Steering Committee Communications Foster Lack of Trust
The committee seems to have inspired discontent in the student body so far, and that is the last emotion they should want us to feel.
The most essential standards, like restricting group size or staying on campus, are the least enforceable.
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Furman’s COVID Response Steering Committee has a difficult, unenviable job. Their goals — to keep campus open and classes in-person — are highly commendable, and their effort in seeing that happen is second to none. That said, the actions they have taken over the past two weeks have been inconsistent with those goals.
Dr. Jason Cassidy and Dr. John Wheeler, members of the Steering Committee, told me that “whether or not we will succeed or fail depends fully on whether students follow the scientifically-validated guidance of our health professionals.” While this is true, a major factor in determining whether students will follow this guidance is the trust they have for the regulators issuing these rules. This trust is not just based on the qualifications of the medical professionals guiding these decisions or the good intentions of the professors making up the committee. It is also influenced by the way that the committee’s actions are perceived by the students.
Most of the students I have spoken to over the past two weeks have been displeased with at least some portion of the committee’s decisions. Some standards have felt too restrictive and others too lenient. The most essential standards, like restricting group size or staying on campus, are the least enforceable. The newly relaxed areas, like indoor dining or the PAC, appear to have some of the highest risks. In addition, many of the remaining restricted activities, such as in-person club meetings, feel far safer than recently deregulated ones.
I cannot say for certain why such attitudes persist on campus — we may simply be angsty teens and twenty-somethings who miss the freedom we became accustomed to last semester. But after rereading communications from the committee, at least part of this lack of confidence boils down to a public messaging problem.
A key principle in business, marketing, and opinion column writing is to under-promise in your pitch, and over-deliver in your product. The committee appears to have inadvertently done the exact opposite when they wrote in their first email this semester that “until at least January 25, we will operate in a low-to-no-contact phase on campus.” In hindsight, it is clear that they tried to leave the length of the “low-to-no-contact” phase ambiguous so they could extend it as the need arised. But many students, myself included, took this line to mean that we would be returning to normal operations after the first week. After all, they only said the restrictions would be in effect until Jan. 25. When we received the email a week later stating that “low-to-no-contact” would be extended by a week, it felt like the committee had not just under-delivered, but had completely yanked the rug out from under our feet. Our eagerness to dine with friends, work out at the PAC, and begin holding club events was wiped out, replaced quickly with the anger and discontent that came alongside falling flat on our faces.
Another communication principle that the committee appears to have violated in their messaging is a favorite of the U.S. Navy, referred to by the acronym KISS: for the purposes of this article, “Keep It Simple and Straightforward.” In theory, the Operational Phase system makes sense if everyone has a general idea of the rules and expectations for each color. The committee says a color, and we follow those restrictions until the color is changed. It is a simple method, in theory. But the committee removed that simplicity last week when they began subdividing phases and enacted a “modified Orange Phase” that was a Frankenstein’s monster of stitched-together rules and phases. The effort to give students more freedom is noble and well-received, but its implementation has been befuddling. By introducing a dozen caveats to the restrictions of the phase we were already in, the committee hindered its ability to communicate clearly just as students were beginning to adjust to the new system. If the committee wants to use the Operational Phases system, they should stick to their definitions. Currently, they are trying to fit a square peg into a diamond-shaped hole, and while it may be possible, it causes extra work, requires good whittling skills, and leaves everyone more frustrated.
The committee seems to have inspired discontent in the student body so far, and that is the last emotion they should want us feeling while trying to convince us to follow their essential precautions. The committee should stop being vague in its claims about how long a restriction may last, trying to reserve the ability to shift the goals; that only furthers the discontent and leads to misunderstanding. They should either stick to the Operation Phases as they laid it out, or abandon the system and just tell us what the restrictions are each week, because their attempts to straddle the line with the current restrictions have simply been confusing. And they should keep in mind that our trust in them is not shaped just by their expertise, knowledge, and rationale, which they surely have in spades, but also by the way we perceive their actions and statements, something that seems to have been lacking.