Change, Hope, Resilience

Optimism Lives in the “We”

I’m not going to lie; it is hard to tap into my normally optimistic perspective right now. The pandemic, social injustices, budget crises, and yes, the election, are all testing my reserve of hope. Keeping up with the daily news is enough to drive me under a rock, or at least under the covers, indefinitely. The problems are so vast as to appear insurmountable, and they are making me tired. We’re all tired, I know.

But this is no time to give in to this feeling of helplessness. It is time take a deep breath and find ways to manage this barrage of bad news and ill feeling. Higher education has a particular responsibility to illuminate paths forward because we have the skills to find those paths. We spend our lives invested in the idea that the pursuit of knowledge will make the world a better place. To be an educator is the purest expression of optimism.

Let me be clear. I have never been a blind optimist. Those who know me are well acquainted with my snarky side. I can laugh at, and be cowed by, the fallibility of human impulses as easily as anyone. I am cognizant of hidden agendas or just plain bumbling plans, and I am only surprised by these things occasionally. I am probably best described as a pragmatic optimist, accepting the hazards but seeing the potential for good anyway. It is the potential for good that I am reaching for today.

So, here I go. What is the potential for good in COVID-19? This pandemic is daunting to be sure. Most of us have never experienced anything like this level of disruption. But, of course, historians will remind us of the precedents for this experience. Whether the Bubonic Plague or the Spanish flu or Polio, we have been here before. The pace of spread may have been enhanced by the airplane, but massive outbreaks of deadly diseases are not a new thing. That doesn’t make this easier, but it helps me see the path to optimism.

For example, despite all of the political shenanigans, I remain hopeful about the development of a vaccine. We are better at this process than ever before and our tools are improving daily. Although I frequently shudder at the ways in which profit motives impact medical research, I do have confidence in scientists and their desire to get to the right answers (right for now, at least). It is in their DNA. In recent decades, we have lost our commitment to science as a social good, at least in the United States. We have ceded investigation and experimentation to for-profit entities, while slowly eroding our investment in the education and research arms that are fundamental to advancing scientific knowledge. Perhaps this pandemic can remind us of the need for science for the common good. Perhaps, in this moment, we are ready to reimagine the structure of scientific inquiry for good first and profit later.

I am also heartened by the relative effectiveness of our basic protective measures – masks, social distancing, and washing our hands – in slowing the spread of COVID-19. Where people are following these rules, we are seeing excellent results. Although we see the ridiculous politicization of these measures in the news, many of us are indeed following the guidelines. We are desperate to avoid both the illness and the next lockdown, so we comply. That is good news. But the hope comes here – most of these actions are as much about protecting others as ourselves. Our masks keep us from spreading the disease. So does that space between us. Compliance with these measures reminds me that it is possible to engage that sense of the greater good that we have been ignoring for a generation (at least). It helps me see the possibility of a return of the notion of “we.”

As for social injustices, I am grateful that this conversation has moved from the margins to the mainstream. Our history is fraught with discrimination and ill treatment of groups of people. It is also filled with steps forward (albeit, with lots of steps backward). The confluence of Black Lives Matter and COVID-19 has helped many more people understand that there are persistent injustices that need everyone’s attention. The differences in how communities are treated are no longer hidden in spread sheets; they are visible in the nightly news reports for all to see. This is the (next) moment to do that hard work of finding better paths to equity. It is the perfect opportunity to re-engage notions of our responsibility to community, not just ourselves.

In higher education, that path to equity is just as complex as it is for the larger society. This, too, has the potential to overwhelm and quell my sense of hope. But then I think about the history of education in this country and I see how far we have come. Our history of growth and change for the better helps me press ahead with ad hoc committees, climate surveys, and an honest assessment of how we are doing. These steps are daunting and, like the world outside of higher education, they are fraught with politics and fear. But the time is now, and I won’t ignore it.

As I see it, higher education has reached a point where we must be willing to fully reimagine our goals and the paths to achieving them. I know too well how challenging this is, and how many times I will rethink the questions and reorganize strategies to move forward. I could sink under the weight of it all because I feel such a deep responsibility for it. But as I write these words, I feel the optimist coming through. Why? Because I also know how much my colleagues care about their students. None of us wants to live with unfair practices and outcomes. We are predisposed to wanting to do better. It is in our DNA.

This big mess of challenges and complex problems will not keep me from hope and optimism, because I know I am not alone in the task of addressing them. That is where optimism is sustained, in the sharing of the struggle for something better. I am heartened by the opportunities for something better and I am sustained by the “we” because “we” is where optimism lives.

