serve you?” And they ran literally, like they entered literally into the pain and suffering of this community and said, “How do we help?” Rather than distance themselves. And, indeed, they created their first ministry, which was they discovered the most vulnerable group of people in their society were single women who had been exploited into lives of prostitution, single women who didn’t have men to protect them. This is 1650 in France, and so that was a very dangerous space for women. And they taught women how to make lace, and through making lace women had a means of earning a living and securing both their dignity and their security.

11:22 DM: So, their first mission, their first ministry was teaching women, empowering women through a form of education. And so fast forward to Mount Saint Mary’s now. I think about all the leaders who have come before. I think about the founding of our university. The women, the Sisters of St. Joseph, throughout their history, almost 300-years history, over 300-years history, what the Sisters of St. Joseph have done is that they have always run right to the issue. They’ve always entered into the pain and suffering of any moment, any challenge of any moment, and they have addressed the needs of society. Actually, they talk about responding to the needs of the time. So for Mount St. Mary’s, our DNA coming from the Sisters of St. Joseph is truly to respond to the needs of the time, whatever those needs are. So as I think about, “How do you lead through crisis?” It’s facing that crisis head-on. It’s thinking about all the dimensions and all the complexities that come with the crisis, particularly those around our students.

12:24 DM: So it’s thinking about what are the needs of students? What are the immediate needs? So when we had the fire, we immediately went to, “What are the needs of our students today and then longer-term?” It was amazing to watch. Our Student Affairs officials immediately got gift cards so that students could go and buy some of the personal items they needed at Target or the grocery store or wherever they had to go. We also provided gift bags with essential items that they would need: Toiletries because they had left many of these in their residence or rooms on our other campus. We found… We thought next, “Books, how do we get students… People who left without a coat Let’s get them to the bookstore.” We started to really take care of the immediate needs: Food, shelter, toiletries, which is a really big deal. And then we moved on to, “How do we assist them in their academic work?”

13:12 DM: Mount Saint Mary’s has always done that. Now, you know, ’cause you and I have spoken many times and you know our university well, we have a high proportion of first-generation, lower-income women at our university and our traditional undergraduate university for women. And so our students, particularly had a lot of needs around their finances. So we really had to address those quickly and make sure we were responding to them and providing the services they needed immediately. Same thing right now in the pandemic. So I have tried to help all of us remember that the reason that we’re here is to take care of students, to provide them this education, this transformative education that comes from our DNA and the way we do it is always looking at what does our community need, what are the needs of today and how do we respond to those and that really opens up all kinds of avenues for innovation, for creativity, for compassion, for care.

14:09 MS: With that historical context it’s no surprise that a guiding principle for Mount Saint Mary’s is to be unstoppable. As you mentioned you serve a student population that has those who are Pell-eligible, those who are students of color, largely a school for women in the undergraduate population so when you talk about the mission in Mount Saint Mary’s what do you want others to understand about the goals you have for their futures?

14:38 DM: We do call ourselves unstoppable and when we say that we are talking about our students, we’re talking about our history, the sisters of St. Joseph who had this great idea to offer this educational program for women at a time when women were not represented in higher ed in any numbers that had significance and so in 1925 when we were founded, they founded this College at the time now university to educate women of the Los Angeles area who at the time, it’s a Catholic School at the time Catholic Women though that has expanded who did not have access to higher education and those were largely immigrant women and so Mount Saint Mary’s has continued that focus. We have students from across the country and many countries across the world but our focus is truly to educate as we call them the daughters of Los Angeles, whoever the daughters are at the time. Now, the faces of those daughters have changed when we opened it was traditionally, it was predominantly white working class, immigrant families, Catholic families now we’re much more diverse population we’re about 85% students of color predominantly Latino.

15:45 DM: We are over 60% Pell-eligible students almost 70%, over 50% first in their family to go to college and that mission is critical because we know from our history of the sisters but also we know as a nation that education is the pathway forward and for many of our students particularly those coming out of lower income families this is the pathway forward not only for themselves but for their full family. Our students are modeling incredible strength, focus and resilience in every situation, this is the second semester our students were disrupted in their studies, this semester they were joined by every student across the nation but they have focused, they have stayed with it because this is what they do, education is their way forward, the transformative power of education changes the trajectory of their lives and we at the Mount have this incredible privilege of being able to facilitate those dreams of our students to get an education and to go forward and do really important things with their lives. They’re changing their communities, they’re changing the communities in which we all live and they will do that continuously so it’s critical that these students get this educational experience and that’s fully our focus.

17:12 MS: In addition to serving as President you were also teaching a class this past term so in that class how were you able to model leadership for these students?

17:25 DM: I teach our First-Year Seminar and this is second year I’ve taught it and I will always teach it now, it’s an absolute joy. It’s funny, I think I learned several things doing this. First of all I wanna just say to all the faculty across this country who had to pivot from the traditional in the classroom to a virtual environment, I admire you, I hold you in great esteem, it is not easy, it sounds easy but it’s not easy when you feel your strength is being face-to-face with your students and so I experienced that so I have enormous respect for my colleagues as faculty who across this country have just risen to… Have just done a magnificent thing in going forward for many of them in a way that it was not familiar. But what I got to do I realized is to use the virtual format a lot of the inner work we’re used to ’cause we use it for so many other… In so many other ways but I was able to connect with my students through Zoom.

