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.

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