Change, equity, Resilience

Forces of Nature

Well, I took a week off and went to my usual cabin in the woods. This annual tradition with my family involves 10 cabins with no plumbing or electricity, a beautiful lake for recreation and bathing, a gas powered pump to supply water for washing dishes, a gas/wood stove for cooking, and a mountain spring for drinking water. I can connect to the internet via phone, but I limit it to once a day to save the cellphone battery and protect my sanity. Turns out my annual retreat to “roughing it” was the lap of luxury. Hurricane Isaias had its say.

Hurricanes, tornados, COVID-19, and the now ho-hum heatwaves and/or snowstorms always remind me that no matter how hard I try, I cannot control everything. It is an important and necessary recurring lesson. It is also the opposite of how I am inclined to think.

Those of us in higher education leadership roles are tasked with trying to control outcomes. As provost, I try to control the interaction between our academic offerings and student success. Working with deans, department chairs, faculty, academic support staff, and, well everyone at some point, I struggle to develop good strategies to improve the educational experience of our students. Some of those strategies focus on pedagogy (most recently pedagogies that work well online and on ground), some on academic interventions for students who are struggling, some on curricular development, and some on faculty development as teachers and scholars. With data analysis, input from almost everyone in some form or another, governance review, and then questions about affordability, sustainability, and impact, I work to prioritize our efforts in the hopes of continuous improvement.

Despite all of these efforts, the reality is that only some of it seems to work. An experiment with a flipped classroom shows some interesting things, but yields no overall improvement in student outcomes. A cutting-edge revision to a major has not found a new audience. Efforts to improve our graduation rates appear to be working (yippee), but I am a little uncertain about which intervention worked. My hunch is clear pathways (four-year plans) and the FY course, but I am not sure. Efforts at improving retention have not yet shown results, but hope springs eternal and a new plan is underway. I am accountable for all of these things and so I strive to control them, but that control is mostly an illusion. There are too many variables; there will never be a single cure.

So, too, with the problems of systemic racism. As I grapple with the questions surrounding biases in curriculum, processes, and pathways to admission to WCSU or any higher education institution, I recognize the “too many variables” nature of the situation. Many institutions like WCSU have spent years focusing on the connection between K-12 and higher education. We have long supported Upward Bound, we offer Early College classes at local schools at minimal costs to those students and/or districts, and we have an Education Access Program that offers an alternate path to admission at WCSU. The urgency of those efforts easily draws my attention, but I suspect it is not where it should be focused.

It is not that I do not recognize the urgency of the K-12 situation. The variability in funding for districts is outrageous. The quality of educational opportunities given to wealthy vs. non-wealthy schools is short-sighted at best and morally bankrupt in any case. What happens in primary and secondary education has everything to do with the perpetuation of structures that enhance segregation and diminish opportunity for some groups while enhancing it for others. What happens in primary and secondary education has everything to do with the needs of the students that we serve at WCSU. Of course, I see this as urgent. However, these issues are more than can be managed in the day-to-day of running a university. The scale is too large and the variables beyond my control. I should keep my eyes on higher education.

So, I endeavor to prioritize efforts that directly impact learning at the university. I focus my attention on our data and our outcomes. This is an unsatisfying exercise because the outcomes of students at WCSU will not improve if K-12 is not improved. Our efforts will be about catching people up, not setting them up to succeed from the start. Decisions that narrow the scope of our efforts may be correct in terms of avoiding “mission creep” but I know that not addressing the years before higher education will make interventions at the university-level only partially successful. It is a conundrum.

What does this have to do with forces of nature? In as much as I should accept that there are things outside of my control, the comparison is clear. Trying to manage everything is a fool’s game and control is an illusion at best. I would do well to acknowledge the limits of my capabilities, narrow my focus, and ignore the variables beyond my official scope. But I find this comparison a cop out, because, when it comes to systemic racism, it is irresponsible and ineffective to take a limited view.