18:27 DM: So I still got to see them but it’s hard because many of our students had difficulty with access around internet, they’re sharing computers where all of a sudden all members of a family in the same place using their devices and the wireless gets audience so there were a lot of challenges but what we found is I had a chance to actually interact and in some ways more often so I started as I think all of our faculty at Mount Saint Mary’s did is we really tried to keep students engaged, to really we wanted to help them cross the finish line so I was talking to students by phone, I was emailing, I was texting, I was in touch with them in many ways because I wanted each of them to know that their success truly matters. I was their professor in that class but they also started contacting me as you can imagine as President with ideas, with questions, with concerns and that was fine because they need to know that the entire institution has their back and we’re behind them and supporting them.

19:34 DM: The other thing I found in terms of how do I model leadership I think was your question, I was able to… Gave me a freedom to change the course, the course was actually on leadership and it was using the Sisters of St. Joseph as examples of visionary leaders and then moving out to what other women in the world inspire you, was really on women’s leadership and so the subject was certainly related but it was wonderful ’cause our students were, they were so creative because they actually started to think about who were some of really the innovative leaders who have led in challenging times and it also allowed me to change the content and so instead of us doing some things in class I was out looking for really good TED Talks that showed strong leadership and I also found some that were great for how do you manage in a crisis personally, how do you get unstuck in the negative, how do you… Those kinds of things that the students found really helpful so yeah, we got through it together, it was an experiment but it was really powerful and the students were just phenomenal in working through it and helping me figure out how to do it best for them.

20:47 MS: We’ve heard far too often in recent months that you never let a good crisis go to waste. And one thing that I thought was quite interesting from the experience of last fall, is that you gathered your leadership team together following the experience of the fall semester to identify where you could have perhaps responded differently or perhaps better for the next crisis. Can you tell me a bit more about how you approach those conversations with your leadership team?

21:13 DM: Yeah, I do wanna just say that when we talked about how we respond to the next crisis in our minds, it was very theoretical. We didn’t actually expect one, mid-term of the following semester. But you know, we learned a lot working through it. Because the fire was such an immediate thing that… It wasn’t even like, “Hmm, there’s this virus coming. Hmm, we’re on Spring break, should we reopen?” where you had… You were thinking quickly but this was overnight, and I learned and in debriefing with my team, we all agreed. And it’s a bit of a dance.

21:50 DM: I think the biggest thing is, you are so immersed in the response to the crisis and in terms of crisis management as the senior team, and so much of what you’re doing is tactical, you’re thinking about the need of how are we gonna feed these students, how are we gonna house these students, how are we gonna go online? Whatever that thing is. And so, you have this talented group of individuals who are coming together and spending time, lots of time on these tactical issues that have a timeliness to them, so, it’s urgent. But you can get caught in this crisis mode that can block other needs that we have as a leadership team.

22:33 DM: And so, let me give an example, and I’m sure other presidents and vice presidents and senior teams have experienced this. You, at the beginning you’re spending inordinate amount of time together working on these issues, trying to think of every detail, which you can’t, but you do think of a lot of them. And then the next day, others reveal themselves that you have to deal with. But you end up spending hours together, hours on hours and you end up having long days. You’re starting very early in the morning and you’re going ’til quite late at night.

23:05 DM: And so, what I realized during the fire. The scenario when we were dealing with the evacuation of other campus and all being on one campus was there’s a certain moment where you have to recognize you’re no longer in the crisis. You’re in a new way of living. And that’s the challenge to help your team and yourself to move from this responsiveness in a tactical way to a much more visionary way, and in acting as the leader as an institution needs. And so, that’s something that I really paid attention to in the pandemic because that’s a lot of time and talent together when perhaps there are other ways we should be using some of our time and talent.

23:57 DM: So that’s something we really talked a lot about. And we also, as a leadership team coming out of the first semester, we talked a lot about how do we work together and how we really need to be very honest with each other. Understanding that we’re all experiencing some common stress, but also some individual stress from our own areas, in terms of responding to a new way of living. So those were two areas that I think have really helped position my team and has certainly has changed my thinking about how we dealt with this spring and how we deal with the fall going forward.

24:37 MS: So as we’re all aware, the pandemic is not the only threat facing higher education, right now. And top of mind for many of us are the shifting demographics of our future students. So how has this particular crisis accelerated your planning for some of the challenges that we all know are ahead?

24:57 DM: And I think this is true, probably nationally ’cause I’ve heard other presidents talk about this and I feel very strongly about it myself. This crisis has taught us something really important in higher ed and across all kinds of institutions in higher ed. I think it has broken and sort of bust open the myth that we won’t change. There’s a sense that higher ed is the slowest changing and perhaps, that’s been true. But this has shown us that we can change and I think that at the Mount I can speak specifically what this has shown me is, and I think, shown our whole community is that we can adapt. We can change to meet the needs of our students.

