The Pepperdine Protocol
Whether strategizing, closely monitoring, or actively responding to a threat to campus, Pepperdine’s Emergency Operations Committee leads with community at its core
While the final days of every year ask us to look back at where we’ve been, the close of 2019 compelled us to look ahead. On December 31 the world heard whispers about a previously unknown type of respiratory illness that was sending dozens of people in Wuhan, China, to the hospital. Less than two weeks later, as health authorities were treating the curious cases and monitoring the disease’s spread to determine its potential, Chinese state media reported the first known death from SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, and the rest of the world began to take notice.
“We didn’t know at that time the magnitude of the virus,” says Phil Phillips (’88, JD ’92), senior vice president for administration and chief operating officer of Pepperdine and the co-chair of the University’s Emergency Operations Committee (EOC). In a matter of hours in late January, the committee, composed of 15 members representing major areas around the University, convened to determine the fate of Seaver College students studying abroad in Shanghai, China.
“What if we brought them home and it turned out to be nothing? Did we make a decision in a moment of panic?” Phillips recalls wondering. “Our call had the potential to disappoint students and parents, and there was a lot hanging in the balance. But there were enough indications that this was going to be serious, and, with that in mind, we had to prioritize the safety of our students.” On January 28, the University announced it would bring students studying in Shanghai back to the United States—a decision made with the highest level of care for the student experience while keeping in mind the institutional perspective of the developing crisis. It ultimately came down to the need to act—fast. The regional illness that was quickly making headlines across the world was, minute by minute, becoming a pandemic that could have dire consequences for Pepperdine’s community of students, faculty, staff, and beyond.
Throughout February and the first half of March, more than 300 overseas students returned to their hometowns as the disease rates climbed across the globe. While many were glued to their screens for the latest developments, the EOC assembled to consider the steps it had to take to protect Pepperdine students studying at each of the University’s international campuses, one by one, until it became clear that the virus could threaten the safety of the Malibu community.
“You feel what it could be like to make a wrong decision in those moments,” says Phillips about the initial public feedback in response to the University’s announcements about campus closures. “One of the reasons why we are so successful in difficult scenarios is that we have people putting every bit of their energy and brain power into how we can do this in the very best way. We all know what Pepperdine is and what it needs to be when it comes out of this. Every decision we make is informed by who we are; the decisions may be hard, but they are always guided by our desire to do the right thing.”
Most organizations, whether large, multinational corporations or institutions with smaller populations, rely on an emergency operations body to consolidate decision-making in times of crisis. At Pepperdine, taking a proactive approach with scenario planning and protocol development has proven to be worthwhile, effective, and exemplary. In fact, it’s what sets the University apart and has ensured its safety during critical periods for decades.
Beyond studying and outlining historical perspectives that provide essential context for emergency scenarios, Pepperdine’s EOC, which draws from a multidisciplinary committee and team that includes diverse viewpoints and expertise, is dedicated to building relationships with local agencies to create a collaborative and cooperative environment during normal operations or times of crisis. For an event such as an active shooter on campus, the EOC works closely with leading psychologists to assess threats, learn about the individuals who commit such crimes, and assemble a team of experts to call on if needed. For pandemics, they collaborate with medical professionals in-house as well as infectious disease experts at partner institutions such as Cedars-Sinai and the University of California, Los Angeles.
While planning for wildfires, Pepperdine consults with the Los Angeles County Fire Department to review safety protocols, shelter-in-place plans and facilities, and land and fuel modifications on campus that create fire protection for structures. Pepperdine regularly invites the fire department to campus to provide courses on wildfires and share details of how these types of fires begin and how they are fought—critical information that helps the University determine the best course of action in case of emergency. During the Woolsey Fire in 2018, Phillips says, “Our plans were put to the ultimate test, and they proved to be excellent.”
Following the outcome of an actual event, the EOC conducts a thorough postmortem to create a matrix of what didn't go right, what feedback was received, and how the University can improve its processes for the next time. The secret to the EOC’s planning success is the mostly manual process of meticulously outlining different scenarios and customizing response plans to Pepperdine as they imagine their way through each event and flesh out the most minute details.
“It makes it real,” says Phillips. “It’s time consuming, and it takes a lot of energy to think through every step of the way, but we had an action plan for [the Woolsey Fire], and we did it over and over with different scenarios. Our response protocols are written 100 percent by Pepperdine for Pepperdine, and that makes a big difference.”