Change, Growth Mindset, Resilience

Defaulting to Kindness

Last Friday, I had the honor of participating in a faculty session regarding our first year classes this fall. A lot of hard work has gone on, from the leadership of our FY director, to the contributions of our instructional designers, librarians, media services, student affairs, and of course all the FY faculty re-writing their materials for the fall. It was a tremendous effort and the people able to participate in our virtual meeting were enthusiastic about the materials shared with them. There was a clear sense of mutual support in this strange new world.

First-year courses everywhere are likely to have undergone these efforts. No matter what combination of online and on-ground teaching a university has selected, one thing is clear: It will not be a normal start. Our entering first-year students are tasked with acclimating to higher education in multiple modalities (online, hybrid, flex, etc.), while also experiencing the socio-emotional growth that typically takes place as they transition from high school to college. They must do all of this with COVID-19 in their minds at all time. That is a lot to ask. We have spent a lot of time working on the safety part of this equation and we will spend the rest of the year, continuously reflecting on and adjusting the teaching and learning part.

At WCSU, the FY team has strengthened first-year courses because students might not get to meet each other, or their faculty, in person anytime soon. To bridge this physical gap, they have included clear instruction about navigating the online learning environment. They developed new strategies for helping peer mentors engage students within our learning management system and there was conversation about group work designed to help students interact with each other, not just for learning, but for making friends. There was also attention to seeking routine feedback from students to try to help them stick with their coursework, and build connections when those connections feel, well, intangible. I am proud of the team of faculty and staff who engaged these questions. They are doing great work.

It is not just FY faculty who are redesigning their courses. All faculty are doing so because they are faced with being prepared for anything. This is sometimes grueling work, but the opportunity to re-imagine courses can also a blessing. When forced to design a course for multiple modalities, there is the opportunity to look at material from multiple perspectives. This gives room for new exercises, clarification of material, and even just de-cluttering. Taking a more focused, developmental path through a course might help students and faculty alike. Indeed, doing less, and being very clear about our expectations, could actually improve our outcomes, even in a world with too many new variables. While not trying to minimize the effort this requires, I do see that there is opportunity for growth in all of this, which could be very rewarding.

It is the same with efforts going on everywhere else at WCSU. We are focusing on essential interactions and learning outcomes and trying to help our community be a community in the fall. As athletics conferences decided on safety, coaches reached out to athletes to build community and find other rewarding ways to interact as teams. Career services is all in on virtual recruitment, training opportunities, and even virtual internships. Turns out, employers like that virtual recruitment option and this is likely to be our new standard after COVID-19. Our performing arts faculty have developed creative experiences for their students to perform and rehearse in virtual, outdoor, and highly spaced indoor environments. As a singer, I know exactly how hard that is, because sound is a tricky thing… the farther apart you are, the less likely to sing together. Nevertheless, good things are happening with and without technology. All over the university, we may be doing less of what we are used to doing, but we are adding new experiences and trying to make sure that those experiences are truly meaningful.

But here is this morning’s clarity: With all of this newness, and the many options that the WCSU community (and all of higher ed) has worked hard to create for our students, it is more than probable that there will be many, many mistakes. From simple errors about which technology people will use for a meeting (Teams, WebEx, Zoom, etc.), to a mistake in the set-up of a course so that the assignment due on Monday, actually doesn’t open up until it is due (it happens), to uncertainty about when and where each type of course is supposed to meet, the room for error is tremendous. And let’s not forget the potential for a random storm to knock out our connections to each other. Yikes! I suspect there will be a few tears for most of us.

Every single one of us is likely to make more than one mistake this fall. That is the nature of mass shifts in organizational structures and high levels of uncertainty. So, I offer this one bit of advice, let’s default to kindness. Forgive your colleagues for missing a meeting or being unable to log in effectively. Forgive your students for being confused about the navigation through their classes, or being unable to log in effectively. Forgive yourself for your gaffes in design, or being unable to log in effectively. And so on. You know what I am talking about. Find that well of patience and draw on it relentlessly. Remember, when you need to explode, you can just log off and have a small tantrum or crying session, some tea or chocolate or a moment of Zen, and then get back in there.

The most productive phrases we will have this fall are simply these: “Oops, I messed up.” and “That’s okay, let’s try again.” We should use these phrases often.  If we do, we can skip the anger and shame part of messing up, and focus on the getting better part that we all really care about.  Indeed, if we default to kindness, we are likely to find the fun (and the funny) in all of this change after all.

Be well everyone.

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.

Change, equity

Antiracist Policy 1: Remedial Education

Like so many others, the recent demonstrations in response to the murder of George Floyd have led me to reflect upon my own behavior. I am reviewing my personal and professional actions with a greater focus on equity. I am looking for ways that I can move my attitudes to actions that will make the world a more equitable place.