As I return to the world of electricity and connectivity (mostly), and a world still disrupted by facemasks and social distancing, and too many unknowns, I find the forces of nature daunting and humbling. However, I also find hope and resilience. Communities are clearing brush together and the masks seem to be working. Those simple steps give me the strength to think bigger and strive for more.

So, as I prepare to begin this odd fall semester, I will focus on making education better for everyone. There will be lots of input on those efforts, but as an academic leader, I will take responsibility for them. Each step forward will likely be matched by missteps and miscalculations, because issues of racism and inequity are as forceful and destructive as hurricanes, with timelines that dwarf the scale of even the most powerful seasonal storm. Working toward great education for everyone is an impossible task with too many variables. But, it is the only responsible action I can take.

equity, Higher Education, Inclusion

Asking Questions and Listening

With fall plans in place (at least for today), I can finally return to thinking about the future. A month ago, I started a conversation about equity on my campus. I have heard from faculty about some exciting courses planned for the fall and thereafter. The Chief Diversity Officer has developed a long list of materials to be shared with our community, materials that address curriculum, mental health, and workshops related to equity. I also had the pleasure of hearing from a small group of students about their experiences on my campus. This week I will focus on them.

Meeting with students is always informative. As an administrator, I generally only get to have conversations when students are excelling (need support for an award) or struggling (in danger of leaving school). Try as I might, getting routine meetings about topics like equity are hard to fit into my students’ lives and they often go missing. So, I am particularly grateful that they were able to meet with me during these summer months. We spent about an hour talking about some of the experiences they have had that have given them cause for concern. They were polite, trying to move their ideas forward without offending me. I tried to make room for what they reported, encouraging them to be specific. I will not reveal what was said, because they deserve privacy, but what I can say is that a lot of the feelings expressed suggested that they simply do not feel heard.

We are fond of rules in higher education. We have lots of good reasons for what we do, and we truly believe that we apply those reasons equally. For every troubling interaction the students described, I could hear our standard explanations. “We do this with all students.” “Grades are something you earn, not something we give.” “You missed the deadline.” “You neglected a step in the process.” “You did not see a tutor.” And so on. These standard answers may be true, but they do not fully consider the individual experiences of our students. Taken together, these responses communicate disinterest at best and disdain at worst.

I know we don’t mean that. I know that we are trying to be consistent in our actions and policies. I know that we are sometimes insulted by the demands for explanations for grades, or the excessive absences, or routine lateness, or what we think is a lack of follow through on the part of the students. I know that students do miss deadlines, show up late, do not follow directions, and otherwise undermine themselves. Nevertheless, when we give these standard answers, we have a way of marginalizing the already marginalized.

I think we forget that it takes a great deal of courage for students to go ahead and ask a question of a faculty member, or chair, or dean, or provost. We can be intimidating to students from all backgrounds. For first generation students and students from under-represented groups there is the added feeling that asking questions or explaining their situations will give the impression that they do not belong. When they finally do ask, our standard, policy-based responses may re-enforce that impression. After all, it was in the catalog so they should have known.

Perhaps, we should ask follow-up questions instead. For example: When students miss deadlines, we rightly say things like – “my syllabus says no late assignments.” That is fine and there are lots of good reasons for that policy. But it might also be fruitful to ask the student why they are having trouble meeting the deadlines. That simple question could communicate the kind of caring necessary to help a student be on time in the future. When a student is repeatedly late for class, we might just pull them aside and ask why? The act of asking could reveal a schedule or childcare disaster that they are trying to manage. When students do not understand their grades, we can respond with the part of our syllabus that explains our grading criteria. That’s fair. But we might also ask ourselves if we have fully explained the reason for those criteria. This extra step can sometimes help students commit to assignments that they might have thought of as lower priority in the list of things they are juggling.

