Hope, Resilience

Lift Up Your Head

For those who know me, the reference of this title will be obvious. For those who don’t, well, I always have lyrics in my head. This one is from “Suddenly, Seymour” in Little Shop of Horrors. The rest of the verse ends with “I know things were bad, but now they’re ok.” These words have been running through my head today because I did take a moment to look up, and even if things aren’t quite ok, there is room for hope and inspiration.

You see the students are here. At our university, it is particularly exciting to see them here on a Friday. Like so many campuses, students often try to duck out for the weekend, or schedule their work hours on the weekends so they can attend to their studies the rest of the week. But it is Friday before Labor Day, and our quad is full of activity. We have a lovely, newly renovated Student Center, that has set the stage. It has a much-improved dining area (actually, kind of spectacular), a coffee shop and lots of seats for hanging around. I can’t wait for winter when the fireplace in the lounge is on. They’ll have to shoo me away.

But it is too nice to stay inside, and the Student Center completes the quad with Haas Library on one side (also filled with great spaces to hang out), Higgins Hall on the other. Higgins was renovated just a few years ago, with outdoor seating and indoor gathering spaces – all part of a design principle that is meant to encourage interactions everywhere. In the middle is the quad, a green space to just enjoy the sunshine. There are students playing cornhole, students listening to music, students chatting. It feels good.

I’m glad I lifted up my head to look around. Mired in spreadsheets filled with worries all morning, my afternoon stroll brought a wave of optimism. I am so encouraged that we’ve seen growth in our first-year class. We’re opening new programs this fall that I am confident will be exciting for our students. We have reorganized departments and schools to create stronger identities for each and to encourage partnerships that will cultivate more curricular change and interdisciplinary collaboration. We have a new Dean of Student Success and Engagement, a new approach to the First Year Experience, and we are piloting a new approach to math, that I think will have a positive impact on student success. That’s a lot of new, and there is more to come. It is exciting.

As I think of all of those new things, I realize just how fast we are moving at WCSU. We are not waiting for magical solutions to the demographic changes that are pervasive in New England; we are transforming ourselves. Indeed, sometimes I can’t keep up. As provost, I am responsible for reviewing all curricular change and shepherding new degree proposals through external review processes. With so many in the last year, and several more anticipated this year, it is easy to lose track of all the i-s and t-s that need to be dotted. For the first time ever, I’ve had to ask my trusted assistant (partner, really) to create a spreadsheet for me to keep track of everything. What a great problem to have!

And even as I write this, I am simultaneously preparing for a meeting to find funding to enhance spaces for student support and spaces for faculty research and collaboration. It’s a bit of a mind flip (oops, switched to Rocky Horror), but these mental gymnastics are the fun of this work. It is about imagining a brighter, stronger, exciting future. Thank goodness for the opportunity to do so.

Here’s the thing, we still have problems to solve. The spreadsheets are still a mire. Demographics are still scary. Budgets are still daunting. But as I look at all the work we have done, I am starting to see a path forward. It is in our innovative spirit – something that never gets enough credit in higher education. It is true that our core ideas have long histories, and we have deep commitments to tradition, but our actions are nothing less than breathtakingly inventive. New courses, revised courses, new approaches to teaching, new research, new texts, no texts, and when someone lets us, whole new visions for the future.

Let’s lift up our heads and see it together.

Welcome back, everyone.

Community, Hope

Turning off Fight or Flight

This morning I woke up thinking about the coming spring. I know we’ll have more snow, and I don’t dislike winter, but days are already lengthening, birds are chirping, and I can’t help but feel my spirits lifting. Born and raised in the northeast, I’m especially attuned to the changing seasons, feeling each one with joyous anticipation and embracing the patterns of life they bring. Spring means more outdoors, which I love; it also means the mad dash from midterms to commencement, which is also exhilarating. These are happy days, indeed.