The Pepperdine Student Health Center (SHC) began tracking news accounts of the novel coronavirus in Wuhan, China, early in January 2020, about the same time that classes resumed on campus after winter break. As information about the spread of the virus in the Chinese province increased, the SHC began meeting regularly and working with other members of the Pepperdine Infectious Disease Task Force (IDTF) to monitor the outbreak and to assess risks to the campus and to international program students in Shanghai. At the same time the SHC began publicizing recommendations for any Pepperdine community members that had traveled from a high-risk area or had come in contact with someone who had traveled to a high-risk area to monitor themselves for symptoms and to call the center for a risk assessment.
“Generally, the SHC provides medical care for students, but not faculty or staff,” says Lucy Larson, the center’s medical director. “This process expanded our scope to include also assessing employees for risk factors.”
As the SHC began receiving a large volume of calls related to concerns about the virus or potential exposure to the virus, operations in January had already begun to be impacted, with nursing and medical staff making rotations to answer calls, assess risk, and follow up with Pepperdine community members. They also continued to provide students regular medical care.
At the same time, Larson, who typically divides her responsibilities between clinical and administrative duties, shifted almost entirely to administrative tasks. She met with SHC director Rebecca Roldan (’17, MS ’20) daily, and often more regularly, to review the University’s contagious disease protocols, evaluate the calls and assessments conducted by health center staff, and adjust screening protocols and SHC response based on the ever- changing information and recommendations of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“During this time, I was able to lean on my amazing team at the SHC to continue to provide our students with the ongoing medical care they needed while they also responded to the increasing number of phone calls, concerns, and risk-assessment screenings,” says Larson.
As the outbreak worsened, the IDTF folded into the larger EOC, tough decisions were made about the University’s international programs, and the potential impact on the campus community grew. While Larson does not have a regular role on the Emergency Operations Committee—the nature of an emergency may not always require medical oversight—the pandemic required a medical team to be at the forefront.
As the medical director of the SHC, Larson reviews with the committee the center’s preparations and needs and its capacity to respond to an emergency. As a physician, her role enables her to help explain the numerous medical aspects of the emergency, such as risk factors, risk-mitigation strategies, screenings, diagnosis, and treatment and to place news reports and medical reports in context, all while using her medical experience and master’s degree in public health to help the EOC see the broad picture and plan campus- wide response.
“The biggest challenge has been the truly novel nature of the virus,” Larson says. “There is much that we do not know, and information has changed rapidly. The newly recognized multisystem inflammatory syndrome that affects children and young adults and may show up weeks after the initial illness is an example of how what we thought we knew about the virus—that is, that it spared children—may not be entirely true. What we know now and what is happening now as it pertains to the virus in the community may be completely different in the fall.”
Beyond the widespread health implications of COVID-19, the University was faced with the uniqueness of a pandemic, an incident that the EOC had planned for with the emergence of H5N1 in the early 2000s, SARS in 2003, and H1N1 in 2009, but had never before experienced. While the EOC is prepared for nearly any eventuality and counts a pandemic response framework among the list of potentially catastrophic events that could impact the campus and University community, the COVID-19 pandemic was one they could have never prepared for. “When the coronavirus hit,” Phillips admits, “it was like nothing any of us had ever experienced.”
Pepperdine’s pandemic planning protocol didn’t quite exist before the early 2000s, when the threat of H5N1—also known as the bird flu—began to bubble up due to its unprecedented global spread. It was then, recalls Lauren Cosentino (’97, MBA ’12), vice president for campus operations and human resources, who worked side by side with Phillips to flesh out the steps of each potential scenario, that the EOC began to shift its attention to the emerging situation.
“Any time we got wind that something was starting to develop somewhere, and the World Health Organization began to watch it, we made sure we were observing it closely in case it developed and posed a threat to our community,” says Cosentino. “In 2008 we had robust plans for sewage disasters, hazmat spills, fires, and active shooters, among other crises, but we didn't have a strong pandemic plan.”
Part of Cosentino’s research at the time focused on the Spanish flu of 1918, how it developed, how it behaved in the body, why it killed mostly young people as opposed to the elderly, and how the University might respond if such a situation were to re-emerge.
In 2009 Pepperdine put its pandemic response protocol to the test when the swine flu—H1N1—threatened that year’s Pepperdine Bible Lectures, which was expecting a significant number of attendees and presenters from areas that had been hit the hardest by the virus. Pepperdine’s Student Health Center was not equipped to serve the guests, which included a mixed population of children and elderly. Luckily, the epidemic eventually waned.
