Leadership and Loss: How a Dean Navigated the COVID Year

by Isaiah Poritz

May 2, 2021 | Featured in the 2021 Graduation Magazine

Late one night in early March 2020, Michael Elliott hunched over his laptop, anxiously typing away at an email draft. Though hundreds of Emory University faculty would see this email, that wasn’t what made the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences nervous — he’s sent plenty of email announcements in his decade working in administrative roles.

This time, he wasn’t in a familiar environment. He wasn’t sitting in his office on the fourth floor of the Candler Library or in his Atlanta home. He was in a hotel room in Phoenix, Arizona, more than 1,500 miles from Emory’s campus attending an academic meeting.

A day or two earlier, he had received a phone call from Interim Provost Jan Love, who told him what he’d expected to hear: Emory, following the lead of many other universities, would shut down hundreds of classrooms and send over 8,000 undergraduate students home. COVID-19 was out of control, and Emory’s academic experience could no longer remain in person.

Love would send the first announcement of the closure on Wednesday, March 11, 2020. The email Elliott drafted would serve as a detailed follow up for faculty days later.

A novel, foreign virus that was once a small blip on university administrators’ radars was quickly becoming the defining challenge of Elliott’s career.

“If there’s another global catastrophe on this scale, I should look for another successor pretty quickly,” he joked. “But nothing that I will do in this office will rival the complexity and emotional challenge of the coronavirus.”

When Elliott went to bed late that night, one Georgia resident in Bartow County had already died from COVID-19, although the state health department discovered that fact months later. Exactly one year later, more than 16,000 Georgians had succumbed to the virus.

The next morning, Elliott woke up early and called senior members in his office to coordinate their communication and troubleshoot the hundreds of problems — from grading changes to the technology competence of faculty — surrounding academic continuity.

The University was halfway through spring break, with students and faculty scattered across the globe. The provost’s plan extended the break period by seven days to allow students to return to campus, pack their belongings and move back home.

“Nothing that I will do in this office will rival the complexity and emotional challenge of the coronavirus.”

Elliott knew that clear communication was necessary in moments of crisis. A decade ago, when he entered his first administrative role as the director of graduate studies in the English department, the country was still reeling from the Great Recession. Graduate students faced a particularly dire job market as university revenues across the country contracted and fewer professorships were opening. He remembered telling students directly what the College knew and did not know and what it expected for the future, which looked bleak.

He attempted a new medium of communication with students on March 17: posting a video message shot in from his office on YouTube.

“I was trying to find a mode of communication that could reach people through the deluge of emails that they were getting,” Elliott said. “I wanted to remind them that there were real people who were trying to assist them and think about the challenges they were facing, and not just faceless names at the bottom of a letter.”

Having experience during a moment of upheaval is an immense advantage. Alexander Isakov, the executive director of the Office of Critical Event Preparedness and Response, for example, has a long history of dealing with infectious disease. While his office’s purview ranges from tornado preparedness to defibrillator kits around campus, Isakov’s professional background was shaped by helping guide the University through the 2009 H1N1 pandemic and the 2014 Ebola scare.

“Since probably 2000, I’ve been involved in providing training for emergency responders that might need to manage a patient with an infectious disease like SARS or another coronavirus,” Isakov said. “COVID-19 wasn’t something that was out of context at all … We’ve been involved in that kind of education and training for almost two decades.”

This experience gave him foresight that many at Emory, like Elliott, did not have. As early as New Year’s Eve 2019, Isakov and his team was monitoring the first media reports coming out of Wuhan, China, of a mysterious pneumonia. By late January, he was in communication with the University’s business administration to model the potential fallout of the pandemic.

Elliott was still anxious when he booked his flight back to Emory on short notice, though not necessarily for his own health or the immense challenges his office faced — he had great confidence in his leadership team. He was anxious about his distance from Emory, wanting to be back in Atlanta, on campus to solve problems face-to-face with key stakeholders.

This goal, of course, proved difficult as the virus’ spread eliminated nearly all in-person gatherings.

A leader who wants to recognize the “pulse” of the situation, Elliott finds immense value in physically walking around his environment. Whether it be around campus, where he stops frequently to chat with students, or along the Atlanta BeltLine and in the Virginia Highlands neighborhood where Elliott aims to get a sense of changes in the city he’s called home since 1998. 

During a pandemic that forced his world into a little box on a computer screen, gauging this pulse became increasingly difficult.

Today, Elliott tries to work from his now-quiet office on campus as much as possible, and he meets frequently with student leaders to discuss their concerns. But the campus is just not the same when residence halls are at less than half capacity, something he remembers telling a family he ran into touring the campus this spring.

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The challenge of distance struck Elliott’s personal life too. He was in Arizona that spring break not only for the academic meeting but also to see his parents in Tucson. He was at a gym watching his father, Butch, work out when he picked up Love’s phone call. Butch had suffered from Parkinson’s disease for the past few years and was attending a gym specializing in restoring balance for patients who had begun to lose mobility.

