President, Missouri State University
Managing people, data and personalities became an integral part of Clif Smart’s work during the COVID-19 pandemic. As president of Missouri State University, Smart worked to lead the organization through waves of the pandemic by emphasizing the importance of transparency and data-driven decisions — while recognizing other key elements that factor into the success of the university and its students, faculty and staff.
On looking at the bigger picture
“You’ve got to remain flexible and you’ve got to preserve your options until you have to make a choice because it has been very unpredictable. I think the other thing: For many of us, it’s more than just protecting your health. We, in our country, need business to continue, we want entertainment to continue, we need to have meaningful engagement with people to have a life worth living, we need to continue to be able to go to concerts and churches and gather with friends and family. Absent something like the bubonic plague coming through, I think you can’t just make decisions based on a pandemic. I think you have to have a bigger framework.
On the importance of creating trust
“You have to communicate 10 times more than you think you do, and 20 times more than you do regularly. That’s reassuring to people. And the other piece is if you’re not telling them, and if you’re not soliciting input, and you’re not giving them a framework, then they’ll create one on their own.”
On waiting to make the right decision
“Don’t make decisions until you know for certain, which is not typically Leadership 101. This last year, for example: In October, we took the mask requirement off except in classrooms and clinics and a few other places. We were thinking that at the end of the semester, it would go off completely. But we said there’s no point in making that decision until we’re four days before school. Well, by then we’d had an omicron surge, and so thank goodness we hadn’t made that decision. We wanted people, to the extent that they can in the world in which we now live, to be able to rely upon things that we said.
“I think the combination of not having to reverse decisions, and widely soliciting input — in a lot of those town halls, we did surveys, ‘Take out your phone, and answer this question,’ — and getting input, sharing information as broadly as we can, meeting with any group that we wanted to meet with, the combination of communicating times 10, plus not having to remake decisions, helped people gain confidence in us. And so, when we said, ‘We think it’s time to end the mask requirement,’ I didn’t get a single employee email telling me that I was a Nazi. I think we had developed people having confidence that we’re going to make right decisions at the right time based on data.”
On the importance of coordination
“Try to not be on an island by yourself. When we rolled our mask requirements off, we coordinated so that Drury and OTC did it on the very same day, and we announced it at the very same time. Because again, then people know, ‘OK, they’ve coordinated this; they’re thinking about this.’ And we were able to say, ‘The Springfield-Greene County Health Department has told us this would be appropriate now.’ You’re letting people know that we’re not just shooting in the dark — we didn’t just get tired of this, but that we’ve been working on this.”