Affordability, equity, Inclusion, Quality, Regional Comprehensive, Return on Investment

COVID-19 & the Neighborhood University

Like all campuses grappling with re-opening in the fall, WCSU will triage the questions of lab sciences, clinical placements, online learning vs. hybrid learning, and the biggest question of all – do we reopen our dorms.  As usual, the press is obsessed with a model of higher education that looks like the movies – a beautiful location on a hillside, usually pictured in brightly colored autumnal hues, with all residential students.  In reality, that model serves a small percentage of undergraduates. Campuses like mine, with predominantly local student populations, are built to serve the majority, rather than the lucky few, and we have designed our curriculum and services accordingly.  In this crisis the strength of the accessible, affordable, local university comes into full view.

Let’s start with the obvious – for students and families stretching resources to attend college, not paying for living on campus is a substantial savings.  In the case of public universities, that decision will reduce the cost of education by about half. That means less debt and/or the ability to support more than one child in college.  For those with the greatest need, it means Pell might come close to covering expenses (not quite, but close).  For those who are more solidly middle class, it means the family can get a return on their tax investment in public higher education and allow their students to graduate with little to no debt. As we discover the true economic impact of this crisis, the affordable option is the best bet. We will be here for our traditional students. We will also be here for the folks who suddenly need to retool for a new career.

Then there is the value of the education itself.  Like most public comprehensive universities, WCSU offers a wide range of majors, enrichment opportunities, an honors program and educational access programs, and our resources have been invested in our educational facilities, not lazy rivers. Most of our graduates earn degrees and stay in Connecticut, working in various fields and frequently sending their children to us as well. Some of them come in with a need for academic support, so we provide it.  Others hit the ground running and go on for advanced degrees at prestigious universities (frequently with full-funding) and we have Fulbright Scholarship winners every few years. Sometimes the same ones who started out struggling end up in graduate programs. Our students have access to faculty producing research that is connected to our community and research that addresses large scale societal questions in all fields. Last year we had a Goldwater winner.  She’s heading off to John’s Hopkins next fall for a Ph.D., in no small part because of the research opportunities she had at WCSU.

These achievements occur because we are focused on supporting the needs of all of our students, not just the most talented. Whether an honors student or a student who needs academic support, education at WCSU is not organized to weed out the weaker students, but to support every student. We have to do this, not just because we think it is right, but because our neighbors are watching, and they talk.  To put it plainly, when a student flunks out of Yale, the public blames the student.  When a student flunks out of WCSU, the public blames us. We must always focus on the long-term relationship with our community and the success of the students they send to us.  If we do not, we will not survive.

All of this has always been true, of course, but what about the current moment makes it so important? Uncertainty about the fall and even spring next year makes it very likely that there will be some disruptions in the operations of traditional campuses.  As we track the spread of COVID-19, we are preparing to deliver our curriculum in online, hybrid, and on ground formats. We want to be sure that whatever happens, students will have a good educational experience.  This strategy will allow us to focus on the most important face-to-face experiences, and we will do our best to make those things happen in the fall.   But if the state and public health concerns determine that we cannot be here in person, education will continue online, and students will have faculty who will get to know them well.

At WCSU, we do not see online learning as a place to skimp on our student-centeredness or as something to contract out to other faculty.  We leveled up our online academic supports right away this spring and we will extend those throughout the next academic year.  That happened quickly because being student focused is the only way we can succeed as a university.  Most of our online classes are small, so faculty can give real feedback.  This is because we have always understood that our students have varied needs that require attention, so large classes are not a good strategy. We are now figuring out how to continue our research opportunities with limited face-to-face contact, and we are imagining ways to create enriched experiences for those most unlikely of online disciplines – performing arts. Why, because we have always experimented with new pedagogies as the expectations of students have changed over time. We are rising to the COVID-19 challenge with the most important thing in view–great educational experiences for all students.

This accessible, affordable, public university has always been focused on student success, precisely because we are accessible and local. We live and die by what our community thinks of us and we want them to trust us with their students. When I finally get to go out and see my neighbors, I do not want to hear that students are at home teaching themselves.  I want to hear about the excellent support their student received in this brand new learning environment or the cool things their faculty tried out in their online course. That is how things work when you are the local option and I wouldn’t have it any other way.