As COVID-19 surged this summer, Butch’s condition deteriorated greatly, but Elliott was stuck in Atlanta. “Nobody was traveling, nobody even thought about traveling,” he said of that summer. “And it was really hard for me to get a sense of how badly things were progressing for him.”

Elliott faced a new point of anxiety upon arriving back in Atlanta: determining how to piece together a framework to address the novel challenges they faced.

How would hundreds of faculty members, many of whom knew little about Zoom conferencing or online teaching, transition their in-person classes to a virtual format in a matter of days? Would international students, studying time zones away, have to attend classes at 2 a.m.? How would Elliott and his team respond to thousands of students calling for the University to completely overhaul the grading system mid-semester?

He desperately wanted to tell students and professors that he understood their stress, that he understood their dilemmas and that everything would be OK. But he knew he could not state this with any real confidence. The challenges were just too novel, the impacts too disparate between groups.

“It’s impossible to overstate how much everybody in leadership wanted to alleviate that stress and that pressure,” he said. “But we were in a situation where we didn’t know how everything was going to work and [student] fears were larger than what was transpiring at Emory University.”                       

On March 23, the Monday after the extended spring break period, Elliott called a meeting of all College department chairs to iron out a plan for the semester. With so much about the virus’ spread still unknown, the meeting was held socially distanced in person, although most attended over Zoom.

The meeting’s tone was optimistic, Elliott said, and he felt a sense of relief as chairs discussed future meetings in which they would review their resources and prepare answers to student questions.

While Elliott admits that the University had its stumbles and may not have addressed every question as effectively or quickly as desired, he remains comfortable with the decisions he made.

As the College dean, Elliott shaped policy based on various groups and academic programs’ motives, and many of the goals he articulates, such as the expansion of career services, had ramifications far beyond the four years that undergraduates spend at the Emory. 

“I see myself as somebody who tries to communicate a kind of signal through the noise of a very decentralized and kind of wonderfully messy set of programs and faculty,” he said.

Jacob Hicks (18Ox, 20C), the former College Council president who served in the position at the start of the pandemic, recalled how Elliott tactfully navigated different University groups’ often-conflicting desires. Elliott always offered helpful advice to student leaders, Hicks said. 

“As a student leader, and him as a dean, we don’t represent the same groups,” Hicks said. “He’s accountable to faculty and alumni and staff and the Board of Trustees in a way that we aren’t. But at the same time, he was able to say, this is the background that I have and give us the information we needed to do our jobs and advocate for students.”

A major challenge that arose after most students returned home for remote learning was changing the College’s grading scheme to be more accommodating during the pandemic.

Many students, wanting to eliminate as much stress during the pandemic as possible, advocated for switching all grades to “pass/fail,” while others, who Elliott thought were far less vocal but many in number, wanted to keep the grades they had worked so hard for. 

Hicks recalled Elliott explaining to student government leaders the nuances of how universities receive accreditation, a factor that limited grading policies the College could adapt.

“One of the things that he was really helpful with was getting into the specifics of the language and the timing of these policies, which are really complex but also really important,” Hicks said. “His insight there was indispensable.”

Elliott’s solution, developed with input from an April 2020 College Council survey Hicks compiled, allowed students to switch their classes to “pass/fail” up to the last day of classes or keep their grade. Students could also petition to change a class to “pass/fail” after that deadline had passed.

“For some students, that idea of moving toward a mandatory pass/fail semester, was an expression of their desire to advance social justice,” Elliott said. “I appreciate that impetus, but I don’t think that would have been the right decision.”

“The loss of a parent is hard to describe, and I would say because of the pandemic, it’s been harder to process.” 

Elliott has made numerous consequential decisions of this nature over the past year, some informed greatly by a framework of knowledge, others far too novel to harp on past experience.

In mid-October, he traveled back to Arizona to make another decision with his mother. This one was heart-wrenching. His father, who he hadn’t seen in months, had reached the point that he needed to move into an assisted living facility.

Elliott returned to Arizona one last time during the week of the 2020 election to help move his father into the new home. Three weeks later, Butch succumbed to the disease he had battled for years. He was 77.

“The loss of a parent is hard to describe, and I would say because of the pandemic, it’s been harder to process,” Elliott said. “It was really not until Christmas, when my mother came out here for the holiday but my father didn’t, that I think his absence really became tangible.”

He recounted this story with some ease, however, because he understood long ago that his father’s days were limited. The death was a tragedy, but not unexpected after witnessing many years of decline.

For over a year, Elliott has worked nonstop to alleviate stress, for students, for faculty, for his family and has had little time to stop and reflect on this period in his life. “I’m still too much in it to really figure out exactly what difference the year has made,” he said.

But after a pause, some obvious, influential experiences, all of which are undergirded by the pandemic, come to his mind: the death of his father, his oldest son beginning the college search, his five-year anniversary of holding the deanship.

Or perhaps it was the absence of familiar experiences, his inability to walk through his environments and gauge the pulse, that has shaped this moment in his life.

“What do we miss? We miss real relationships with people. I have certainly never missed traveling more, I’ve never missed crowds more,” he said. “Those are all things I valued before the pandemic, and I think the pandemic will intensify those values, not change them.”