Never in my wildest dreams did I anticipate being dean of a school offering only online courses. As I have said to my students (via Zoom, Monday), faculty, and staff, this is not what we signed up for. Nonetheless, it’s the world we’re in, and so my job has shifted massively from that of a face-to-face leader to a leader of online communities: students, faculty, staff, and alumni.

There’s no playbook for transitioning to online teaching mid-semester. However, the last two weeks have demonstrated the importance of community and of our mission to educate students for and about leadership. We have focused relentlessly on that core mission—on how best to continue our students’ learning in this radically altered environment. Faculty, with the assistance of our staff, have worked day and night from Jepson Hall and their homes to reimagine their teaching and courses, maintain content and pedagogy, and foster small group discussions and critical thinking, all while offering synchronous and asynchronous online opportunities for our students to learn.

For my part, I admit that I haven’t been sleeping well. Overseeing the transition of the Jepson School has been an enormous responsibility. The number of decisions to make—often very quickly—is almost (but not quite!) overwhelming. Trying to maintain a sense of community as the faculty and staff strive to master new teaching techniques and technology is a challenge. Doubly so as we disperse to our respective homes. Many are understandably nervous. I’ve had to rethink my own course in the context of online teaching.

But Monday I taught my first class in an online format, via Zoom, and was very pleased to return to something like normalcy. I’ve been in touch with my students throughout the past couple of weeks, but it was wonderful to see their faces and witness their interactions, to see the gradual return to our bantering ways. We were sometimes emotional—many are seniors whose Commencement and related celebrations have been indefinitely postponed—sometimes subdued—what will the future bring?—and sometimes upbeat—being together cheered us enormously. It was a joy to see them clap, wave, and laugh. I am optimistic that we will get through these challenges together.

I designed their course, Economic Policy and Leadership, in the wake of the subprime mortgage and financial crises. Monday I stressed the obvious, but important, point that we are living through the most extraordinary case that one could design—enormous leadership and economic challenges unfold daily. My students now have the opportunity, and the challenge, to explore policy and leadership options in real time. This is the stuff of real learning, and I look forward to the next five weeks of learning with and from them!

Online leadership

Sandra J. Peart


Dr. Peart is Dean of the School of Leadership Studies at the University of Richmond. She is an economist with special interests in leadership and economics and leadership ethics. More about her: Go to jepson.richmond.edu and see faculty information.


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