Critical Thinking, Engagement, Higher Education

One Book Re-imagined for COVID-19

For the last 10-15 years, many campuses have welcomed first year students with a one book program.  The concept was to assign a common read to the entering class to help bind them together in a shared conversation.  Often part of first year programs, this ritual also allowed for a preview of college level reading and analysis expectations. It had varied levels of success in terms of community building, but it was a go-to approach for schools interested in improving retention rates (among other goals).

We did this for a few years at WCSU, but ultimately found there was not enough buy-in to have the desired impact.  As we moved to a more eclectic version of a First Year program, this common read concept went by the wayside. I am not really interested in bringing it back. I am, however, very interested in seizing this moment in history to foster dialogue about the aftermath of COVID-19.

Here are ten topics that we should all be talking about in the fall (whatever fall looks like).

  1. Tracing a Virus: The origins and future of the study of epidemiology.  This is an opportunity to bring the non-science major into a rich understanding of how science research works, why math matters and, how to decode information about illnesses.
  2. Healthcare: From corporate benefit to a national security issue. COVID-19 laid bare the dangers of unequal access to healthcare when trying to quell a fast moving virus. This is an opportunity to discuss the realities of a “gig” economy, massive unemployment, and systematically marginalized groups in relation to our national healthcare strategy.
  3. From Smallpox to COVID-19: Public investment in science and the development of vaccines. As we rush to develop a vaccine for COVID-19, it is useful to consider both the protocols necessary for developing a reliable preventative effort and how market-based vs. coordinated international efforts can impact the results.
  4. Economic Crises and Social Change: Homelessness, economic insecurity, and plans for a more equal society. Large scale social changes like the 8-hour workday, child labor laws, social security, Medicare, and civil rights, nearly always occur as a result of a deeply felt national crisis.  What changes can and should we expect from the COVID-19 crisis?
  5. Illness as Metaphor Reconsidered: How language drives our actions and our search for cures. Susan Sontag’s classic work on how language shaped our understandings of tuberculosis and cancer provides a perfect context for considering the ways in which (mis-) characterizations of COVID-19 have shaped our responses.
  6. The Nation vs. the State: Closed states, nationalized production, and other constitutional questions in a time of crisis. When to close, when to open, ensuring access to personal protective equipment (PPE) and COVID-19 testing, bail outs of businesses large and small, and so on – what are the constitutional realities of these questions?
  7. Globalism Revisited: From supply chain disruptions to closed borders in the COVID-19 crisis. For over thirty years, the world has been moving toward an integrated supply chain system that is mostly controlled by private corporations and bottom line considerations.  Given the shortages that occurred with COVID-19, is it time to develop a more balanced system of profits vs. public safety?  What might that balanced system look like?
  8. Unintended Consequences and Opportunities: The Environmental Benefits of the COVID-19 Shut Down.  The reduction in travel at every level has been having a positive impact on air quality.  What other hidden benefits to the environment can we uncover and how might we extend those benefits into the future? We cannot stay locked down forever, but this is a real opportunity to reconsider the structure of our work lives, school lives, and the shape of our communities for a healthier planet.
  9. Internet as Public Utility: The digital divide and access to everything in an online world. As everyone scrambled to move operations online, the digital divide emerged in full force.  From regions of the country with little to no connectivity, to entire school districts with families who cannot afford laptops, the reality of the barriers to social stability and social mobility have come into focus. What would it take to level the playing field? Can access to the internet be re-cast as a public utility?
  10. What are Schools For? How large scale disruptions can help us re-imagine the structure and delivery of, and access to education. Online learning is not all it is cracked up to be and anyone working in education could have told you that.  As we moved pre-K to post-secondary education online, the holes in this approach became very clear. Nevertheless, we can learn a lot from this impromptu experiment that could have long term benefits for education.  What might school look like if we must always be prepared to go online?  What goals will we shed? What will become essential?

If every student (not just First Year) was engaged in one of these topics in the fall, think of the conversations we could have! Perhaps some good policy ideas would emerge. Certainly, we would all have a broader understanding of how a health crisis can shape policy.  For those who are wondering where we will find the time for all of this, I ask, how can we not? What on earth could be more important than learning from this crisis.

Be well everyone.