“With other pandemic outbreaks, we did our due diligence to observe and monitor their progression,” Cosentino continues. “With COVID-19, this is the first pandemic we actually had to respond to.”
The uniqueness of pandemic planning and protocol execution, Cosentino explains, is a result of the boundlessness of the experience. For example, events such as earthquakes and other natural or structural disasters are, by nature, finite and have a clear beginning and an end. “With a well-defined timeline, it’s easier to determine the type of support, funding, and accommodations we can offer the community,” she says.
A pandemic also presents unique challenges for the University’s Human Resources department as Pepperdine prepares to welcome faculty and staff back to its campuses in the coming months. Cosentino and her team anticipate a surge of accommodation requests and concerns from University employees as they transition back to work and have carefully determined the best course of action for when faculty and staff return to campus.
These plans include supplying faculty and staff with personal protective equipment, answering emerging questions, and providing employees with comfortable workspaces, along with preparing supervisors with the resources they need to get their jobs done and educating them on the developing issues that may require additional resources.
“Pandemics inherently create fear and anxiety,” Cosentino says, “and when we think about those who are compromised health wise, we have to determine if they can do their work, assess how we can help them do their work, and evaluate the types of resources that are available to them. It all comes down to clearing pathways of communication and listening to what our community needs.”
In Timothy Coombs’ multivolume reference book Crisis Communication, the author distills the concept down to two strategies: managing information (collecting and disseminating crisis-related information) and managing meaning (influencing how people perceive a crisis or the organization involved in a crisis). The nuances of Pepperdine’s crisis response strategy, while based on the foundational elements of strategic communication, are, unsurprisingly, rooted in the University’s mission.
“The real secret to effective communication of any type is to always tell the truth, to always be transparent, and to always be a trustworthy voice,” says Rick Gibson (MBA '09, PKE 121), chief marketing officer and vice president for public affairs and church relations. “On the other side of that, it’s to know the truth of the people you’re talking to. It’s not enough to know something about our audience. It’s more important than ever to actually know who they are, know their name, know their major, know the clubs they belong to, and know what they’re interested in. As an institution it’s important to truly become personal with them. That will help us deliver the most relevant information in the timeliest manner possible that is still consistent and trustworthy.”
Gibson maintains that communication builds a sense of community, as it both invites feedback and starts a conversation. For example, sharing frequently updated institutional messaging on Pepperdine’s official social media channels in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic invited members of the community near and far to address their concerns, ask questions, and offer support to others. Community sentiment was monitored by the University’s communications team and evaluated to understand what mattered most to those who were engaging with the posts. Understanding the community’s issues and needs in real time, Gibson explains, allows the EOC to learn from its own community and gather information that could be useful to the committee.
“These platforms are designed not only for criticism or complaints, but for engaging, understanding, and getting a real sense of how the members of our community feel, whether they are fearful, hurt, or uninformed,” he says. “If the administration can be informed through these platforms, then it can make decisions that will resonate with our community and demonstrate a respect and an understanding of its needs.”
According to Gibson, the need for communication increases depending on the proximity and urgency of the matter. However, different crises require different types of messaging.
“One-size-fits-all messaging is hard,” he says, explaining that while certain types of communications are aimed at parents, some are aimed at undergraduate students aged 18 to 22, and others at graduate students who are working adults. This reality poses challenges when delivering information in a consistent voice that is meant to be useful to a wide variety of people.
“Because of COVID-19’s widespread impact, we see that we can’t really overcommunicate,” Gibson continues. “The demand that we’re seeing and the advice we’re getting from outside sources prove that. People want information that’s relevant to them, and that’s the challenge with making sure we deliver a consistent message.”
Whether releasing timely administrative announcements or making decisions that could change the landscape of the Pepperdine experience, the EOC as a team is guided by the diversity of opinion, the knowledge of trusted experts, and a commitment to transparency. While critical during times of crisis, these values are embedded in the daily decision- making that goes on at the University and reflects Pepperdine’s commitment to the highest ideals of the Christian faith that encourage its leadership to always act in the best interest of its community. With those standards at the forefront, Gibson says Pepperdine is able to have the kinds of conversations the world desperately needs and connect with those who have a stake in the well-being of the University.
“Pepperdine is all about a really big idea,” Gibson says. “To be heard in times of crisis, we as a University need to also be transparent in our communications when we talk about faith, science, history, education, law, and business. If we’re known as truth tellers when ideas are at stake, we’ll also be accepted as truth tellers when lives are at stake.”