The Sunday Briefing – March 22, 2020

Dear colleagues,

I had a scary dream the other morning that bears on our situation now. Like most humans, I need sleep. And like most, I do not sleep long or well. So early this past Tuesday morning, I forced myself to go back to sleep, it being just too early to really get up. And to my mistaken relief, I did fall back asleep.

Dreaming. There I was in a cramped passenger van along a narrow and mountainous Italian road on a foggy morning. The vehicle was careening wildly along the hillside edge of the road, the worn tires of the left side of the van about to drop off the guardrail-less side of the road into the abyss and deep valley alongside. Where was the driver? Why wasn’t the driver controlling the vehicle so that the 14 or so cramped passengers were not at risk?

Still dreaming. I looked around the vehicle to find the driver. Then to my horror, I realized that I was the driver! There was the steering wheel in front of me and there was the key in the ignition — but the vehicle had never been formally started — it was just sliding from one side of the road to the other, no hands on the wheel. And I was sitting there as if I was just another passenger, and not the person (driver) in charge!

This is a dream, right? I forced myself up, and rapidly jumped like hell out of bed. Reality is better than this — right? Then as I slowly came awake, I realized that our reality mirrors the dilemma in the dream. (Is anyone driving? Do something!) Our reality is now one that is bounded by profound ambiguity. As one message from the Cleveland Clinic proclaimed: “We have never faced anything like this in modern times.” The Mayor of Los Angeles: “This is the week that changed everything.”

We have been through difficult times before. But this is different. We all have “skin in the game.” The proverbial drivers of the vans of this world are challenged as never before. Our survival will be the result of the sum of the decisions made by all these drivers and their passengers and then some. Every van runs the gamut from private households to small and large businesses to public and private institutions, like ours. The common denominator is that we are all in this together and that — paradoxically— “social distance” and business paralysis are the new normal. At every level of social organization, we are grappling with the rearrangement of things as a means to slow the spread of the corona disease. Our objective is to stop this pandemic in its tracks, limit the loss of life, and resume our earlier routinized lives.

Along the way, we will learn many lessons, large and small.

Here are some lessons that I have already learned in just the past few weeks.

Whatever you thought you were not going to do in response to the crisis, expect that you will soon have to consider doing it.

In our case, we were determined not to release our table top computers for home use, given security and connectivity complications. We are now doing so in part because we are worried that this will be a longer process than imagined. Our police departments, their lobbies usually open to the public, are less welcoming these days to protect officers from the spread of the virus. Requests for police help are more thoroughly screened — officers first must know if anyone is sick in the calling household.

Be willing to listen to alternative views.

Our emergency management group is a relatively close-knit cohesive gaggle of about 75 souls who have been together in some difficult situations in the past. We know each other and we trust each other.

However, exactly this situation can lead to “group-think,” where rationalized conformity promotes group consensus that might just avoid alternative creative approaches to foster continuing group solidarity. Someone in the group should be willing to be a “critical evaluator” or a “devil’s advocate.” We have already seen with this virus that today’s surprise is tomorrow’s norm.

Manage expectations/manage ambiguity.

The uncertainty of the present is paralyzing. Just walk into your local grocery store. No toilet paper? No Purell? One commentator recently stated that “the healthy and optimistic among us will doom the world.” How does one reconcile this upside down view of the world with the inherent can-do approach and good will that drives decent people? And empty shelves at Publix?

Perhaps the best way is to visualize a “new normal” that will retain certain elements of pre-corona life with the hard lessons that we are enduring now.

Have you dared think about what is next — short term and/or near-term?

If you are the van’s driver, or indeed a “back-seat” driver, you must be thinking in these terms. After all, the economy is in free-fall. Paralysis in our political system has undermined the confidence of many. But we will come out of this — where exactly is the unknown. My most recent dream was a reminder to get my hands on the wheel, start the van, and do big things with my passengers! It was a reminder that as Josh Hinds reminds us, we were made for amazing things. And there is no more amazing thing for us than learning, graduating students and helping our community to continue to grow and prosper.

(I invite you to help us understand what the “new normal” might look like for our FIU. Please write me at mark.rosenberg@fiu.edu and help me to understand what I should be thinking about as I get my hands on the wheel of our FIU “van” and work with my other passengers to drive us in the right direction.)

In the Panther spirit,

Mark B. Rosenberg