I want to thank Ibram X. Kendi for making it simple for me. I have been lost in the twisted logics of equality rather than equity. In my efforts to include all voices, I have neglected the steps necessary to create opportunities for all voices to be heard. I have also been willing to let things evolve. There is no more time for that. From now on, I am committing to action. I will let Kendi’s elegant definitions be my guide:

  • Racist: One who is supporting a racist policy through their actions or inaction or expressing a racist idea.
  • Antiracist: One who is supporting an antiracist policy through their actions or expressing an antiracist idea. *

In the year ahead (and thereafter), I will be reviewing all of the policies at my university through this lens, but right now I am focusing on a policy at the intersection of high school and college. Given the persistent “achievement gap” in CT, I would like to see the State of Connecticut adopt this policy: Any student who earns a high school diploma from public school in the state of Connecticut, and then places into remedial education, will be awarded one year of free tuition at a state college or university.

Here are the reasons that I see this as a necessary policy.

I have long known that the students who attend Danbury Public Schools (where many of my undergraduates attended high school) have much less support than those who attend Sherman School, where I serve on the Board of Education. This is true in terms of per pupil spending: Danbury $14,041; Sherman $20,034 (Connecticut Public School Spending Report). It is even more true when one considers the needs of the students in Danbury High School (61.2% Free Lunch Eligible, 17% English Language Learners) vs. Sherman School (3.3% Free Lunch Eligible, 0% English Language Learners). Unsurprisingly, most students in Sherman are White: not so in Danbury. (Connecticut Report Cards). I think you can see that funding is an important source of Connecticut’s persistent educational inequities.

This imbalance in support became nearly catastrophic when we all closed for COVID-19. Sherman teachers struggled to find good methods of supporting students in this distance learning environment. Families adjusted to the need to juggle working at home while supporting their children’s education and the general chaos of separation from friends and activities that make up the lucky lives of the people of Sherman. Danbury schools struggled with all of that plus providing food for families. They also had many families without multiple (or any) computers or wi-fi access. They had families who struggled with childcare because the parents were essential personnel. They had students who had no real support for learning because their parents do not yet speak English.

All of the things I just listed need a host of policy reforms to correct them. But today I am focusing on college readiness. You see, it is clear that Danbury Schools cannot achieve the outcomes of the Sherman Schools under these conditions. The fact that a fair number of Danbury graduates do manage to thrive is exceptional. It should not be considered a bar that everyone can meet if they just try. Getting to the graduation stage is a remarkable achievement for students whose lives are characterized by hunger, poverty, home insecurity, and no resources for education beyond what their under-funded school district provides.

Even so, many Danbury High School graduates still pursue a college education. Thank goodness we have not managed to dissuade them from this opportunity. While some of them go on to Yale and Harvard, or qualify for our honors program, etc., the fact is that students from these under-funded school districts are over-represented in our remedial math and writing courses. This reality adds about a year’s worth of additional cost to higher education.

Here is how it works. We admit students with a wide range of K-12 educational experiences. If they opted out of the SAT, or if their scores on the SAT are below the “cut scores,” they take placement tests. Some of these students end up with scores below our general education levels. They are placed in our “P” courses. P courses allow students to take a college level writing or math course with embedded remediation. This is a good effort on our part to try to get students on track, without costing them college credit and time. But there are issues.

Issue one: P courses require a lot of time and effort to complete. We reflect this in credit hours, but it is not sufficient. Students are better off taking a reduced load while in these courses, but the reduction has financial consequences. They have to stay in school longer or catch up in the summer (pay additional tuition).

Issue two: Students who place into P courses, are effectively blocked from starting majors in STEM, Education, and Nursing (all very popular among our first generation college students). This means staying in school longer (paying additional tuition).

Issue three: For the neediest students in Connecticut, Pell Grants cover tuition and fees at state schools (more or less). They do not cover the cost of living. Students who need P courses are frequently in that neediest category and are likely to need to work a lot while in college. Therefore, they will not have sufficient time to do well in the P courses and frequently withdraw and try again. This means staying in school longer (paying additional tuition).

So, my proposal is simple: Students who graduate from any public school in CT and need remediation in college, will be given their first year of education at a public college or university for free. This will allow students to save their Pell or student loan money for the other four years. It will allow them to take a reduced load if they need to work. It will stop charging the neediest students extra to attend college.

One more thing: CT has recently adopted the “last dollar” free tuition model for our community college system. Good, but notice that it is last dollar. This still asks these same students to use their grants for remedial education. It also keeps them from having a university option, which is problematic at best. It is not sufficient to achieve equity. My proposal stands.

*Ibram X. Kendi, How to Be an Antiracist, 2019.

Change, equity, Higher Education

Catalog as Equity Indicator

Well, it was a tough week last week.  As Americans took to the streets to express their fully justified rage at the persistent biases in policing that are visited upon communities of color, Western Connecticut State University struggled to respond.  We had a few missteps, but the near term result is that we have agreed to change our mascot and there will be a demonstration, organized by our students, this week.  But what about the long-term?

