This week is the start of WCSU’s spring semester, and I am excited. We have faced the hurdles that all campuses have faced in this COVID-19 environment. We now have a multitude of teaching modalities, from face-to-face to the myriad possible combinations of hybrid and online. Our safety measures on campus proved very effective in the fall, so we will continue them this spring, with an increase in testing and a continuation of masks and reduced classroom capacity. Our students and faculty appear to have adapted to online advising, and we continue to try to drive our students to the academic and social supports that we are offering online. In short, we have learned from our experiences last fall and we are ready dive into spring, better informed and with new insights.
Even though we must start online so we can safely bring our residential students back to campus (we move to the blended learning environment next week), I still feel that wonderful sense of excitement and optimism that comes with the start of a new semester. That feeling that once came from the smell of new course texts and the smooth paper of new notebooks, now arises from a neatly organized calendar, a full schedule of meetings, and the hope of moving initiatives forward. I love the constant renewal that comes from the rhythm of higher education. The rest of the world waits for New Year’s Day for resolutions, we get to do this every semester.
Nevertheless, I feel time slipping away. Oy! The spring semester, though the same length as the fall, always flies by. I usually describe this as the downhill slide to commencement. I suppose it feels faster because of the summer break at the end. Or perhaps it is because the many projects started in the fall are nowhere near complete. And since the opportunity for action is limited by the finite number of campus meetings that are possible, the time crunch is real.
How wonderful this urgency feels. You see it is a normal feeling. It is the usual, pre-pandemic sensation that comes with the launch of the spring semester. As we obsess about when vaccinations will be available, and what the prognosis might be for the next fall, it is easy to feel that this quasi-lockdown status will never end. But it will and we should be thinking about the world after. The good news is, once you recognize that, the wait for a more normal world doesn’t seem as long.
So, here is my to-do list for the next several months:
- Focus on equity in the curriculum. The issues driving the Black Lives Matter movement have not disappeared and they must not be forgotten. While there are many areas of the university that deserve attention when it comes to equity and inclusion, as provost, it seems that a thorough look at what we are teaching is a good place to start. It took all fall to get this project started, but we are off.
- Determine the right blend of online, hybrid, and on-campus offerings for a post-pandemic world. This is hard to do quickly, and I must admit we will only have a first draft of a plan this spring, but we need to learn from everything we just, well, piloted. We must identify and evaluate the appropriate variables to determine the right mix of learning modalities for next year.
- Prioritize investment in academic success programs. In what is likely to be a multi-year path to financial recovery for all of higher education, we must not neglect the initiatives that will best serve our students. It is natural to think that we cannot afford new things, but our data are telling us that we must intervene where students struggle. The task is to reimagine our constrained spending plans to meet these urgent challenges.
- Increase awareness of all the important work that our students and faculty are doing in the surrounding community. COVID-19 has provided lots of opportunities for WCSU to partner with health care, education, and other city services. We have risen to these challenges and worked with partners throughout. But we always do this, and no one seems to know. Now is the time to make our expertise and community engagement visible.
This is the short list of specific things to work on this spring. It may be short, but it is strenuous to be sure. I am diving in with optimism and enthusiasm, not just because of the renewal I feel with the start of a new semester, but because all of it has real value for students and the future of the university. There is nothing like working for things you believe in to inspire hope.
But that short list is just a small glimpse of my dreams for higher education. In reality, my list starts here: 1. Re-imagine the role and structure of the regional comprehensive university such that it provides opportunities for all learners and supports the informed citizenry necessary to sustain a democratic society. This is what I wake up thinking about every morning and it both inspires and frightens me.
But I am not afraid today. It is the start of a new semester. Students and faculty have returned to my inbox, if not my office. My calendar is full of opportunities to move things forward. And hey, there’s even a little more daylight to celebrate. I am ready!