Leadership lessons from the vaccination-mandate fiasco

My university, like dozens of others, has egg on its face this month. It’s unnecessary egg; and the egg (of course) isn’t the worst problem. All this has to do with the Covid-19 vaccination mandate we recently announced for our faculty, staff, and students – far too late, and after an embarrassing amount of foot-dragging and denial. It was an abject lesson in how to lead a university poorly. What’s interesting is that just about every university in Canada has experienced the same leadership failure (and as I write this, some are still experiencing it). That much concerted poor leadership suggests that there are general lessons to be learned. I’ll suggest four, after a little background.

My university, like many others, announced with great fanfare last spring that Fall 2021 would be a return to the in-person university experience. This was presumably an attempt to boost, or at least preserve, undergraduate enrolment. (There would be masking, and at least for a while reduced class sizes.*) So, we found ourselves promising to have students in residence, students in the gym, and students in classrooms and labs. All this in a global pandemic that hadn’t just vanished – and that science indicated could be suppressed only by vaccination at very high rates.

Meanwhile, the vaccination rollout was showing exactly what every expert suggested: it’s hard to attain high vaccination rates in a voluntary program, and it’s hardest of all to attain them for young adults. So, some time in late spring, it became blindingly obvious that the only safe way to have an in-person university experience was for the university to mandate vaccination (with appropriate, but rare, medical exemptions) for all faculty, staff, and students. Some universities, especially in the United States, began to announce mandates; but many did not, and no Canadian universities did. Canadian universities held out, in fact, until late July**, and my university didn’t announce its mandate until August 20th. With classes starting September 9th, it’s of course too late to have a fully vaccinated university community. In the meantime, university leadership spent months bleating sanctimoniously about how they valued everyone’s safety and that’s why they were focusing on vaccine education. I wish English had a stronger word than “fiasco” that was still printable.

So the critically important thing to do (full vaccination mandate) was completely obvious four months ago, but we didn’t do it until it was too late. Why? And what can we learn?

1. “It’s too late” isn’t a reason not to act. In order to have a university community fully vaccinated by September, you had to announce a vaccination mandate in June. A mandate was the obvious policy well before that, but when June slipped away without one, some folks shrugged and said “too late”. But too late is better than never. Maybe July 1st was too late for a fully vaccinated community on September 1st, but it wasn’t too late for a fully vaccinated community on September 15th***; August 1st wasn’t too late for a vaccinated community on October 15th; and so on. May was the right time for a vaccination mandate; but right now is better than next month, no matter when “right now” is. If you haven’t done the right thing yet, that’s not a reason to throw up your hands and not do the right thing at all. It also isn’t a reason to pretend that the obvious right thing isn’t the right thing at all, as a way of saving face about your failure to do it when you should have.

2. It’s tempting to double down; but don’t. This is related to the last line of #1, of course. When you’ve announced a decision (say, to rely on education rather than a vaccination mandate), it’s normal human psychology to see reversing course later as a sign of weakness. But it isn’t! One way you can recognize experts and good leaders is that they’re willing to change their minds when the information around them changes – or when they realize they’ve made a mistake. It’s so tempting to double down, to defend a decision even as doubt in its correctness begins to nag at you. But all that does is make it much, much worse when you’re eventually forced to admit that you were wrong. There’s egg all over my university’s face. There would have been egg, but less of it, a month ago; doubling down on the original decision just increased the egg (and, much more importantly, increased the risk to members of the university community). If you’re in a hole, stop digging. Instead, climb out, admit you shouldn’t have dug the hole, fill it in, and move on. Thoughtful people will respect that.

3. Listen to experts – and a university is full of experts. The last month or so has seen university leadership arguing that vaccination mandates aren’t legal – and then having their own law schools issue open letters explaining why they quite clearly are. We’ve seen university leadership trumpeting one-way signage in hallways and policies about disinfecting the handles of tools (yes, really) – while their own epidemiologists and virologists were explaining aerosol transmission and the importance of ventilation. I could go on (and I’m tempted to), but the bottom line is that a university is a knowledge community that’s an amazing source of expertise. And yet university leadership so often doesn’t take advantage. In a somewhat less earthshaking example: my university decided to chase some greenwashing points by putting honeybee hives on the roof of our Biology building – right next to our research greenhouses. It didn’t occur to them to consult an entomologist (me) or a pollination ecologist (my colleague) until we got wind of the scheme and raised the obvious stink.**** About $100,000 worth of equipment is gathering dust, now, because nobody consulted easily available expertise.

