Haynie Taps Into Entrepreneurial Background to Manage COVID-19 on Campus

photos of Mike Hayne

Haynie Taps Into Entrepreneurial Background to Manage COVID-19 on Campus

Mike Haynie holds many titles at Syracuse University: Barnes Professor of Entrepreneurship at the Whitman School, executive director of the Institute of Veterans and Military Families and, what might be the most challenging of his career, vice chancellor for strategic initiatives and innovation.

It is as vice chancellor that he has been charged with leading the Syracuse University public health team through the pandemic since early 2020. During these challenging times, his entrepreneurial background has played a significant role in how he approaches each new obstacle or decision.

“As an entrepreneurial professor and researcher, you make decisions in uncertain environments all the time,” Haynie explains. “Entrepreneurship and managing the COVID-19 crisis are similar in that it’s about reacting to uncertainty and identifying what matters in a challenging environment. Making decisions in the context of entrepreneurship has served me well.”

After a 14-year career in the Air Force, which included earning a Ph.D. in entrepreneurship from the University of Colorado Boulder and teaching at the U.S. Air Force Academy, he decided to leave the military and enter the academic job market—including applying for an opening at the Whitman School. He actually tried to cancel his interview, as he had all but accepted a job at another university, but the chair of the EEE Department at the time was adamant that Haynie come to campus. He did and was immediately struck by the entrepreneurial environment, particularly the idea of the Capstone experience as a business ownership class.

“I just thought it was so innovative and such a great way to tie an entire business education together for students, so I changed my mind and accepted the job on the spot,” he said. “Fifteen years later, here I am.”

That same Capstone class is what also helps keep him going today, despite the responsibilities he has taken on as vice chancellor. “Last spring, when we thought vaccines were here and COVID-19 was over, I had had a hard year,” he says. “I hadn’t taught a class in over three years because of administrative duties, so I approached the chancellor about teaching one section of the Capstone class at Whitman. I needed some joy! I needed to recharge with something that I’m passionate about.”

Covid sign on campus

Syracuse University Chancellor Kent Syverud agreed—but then COVID-19 came back. Still, true to his commitment, Haynie can be found at the Whitman School each Monday and Wednesday at 8 a.m. this fall teaching 40 undergraduates in his Capstone class. “It complicates my life a little bit, but it’s the part of my day that I’m most happy about,” he says.

He can’t help but share with his students how his own entrepreneurial experiences have helped him lead through COVID-19. “A big part of my research is entrepreneurial decision-making,” he says. “When we first faced COVID-19, there was a bit of ‘But, we’ve always done it this way’—from housing assignments to registration to managing student activities. Although the world was crashing down on us, I knew that we, as a university, couldn’t hold on so tightly to the status quo.”

While Haynie did look at what other colleges and universities were planning in response to COVID-19, he says the University “didn’t get locked into simply doing what everyone else was doing.” Instead, the entrepreneur in him, along with his team, found solutions that worked best for the specific circumstances on the Syracuse University campus. In response, many leaders of some very prestigious universities called both Syverud and Haynie asking for their advice.

“Entrepreneurship isn’t about being a sheep; it’s about being the shepherd,” he explains. “We quickly assembled a team of epidemiologists, public health experts and faculty, and I said, ‘Explain it to me like I’m a fourth grader.’ This helped me make decisions based on what was right for Syracuse University, even if other schools weren’t doing the same.”

Haynie admits that COVID-19 is probably not going to disappear anytime soon; his entrepreneurial background pushes him to continue asking questions and seeking out solutions, while balancing the physical and mental health and wellness of the campus community to make sure that education continues. He is still optimistic. Spoken like a true entrepreneur and military veteran, Haynie says, “We have taken all the reasonable steps we can for the safety and well-being of our campus without shutting our doors and saying, ‘This is too hard.’ And we’re going to continue to operate that way.”