23 Apr 2020

Managing Through Crisis: Student Activities Go Virtual, a Q+A with Director Mike Murphy

Mike Murphy
Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva

by Shona Simkin

Director of Student Activities Mike Murphy and his colleagues in the MBA Student and Academic Support team knew that the coronavirus pandemic was going to be more than just a bit disruptive back in mid-February. FIELD Global Immersions (FGI) had been cancelled, but students were still planning their own spring break travel—in some cases with hundreds of students travelling together around the globe. Murphy and this team were in regular contact with the MBA Global Experience Office team (the department that manages FGI) to stay apprised of the many advisories and keep students informed of the rapidly shifting landscape.

Then came the March 6 email that both prohibited University-related international travel and discouraged gatherings of more than 100 people. Two student-led conferences were scheduled that weekend, jointly-organized with the Kennedy School and the Graduate School of Design. The organizing teams had to decide within hours whether or not to cancel. When the partnering schools cancelled their portions, HBS students made the difficult but responsible choice to follow suit. The March 9 International Women’s Day event with Arianna Huffington was already virtual, with Huffington streaming from her home in California, so the team assembled breakout rooms for overflow attendees while limiting Klarman attendance to 100 (in a 1,000-seat auditorium). From there, all following events were rapidly cancelled or postponed. One week later, students were told to not return from spring break. We sat down with Murphy to ask about what that time was like, what issues his team has been fielding since then, and what’s next.

What was that first week like for your team, before students left for spring break, knowing they wouldn’t be assembling back on campus as before?
Students were really wrestling with a lot of decisions and emotions, trying to balance following the constantly-changing guidelines with wanting to spend time with their classmates. Particularly the EC students, who knew that it might be the last time they could spend time with their sections. When the NBA suspended their season, that was a big signal—it became a lot more clear that even smaller events had to be canceled. Student leaders were being incredibly thoughtful in their approach, and listened to extreme opinions on both sides. Those extremes were valid at the time. Flash forward to where we are now, and it’s hard to imagine ever thinking it was ok to get together with 100 other people, for any reason. Being a part of seeing that through was interesting and remarkable.

What was the next issue that your team had to work through?
After my colleagues pivoted to deliver an online curriculum, the questions very quickly became: What does student life look like in a virtual environment? How do we help support students in their genuine desire to respond to the situation impact of COVID-19 in the world and contribute to the community? How do you channel student energy productively? A lot of the activity moved to listening to ideas, advising on how to think about them, determining the student and school role, and being a resource without getting in the way or contributing to any stress. We've benefited from outstanding student leadership—those in the Student Association and many clubs.

And the HBS Show went on!
It did! That was another primary question—as we were understanding these new constraints, which seemed to change every single day, we had to think about how to re-create one of the most important opportunities for highlighting student talent and expression. Credit to students, student leadership, Media Services, and to those on my team for engaging and problem solving—it was a really cool production and one of the best scripts I’ve ever read.

What’s next?
Now we’re on to Commencement. We’re partnering with student leadership to figure out how to make a meaningful, special experience for graduates and their families and loved ones on May 28. There’s still a lot of uncertainty, but we have to do what we can to make sure we are honoring and celebrating the accomplishment of graduating from Harvard University and HBS under the strangest of circumstances.

What has been helpful and important to you and your team throughout this experience?
There is understandable anxiety, emotion, and intensity around uncertainty—we just don't have answers to questions. But we’re partnering in new ways with students, faculty, and staff to bring definition, structure, and direction, and there’s something really exciting about that process! That’s the case now with Commencement, and it was true with the HBS Show, and in figuring out how clubs continue to have events and deliver value to their members. There's no way we could do anything meaningful if we weren't working directly with the students to understand what is meaningful for them. We know the creativity and the energy of our students is going to far outpace anything we could think of to structure and provide, so there's this really fun and interesting dynamic of discovery and appreciation and support.

Every day is brand new. It's a real testament to the spirit of the community and students as to how vibrant the community still is. It’s also been an important driver for our team to feel appreciated. Over 90 percent of the hundreds of emails that we’ve received from students inevitably begin with a 'Thank you for everything you're doing.’ That is really sustaining for all of us, to know that even under these strange circumstances our efforts are appreciated. Also, one thing that made my month was an email from Gaby Santana Goldstein (MBA 2020), one of our SA co-presidents. On Tuesday, April 7, she welcomed her son Theo into the world, and she sent us the first baby pictures later that week. That's just the best thing ever. Life goes on!

What is it like for you and your team to work remotely?
The days that I have one or no meetings with students are typically more difficult. We've all found that interacting with students generates a lot of energy. We’ve also all remarked that the lack of a commute is really nice. I have found that the Zoom exhaustion has forced a more standard schedule. I’m usually terrible about leaving the office on time, but now I'm so wiped out that by 5 or 6, I've got nothing left and I'm home, and it’s dinnertime. I'm also not staying up late. I'm done with work at 5 and I'm getting to bed between 9 and 10—I feel like I'm a 50’s sitcom dad!

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