The Sunday Briefing – March 15, 2020

Dear colleagues,

 

What is the best advice that you have ever received? If you are reading this I am sure you are wondering about this question in the midst of the uncertainty generated by a global pandemic that for the moment is forcing us into new approaches to how we live our lives.

For many, this is not the first time that we may be gripped with deep uncertainty about the future.

For those of us who went through the shock of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy or Martin Luther King, the destruction of Hurricane Andrew, and/or the mind-numbing visuals and deep pain of the 911 calamity, we now “know a thing or two,” as the saying goes.

The global scope and scale of this Corona virus looms large. The unknowns are provoking uncertainty, despair and panic that challenge all of us. As one national commentator stated on March 12, 2020, “we are moving into unchartered waters practically by the hour.”

So the advice? I was in Tallahassee, in 1998, having just been appointed interim provost of FIU. Significant changes were afoot with a new governor about to be elected; budgets that were quite brittle; burgeoning enrollments of students; and an aggressive change agenda at FIU to implement: expand research, address the unknown of the coming Y2K, build a law school, then hopefully get a medical school, all the while assembling a new university-wide information system through People Soft (and find the $40m. from recurring finances to pay for it).

And there was my friend and mentor John Lombardi, the charismatic president of the University of Florida, on his way to a meeting and hurriedly nodding hellobut never slowing to comment on my new appointment. I stopped John. Without pause I said to him: “John—tell me what my job [as Provost] is….?” Immediate response from John: “Your job is to push paper.” Immediate reaction: “John–there has got to be more than that.”

Already starting to step away to get to this destination, John fired back: “OK, your job is to ‘keep calm.’”

What I needed to hear. Few words. Profound. And it has stuck with me. Through 911—just a few years later. Through ad hominem disrespect at a Senate hearing in Tallahassee in the Spring of 2008 while serving the State University System as Chancellor, through the devastating days and nights of the 8th street bridge collapse, and other difficult matters more specific to our family and the human condition.

Keep calm. That is what I counsel to you, our FIU family these days. Of course, its normal to fear this fast-moving virus. While our brains are hardwired to scan for danger, fear should not overwhelm us. Reading upsetting headlines or watching alarming news about the coronavirus plays into our nature, and not in a good way. But leaning into the discomfort of uncertainty can broaden our perspective. It can also help us develop the mental agility to consider other options which, in turn, creates an island of safety amid uncertainty.

There are ways to keep calm. Simply approaching each day with the notion that nothing is promised and that we must earn our keep—minute by minute and day by day. Simply by reminding ourselves that we must remember to walk a mile in others’ shoes and not be so judgmental. Simply by being “curious” about things, as adviser Nance Guilmartin has often reminded us. Simply by embracing the notion that we must frequently decide between whether we want to be right, or we want to be effective, because sometimes there is a huge gap between the two. Simply by being grateful. One of the kindest things we can do is to say “thank you” to those who are doing what they can to fight the outbreak. When we show gratitude toward others, we are creating a cycle of altruism. Simply by being kind. When we are faced with a challenge that affects us all, helping to foster truth in each other and care for each other’s plight, we feel moral elevation, a warm feeling that unites and inspires us. This feeling of moral elevation and a compassionate spirit can help us to endure this difficult period of collective ambiguity.

Let’s face it—we are headed for a “new normal.” Because of the virus, and our instinct to overcome its potentially ravaging impact, we are encouraged to create social distance—something that does not easily align with our more personal and friendly social engagement style. (Many of us count on the face to face interaction of the ventanita or cafecito to give us connection. Not within six feet.) We are asked to mediate our sociability through technology and distance, something that strikes against the age-old instinct for relationship intimacy structured by professional norms and/or behavioral customs that are time-tested—albeit continuously evolving (Are we really comfortable with this concept of “remote” anything? Not me.) We are asked to continuously wash our hands—which flies in the face of the grab and go culture that we have evolved into. (Many of us take hygiene for granted. Not anymore.) In short, we are now asked to take seriously a new approach to personal resilience, which most of us may have seen as appropriate for others, not necessarily for us. But today’s lesson is that none of us is exempt. We all gotta do our part professionally and personally.

Yes, we are all challenged with a viral pandemic that threatens the pillars upon which we interact and live with others. I want to remind you that our university has found a way to thrive in situations of ambiguity. In part this is because we have a moral ecology that puts people first, that cares about others, and that prides itself in exceeding expectations. I believe that we are up to the difficulties and the challenges of this new normal as long as we keep calm, focused, grateful, and compassionate. When our human abilities intersect, we not only rise to the occasion, we learn that we can survive and thrive regardless of the difficulties that we encounter… or that find us!

In the Panther spirit,

Mark B. Rosenberg