Then it dawned on me that it was at this time three years ago that we got our first glimpse of the pandemic. It was late February 2020, when I was contacted regarding our students abroad and whether they should come home (they did). Shortly thereafter, we had to cancel the spring break trips of our athletes (trips where they launch their season), which was a precursor to the lost seasons to follow. Then going home for spring break turned into going remote for the rest of the semester, with students and faculty tossed into the deep end of online education, and the rest of us trying to figure out how to run everything else remotely. We pivoted to emergency conditions that lasted for way too long.

Like everyone in leadership roles, I felt a heavy responsibility in a cloud of uncertainty. The ongoing work of making decisions that focused on safety and preserving learning was high stress, high energy, and continuous. It was an endless feeling of urgency, fueled by adrenaline and sleepless nights. I was not unique in feeling that stress: every single person in this community was in a constant state of uncertainty, anxiety, and fear. We were fighting for our lives and livelihoods. There were moments of creativity, invention, and even excitement as we made things work, but we were in a state of high alert in the face of danger.

And it didn’t end with that moment when we finally felt we could take off our masks and get back to something more like normal education. The fallout from COVID-19 is still a big part of our lives. Everyone is navigating enrollment impacts that will be with us for several more years, which impacts budgets, and our ability to plan for a better future.

This seemingly endless period of stress has got me thinking that we have all been in an extended state of fight or flight. In very real terms the pandemic triggered responses that were built on a fear so deep we were fighting for our survival. Some of us fled, leaving our careers or at least opting to continue working remotely long after others had returned to campus. People caring for children, sick relatives, or protecting their own health found it hard to transition back to pre-COVID life, and rightfully so. Others resolved to move forward, testing their faith in the recommended precautions as they went into grocery stores, classrooms, or took public transportation. All of us were afraid. We drew on the protections we could muster, tamping down our fear and sometimes succumbing to it, just trying to move forward. No wonder we have been so exhausted.

Our capacity to draw on our survival mechanisms is important, and it helped us get through the worst of the pandemic but staying in that mindset (and the physiological impacts that come along with it), is a terrible long-term strategy. It is bad for health (physical and mental) and eventually traps us in a cycle of behaviors that are only reactive. But moving forward requires us to be thoughtful planners, not emergency responders. For our health and our future, it is time to let that fight or flight mindset go.

As I bask in the happiness that the promise of spring always brings out in me, I am thinking about all of the ways this letting go can improve my work. I am no longer thinking about how to respond to external forces – at least not as a primary motivator. I am thinking about the factors that help create a thriving university. I am thinking about better strategies to support our students’ health and wellness and how to set them up for success. I am thinking about creating environments where faculty routinely exchange ideas about teaching and scholarship and find ways to collaborate on both. I am thinking about how to disrupt the separations between academic and student affairs, so that much more co-planning with shared visions can take place. Oh, how exciting! All of these thoughts have next steps — some mysterious, others obvious — but they are things to do that aren’t a response, but a chance for a plan.

Yes, the daylight is growing, and my heart is full. I am no longer preparing for attacks and disasters. That perspective has outlived its usefulness. Instead I am reveling in the fun that comes with imagining a brighter future. My mind is filled with ideas and I can’t wait to start new conversations with my colleagues about what could come next. It is not spring yet, but I’m there already and it is glorious.



I had the most delightful weekend. It started with playing music with friends and ended with attending a talk by Dr. Eli Noam titled, The Future of Video Media and the Metaverse. In the center was a truly outstanding production of Allegro, in our School of Visual and Performing Arts (if you’re nearby, go), a fun event in our art gallery which brought in lots of regional artists, and a special accepted students event for students from our local high schools. As I bask in the glow of a weekend well spent, I am struck by the through line of all of this: it is hope.

We talk a lot about the purposes of higher education. It is a path to enlightenment and lifelong learning. It is an on ramp for careers. It is an essential equity strategy for the nation. It is a place for young people to transition from late adolescence to adulthood. It is the place where we pursue questions to help us understand our contexts, illuminate and solve social or technical problems, experiment with form and genre, and, when we’re really lucky, simply play with ideas. All of these things matter. All of them are the essence of higher education.

