Facing and managing uncertainty. The best practice of the University of Bologna

Marcello Russo April 5, 2022 3 min read


Business school students have always aspired to a management position. It’s one of the main yearnings when they begin a university master’s program. BBS is no different from other business schools in this respect.

Have the events related to the outbreak of the 2020 pandemic generated any changes in students’ attitudes? It’s possible that many, in light of the Covid-19-related crisis, have said to themselves, more or less seriously, “Thank goodness I’m not the head of a company right now.” Complex decisions between the need to ensure the health and safety of workers and the survival of the business, endless meetings often held in the evenings or on weekends to implement the provisions of the various decrees issued with just a few hours’ notice, reinventing remote working, redefining internal rules and procedures, revising budgets in light of the pressing economic crisis: these are just some of the managerial responsibilities that have become real hot potatoes to be managed from 2020 onwards.

Many studies have been conducted on business cases in the Covid-19 era but managing the pandemic at a university institution requires a different perspective.

In addition to all the issues faced by businesses, the rector of the University of Bologna, Francesco Ubertini, who was in charge of a community of over 80 thousand people including students, faculty, and staff, also had another unavoidable challenge to manage: “Preventing the University of Bologna from stopping its classes! It never happened even during the world wars.”

At BBS, students have the opportunity, with two cases on “Leading a University in the Midst of a Pandemic,” to step into the shoes of the University’s Rector and the members who made up the pandemic response task force, to relive the difficult weeks that changed our lives, but also allowed UNIBO to be mentioned (by Microsoft’s CEO) as a best practice for its ability to effectively manage the online transition of over 220 degree programs in less than three weeks. Indeed, while the goal was to accomplish this in four weeks, 60% were already online after the first week. The size of the University (over 87,000 students, more than 5,000 faculty and staff, 5 campuses) added a further element of complexity.

Looking back over the stages of the development of the pandemic and the response of the authorities and outlining various possible scenarios while the situation was still in flux, one sees how the university’s top management had to keep in mind three objectives that at times were not easy to reconcile with each other: the continuity of activities, the compliance with health protocols and the involvement of all staff and students.

If there is a test, but perhaps in this case we should say a real trial by fire, of leadership skills, there has probably been nothing more extreme than the Covid emergency. The first two questions to be asked are what skills are most appropriate in a crisis and whether a range of leadership styles and talents and a mix of hard and soft skills are needed. In this regard, for example, Rector Ubertini showed the ability to act in an “authoritarian” way, setting in motion the emergency protocol that allows for the concentration of power in the rector’s hands and in the hands of the restricted task force appointed ad hoc for the most urgent decisions, but also with a “dialoguing” style to involve both employees (faculty and staff) and “clients” (students) as much as possible in the next steps. The students’ representatives themselves described this dialogue as “fruitful”, as it resulted in the immediate distribution of 11,000 prepaid cards for online connections and the increase in resources for the provision of psychological support.

Two further issues that the pandemic highlighted are the possibility for a large bureaucratic organization to adopt agile methodologies and the influence of the external environment (and circumstances beyond control) on the functioning of an organization. From this point of view, the rector himself stressed the importance of being prepared for emergencies, however unlikely they may seem: in the case of the University of Bologna, for example, the IT department had already been working for 5 years on some of the circumstances that later occurred with the pandemic. Among other things, some of the tools used in hybrid teaching were already in use at the university before the Covid emergency.

The main conclusion, certainly applicable to other settings in the corporate world as well, is that the ability of a complex organization to deal with and manage uncertainty, of which the Covid crisis is an extreme example, is crucial for success in today’s world.

This article is based on
Leading a University in the Midst of a Pandemic (A): “Difficult Decisions” - Leading a University in the Midst of a Pandemic: “A Fruitful Dialogue” (B) | Case Study: Reference no. 420-0144-1 | Case Study: Reference no. 420-0144-1B | Teaching Note: Reference no. 420-0144-8
Marcello Russo