Societal Impact: Our Response to Natural Disasters

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Tuesday, September 19, 2023
By Jim B. Fatzinger, Vivek Bhargava, Wafa Orman, Hanumantha Rao Unnava
Flooding after Hurricane Ian, September 2022 (Photo by iStock/Bilanol)
Bolstering our business schools’ resilience to catastrophic weather events—and helping our regions recover in their wake—must be central to our missions.
  • Academic leaders who are part of AACSB’s Metropolitan Business School affinity group recently met to discuss how their institutions responded to natural disasters that struck their communities.
  • They emphasized how critical it is for all schools to have contingency plans and communication protocols in place, long before the next crisis occurs.
  • A business school’s efforts to help its community recover from disaster are opportunities to fulfill its mission, drive student learning, and have positive societal impact, in alignment with AACSB’s accreditation standards.

“We’re all accountable for recognizing challenges and pursuing solutions that make the world a better place,” AACSB emphasizes on its website. In its 2022 report, Five Forces Driving the Future of Business Education, AACSB goes on to say that “it’s not enough to be good; schools must do good.”

We might not immediately link our institutions’ disaster preparedness to AACSB’s societal impact agenda, but the connection is clear. Standard 9.1 of AACSB’s 2020 accreditation standards requires schools to demonstrate “positive societal impact through internal and external initiatives and/or activities, consistent with the school’s mission, strategies, and expected outcomes.” Furthermore, under the standards, we must prepare students to anticipate and respond to the known and unknown challenges they will face in their lifetimes.

Jean Bartunek presents a related idea in her 2020 article in Academy of Management Learning and Education, “Theory (What Is It Good For?),” where she notes that “processes of truly reflecting on and understanding how and why events happen can be worthwhile.” While unpredictable and often catastrophic, natural disasters require us to do just as Bartunek describes—assess, reflect, and evaluate. These events also present teachable moments to our students that we cannot replicate in the classroom.

Academic leaders further explored this topic at AACSB’s April 2023 International Conference and Annual Meeting (ICAM) held in Chicago. During a session titled “Societal Impact: Natural Disaster and the Metropolitan Business School,” we discussed the negative impact that earthquakes, floods, fires, hurricanes, and tornadoes can have on society. We also recognized the positive societal impact that our students, faculty, and staff can have in the wake of these events.

During the session, we are among the group members who discussed our institutions’ responses to fire, tornadoes, and a hurricane. We share our experiences below to spark dialogue about how business schools can prepare for future disasters—and how we can view these events as opportunities to fulfill our missions and serve our communities.

University of California, Davis: Fire

On November 8, 2018, a deadly fire started in California’s Butte County. Smoke from the fire moved south to the Sacramento region, home of the University of California, Davis (UC Davis). In 2018, remote learning still was not the norm. So, when students returned to campus after the Veteran’s Day weekend, classes were cancelled due to concerns about air quality.

Campus leadership held a daily conference call to manage grading issues related to class assignments and exams. These issues ranged from determining how students could make up for missed classes to facilitating the recording of lectures or posting of class materials to deciding whether to convert the grading in some courses to “pass/fail.”

Because its emergency response team was already in place, UC Davis was able to launch an effective, coordinated response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

After the fire was contained, the campus engaged in long-term planning, which included establishing a team to evaluate and respond to different safety issues. Because this team was in place two years later, UC Davis was able to launch an effective, coordinated response when the COVID-19 pandemic forced campuses to close in March 2020.

In fact, the university’s response to the pandemic has been nationally recognized as one of the best in the country. Today, UC Davis draws on its past experiences to protect the interests of various constituents during a crisis—a skill that will be required of its graduates as well.

Societal impact—lower rates of COVID transmission. The preparations that the UC Davis made after the fire put the school in a strong position during the pandemic. In 2020, the free COVID-19 testing that UC Davis made available to its entire community helped lower the number of COVID cases in the region. This resulted in fewer job losses, hospitalizations, and deaths. A study by Mathematica reinforces the positive impact of the university’s response.

