Community

Belonging

It is late August and we are all gearing up for another year. Students will join us on Friday, classes will start next Monday, and I am sure that faculty are putting finishing touches on their syllabi. It’s that exhilarating rush of new beginnings and the optimism that comes from the chance to start fresh every fall.

There has not been much downtime for us at WCSU this summer. We have been collaborating on projects that we hope will re-shape our future. I am grateful for all of the hard work that took place, and the ways in which it brought together members from all areas of the university to think things through together. What comes of all of that hard work will be discovered as we review that summer work, but it is that sense of community and belonging that I am thinking about today.

There is a lot of research coming out right now about how important it is for our students to feel a sense of belonging. It is directly related to retention, it is directly related to the success of our students of color, our first-generation students, and our students who sometimes struggle to find their fit. Spring 2022 saw reports from faculty and student affairs professionals all over the country about students feeling at sea, disengaged, and wobbly about being in college. It is showing up in classrooms, mental health offices, and retention rates.

In Reimagining the Student Experience, a recent report from The Chronicle of Higher Education, there are lots of good observations about steps we can take to help students see themselves as members of our community. Here’s a short list.

  1. Everyone needs a group of friends, but building these friendships is not easy for everyone. Commuter students don’t have activities created by our Residential Staff, working students don’t have time for many campus activities, and many students find initiating conversations challenging. The best place to overcome some of these barriers to friendships is to build social connections in classes. Most of us initiate connections between students with icebreakers and introductions. We need to do it throughout the semester in intentional ways.
  2. Help students create a buddy system so they have someone to contact about notes, etc., when they have to be absent. This is so obvious, but it is hard for some students to ask.
  3. Try to schedule some office hours adjacent to your teaching time. For many students (especially commuters) it is easiest to ask their questions right before or after class. Even with all of our remote access for advising, which is probably the best outcome of COVID-19, the immediate conversation is still incredibly valuable.
  4. Demonstrate interest in students’ lives outside of class by participating in or attending some of the events that they value. See their shows or games, go to their fundraisers or service events, participate in a co-curricular activity. Faculty and staff can’t do it all, they have lives too, but a little bit goes a very long way.

These are good ideas, ideas that I know many of us have been doing for years. I enjoy the low-tech, simplicity of it all. If this will help our students feel they belong, let’s do it.

As I write this, though, I am thinking more about the people here who have been working all summer. Faculty, staff, and administration are trying to understand the path to a stronger university, together. People we once knew via email are now people with whom we have had long and passionate conversations. Strategies for student success that have been supported in one area, are now known by people in other areas who are trying to do the same thing. People who were struggling alone to try to solve problems, now know that others are interested in those same goals. In other words, I think our summer work has created a better path to a sense of belonging for all of us.

In that report about Reimagining the Student Experience, Sarah Rose Cavanagh argues that “Students– and indeed, people generally– are motivated by the feeling of being part of a team tackling a shared problem.” It is that common effort that makes us feel connected and valued. Certainly, this offers insights on creating a more connected campus community and a more connected student body.

But in that same report, Flower Darby asks us to think not just about belonging, but about the value of the learning experience, something many students have been questioning. Darby says, “[T]hink about the value that students get from spending time with you, the instructor….The benefit of taking your class is taking it with you.” Wow! That’s a reframing that I needed to read. I’d like to take it beyond the classroom: What is the value that our campus community gets from spending time with you, our colleague… the benefit of interacting with you is you!

This is a provocative and exciting observation. Instead of focusing on seeing the best in others (an effort that shouldn’t be ignored of course), it asks us to think about how we bring a unique perspective and vision to our roles and responsibilities. This question encourages us to see our value and it might even help us narrow our focus and hone that thing we are really great at. I hope so. What I am certain of, though, is that the question gives me a new way to think about this year. It’s a fresh start once again.

Community, Higher Education, Resilience

A Plan of Action

We are going to have a retreat. Yes, that is the next step for WCSU, a retreat to help us sort through what we are doing now and determine opportunities for a better future. As I made the announcement, I could hear both the collective groan and the impatient calls for a concrete strategy for improvement. We have had retreats before, and strategic plans, and discussions about curriculum, or advising, or even branding, but we keep ending up in the same place. That same place is characterized by small, isolated moves that do not transform the whole. We need to transform the whole.