Last week, in response to students who wrote to me, I asked my faculty to reconsider the fall schedule.  Already struggling to figure out what we will look like in response to COVID-19, I added representation to the mix.  As students were grappling with the murder of George Floyd, they asked me why there were not more courses that represented the diversity of their backgrounds and experiences in our curriculum. Good question.

Of course, there is not a simple answer. When I reached out to faculty, and some of the departments that I thought had the most to contribute, two responses emerged.

Response 1: We address issues of race, gender, and equity in many of our classes.  It is woven in.

I wish that were true.  I took a few hours to read through our catalog and a few of the associated course outlines.  Except for Social Work majors, where these issues are truly  woven throughout the curriculum, discussions about equity (and therefore, race and gender) are not in the course descriptions. Here is a sample of what I found:

  • Justice and Law Administration mentions race in one course description, has a gender focused class (women, of course), and one course about civil rights.
  • The business degrees limit this conversation to the Marketing courses, with an emphasis on persuasion, and equal employment rules in management.
  • Sociology has a Social Problems class, which gets at some of what we need to be talking about, and then a few on race and equity, and the issues facing Latin-Americans in particular.
  • Anthropology always focuses on concepts that help us have good discussions about the constructs of race and culture, but their contexts are other countries, thus obscuring the relevance to our students’ lives.
  • The health professions acknowledge that culture and community play a role in health care, so I guess that’s a win.
  • There are a smattering of courses (Women’s Studies, Non-Western Cultures), with titles that tell the tale, but they are a small part of our offerings.
  • The histories of music, literature, and art are mostly Euro-centric with a few exceptions sprinkled in, and most (not all) of our American History courses focus on slavery when they address diversity and equity at all.

Nope, we do not substantively address race, gender, and equity in our curriculum. If we do, it is communicated at such an abstraction that our students cannot find it.  We need to rethink this woven-in strategy.

Response 2: When we choose to focus on particular groups – Women’s History, African-American History, LatinX History, and so on – we run the risk of reinforcing a marginalized status. 

Yes, I agree. I hate the way we have to name these groups to make them visible. I wish that we were at a point in our curriculum development that it would be absurd to do this. In a world where our teachings fully represented the contributions and experiences of all groups in the arts, sciences, politics, and the rest, we would not feel the need to create these courses. Unfortunately, we are not there yet.

When students ask where the courses about their histories and experiences are, they are telling us that they do not see that representation.  They are hungering for acknowledgement of their value.  If their stories are not part of everything, and they are not, then they need the focused courses.  Before we push away their request with the marginalization response, let us consider the balance of our offerings. Here are some examples of what I mean.

English has thirteen courses that are focused on literatures that skew white and European and four that obviously do not. I am being generous in this. I suspect the genre courses also skew white and European, but I do not know for sure. Throwing in one book by an author from an under-represented group does not count.

History has approximately twenty-five courses focused on histories that are distinctly white, European, and male.  There are a cluster of Non-Western Culture courses, and a few courses that focus on civil rights and women’s histories, but proportionately they are small compared to the overwhelming number of traditional approaches to history.

In the rest of the arts and humanities disciplines, where these topics should flourish, the proportions do not improve. What we are doing is marginalizing the histories, literatures, arts, and philosophies of women, African-Americans, Muslim-Americans, LatinX Americans, LGBTQIA, and so on, by limiting them to the precious few courses.  In other words, if there were not so few of them, they would not be marginal. If we want equity in our curriculum, we should have many more classes that focus on particular histories and experiences. Then they would not be the exception, but instead, they would be the basis of a strong liberal arts education.

The most egregious example of the absence of serious diversity in our curriculum is the case of African-American Studies.  This is a topic that you can find in our catalog. It contains exactly one dedicated course, The Black Experience in America. The rest of the courses are anthropology courses about Africa. There is a course in African-American Literature in the English department, but it is not listed here. Wow. Worse yet, The Black Experience in America has no home. It is scheduled by the History Department, but they claim no ownership of the material. It is taught by a long-time adjunct faculty member. Nope, no buy-in here at all. I am ashamed.

Now, I know some readers will find flaws in my logic here.  If we weave it in, do we need the special courses? Yes. Am I contradicting myself? Probably, but sometimes contradictory things can both be true. We need to weave equity into all that we do. We also need to be interested in the many histories and experiences that make up our communities.

We have a lot of work to do, and now that we are through the first level of our defense mechanisms, I would like to get on with it.  I do not want to get mired in identifying problems associated with transitioning to curriculum that better reflects the diversity of human experiences. I want proposals that dig into every discipline (yes, STEM, you too) and make the changes we need to build an anti-racist university*.

*More on this topic next week. For now, I highly recommend Ibram X. Kendi’s, How to be an Anti-Racist.