4. Don’t let consulting prevent you from acting. Yes, this is a little bit opposed to point 3; welcome to the real world, where absolutes are rare. A university is a slow organization. In part that’s by design, as collegial governance exists in part to protect academic programs from the whims of the moment. In part it’s an accident, the result of the gradual accretion of policy and bureaucracy. It’s tempting, before taking any action, to consult and work within every bit of organizational structure you can find. So, before instituting a vaccination mandate, let’s ask HR whether we can do it; let’s ask the university counsel for yet another opinion on its legality; let’s commission an anonymous survey to gather data on vaccination rates and opinions about mandates; let’s consult – well, you get the idea. Perhaps you’re tempted to think that if you consult enough, you can do what everyone wants; or perhaps you think that at least nobody can criticize because you tried to do what everyone wants. But sometimes, leadership means having the courage to do what you think is right, and to accept that some flak may come your way as a result. Sometimes, you do the right thing when it needs to be done, and you defend that decision later. Know that a vaccine mandate is the right thing, but worried you might be sued? Good leadership does the right thing and takes that reasonable risk.

Now, if this post were only about the failure of university leadership in the vaccination mandate fiasco, I’d still think it was worth writing, and worth reading – but of course, it isn’t only about that. All the things that tempted university leaders to avoid mandates and then double down on their mistakes are bits of human psychology that all of us deal with, all the time.***** I’ve caught myself doing all of them as a scientist and as a parent – as, most generally, a completely normal human navigating life with the handicap of normal human psychology. The Covid-19 pandemic will, eventually, be behind us; and the particular leaders who brought us the vaccination mandate fiasco will have moved on. But the four lessons I’ve identified here should always be with us.

© Stephen Heard  September 1, 2021

This Twitter thread does a nice job of summing up the obviousness of mandates, and of debunking some of the foolish reasons university leaders were tossing around for not adopting them.

Image: Vaccination, by Alexandra Koch via pixabay.com (released to public domain). I wanted to use an ostrich with its head in the sand; but I realized that unlike (some) university leadership, ostriches don’t do that.


*^It didn’t occur to anyone, apparently, to do the simple arithmetic that dictates that you can’t actually cut class sizes in half while offering all the same courses in the same amount of space. So the reduced-class-size-but-all-in-person thing got roundly derided – as it deserved.

**^Seneca College (not a university but a community college) was the leader, announcing a mandate on July 13. Among universities, mandates began with a cluster of Ontario universities, including the University of Ottawa on August 10, and then spread rapidly – but not rapidly enough. Not, for example, as rapidly as Covid-19.

***^Roughly – you need a couple of weeks for people to act on the mandate and get their first dose, 4-8 weeks depending where you are until the second dose, then a couple of weeks until vaccination’s full effect. But if you’re nitpicking the dates in this paragraph, you’re making the mustard seed mistake.

****^In North America, honeybees are a non-native species that harm native bee populations; adding them to campus is an interesting agricultural demonstration but has absolutely nothing to do with “greening” the campus. And putting hives right next to a greenhouse in which scientists are studying pollination ecology? With no other significant floral resources within many hundreds of metres? Sigh.

*****^You might recognize #1 from discussions of climate change; it’s absolutely critical in that contex. Is it too late to avoid warming? Sure. But it’s not too late to avoid more warming. But I digress.

6 thoughts on “Leadership lessons from the vaccination-mandate fiasco

  1. Marco Mello

    Thanks for sharing the Canadian situation with us. It’s sad to see the same mistakes being made all over the world by many universities, including some that are leading the corona-research. Academic leadership at the highest bureaucratic levels is much more concerned with politics than with the safety of their communities. Here we see that our leaders stuck with the outdated “wash your hands + spray alcohol on everything + use any kind of mask” recommendation, while simply ignoring aerosol transmission. Our leaders are forcing us to return to in-person teaching, with less than 50% of the population fully vaccinated and the gamma and delta variants spreading freely. They are boasting about “bullet-proof” protocols that, for instance, recommend a 1-m distance (!) between students in full, non-ventilated classrooms.

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  2. Bernd Berauer (@BBerauer)

    I guess not only #1 is related to climate change – all of them are.
    Regarding #2 my impression is that sometimes people, instead of climbing out of the digged hole, they rather order an excavator to reach the other end of the substrate they are digging through (and reach it faster).

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  3. Pingback: Weird things scientists believe: that paying reviewers won’t cost us | Scientist Sees Squirrel

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