But, as I moved through this wonderfully rich weekend, I came to understand that what we are doing when we engage in these questions, creations, and ideas, is allowing ourselves to have hope. Indeed, higher education, all education really, is the purest expression of hope that there is. How wonderful.

In a world where the news about higher education is filled with crises both financial and political, it is hard to move from the difficult details of managing our work, to the bigger picture question of our purposes. As provost, I am charged with continuously reflecting on the outcomes of the educational experience, focusing on equity, quality, and the impact of the opportunities we hope our students seize. Faculty are focused on trying to engage students in the topics they hold dear, reflecting on their teaching and puzzling over how to inspire their classes to go ahead and struggle with the material at hand. Those working in the areas of academic support (tutoring, advising, mentoring, financial aid, and the registrar) are paying attention to those processes that are helping and those that are blocking our students from succeeding in their college experiences. Our library keeps pivoting, trying to connect our students to the campus, so do our Centers for Student Involvement, Career Success, the Office of InterCultural Affairs, and Athletics. Our efforts are continuous as we reach out, trying to draw our students in.

All of this matters. All of it is necessary. We must constantly examine results and work to get better. We must be reflective educators, looking for new opportunities to make all students feel welcome, supported, and able to succeed. I think we do this by nature, even if sometimes our efforts are dispersed or not fully seen by our colleagues. But as I think about the notion of hope as the heart of what we do, I wonder if we need to make a little more room to acknowledge the things we are all hoping for when we cross that threshold to the university.

Applying to college is scary, exciting, financially daunting, and fraught with uncertainty. For our traditional aged students, it is a step encouraged by guidance counselors, parents, and peers. It is the stuff of movies and television programs, offering an option for what to do after high school. Students may take this step because it is expected or because they don’t know what else to do, but when they do, they are hoping for something wonderful to happen.

Returning to college after a gap, whether because one’s first try didn’t go well or because a person wanted or needed to do something else first, is also daunting. Adult learners worry about the money, to be sure, but they are more worried about whether they remember how to be students, whether they will be able to keep up, and even whether or not they will find a way to fit into a space that is largely designed for those coming straight out of high school. But they are also filled with hope. They are taking this step because they are hoping for something more – a new opportunity, a new sense of self, a new view of the world.

Those of us who have chosen careers in higher education are brimming with hope. We hope to keep learning and to help others share our joy in the ideas we hold dear. We hope that our own efforts will make a difference in the world – whether as scholars or as teachers and mentors. We hope that somehow, we will move forward challenging conversations, impossible research questions, and inspire ourselves and our students to imagine and pursue new acts of creativity in all of its forms. In the face of the myriad challenges and sometimes disheartening evidence that our efforts may have failed, we bravely and optimistically start each term, and often each day, with a sense of hope and wonder.

We are a lucky group. Our lives are shaped by a deep faith in the possibilities that education creates. We are charged with guiding others as they uncover their hopes and dreams and open their eyes to possibilities. Sometimes we see the results of our efforts plainly, in the performances, projects, and culminating experiences that mark the ends of things. We also see them in small wins everywhere — like when a student finally grasps a concept they’ve struggled with, or when one who is pondering leaving connects with their advisor and decides to stay. Through each of these steps our students are transformed and so are we. Their questions, triumphs, and challenges bring new understandings of the world; they bring new understandings of ourselves. I cannot imagine anything more wonderful.

Education are the deepest expression of hope a culture can muster. It signals a firm belief that things can get better, that problems can be solved, that ideas are meaningful things, and that we all have the capacity to grow. It is a place of constant reinvention and discovery, and a path to discontentment and contentment all at once. What an exciting and optimistic journey! I hope you can feel it, too.

Design, Engagement, Reflection

Lifelong Learning

One of the central goals of higher education is to prepare students for lifelong learning. It flows from our commitment to some essential skills and tools. We all want our students to be capable communicators, competent decoders of information in multiple forms (quantitative, qualitative), and sensitive to cultural and historical contexts in which ideas and facts (so far) are developed. These abilities will allow graduates to navigate changing circumstances, make important decisions with appropriate evidence, and cultivate habits of mind that help them evaluate ideas, situations, and actions thoughtfully.