I understand the collective sigh about the notion of a retreat. From the perspective of the campus community the retreats are not leading to action. That is not quite true. There has been action attached to both the Strategic Plan and the Budget Retreat that occurred just before the pandemic. For my own sanity, I must list a few of those actions.

Goal one of the Strategic Plan asked us to grow our support for a diverse community of learners. To that end we’ve solidified the FY program, added a peer mentor program, and transformed our Education Access Program. These moves positively impacted our graduation rates (pre-COVID) and showed signs of supporting better retention. We hope to see a larger impact now that we are fully operational again.

The other component of that diverse community of learners was a focus on adults. We have done a lot around graduate programs and most recently received approval from our accreditor to expand our online offerings. This will strengthen the opportunities we have available for returning undergraduates. We plan to launch options for that group in the fall.

Goal two asked us to focus on our processes and services for a diverse community of learners. COVID-19 helped us accelerate this work tremendously. Students can now access most services remotely, thus allowing them to get support at the time they need it, instead of between 8:00-4:30. Digital forms & signatures, remote access to advising, tutoring, career support, registration, and financial services all make our students’ lives better.

One other component of goal two (and part of goal one), focused on career education. We improved the offerings in our Career Success Center, with new technologies, trainings, and access to remote internships. We also added career education courses (on a pilot basis), as we had planned in the strategic plan action steps. Evaluation of their impact is next.

Goal three focused on community pride. Several efforts occurred that should be acknowledged. First, we did increase weekend events for our residential students, and we offered more social events for faculty and staff pre-pandemic. We hope to bring them back soon. And the long awaited decision about a new mascot is now complete. Go Wolves!

Goal four focused on branding. We took some initial steps with the help of a consultant, which resulted in new colors and some improved consistency in materials. The recent hiring of new Director of Marketing and Communication should jumpstart this initiative. I can already see an impact on our website.

Goal five focused on creating a self-sustaining financial model. We made some strides in evaluating a limited number of academic programs, but everything else stalled on this one. More focused action must take place now.

There was a budget retreat (pre-pandemic) that included representatives from all campus constituencies. That meeting confirmed much of what the Strategic Plan had outlined. There was general agreement that we should grow graduate programs, focus on adult learners, focus on supporting some of our students who meet admission requirements but need extra attention, find a way to re-imagine summer, and work on become an HSI. It also focused on some cost-cutting measures, but the ideas in that category were few and far between. The items focusing on graduate and adult learners have been underway. The rest has stalled.

I recount all of this because I recognize just how exhausting the notion of a retreat without action sounds. The truth is that there has been action, but the impetuses behind that action and the results have not been well communicated. That is something that is going to have to change this time around. The commitment to action is of the utmost importance for us. Everyone will need to play a part, and everyone will need to be on the same page as to what is happening when.

So, for this retreat, the goal is to establish a plan of action for WCSU. We will first take the time to review the realities of our position. We’ll examine the costs and results of all that we do and, I hope, come to a full understanding of our place in the higher education context right now. Then we will get to work. That work will involve focused conversations about what we can grow and what we should stop doing. We will need to reimagine how we function as an organization and where we might change our structures to improve that function and/or gain efficiencies and reduce costs. We will try to determine a campus focus that helps us carve out our own special place in the higher education ecology of our region. It will be a very busy two days.

The result of this retreat must not be a report. It must be a plan of action that will move us forward together. It must include a clarity of purpose and definitive steps to achieve that purpose. It must describe a path first to stability and then to prosperity. The full community must endorse the plan so that we can move forward together. The retreat is necessary for the development of this plan. The action is necessary for our survival.

Community, Higher Education

Collaborative Cultures

This morning, as I sipped my coffee and scanned the headlines of Inside Higher Ed and The Chronicle, I found myself reading a lot of non-news or news irrelevant to leaders of public, regional comprehensives. Another admissions scandal–not my problem. Those are always targeted at elite schools. More quarantine orders and teams excluded from basketball tournaments? I care, of course, but it isn’t news; it is our daily reality. Yes, there were important articles about equity, articles I continuously scour for new ideas, but, well I didn’t see any new ideas this morning. Then I came across a provocative essay by Janae Cohn, entitled, “Faculty and Staff Often Don’t Trust One Another. How Do We Fix That?” This one woke me up.