25:36 DM: And so, whereas there’s a traditional way of thinking, “Oh, you know, we can’t do it that way. And we’re traditional institution, we’re pretty much residential in terms and on the ground learning although we have a lot of good online programs for students who want that but the bulk of our mission has been face-to-face.” We’ve learned that actually we can use technology in ways that are really fulfilling and really productive. We have learned that students can learn in a lot of different ways. We’ve learned that our faculty is incredibly flexible. Whereas, I think there’s… As I said, this myth that we’ve all kinda lived with and I think this crisis has sort of bust that open. But what it also means is it has to position us to continue thinking in that way, as we look… And we watch how higher Ed evolves as the student demographic evolves.

26:24 DM: We know that the traditional-aged student demographic is shrinking. And we’ve all been thinking a lot about that and thinking about what does that mean and how do we adjust and what kind of program should we offer to attract students? But we also have been thinking, and now I think this crisis has accelerated, how do we educate students who are not the traditional-aged students? We have a large population of students who are looking to complete their education. Non-traditional students, if you will, post traditional students is a better term. And so, really thinking, how do we use what we’ve learned now to really make our programs accessible to all students who are looking for this educational experience?

27:06 DM: We have some strong post-traditional programs, but how do we do it better and how do we expand and how do we even allow what we consider traditional students to learn differently if that helps their access to higher ed. I think we’re all going to… I hope this helps us all continue to think in more creative ways and be open to really think about what students need, not how universities have always functioned.

27:36 MS: And you and I share a passion for smaller private institutions that form a community around our students. Yet, at the same time, these smaller institutions tend to be focused on more in the national media spotlight right now. What would you say to your students, your peers, even your donors, about why small schools are worth supporting?

27:57 DM: I think I’m convinced that the richness of higher education in the United States is its diversity and I mean both diversity in terms of the student population. We have, across our higher education sector, both private and public, our students of all different racial and ethnic backgrounds have access to a college education; we provide education for students of all socio-economic economic backgrounds. And I think that that’s a critical part of higher ed in the United States, it’s an equalizer in the United States… It’s certainly a vision of equalizing in the United States and I think that that is critical to both our students but also to the health of this nation.

28:44 DM: But I also want to stress that the real richness of higher education in the United States is a diversity of institutions that offer higher ed. And so we have incredibly wonderful, large research universities, both public and private. And we have universities and colleges, public and private, that offer a different educational experience for students. And what I love about our country and the way that we have done higher ed, is that students have access to the type of educational program that will be most appropriate for them. We have actually developed a system in terms of financial support from the federal government and for us the state government, where students get choice; they get to decide where will they go to college. And that’s critically important because I think small private schools are able to do something pretty special.

29:32 DM: And I’m part of a network, as you know, of women’s colleges as part of the Women’s College Coalition. I work within the network of Catholic colleges and universities, which is institutions of all sizes, but what I find within those networks and independent colleges, is that small schools like mine, which is regional in base, we really tend to educate a higher percentage of first generation students, of lower income students and students of color, students who have been traditionally under-represented in higher education. And it’s interesting if you look at women’s colleges across the country, most of which are small, you will find the same kind of shift in demographic; that we are educating a disproportionate amount of students who come from lower socio-economic background and first generation college students.

30:22 DM: I think that students should have choice in the kinds of school they opt to enroll in. To ensure that they’re in an environment that’s going to be most conducive to their learning and most conducive to the kind of program they wanna study. And so smaller schools, we’re able to do things, quite honestly, that some of our counterparts wouldn’t have difficulty doing; just because we’re small, we tend to be very nimble. We tend to be able to respond much more quickly and directly to the needs of students. And that’s not a universal statement, but it is a true statement, in terms of a smaller institution. Where we know every student, every individual, we know her and so we really are trying to think, “What does she need to succeed?” And we’re able to provide that on a very personalized level. All of our institutions, public and private, are critical to the health of higher education in the United States. It’s not that one is better than the other, it’s just that we need all of these choices for our students to ensure that we’re educating the generations of the future.

31:26 MS: Thank you, Ann, for sharing your candid perspective today and for sharing stories about your colleagues and your students. I hope you stay well.

31:33 DM: Thank you so much, Mark. It’s been a pleasure.

31:40 MP: Thanks for listening. Join us next week on Office Hours, where we’re gonna have a discussion between EAB’s Carla Hickman and the news editor from Inside Higher Ed, Paul Fain. Carla and Paul, they’re gonna talk about the top news stories shaping higher education today. Things including the policy impacts on fall planning, all the way down to the unequal educational impacts that we’re seeing from remote instruction. Thanks for joining, for Office Hours with EAB, I’m Matt Pellish.

"The pandemic is not the only threat facing higher education right now, and top of mind for many of us are the shifting demographics of our future students."

Mark Shreve
• Dr. Ann McElaney-Johnson Photo

"How do we use what we learned now to really make our programs accessible to all students?"

Dr. Ann McElaney-Johnson
• Dr. Ann McElaney-Johnson Photo

"The most important thing is: how do you lead in a time of crisis?"

Dr. Ann McElaney-Johnson

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