Now, listen, I know that some students really do just ignore instructions and put in minimal efforts. I also know that I have faculty who regularly do this kind of outreach, going that extra-mile to try to help students succeed. I have no illusions that asking follow-up questions will clear up all of the confusion or misplaced effort among our students. I do not think it will cure all of the feelings of inequity that my students have revealed to me. Asking questions is just a minor step in the long march toward equity, that we should all be embarking on.

What I am saying, however, is that asking questions might further the conversation with our students. What they tell us might reveal some gaps in our explanations, or some non-standard paths to support, or it might just help us get to know the people in the room with us and all that they are carrying with them. Most of all, asking questions might communicate to students that their experiences matter, and that might just make a difference in our students’ path through their education.

Asking questions necessarily communicates that we are listening. Even if our final answer does not change, that simple act might help our students feel heard.

Higher Education, Innovative Pedagogies, Quality

Striving for Excellence

I realized today that I have been in crisis mode for four months. From dramatic exits, to traumatized students, families, faculty, and staff, to trying to carefully solve the puzzle that is the fall semester, the pace of my life has been ridiculous. I do not expect this to stop before September, and then only long enough to trouble shoot whatever we forgot to imagine for the fall semester and then pull reports and imagine what spring might look like.

It is not like the regular duties disappeared, either. The usual evaluations of promotion and tenure candidates took place. So did the reading and writing of annual reports, appointments of new directors of various university areas, review of accreditation reports, and evaluation of our efforts to improve retention and graduation rates. I am already planning for fall projects, prioritizing resources for a new academic success initiative, and producing the annual publication of faculty creative activity.

This morning was spent trying to complete a substantive change application to submit to our regional accreditor. Getting that done seems a bit too much right now, but nevertheless I will finish it this week. As I struggled to find the missing pieces and align my document with the needs of our accreditor, I thought the whole thing might just be impossible. Then I looked again and realized that this was a good opportunity for reflection.

Whenever I write about my university, I end up feeling proud. As tedious as an accreditation document can be, it always gives me the opportunity to step back and consider what we are doing well. In the day-to-day, that is not always possible. I am too busy solving problems, which can make it feel like there are nothing but problems to solve. Writing annual reports, reviewing strategic plans, and preparing for accreditors helps to reveal the good stuff, and even some of the results of all the problem solving.

Some of you just laughed. How could these tedious reports be anything but a chore? Too much? Not really. You see, when you have to gather evidence of doing something, you see the big picture. That big picture is pretty darn good.

For example, when WCSU moved online in March, we did not skip a beat in our path to developing online supports for our students. Tutoring, accessibility services, financial aid, advising, mental health and general health services all flipped to remote delivery immediately. That was good, but the better part is that we learned from it. We are now working toward consistency in training for online support, where appropriate. We are talking about developing good online advising practices. We are reviewing our protocols for online learning to be sure that we are meeting accessibility standards. We have moved beyond the abrupt flip in modalities to a focus on improving these services. Guess what…those improvements will matter long after COVID-19.

Then there was the bumpiness of moving all of our courses online. Ouch! It was hard and not all of it was as good as we would have liked. I will say that all of it was as good as we could manage in such a short time. Now we have a little time to prepare for online/hybrid and whatever else is ahead, and great conversations are going on. Never has our campus been so engaged in thinking about instructional design. The necessity of thinking about education in a new modality has invited us to think about instructional design more broadly. Faculty are participating in the workshops, but they are also helping each other by volunteering to be peer mentors. It is a big effort and folks are fully engaged. Guess what… this attention to the overall design of our courses will matter long after COVID-19. I hope the esprit de corps will transcend the emergency as well.

