Two years after the early days of the COVID-19 crisis, a case study examines the successful response and leadership role of the university related to vaccination and the safety of faculty, staff and students

Rutgers leaders took steps over the past two years that resulted in the university maintaining one of the lowest COVID-19 positivity rates in the country, despite New Jersey and New York being at the epicenter of multiple waves of the pandemic in the United States.

The quick action by the Rutgers response team, formed to address issues surrounding the pandemic, led to the university becoming the first in the United States to require COVID-19 vaccinations for its students, a policy that gained national attention and was highlighted in a recently published case study on Rutgers’ management of the pandemic.

As the pandemic moves into the third year, the study authored by Rutgers top leadership, including Brian Strom, chancellor of Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences (RBHS) and executive vice president for health affairs, Vicente Gracias, senior vice chancellor for clinical affairs and vice president of health affairs and Antonio Calcado, executive vice president and chief operating officer, lays out how the university moved swiftly to leverage its internal expertise and resources across multiple departments to develop a comprehensive universitywide plan.

“This study is especially timely at the two-year anniversary of when schools closed because it demonstrates the effectiveness of our commitment to the health and safety for all members of our community,’’ said Rutgers President Jonathan Holloway. “It highlights our key values of supporting those at the university, promoting resilience and bolstering a sense of community, and it can be a guide for other universities and large organizations in the future.”

Published in The Electronic Journal of Knowledge Management, the case study demonstrates the role institutions of higher education can play in addressing significant national and community issues when they collaborate and leverage their diverse expertise and intellectual resources.

In February 2020, before the virus began to sweep through the nation, Rutgers assembled 14 teams—led by an executive leadership group consisting of then-university President Robert L. Barchi, the university’s four chancellors and Calcado—to align clinical and operational guidance across all campuses and monitor U.S. and global health recommendations.

The university’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC) formed a COVID Task Force, which monitored developments and guided the university’s early response, including canceling study abroad programs, depopulating the campuses and expediting virtual graduations of clinical students to provide care in the state’s overwhelmed hospitals.

“Rutgers was well-positioned to address the demands of the pandemic as it evolved,” said Strom. “Our RBHS division, which includes two medical schools as well as schools of public health, nursing and pharmacy, already had a history of working together to provide interdisciplinary leadership and expertise. This infrastructure allowed us to collaborate and quickly address each issue the pandemic presented.”

To inform the Rutgers community as state and national guidance was evolving, Rutgers created a comprehensive Return to Rutgers document, hosted town halls, conducted surveys and led weekly health reporting and guidance webinars. This communication was especially notable due to Rutgers’ size and variety of population: Its campuses and satellite facilities, located across the state, house 28,000 faculty and staff, more than 66,000 students and more than 1,300 health care professionals who comprise Rutgers Health, the clinical care division of RBHS.

This use of customized messaging and multiple media was essential as Rutgers maintained a primarily remote fall 2020 semester and, with expanded testing and contact tracing, increased on-campus student presence in spring 2021.

In March 2021, Rutgers led the nation by announcing a vaccine requirement for students. Rutgers administrators worked with a multi-disciplinary team composed of health, student, legal, operations, communications, human resources, along with labor and information technology, representatives. The team rolled out and monitored vaccination rates and created tailored messaging to a range of audiences, including domestic and international students, faculty and staff—all with varying vaccination status.

“Rutgers has incredible expertise and we put that knowledge and people power to use. Our researchers tackled mitigation and treatment while our administrators, staff and students mobilized to support clinical care, keep the communities we serve safe while maintaining our academic programing,” said Gracias. “We were transparent and comprehensive with our communications outreach, this quelled confusion and fear throughout this precedent-setting response.”

Decisions were guided by core values set in place by Holloway, who started in July 2020. Those values were the health and safety of students, faculty and staff; acting in accordance with the guidance provided by science and the medical community; and timely and flexible decision-making to provide as much opportunity for students, faculty and staff to plan and prepare.

“A sustained crisis of this magnitude required constant adjustment to our plans and coordination among all of our groups so that we could continue our academic, scientific, patient and business practices while never losing sight of our students, especially in returning their college experience to them,” said Calcado. “I am proud of our team leads who flawlessly guided the university through this process and deserve all the credit for our success.”

The results have been impressive: For the fall 2021 semester, the university de-registered only 60 students out of 64,636 and its rates of disease have been consistently far below that of the region.

“This case study highlights an impressive collaborative and community-engaged effort by the university. Guided by clear values and the expertise of leaders from across the university, Rutgers was able to provide impressive leadership for our own institution and the nation relative to vaccination and other COVID-related health policies,” said coauthor Brent D. Ruben, Distinguished Professor of communication and founder and senior fellow at the Center for Organizational Leadership.

“Our response provides a striking example of what higher education faculty, staff and students can accomplish in a very short period of time when circumstances demand it,” he said. “As difficult as this time has been in so many ways, the case is a reminder that this has also been a period in which our institution can take considerable pride.’’