Cohn is an instructional designer, and much of this essay reflects the difficult position of this role on most college and university campuses. Although highly trained in pedagogy in general and continuously engaged in learning new strategies for integrating great teaching practices into online environments, her role is one of support, not partner or leader. In the most recent crisis, we might have seen this shift, but we didn’t, at least not on my campus. Cohn goes on to suggest that there are many members of our campus community that have valuable insights and skills that are regularly kept from true engagement in the decisions about the future of the university. She is so right.

When I started at WCSU I was duly impressed with the governance structure. To start, we have University Senate, not a Faculty Senate. Membership includes faculty representatives from the academic departments and the library, student affairs, enrollment services, the student government association, and administration. Everyone has a vote and a voice in the issues under discussion. The standing committees also have a blend of these constituencies, at least to some extent. This governance structure is a powerful signal that our ideal version of ourselves is an un-siloed, collaborative campus. Unfortunately, the signal isn’t the reality.

The truth of the matter is that in nearly nine years on this campus, almost no initiatives that did not come from teaching faculty have come forward. The balance of representation on our committees makes it very clear that the faculty representatives hold the final authority. The message is clear enough that little has been offered for consideration by committee members who are not teaching faculty. While they offer feedback and commentary on proposals, they rarely offer proposals on their own. Since I converse with people from all parts of our campus community, I am quite certain that those who are not teaching faculty have ideas that we might want to consider. But they bring them to me, not to the elected committee structure. I think we might have a problem.

Now, I never raise these issues without considering my own part in creating them. So, let me start by noting that most of my attention does go to the concerns of the teaching faculty. After all, they are the experts on the academic programs we offer, with advanced degrees and research programs to support that ongoing expertise. They bring valuable insights into the teaching and learning environment because they are in the classrooms (virtual or otherwise) with our students. They know the realities of student engagement and attendance. They understand the core skills and habits of mind that any student should master, and ultimately, they define (and should define) what our graduates should know and be able to do. This is normal and indeed what we hire our teaching faculty to do. As the overseer of the quality of our academic programs, it is also normal that this is where most of my attention goes.

Nevertheless, I have learned to listen to other members of our community. For example, it was our coaching staff that really raised the alarms about how our first-year students were faring in our online asynchronous courses. As they worked hard to boost the morale of our athletes who were unable to compete this season, they had a first-hand look at who was thriving and who was not. Their input helped me support more remote instruction as opposed to the online-asynchronous courses appropriate for more mature learners. I should add that this group frequently tries to clue me in about some academic programs that we should consider adding. While they claim no expertise in the content of those programs, they are part of our recruiting team and they hear things from our future students. I’m listening.

It was both the IT help desk and the academic advising group that pointed out that the path to our online classes was unclear. Now, it was a pandemic and our transition to a mostly online campus was abrupt to say the least. We did not really have time for the thoughtful planning that an “online strategy” might entail. Faculty were doing their best, but our students were lost, and we were not fully considering their needs. Allowing for multiple content “classroom” locations (Blackboard, TEAMS, Zoom, WebEx) was a nightmare for our already traumatized students. In normal times, I might want to encourage a controlled testing of these many platforms, but when everything is online, well some uniformity would have been helpful. As IT and academic advising fielded the troubled calls for help, they encouraged me to nudge faculty toward a uniform location to log in, even if they wanted to move to other platforms from there. These groups have direct and frequent contact with our students with a perspective that transcends the department view. Their voices should be heard.

And what about those with expertise in academic support (tutoring, advising, orientation, etc.)? Well, they have lots to contribute as they routinely interact with students as they thrive and as they struggle. Perhaps their insights into how we have organized our services might be meaningful? Indeed, these folks have degrees and continued professional development in the areas of student support. We might want to listen to their ideas.

The same goes for our instructional designers. We have them on committees, but they continue to be relegated to the support rather than leadership roles. The Career Success Center is noticing gaps in our students’ abilities to articulate the value of their degrees. Perhaps we should listen and find a way to bolster the relationship between the academic and the career experience for our students. Our police department might have insights we should hear. Our facilities team might see bottlenecks in our planning. The registrar’s team has a critical point of view. And so on.