Power Disruptions

As I read the weather forecast for today, I worried about the loss of electricity that is likely in my small town.  We have a lot of trees, and big winds tend to take out a few poles or power lines.  That will be a last straw from many of us. Our gadgets are making this quarantined life bearable. Losing them is likely to lead to a collective scream.  For the university, we may have to consider a lack of access to electricity as a snow day, and just pause for a day.  I’m hoping, whatever the disruption, that it is brief.

But as I continue to trouble shoot the many challenges that came with the COVID-19 realities – technological, financial, emotional– I realize that we are in another kind of power disruption, and it is pedagogical.

Education, at its core, involves a clear imbalance of power.  Faculty are in charge, not students.  It may be that faculty answer to accreditation standards, or department definitions of curricula, but in the classroom, there is no question of who is setting the parameters for success and the expectations for interaction.  Faculty sometimes try to shift more control to students, but it is never complete, and, frankly students don’t buy it. Even in a seminar where all dialogue is focused on discovery, rather than a fixed goal, faculty retain the power of the grade, which makes the transfer of power mythic at best.

This is not a terrible state of affairs. After all, faculty are the experts. They’ve spent years learning their subjects and students have not.  So, no matter how hard professors work to cultivate a classroom with open discourse or create materials that foster student-led discovery and independent learning, that role of expert is an essential part of the power relationship.

But here we are in a world where students and faculty have been forced into a learning in an unfamiliar environment.  While faculty are still the content experts, the control over the learning environment has been fundamentally disrupted.  The potential for error on the part of faculty is much higher than in the classroom – there are just so many ways a beginner can go wrong in an online learning platform – disrupting their sense of control.  For students, the lack of standardization that is only a small problem in face-to-face classes, is now a major distraction from learning.  They are spending a lot of time trying to find where each of their four to five professors has “hidden” their assignments. This too, is leading to a collective scream.

It would be wonderful if I could command everyone to a) use Blackboard Learn (Bb) only and b) lay out their classes the exact same way, but I can’t.  While Bb is our official online learning platform and everyone should be using it, the truth is, it is not an easy environment to dive into.  It has some nice features, if you’ve had time to fully plan and experiment with your courses.  If you are faced with moving to it in a week’s time with no prior Bb experience, you are sunk.  Starting from scratch it is confusing, at best.  Demanding that everyone use it is probably worse than letting faculty devise unique approaches that they feel they can manage (weekly WebEx meetings, and emailing notes and collecting assignments; or using features of Office 360 to achieve the same end – and there are more).  As for similar layouts within Bb – there is no hope, at least not in the middle of this crisis.

From the student side, though, this is a nightmare. Some students have let me know that they are now trying to learn in 5 different “places.”  And, they are writing to me for help.  Their expectation was for some predictability; they are finding none.  Although, each of us approach the classroom experience in our own unique way, in reality the classroom has a limited number of predictable configurations.  Students can spend more time thinking about the subject than the furniture. With the variability of our online environment, they are really focused on the furniture. And by the way, these so called digital natives are not particularly good at figuring out how everything works. They kind of want us to figure it out for them.

So, now what. Faculty expertise is disrupted because they are spending their days focused on technology. Students trust their faculty less, because they, too, are spending their days navigating technology that is often poorly or variably configured. This lack of trust is leading to a lot of reaching out to Deans, Provosts, Presidents, and Governors, that is out of proportion to the problems at hand. Something’s got to give.

With only four more weeks of the semester, we’re all just trying to get to the end in one piece.  So, I only have a little bit to offer faculty on this subject, but here it is.

1. Simplify – identify those critical elements of the course material that must be addressed in the next four weeks and leave the rest behind.  Don’t try to do anything fancy, just focus on the essential content, and provide as much feedback on that student work as possible.  This will help remind students that faculty are experts after all, and they will be grateful for the sense of connection and continuity, even if on a shorter list of topics.

2. Empathize – Since we cannot offer students a consistent or familiar learning environment, reassure them (often), that we know this is a problem.  Then give lots of chances for resubmitting assignments or handing things in just a little late if they missed something.  It is easy to miss something when moving between many platforms. Acknowledging that complication will go a long way to re-establishing trust.

That’s it. I do not think we can do more in this context.  There is a lot we can do later, but for now, this will have to do.