There has also been a great deal of earnest concern for the well-being of every member of our community. Faculty and staff and administration have been puzzling through the safety measures necessary for on-campus experiences. Each time we have these conversations (nearly every day), someone asks, but what about the students/faculty/staff who should not be here? How will we accommodate them? These are excellent questions. We are making plans for those needs. Every time we discuss online pedagogies, someone asks about students who are not well-suited to this environment. This is an excellent question (one that should be asked of on-ground instruction as well). We are making plans for those needs. Every time we consider being fully online, someone expresses concerns about the socio-economic issues that always impact our neediest students. Will they be able to access their education? This is an excellent concern, and we are working hard to address it. Guess what… this attention to differential needs of our community should matter long after COVID-19.

So, yes it has been a stressful time, full of long days, endless questions, and a learning curve unlike anything I have ever experienced. But I am pretty sure that my university will be better for it. This moment of crisis has brought out the true spirit of WCSU and it is one worth admiring. We have broken free of the usual silos and we are working together. We are listening to new ideas while remembering the good parts of our traditional approaches to education. We are trying to develop a plan that helps everyone succeed.

And absolutely no one seems content to just make do. We are striving for excellence and that makes me tremendously proud. As I think about all of this, that tedious report has become exciting after all.

Higher Education, Thinking, Uncertainty

Deep Breaths

Like everyone in higher education, I have spent every day since mid-March sorting through information and trying to make sound and thoughtful decisions about what to do. From our abrupt exit in the middle of the spring semester to our plans for the fall, nothing has been simple. There are complex interconnections between areas of the university that need to be sorted through and there are multiple constituencies to consider. This takes time, reflection, dialogue, and then logistical planning. It does not benefit from yelling. As I read the coverage of these issues in the Chronicle, Inside Higher Ed, New York Times and the Washington Post, I find myself wanting to ask everyone to take a deep breath.

For the record, I am not more concerned with budgets than safety. This characterization of administration is a convenient trope that bears no relationship to reality. Budgets matter, of course, but that has not been the primary motivator of a single decision. It is the background noise that we worry about as we try to figure out what will best serve our universities.

At WCSU, we are striving to return to campus, but in a limited form. We are setting up classrooms with six feet between seats. We are requiring masks for everyone. We are deploying hand sanitizer everywhere. We are reviewing our ventilation systems to be sure we have the best possible air flow. We are ordering microphones for faculty who have masks on, because we are worried that their voices will be muffled, and students will not hear them. We have added all sorts of training in online teaching, so everyone is prepared to flip to online if that is warranted. We have had numerous meetings with union leadership, department chairs, faculty in disciplines particularly impacted by this change, and so on. All of this will have an impact on our budgets that we have no idea if we can recoup, but we are making the plans anyway.

Given all of this work, perhaps it would be easier to just be online. Sure, but then there are these other complications.

Lab sciences are not great online. Faculty in those disciplines have asked to preserve some of that hands-on experience. In some cases, certifying students for work in labs or applying to graduate school relies that hands-on experience. So, we worked together to develop protocols that we all feel are safe. The same is true for nursing, and that faculty has come together to propose what they feel are safe options.

Music ensembles are a disaster online. Don’t let the nicely edited zoom concerts you have seen fool you. Those are big (edited) productions. In reality, there is just too much lag to play together remotely, especially when on considers the variance of bandwidth in people’s homes. We cannot really support ensembles in full, but at least the ones without wind instruments and voices should have a chance to play together. For those others, we are trying to figure something else out, mostly outdoors subject to weather.

I am particularly worried about our incoming first-year students. While it is possible to build community online, it is not easy. Community building online works best with people who are either returning adults or graduate students. To build it with traditional students is a lot of time and effort. I know that some of my faculty will do a great job of facilitating group work that will help students meet each other, but students will miss the way physical co-presence tends to lead to post-class conversations. This is not trivial. We already know that our commuter population sometimes struggles to make these friend connections when they only come to campus for class. Not coming at all will magnify that problem. So, we are trying to preserve some of those first-year on campus experiences. Even if we find we have to return to online only, a few meetings are likely to be helpful in building those important connections between students.