University of Alabama Huntsville: Tornadoes

On April 27, 2011, the state of Alabama experienced a catastrophic tornado outbreak with at least 62 tornadoes touching down. Two tornadoes were classified as EF-5, including one that tracked across Northern Alabama. Reaching three-quarters of a mile wide and producing 210-mile-per-hour winds, this tornado was the deadliest in state history, killing 72 people along its 132-mile path.

The tornado came close to but spared the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) campus. However, many in the campus community and broader Huntsville area suffered losses. An EF-4 tornado hit Tuscaloosa and Birmingham, killing 65 and damaging the University of Alabama campus in Tuscaloosa.

Coincidentally, April 27 was UAH’s study day before finals. The tornado knocked out regional power grids, and the campus lost electricity for a week, which required finals to be canceled. (Madison County imposed curfews during the following week while power remained out.) Communicating the cancellation of finals to students presented challenges—not everyone had access to their email accounts due to power outages, so the school relied heavily on local media to get the word out. Students were given the opportunity to schedule make-up finals over the summer if needed. UAH also organized fundraisers that provided financial support to those who needed it.

Societal impact—greater emphasis on outreach. In the aftermath of the tornadoes, students, faculty, and staff at UAH first volunteered to assist the community with recovery efforts. The experience made UAH leaders realize that they needed to be proactive in their societal impact efforts moving forward. Since then, UAH has formalized more partnerships and programming that support the local community, especially in times of crisis. For example:

  • UAH has opened lines of communication with emergency management and community leaders to coordinate responses before, during, and after a crisis.
  • The school has developed volunteer initiatives in which students and faculty can regularly participate in rebuilding and support efforts. One example is the “Big Event” at UAH.
  • The school also host community events on campus that bring the region together and foster resilience. For instance, its annual Weatherfest now incorporates content related to weather preparedness. We also strive to have a presence at similar events held in the community.

Florida Gulf Coast University: Hurricane Ian

On September 28, 2022, Florida’s Fort Myers/Naples area was hit by Hurricane Ian. Weather forecasters had been predicting the hurricane’s arrival during the previous days, and on September 24, Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU) in Fort Myers started providing daily updates to its community, including class cancellations. Ultimately, the university stayed closed for two weeks. Emergency shelters were established for residential students who could not leave.

Ian grew to a Category 5 hurricane as it approached the area, with winds reaching 160 miles per hour, before dropping to a Category 4 by the time it made landfall. More than 50 percent of the residents of Lee County lost power, water, internet, and phone service for three to seven days—some, even longer. Communities closest to the coast sustained the most damage, with some areas facing up to 10 feet of storm surge. After the storm passed, the county instituted curfews to prevent looting.

During times of crisis, diverse units on campus can collaborate and execute a plan together with a sense of common purpose.

The university got its power back relatively quickly, but the homes of roughly 25 percent of faculty sustained significant damage. The university supported faculty, staff, and students, making allowances according to individual situations. Faculty were instructed to be flexible with students and adjust their course schedules and teaching modalities based on individual needs.

After FGCU re-opened, it began its coordinated response, including setting up the Support Eagles in Need emergency fund. Beginning October 7, employees could meet one-on-one with representatives of the Employee Assistance Program; and on October 12, the university launched the FGCU Storm Recovery Call Center. Same-day appointments with counselors were available for those in crisis management roles.

Societal impact—closer-knit communities. In the wake of Hurricane Ian, members of FGCU spearheaded food drives and helped clean up debris. In addition, the university foundation donated 1,000 USD to employees and 500 USD to students, based on their level of need. FGCU employees opened their homes up to colleagues who were displaced, and the university launched a tool to connect people without housing with those who could provide temporary lodging.

FGCU also created a website where students and faculty could sign up to volunteer in areas such as administration, donations, food packing and distribution, and stocking supplies. That website is still active today.

