18 Nov 2020

HBS Student Club Activities in the Era of COVID-19: Q+A with Cindy Spungin and Mike Murphy


by Shona Simkin

Student life at colleges and universities around the world has been drastically re-shaped by the coronavirus pandemic. Harvard Business School’s 94 student clubs act as the engine of student life, with robust participation in events, outings, and conferences. We sat down with Cindy Spungin and Mike Murphy, assistant director and director of student activities respectively, to ask about the many changes wrought by the pandemic, and what lies ahead for club activities.

What was the spring like for student clubs?

Cindy Spungin: The pandemic hit at a key point. Clubs hold elections for new officers in March—two co-presidents and a CFO; it’s this strange overlap in which outgoing leaders are still overseeing events and activities, and new leadership is trying to build community and make plans before everyone scatters for the summer. But of course, this year everyone was already scattered. It was tricky, not knowing what the summer and fall would bring, and students were dealing with their own personal and academic uncertainties. The training sessions that we hold for new leaders transitioned online smoothly, but with the enormous caveat that we had no idea what the summer and fall would bring, and that’s a time when club leadership has quite a bit of work and organizing to do.

What were some of those key issues?

Cindy: Annual conferences were a big unknown. We decided to schedule all of our usual 25—which can sometimes have up to 1,000 attendees—as if we would be on campus, knowing that if we waited until the fall, it would be too late to make sure they could line up all of the necessary resources. We made it very clear we did not know what the fall would be like, and that it was likely to all be virtual, but we needed to plan.

Mike Murphy: Along with the major conferences, we also had to think about how to manage the more frequent club events and outings. Virtual events are here to stay for the foreseeable future, so we had to figure out how to organize and manage them remotely. We brought on a new platform, Engage, which allows each club to manage their membership and schedule and market their events. The financial approval process for this new platform meant that we had three weeks to learn and implement it before classes began. With the help of our two MBA Class of 2020 summer interns, Billy Tabrizi and Rachel Brown, we were able to tailor it to meet the students’ needs—they kept us close to the student experience and were our bridge to club leadership.

Now that is it’s fall, what do student conferences look like?

Mike: All conferences are virtual. There's no feasible way for them to be in person. But that creates all kinds of opportunities—you're no longer limited by who can get to campus, and your audience could be enormous.

Cindy: Some clubs have felt less compelled to ask people to spend an entire day at an online conference, so have parsed it out over the course of the semester in a speaker series or a few consecutive late afternoons or evenings. Some clubs are comfortable in Zoom and want to continue using that platform, while others prefer other platforms, even if they cost more or take additional planning. We’re working with online event planners who consult with the clubs to identify the best online platform for their conference, and they help with the design elements. For online platforms we’ve worked with Goldcast, which actually came out of Startup Bootcamp and is run by HBS students on leave this year—they ran the Student Club Fair that we held in the early fall.

What does club activity look like now that students are back on campus?

Cindy: Clubs are having in-person events, but they’re very regulated. That’s a real challenge because HBS students are very much about inclusion—how they can have an in-person event that is as inclusive as possible when the max capacity is 50 people, and in many cases much fewer? How do they still kick off the year and do all of the things they hope to do within all of these constraints? They’re realizing that the most inclusive events are virtual—there's no cap on numbers and it’s easier to figure out time zone issues. A few clubs have done what they call staycations, with multiple activities in different places and at different times—over the course of the event, they're maximizing the number of people who can participate in some elements, even though not everyone is participating in every element. For example, one club had an online event with everyone in the morning, and then there was a menu of options—three off campus activities in three different municipalities, a virtual option, and a campus end of the day reception that also had a virtual component.

What are some of the organizational challenges?

Mike: In a business as usual environment, all that's entailed for an event is booking a classroom, advertising it on the event calendar, and managing the actual event. Now, Cindy has to have an intake session for each event, to go over how to comply with the health and safety responsibilities, and how to register attendants. For contact tracing purposes, we have to have a record of each participant—if you’re not registered before the event, you can’t attend. Thankfully the Engage platform allows us to register and keep track of participants in a very robust and efficient way.

We also now coordinate with Operations for signage and cleaning, as each indoor and outdoor event space is cordoned off and has a sign with the schedule of events. None of this could happen without our daily partnership with the Operations Campus Services Team—Jessica Whittemore, Alex Marashian, Elizabeth Kennedy, Mike Thorpe, Andrew Falzone, and Chris Ramsay. The staff lift just to allow students to be able to have a single event is enormous. By the first week of December we will have scheduled more than 100 outdoor events.

Cindy: That may sound like not a lot of events given how many we usually have on campus, but the issue is that there are so few spaces. All of the auditorium spaces are closed, Spangler and Batten rooms are unavailable. We really only have classrooms in Aldrich and Hawes and a few outdoor spaces. And while we are clear about complying with gathering sizes, we also have to ensure that no event can be misconstrued as exceeding capacity guidelines. Two separate events of 50 each in nearby outdoor spaces can easily be perceived as one event of 100 people. So we don’t allow clubs to have two events on the same date in outdoor spaces. We coordinate all of the virtual events as well, loaning out Zoom licenses and offering tech support—we’ve all been trained as OLFs.

Are there any fun innovations that have come out of this?

Cindy: Heard on the Street, our a capella group, had a spring show that featured prerecorded scenes and student emcees. We recently found them an outdoor space for rehearsals, which they normally hold in the chapel, so they’re able to be in person with special masks for singing. The HBS Show is about to hold their fall show, Cabaret, which is usually at the Oberon. This version was a sort of hybrid of their spring show and Heard on the Street’s show, with some recorded and some on campus live viewings. It’s really exciting to see the creativity.

Mike: We really haven't scratched the surface of the possibilities for virtual events. What we know is that there's no going back. This is now going to be a component of the student club and student life experience. The dimensions for inclusion and scale and impact and engagement beyond the borders of the campus are really exciting and we're only just starting to see some examples of that. We're seeing some real creativity with performing arts. The Outdoor Club is also taking students all over the place—there was a deep-sea fishing excursion in Gloucester, hikes in New Hampshire, the Middlesex Fells, the Arnold Arboretum, all of which are managed, registered, and compliant.

Every person in the Student Activities team—Samuel Odamah, Katie Cross, Gregory Fortier, Mya Bullock-Jones, Jen Brower, and Katie Grissino, has played a key role in building a new student life experience and evolving both the new and legacy systems for our students. We've also found new resources, like Harvard Transit—now that everyone can’t pack into a car or call a ride-share, it turns out that we can reserve vans and coaches that are COVID compliant. We're finding new opportunities and seeing some cool stuff. All of these activities, from conferences to outings, really inspire and show us what’s still possible during this time.

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