These are goals that flow from the ways in which we try to balance the general education curriculum, the work in the major, and any number of applied learning activities that we promote to our students. This kind of lifelong learning is a core value for all of higher education, and it is an important one. But there is another part of lifelong learning that might benefit from a little more thought. This kind of lifelong learning lives in the co-curricular experiences we build on our campuses.

Universities differ in the kinds of co-curricular experiences they develop, largely as a result of their context. A primarily residential campus in a rural location will need to provide many more activities to occupy the out of classroom hours than a residential campus in a vibrant urban setting. A primarily commuter campus will need to think about ways to weave students together outside of class time in ways that a primarily residential campus does not. On campuses where students are juggling significant external responsibilities (jobs, families), the co-curricular has to be meaningful enough to convince students to stay or return to campus and convenient enough for them to do so. We haven’t even gotten to the question of what might be interesting to students.

There’s a lot to think about here. One of the biggest issues for many campuses right now, including WCSU, is that our students have such divergent needs that designing for all of them seems almost impossible. Nevertheless, we are thinking things through because it is very clear that the co-curricular experiences have the capacity to enhance learning, connect students to each other and to networks of alumni who may support them after graduation, and they provide an opportunity to see the learning in the classroom in the many contexts in which the ideas may apply. It is these connections that will help our students expand their habit of asking questions from the classroom to multiple contexts, exploring divergent ideas, and perhaps pursuing more education.

But even when we develop activities, clubs, etc. that are designed to support students at different points in their education with experiences that are meaningful in that moment, we run into the biggest wall of all – time. Between course schedules that leave no open times for co-curricular engagement and the actual demands of keeping up with five classes per semester, we really signal to students that the things outside of class are a nice, but not an essential part of the educational experience. Add work and family to the mix, and the co-curricular becomes an occasional thing at best. Don’t get me wrong, there are students who figure out the juggle and participate fully, but it is a lot to ask and for many it is just too much.

The more I think about it, the more I wonder if these time constraints are undermining our lifelong learning goal. When we don’t make room for discovering connections between the classroom and everything outside of it, are we communicating that curriculum is something separate from life? Are we saying, focus on this, get through it, and then you’re done? I think we might be and this is the opposite of preparing for lifelong learning.

At WCSU we’re having some good conversations about how to better meet the co-curricular needs of our diverse student body. With students just out of high school, residential and non-residential students, students who are returning to education after a brief or long hiatus, students who are changing course and coming back for new degrees, and graduate students working and pursuing that next degree, this is a big puzzle. Still, the conversations are exciting and I hope they grow and lead to some great ideas. At the very least, I hope they help us plan together in productive ways.

But I think that the time constraints are a barrier that needs a deeper dive. For many years I have thought that higher education has trended toward courses that are over built (too many assignments without enough time for reflection) and majors that are over built (too many credits in the major without enough time to explore other disciplines). Add to this the endless financial demands and other responsibilities that so many students face, and it is clear that these conditions are undermining our ability to create holistic educational environments.

But it is the holistic that we need to guard closely if we truly care about lifelong learning. The holistic helps connect the dots, creates the opportunity for synthesis and transformation, and opens up students to experiences that might lead them to new questions in and out of the classroom. So, as my colleagues think about the kinds of activities and experiences we should develop, I am spending more time looking at how we are organizing our time (read schedule grids and learning outcomes), and wondering if we might find something a little more bold to do. Something that makes room for students to develop not just the skills for lifelong learning, but the habit of seeking it out as a way of life.

Dialogue, Engagement

Community Hour

Last week I spent the morning with a group of colleagues, mostly from outside of academic affairs. I had reached out to folks in academic advising, student affairs, admissions, athletics, and career services (they’ve just moved to academic affairs) to help me think about how we might weave together some shared goals. There were just a few faculty members and the academic deans for this conversation, mostly because I wanted to expand my thinking and I needed this group’s help with this. The discussion prompts were essentially, 1. How do your areas align with the university learning outcomes, and 2. How might we work together to build an organized plan to achieve those goals with contributions from all areas of the university? The conversation did not disappoint.