Post-Crisis Takeaways

During natural disasters, the institutions featured above gained invaluable emergency response experience, which their leaders now can apply in a variety of difficult circumstances. Below are a few lessons learned that could help other institutions before the next disaster hits:

Act deliberately and collaboratively. At UC Davis, for example, administrators learned that, during times of crisis, diverse units on campus can collaborate and execute a plan with a sense of common purpose.

Students and staff at UC Davis stand at tables, placed six feet apart, to register for COVID testing at a testing center set up in the school's basketball arena in 2020

With systems in place after the 2018 wildfire, academic leaders at UC Davis were positioned to respond more quickly and effectively to the COVID-19 pandemic, including setting up a testing facility for the campus community in its basketball arena.

For example, when lockdowns were imminent early in the COVID-19 pandemic, university leadership first evaluated how a shutdown would affect students who might not have internet service at home, who might not have access to healthcare, or who might be experiencing food insecurity. After this evaluation, the university redesigned its residence halls to accommodate hundreds of students, so they could eat well and access remote class instruction reliably. Dormitories were rearranged to accommodate one person per room, mealtimes were staggered, and common areas were closed, so that students could maintain social distancing.

In addition, on-campus health scientists collaborated to set up testing facilities (in the basketball arena) and administer COVID-19 tests free of charge, supported by donor funding. The school’s safety service group worked with regional healthcare coordinators to monitor the progression of the virus, tracking the number of cases using a dashboard that was updated daily. The Academic Senate designed methods to continue instruction safely, and the Office of Research executed a detailed plan to keep research on the virus moving forward. Simultaneously, Student Health Services provided services and offered mental health support.  

Create a contingency plan—now. Whether in anticipation of the next hurricane season or the next pandemic, the time to create a contingency plan is now, long before the next disaster occurs. These plans should address communication, evacuation, and service restoration. They also should describe flexible policies to support the community after the university reopens.

Contingency plans should identify how university leaders will establish lines of communication before, during, and after a natural disaster.

Establish comprehensive communication protocols. These experiences highlighted the need for robust emergency communications. Contingency plans should identify how university leaders will establish lines of communication before, during, and after a natural disaster. Plans also should address how the business school will mitigate the impact its advisories have on students, faculty, and staff.

After the tornadoes in Alabama, for example, UAH implemented a comprehensive alert system that uses multiple contact methods to reach members of its community. This system has proven invaluable during subsequent incidents. Additionally, faculty now are required to have contingency plans in their syllabi, including recommended communication channels and points of contact in case of emergencies.

Have an emergency response team in place. As a result of Hurricane Ian, Covid-19, and Hurricane Irma, FGCU has honed the response of its Emergency Management Department. This department is now positioned to prepare the school to face any crises to come.

Remembering ‘The Human Factor’

As AACSB-member schools, we recognize the importance of contributing to our communities. However, when facing the aftermath of natural disasters, we need to incorporate “the human factor” into our responses by remaining as flexible as possible. We must extend kindness not only to our own faculty, staff, and students, but also to the larger community—to the first responders, businesspeople, and homeowners who might also have close connections to our institutions.

By reflecting on our institutional and individual responses to natural disasters, we contribute to a set of practices that will prepare our institutions to respond to crises in the years to come. Moreover, we amplify the capacity of our business schools for innovation, thought leadership, stakeholder engagement, and societal impact well into the future.
Jim B. Fatzinger
Visiting Associate Professor of Management, Martha and Spencer Love School of Business, Elon University; and Adjunct Professor of Business, Vanderbilt School of Engineering
Vivek Bhargava
Associate Dean, Lutgert College of Business, Florida Gulf Coast University
Wafa Orman
Associate Dean, College of Business, University of Alabama in Huntsville
Hanumantha Rao Unnava
Dean, Graduate School of Management, University of California–Davis
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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