We have a plan for our dorms. We are working through those safety protocols and, yes, we are wondering about our ability to build compliance. Enforcing the use of masks and social distancing protocols in classrooms and libraries, etc., is relatively easy. In dorms, not so much. We are reviewing the various publications on monitoring health in dorms and planning our testing and tracing protocols. We have also updated our fall schedule so families can make informed decisions about the value of dorms, given the proportion of class-time online (schedules vary). Still, some students and families want this option, so we are not just saying let’s skip it. This decision was made with the desire to preserve this option for families who want or need it. It was not made with an eye toward the bottom line. If anything, having the dorms open will cost more than closing them, given the protocols we will have to put in place and the scaled back occupancy numbers.

Nevertheless, the money piece does matter. As usual, the conversations about money in the press focus on the private schools with large endowments and very high price tags. Those of us in public higher education are grappling with small (no) endowments, diminishing state appropriations, and price tags that are lower than the cost of operations. We are being asked about reduced tuition and fees because of the predominance of online offerings, but there is no reduction in the cost of delivery. I am focused on cultivating good online instruction, but I know it is not the same as the expectations these students had for their education. We are being asked about pro-rated dorm costs in case we go home early, but the cost of the dorms will not diminish if we close early. The price is based on the semester, not a weekly rate. We do not know what to do about this. Our price tags are “affordable” but they are still a stretch for many of our families, so I understand their questions about reductions in this context. My tale of how low the tuition and fees are compared to the cost of delivering education is cold comfort to them. This puts us in quite a bind and there are no good answers.

It is July 13th and the decisions we have made so far reflect my (and the entire administrative team’s) best effort to navigate this difficult world. We are likely to change course on a few things as we monitor what is happening elsewhere. We are likely to grapple with decisions about costs and value as the proportions of online offerings shift with those insights. We will continue to address the interconnected decisions of operating a campus, in collaboration with our union leadership, as methodically as possible, even as we hear the demands for information on a daily basis. We will try to respond quickly, but some decisions take time.

This leads me back to the breathing part. Perhaps, for just a minute, we could all pause and think about these complexities. Perhaps we could stop accusing each other of bad priorities and look at all we have done to figure this mess out together. Perhaps we could cultivate a little more patience so that there is time to review the list of protocols we have developed, determine their feasibility, and then make adjustments. We can’t get this done if we are constantly responding to panic and misinformation. So deep breaths, please, so we can all figure out the fall. We will think about the money piece later.

Higher Education, Innovative Pedagogies, Uncertainty

Contingencies

Well, the national news is not encouraging. This morning I saw that two universities have stepped back from having any campus experiences. Although they started out committed to bringing some of their students back, the early signs in those (southern and western) states are showing a resurgence of COVID-19, so they are changing course. Here in Connecticut, things are still moving in the right direction (lower incidences of infection, low hospitalization rates), but we are just reopening, so time will tell how things progress in July. In the meantime, we must get ready for our August opening with a lot of uncertainty. Oh goodie!

Well, the obvious answer is to prepare to be fully online, just in case. But this is no small thing. Teaching online is (or should be) fundamentally different from on-ground teaching. For example:

  • In the classroom, faculty can see reactions (confusion, engagement, or the lack thereof) and adjust. Online, the space for reactions must be carefully constructed.
  • In the classroom, group work is relatively easily supported, online it must be designed in advance.
  • In the classroom, you can easily change course if things are not working. That change can happen in the same day or by the next session. Online, that change will require re-writing notes/assignments and so on, to address the change.

Preparing to teach online requires thinking about instruction in new ways. It is a departure from the routine. You can see, from this short list, that many people will be tempted to just prepare for teaching the last part of the semester online (when we all go home at Thanksgiving).

Nevertheless, with the hope of some on-campus experience before us, we must prepare for multiple possibilities. This preparation will take effort, but it might benefit all of us for the long haul. In that spirit, I would like to offer some thoughts about course design. I hope this is some encouragement. We’ll see.