Cohn gave me a lot to think about this morning. It is clear that the authors of our governance structures understood that we should learn from all parts of the university. They must have recognized the value of shared ideas and diverse perspectives. It was an incredibly powerful and optimistic impulse. But we haven’t fully realized that vision. So, today, I am considering what I can do to help us fully engage our community to make that vision real. I am thinking about how to reorganize what I do to help us engage the full range of talents and views available to us as we define our path forward, both post-pandemic and thereafter. We need some fresh ideas and new strategies and I’m guessing they are all around us if we just learn to listen.

Community, Resilience

A Ray of Hope

As I write this final blog of 2020 and prepare to take a few days of rest, I am thinking about opportunities for hope. It’s been a terrible year for everyone, of course. Worse for the neediest members of our communities than it was for me, I know. I am lucky to have employment and a home and to be in this continuous semi-isolation with my husband. We have lots to do, even as we mourn the loss of our normal social life, which is usually filled with music. Our family members are healthy, though we will miss our children on Christmas Day. No, the year was just not as terrible for me than for so many around me. I am grateful.

Nevertheless, I am in need of rest. I have carried a boatload of worry. I’ve worried about students and colleagues every day since the beginning of March, when I had to decide if we should bring our students home from their semesters abroad. The number of decisions that I have participated in making this year is truly stunning, and the consequences of each just a little overwhelming. From weighing levels of risk as we considered offering classes on campus, to establishing reasonable standards for going back online if infection rates surged, it was a sea of ambiguity. We did pretty well at WCSU, but the level of stress and worry was, well, a constant noise in my not very rested mind.

After safety came worries about the quality of the education we were providing. The complexity of a university-wide shift to hybrid and online teaching should not be underestimated. There is a reason why most people dip a toe into online with just one course at first: It is hard! Faculty have faced re-thinking their entire approach to teaching in a week, then a summer. They had to do it for everything, not just one experimental course. The support provided may have been strong, but the number of things to learn was more than anyone who has not taught online can imagine. No doubt, not everything went well.

Our students, too, were in an overwhelming environment. While people like to think of young adults as fully comfortable in online environments, in reality they are comfortable with games and social networks, not learning online. The normal transition from high school to college, where students learn to manage time in ways they were never responsible for in the past, was magnified ten-fold. As they adjusted to many asynchronous learning environments, I think many of our first year students just felt alone.

Despite all of these worries, we made it through the fall with relative success. Our infection rates remained low, we supported an expanded pass/fail option to help our students through this difficult transition, and faculty are getting more comfortable teaching online. We did our best to do some normal things in new ways. Faculty engagement with online meetings and events was high. Indeed, our Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT) ran weekly meetings to discuss all sorts of issues related to teaching online and there was a lot of engagement. Scholars in Action, our interdisciplinary panels featuring recent faculty scholarship, had their largest audiences ever. Our musical theatre program did a wonderful job creating online productions. Yes, we were fully engaged with creating a reasonable campus environment.

And now there is a glimmer of hope – vaccinations are approved and the first groups are already receiving them. It will seem agonizingly slow, as we wait for our turn, but this is an important moment. We are moving in the right direction. I am proud to say our nursing students and faculty have really stepped up. First, they were our contact tracers and now they are administering vaccines. Bravo to all of them.

I am proud of all that we have done together this year. The commitment of every member of the WCSU community has been tremendous. Amidst the fear and the ambiguity, everyone did their very best to support each other and keep working toward creating a positive and effective learning environment. We will do even better in the spring semester because we’ve had some time to practice. It is not ideal that we will still be mostly online, but there is nothing like that second chance at teaching or taking courses in new modalities for improvements. I’m confident we will all feel just a little happier and more satisfied with this disrupted environment in the spring.

So, on this shortest day of the year, I want to say that I can see the light ahead. We won’t be where we want in the spring semester, but we will be marching towards normalcy. And that march will be just a little less stressful because of the most important lessons we learned this fall. But the most important lesson we learned was that we are a caring and supportive community. It has been a joy to see those positive impulses shine this year. They were the true light in the darkness.

So, we should all get a little rest. We need it. But then, let’s return with a renewed spirit of optimism and community. That will sustain us throughout the spring.

Happy Solstice, Happy New Year, and Stay Healthy Everyone.

