President's Update

President's Update

— September 24, 2008

Dear Faculty, Staff and Students:

We are 10 days beyond Hurricane Ike and even though many of us continue to be without power and challenged by difficult situations, it is time to look in the rear view mirror.

The decision to open the University Tuesday, Sept. 16, has upset many. I am writing to acknowledge your messages and, in the spirit of transparency, answer two fundamental questions: how emergency decisions are made in general, and why this particular decision was made.

How emergency decisions are made in general

The University of Houston has two documents that guide our management of an emergency and the recovery afterward: the Emergency Management Plan and the Continuity of Business Plan. Both plans are monitored by an Emergency Management Committee consisting of 55 members from all walks of university life – plant operations, security, academic affairs, student affairs, research, advancement, deans, faculty, staff, and students. When an emergency occurs (or a critical situation arises like in the case of Ike), a small group of emergency management personnel called the Emergency Management Team (EMT) begins to meet to secure the campus and monitor the situation regularly.

The president is kept informed by the head of the EMT. When the situation reaches a level requiring the president's decision (such as opening and closing of the university), the group involves the president and presents a comprehensive assessment (including physical conditions, residence halls, academic operations, security, city conditions etc.). Based on these assessments and other external assessments as available, the president decides to open or close the campus.

Why the decision to open early was made

Since the ultimate decision to open or close the university rests solely with the president, I take full responsibility for making the call to open on Tuesday.

On Sunday evening, Sept. 14, the assessment from the team was generally positive -- the campus was functional (electricity was working and with the exception of the Architecture building, there was minimal structural damage), city and county staff were called in to work on Monday, and academic operations were declared to be ready to begin on Tuesday. Each member of the EMT gave his or her assessment based on the best information available to them at the time. I made the decision based on the best information available to me at the time.

We had three options in front us: (1) close the campus and force every one to stay out; (2) open the campus and force everyone to come in; and (3) open the campus and allow people to make individual choices based on personal situations but without fear of penalty. During our discussion today with the Faculty Senate, some suggested we should have opened the campus for "services only," but this option wasn't really available to us. Either the campus is functional and therefore ready to carry on its educational mission or it is not functional and should be closed. Universities that have kept their campus closed specifically declared it unsafe and forced people to stay out. Rice University, in an area with many large trees down, also opened that campus and held classes Tuesday. Some schools have, however, allowed faculty/staff to come in one day earlier than students to clean up and prepare for learning.

As you know, we opted for option 3.

I thought it was the best choice because it would allow people to come in to their Cougar home to attend classes, find air-conditioning, get their cell phones charged, use computers, get hot meals, help each other, and finally, to start to think about helping those who fared less well. Many messages were sent out letting students know of the no exam/relaxed attendance policy, as well as to encourage people to come to the campus only if they felt safe to do so.

We all know that the best thought-out plans do not always guarantee the expected results. What were the obstacles? Our preliminary analysis points to the following three areas:

  1. Our communications systems were not designed to adequately address a scenario where vast numbers of us had no power, and therefore, no access to email, limited cell phone functionality or access to TV news reports. We quickly learned that a message sent was not necessarily a message received. Televisions and radio were only offering brief three or four word messages on what was open/closed. Three-quarters of our faculty and staff members were not registered for emergency PIER text messaging. And the vast majority of us had no power to view the Web site. The result was that most people either had no information or had partial information. They knew the University was opening but did not know about the flexibility that they had.
  2. Our primary assumption did not hold up – people did not fully understand "individual flexibility" since we had never exercised it before under these circumstances. Staff members continued to call with questions about what we meant, and how they should log their leave time. Eighty-nine percent of the students surveyed in a class of 300-plus said they were worried about their exams and attendance.
  3. It became very difficult for professors and students to operationalize the intended "flexibility." Some did not have the tools to exercise it (professors did not have cell phone numbers of their students to inform them if they could not make the class), and others did not know what material they should or should not cover in class.

The end result was mixed: some felt frustrated and some felt comforted.

So, what was the right time to open the University? Even in the rear view mirror, it would be difficult to reach a consensus. Several veterans on managing hurricane emergencies that I consulted told me that "Anytime you have a complex research university with multiple groups (experimental researchers, lots of doctoral students, a significant number of residential students, and a vast number of students who commute) no matter what you do, half the people will be unhappy."

As I told everyone in our meeting today, I think the decision I made last week made 90 percent of the people unhappy!

During the next several weeks, my cabinet and I will continue to work with the deans, the Faculty Senate, the Staff Council, and the Student Government Association to receive feedback and suggestions to improve our processes and decision-making. It is important that we review and share the "lessons learned" from this experience. I will share that information with you in the coming weeks, and will continue to add suggestions to the list as we receive them.

I told the Faculty Senate today that in spite of the challenges Ike threw our way, I am happy to serve as your president and very proud to be a Cougar. We have all learned much during these past few weeks, including me. Thank you for your candid input and collegiality.

Renu Khator
President