First, for faculty who are new to thinking about building courses around weekly topics, with weekly activities to support and assess student understanding of those topics (best practices for online instruction, excellent for those aiming for universal design), I would like to say that this approach will also strengthen the on-ground learning experiences for your students. Like preparing to teach anything, this will require some thought and effort, but it can be very satisfying for everyone involved.

For lower level courses, this weekly topic approach helps students transition from high school to college learning expectations, by providing clear timelines, and lots of opportunity to see if they “get it.” Online, assessment opportunities can easily become self-assessments (mini-quizzes), to reduce grading for the professor. On-ground those same strategies can be deployed in support of the class discussions, ensuring students have started thinking about the ideas before you meet. Then faculty can attend to discussions and more nuanced assignments, without overburdening themselves. It takes time to get all of this organized, but once done, it can be edited each semester, reducing the preparation to normal on-ground levels.

For upper level courses, particularly those that are meant to be seminars, the same weekly groupings of topics apply. Offering these courses online will require a good understanding of how to set up discussion groups, so that students can take on leadership roles. This is a usual practice on ground that translates to online very nicely. It is true that most of this will be asynchronous and lack some of the in-classroom spontaneity. However, the time lag in responses often allows students to think through ideas in ways that they have difficulty doing in the classroom. Their responses, with time to think, are often more grounded in the readings and more thoughtful. The grading will be the same as always (usually lots of writing assignments in these kinds of classes), and faculty will find themselves nudging conversations rather than responding to everything, just like a seminar. In other words, it does not have to be a lot more work than on-ground seminars, after you set things up.

Second, many people already teach hybrid courses. This approach has long been seen as an effective strategy for learning at many levels. It blends some face-to-face experiences with online work. Faculty who have been doing this have been deciding about what is vital for on-ground and what works well online, for years. In normal times those decisions are made in advance. However, teaching this way also requires the kind of organized experience that an online class requires. Faculty who have taught hybrid courses will be well-prepared to flip to fully online if necessary. It might be a good time to phone a friend and see how they do this.

Finally, for those who plan to use live meeting platforms for the fall, I must acknowledge that it is not necessarily ideal. If you like to lecture, great, but getting feedback from students will be a challenge. We have all learned about the strengths and weaknesses of WebEx, Zoom, Teams, etc., this spring. People try to have “conversations” but they end up being frustrated as we wait for people to mute and un-mute themselves (and forget to re-mute themselves afterward). It can happen, if you assign moderators to discussion boards, but it is tricky.

And there are limits to our ability to pay attention in online meetings. We all know this now that we are working remotely. The chunking strategies that are ideal for the online teaching environment, are also preferable in the WebEx/Zoom environment. Faculty should carefully consider how they are organizing time in this environment. You will be glad you did.

In addition, even if you prefer the live meetings, assignments and assessments, still need a learning platform (in our case, Blackboard Learn) so that students have a consistent experience. It is incredibly frustrating for students to have to find their courses – with some in email, some in Teams, and some in Blackboard. So, the work of preparing the course will still need the kind of preparation that our online classes require. It may be work to set this up, but those same tools work on ground, too, so it is not wasted time. Indeed, I have long enjoyed collecting assignments this way. It helps me keep track of things in multiple courses, instead of unseparated email trails and piles of paper.

So, I guess what I am saying is we must prepare to teach fully online, but the best techniques for online teaching can have great benefits for on-ground teaching. The process of imagining your material in multiple formats, might also help you see that material differently. This has the potential to help you reach students with diverse learning styles. The tools that you leverage now will be there for snow days, conference trips, and other scheduling purposes after COVID-19. They may also help us chart a new path toward new schedule configurations in the future. This is something we should be thinking about anyway, so why not take advantage of this moment of crisis to prepare for a more flexible future.

I know it is hard, but, after it is done, I think it will be worth it, not just for the fall, but for the future of the university.