Community, Resilience

The Bright Side

It is March 23, 2020 and Western Connecticut State University has officially launched as a virtual campus.  Spring “break” was filled with activity. Faculty were preparing materials for online course delivery with lots of help from our Instructional Design team.  Information Technology & Innovation (IT&I) has been deploying hardware and software at a dizzying pace, all the while working to ensure that there is enough support on the Help Desk, as our system strains under the weight of a sudden level-up in usage. Academic and Student Support Services have moved to virtual formats.  Student Affairs and the Residence Life team are finishing up the process of helping our residential students retrieve their belongings, and the facilities team has identified appropriate places on campus for emergency spaces for the City of Danbury, should that be necessary.  It has been all hands on deck, and people have been rising to the challenge with positive attitudes.  Whew.

It is sure to be a little bumpy for the next few weeks.  We’re all learning quickly but mistakes will happen.  Nevertheless, I see some potential positive outcomes from adapting to this new reality.

Online Teaching and Learning

WCSU does not want to become an online university.  I want to be clear on that. We are woven into our community and we serve students from many backgrounds with varied needs.  Not all of our students (or faculty) will thrive in an online environment.  But some students will.  At WCSU, we’ve been trying to determine the right audiences and approaches for our online offerings (graduate, returning adult, hybrid, low-residency, and so on).  This quick turn-around to an online environment creates an opportunity for us to gather some actual data on these questions.  I am hoping for some great conversations and analytics when this is over.

It is also important to note that this midcourse shift in medium places faculty in a good position to assess the impact of moving their instruction online. Working with students face-to-face for the first half of the semester has provided the opportunity to get to know how each student engages their education.  This will help them see where the change in medium is or is not impacting student success.  When there is a change in student performance it may be time to review the approach. If student performance stays roughly the same, things are probably on the right track.  There will be a lot to learn about instructional design from this simple metric.

Online Academic Supports

While many students, staff, and faculty prefer face-to-face experiences for academic support, this isn’t necessarily a great fit for a majority commuter campus.  As my colleagues have worked at breakneck speed to develop processes to support the virtual versions of our support services (tutoring, academic coaching, advising for students of all learning needs), we now have the opportunity to compare the volume of demand for services, and possibly the impact of interventions, with the face-to-face version.  We may learn that we should reconsider the proportion of online vs. face-to-face services when we return to normal operations.

Registration for fall is also underway.  WCSU has (wisely) committed to requiring students to meet with their academic advisors prior to being allowed to register.  This allows us to flag critical pre-requisites or course sequences, discuss challenges or the need for academic support, identify opportunities (minors, internships, study abroad), and most of all, build relationships with our students.  However, like the realities of academic supports, sometimes our students’ work schedules, etc., make traditional office hours problematic.  Testing out platforms for good virtual advising experiences could be good for us.  I’ll add that learning to keep our advising recommendations in Degree Works could be another good outcome.  Think of all the paper we could save!

Collaboration

I’m not in love with the collaboration tools yet, but I can definitely see their value. Between Teams for smaller group meetings and WebEx and Zoom for the larger ones, we are learning to stay in touch via technology.  I know lots of organizations have been doing this for years, but education tends to be a high touch environment.  We find the free flow of face-to-face conversation and debate to be vital for refining our ideas.  The awkwardness of taking turns in the online environment does kind of dampen discussion, but it will let us proceed with university business and we will get better at it.

There is the other kind of collaboration, too.  We are organized by schools, departments, and divisions in higher education.  We frequently spend our careers interacting within the narrowest of those clusters, without learning much about how our colleagues see things or how they do their work.  Ironically, this separation is making us reach out across divisions more than we usually do.  There’s an esprit de corps as we try to help each other think things through and solve problems.

The connection between Student Affairs and Academic Affairs and Enrollment Management has never been stronger as we identify the gaps in our areas that result from the lack of face-to-face engagement with students and faculty.  We might just discover some better processes that won’t lead to these gaps when life returns to normal. Likewise, the relationship between students, faculty, and the IT&I team has strengthened, as people become accustomed to the online support they used to resist.  As we moved to quickly vacate the campus, many of us came to understand the logistics routinely managed by our Residential Life staff, our Facilities Team, and our Campus Police.

I know I might sound a little too Kumbaya, this week, but it is honestly how I feel.  I am proud of my colleagues and excited to learn from all that has occurred.  And if that’s a little to mushy, consider this – with this dash to online will never worry about snow days again!

Stay healthy.