Much of this conversation happened without my participation. I left for another meeting and returned to check in after about ninety minutes. I had thought to regroup, but they were still busy discussing the ideas at hand, so I waited for the final report out at the end. There were lots of important observations about how communication occurs with our students and with each other, how we do or do not connect across areas, and, of course, that we should revise those newly approved university learning outcomes. Like emerging observations in our NECHE accreditation report (being overseen by a different group), there was a keen interest in revising our mission. Interestingly, the drivers for why it should be revised were very different. That was a great “aha” for me. Then the folks in the room asked to meet again. For three hours again! And perhaps continuing on a regular basis for the rest of the term.

As the folks in the room continued to talk, I agreed to schedule the next meeting and suggested that I would add a few more representatives from the faculty. This led me to a bigger puzzle, how do I foster these conversations everywhere? I have a meeting with department chairs this week and we will engage a piece of what this group did last week. The Steering Committee for our NECHE report will be meeting in another week and I hope that they will help to facilitate related conversations as we bring our report out for comment. Our University Senate meets next week, and I will provide updates on new programs, our accreditation report, and I will start a conversation about mission. These are the normal steps, moving through governance meetings, divisional meetings, and so on. These practices allow me to start conversations and try to keep folks in the loop, but they don’t always (often) lead to continued action or engagement.

At some point we are likely to decide to have a retreat, which is great for some of this work, but I’m not sure it really gets us to the heart of what we really need. Having run many retreats over the years, in good times and tough times, they don’t seem to foster the intended inclusivity that they are designed to create. No matter how many ways I try to cluster people in smaller and larger groupings, when we get to reporting out, it is clear that not all perspectives make it to the summaries. The process of reporting out stimulates an attempt to find consensus, and as great as that is, dissenting ideas disappear. Or maybe I’m wrong about this, but this is only part of why I am not seeing this approach is an obvious next step for thinking about our university mission and outcomes right now. The real reason is that Friday’s conversation made it clear to me that we are aching for community.

It is always a struggle to engage our colleagues outside of official meetings. The demands of our varied roles are pressing, and we prioritize our efforts there. We have families and things outside of work that we care about, and they, too, are prioritized. We find ourselves coming to work, doing our jobs and going home (often to continue doing our jobs), without much casual interaction. Making time to connect with each other and really learn from and about each other is usually the bottom of the list. Then we start feeling less connected, less respected, less seen, and less happy. It is a lonely experience to say the least.

Since last Friday’s conversation, I’ve really been puzzling through ways to address this. As great and open as that conversation was (and it will continue), I think it is in the less formal but more consistent conversations that we build understanding of our peers, students, and the perspectives that come with each person’s area of expertise and experiences. It is through the routine interactions that we build community and it is there that the opportunity to really have a shared vision can emerge. I think this is what we are all craving.

So, here’s where I’ve landed so far. I’m not looking to establish a common hour because folks will just schedule meetings in those time slots. We need some common hours for activities, but they won’t help solve the community problem. Instead, I am proposing community hours. I am not going to schedule them, but we all need to to do so. These will be time slots that we put on our calendars to have coffee, tea, or whatever with a colleague. I recommend that we block out a couple of hours each week, but starting with one will do. Schedule it now so it doesn’t get absorbed by something else. Then just start sending invitations. Sometimes it might be with someone in your department so you can deepen your understanding of an idea, or just relax together with no pressure to solve anything. But most of the time, we should reach out to people from other areas – students, faculty, staff, administrators – and get to know each other.

This is a small, and maybe silly, thing, but I suspect it will do a world of good for us. Maybe it will help us solve big problems or move new ideas forward. Maybe it will uncover barriers to success or new opportunities to create together. That would be awesome. But most of all, I hope it will help us build a true sense of we. When that happens, the mission will be obvious.