Change, Innovative Pedagogies


Last week our campus had a conversation about expanding the number of courses that qualify as pass/fail.  We chose not to do so, but we did extend the date by which a student can choose the pass/fail option.  We also extended the date by which a student might withdraw from a course without academic penalty.  These measures were about buying time, so we have a chance to adapt to our online environment in a way that is reasonable and fair. In other words, these measures were meant to give everyone time to take a deep breath before making difficult decisions.

Not everyone was happy with this decision and I do understand why.  We are all in a state of shock right now as the reality of this pandemic sets in and the worries around GPAs are real. For a few weeks we were attending to triage – getting courses online, getting faculty additional training and support, getting students and faculty the technology they need, and getting our student supports online. Our community really pulled together to make these things happen as quickly and effectively as possible. We’ll continue to troubleshoot all of these things through May, I am sure, but the first big lift is over. So, we are onto the second level of trauma, much of which lies in preserving the integrity of the academic programs.

So, why not go pass/fail for everything?  Well, if this were something we could do permanently (or some variation of this, which I have discussed in earlier blog posts around grading), I would consider it.  But that is not what we are planning to do, at least not right now.  This means there are lots of students who would not qualify for this benefit – students in certification programs, students in critical pre-requisites, students heading to graduate school, student athletes, and students on probation.  With so many exclusions, we would end up creating a two-tier grading system. That just doesn’t seem fair at all.

But there is more to it, for me.  I have faith in my faculty.  You see, everyone had a chance to get to know their students prior to moving online.  WCSU is lucky to have very few large classes, so getting to know students is a real thing. Professors have interacted with their classes, seen strengths and weaknesses in their students, and have evaluated their work, prior to moving online.  It seems very clear to me that whatever happens in this new environment, they will be able to adjust for the impact.  I fully anticipate that grades at the end of the semester will reflect that adjustment.

These adjustments are not as simple as curving grades – although that will be one strategy.  To truly adjust, faculty and students will have to be in constant communication within the online learning platforms.  You see, when we moved everything online in one giant push, we did not have time to sort through the must do vs. the nice to do.  There is a tendency to try to fully recreate the on-ground experience, but this really isn’t how online learning works.  It is an alternative environment the requires alternative strategies. We didn’t have time to do this kind of thinking, so, we can’t just stop after putting everything in the course shell. We are going to have to evolve.

Let me give a couple of examples.

  1. Many faculty members quickly loaded PowerPoints or notes of some kind into Blackboard and then implemented weekly meetings via a conferencing software.  This can work part of the time, but as it turns out our students are living in varied conditions of access to technology.  Not everyone is able to be online at the same time due to the number of people in their house working and learning from home.  A small adjustment will have to be made.  The simplest thing to do is to record that meeting so students who cannot attend the live version can access it later.  The harder thing to do is to redesign the course with short video presentations, quick assessments of student understanding of that video, and then some asynchronous discussion.  That’s too much for right now, so simple is probably the solution.
  2.  Some faculty have committed to following their syllabi exactly as before the move online.  In some cases, that involved group work.  This is totally possible to achieve in the new environment, but students may have differential experiences of web conferencing software.  Those with older technology or less robust wi-fi at home may become frustrated in meetings, with lots of lags and glitches.  Now group work is always fraught with some tensions about who does the most work, but it isn’t fair to punish a group member for crappy tools.  Students and faculty will have to work to mitigate these situations so that things do not devolve into resentment between students.

There are many more examples, but I think you can already see a theme.  The two scenarios above would be horrible if faculty and students were not communicating and making accommodations and/or adjustments to their expectations. This is not a simple grading curve; it is a continuous series of modifications as problems emerge. This is hard work, but necessary given the scale of this crisis.

As provost, I cannot command anyone to make these adjustments. I fully embrace our collective commitment to academic freedom and the importance of faculty control over their approach to teaching.  This is standard operating procedure, and I am trying to preserve that throughout this COVID-19 moment.  But I don’t need to command anyone.  I trust my faculty to be reasonable and thoughtful about their students’ experiences and meet them halfway.  I hope that they can successfully communicate this approach to their students, so that the extended pass/fail and withdrawal dates are unnecessary in the end.

Stay healthy everyone.