Higher Education, Hope, Resilience

Dream Big

At the end of this year-and-a-half long effort to create great educational experiences in the face of a global pandemic, it is easy to get too focused on triage instead of big ideas. We have all been busy monitoring COVID cases and becoming experts in contact tracing. We’ve been transforming student support to try to reach out to students who are drowning in the online environment. Faculty have been trying hard to reshape their teaching strategies for online and hybrid modalities, all the while worrying about the learning taking place and the missing interactions that take place in the normal classroom settings. We’re developing strategies to encourage our students to get vaccinated and wondering if we’ll ever get to remove our masks. And, of course, we are all worried about surviving the fiscal challenges that we face due to this disaster because we know it will take multiple years to get back to normal enrollment patterns. In short, we have a lot on our collective minds.

While every single detail matters, when we stay too long in the slog of managing those details, there is a tendency to reduce our dreams to the immediate future. Well, consider this a reminder to step back, look up from the spreadsheets and grading, and take a moment to dream big.

I’m thinking today about the graduates that I will greet next weekend. They have had a heck of a finish to their education. They have attended to the details necessary to complete their programs in less that optimal ways. I am proud of them for getting to this point under these unique conditions. They are now facing a world of work that is strange to say the least. It would be a normal reaction to feel despair in the face of so much uncertainty. It would also be normal to limit the scope of one’s job search to safe bets, nearby things, and the less than ambiguous, just to mitigate all of that uncertainty. But I urge them not to do so.

Now is the time for our graduates to dream big. It is time to think clearly about what a good life looks like, what a rewarding career looks like, and what contributions to the world might be possible. This is a time to reflect on one’s values and align one’s goals with those values. It is time to think about the arc of one’s life and some long range goals. This will make that job search more rewarding and fruitful. It may be that the first post-college job is not a big step up from the work done to pay the bills during college. That’s fine. But make sure that the next job has something for you to learn on your path to your bigger dreams. In short, aim for the most that you want, not the least, and build a plan accordingly.

For my colleagues at WCSU, we need to heed the same advice. We have worked so hard this past year just to survive this crisis. The work has made me very proud. Faculty have reimagined pedagogy, experimented with new technologies, and kept the struggles of their students foremost in their minds. Our Information Technology team and Instructional Designers have continuously supported faculty and students as they’ve navigated new tools and connectivity. Student Affairs has worked hard to develop a semblance of student life in this virtual context and invested in more mental health support because it was so desperately needed. Athletics has managed to achieve some big wins, even with such limited opportunities to compete. Yes, we’ve done an excellent job of triage.

But we are going to face a few more years of challenges because of COVID-19 and the continued drop in high school graduates in New England. It would be normal to look at our chances to recover as something that can be managed by small cuts and status quo behaviors. That won’t work anymore. It is time to think clearly about what we want to look like in five years and in ten years. What does a great university look like for the students we serve and the communities that depend on us? How should we evolve to achieve that greatness? What steps do we need to take to feel that our work is rewarding and exciting? What contributions to the world do we want to make and how should we organize ourselves to get there? It may be that the next year or two of working toward this great university might feel mired in minutia and even more triage, but if we are working toward greatness together, it will be purposeful triage that can inspire us, rather than drag us down.

Yes, as we come to the end point of our academic-year and finish up reports, grades, and the usual closing of the year details, it is important to rekindle the capacity for big dreams. It is the dreams that make room for good ideas and inspire us to continue re-imagining all that we do. They give us hope when we need it the most and they are the start of any good plan. Let’s lift up our heads from the day-to-day and take the time to dream big. We owe it to ourselves and I know that good things will come of it.

Evaluation, Higher Education, Hope

Continuous Improvement

With the Passover and Easter upon us and the daffodils beginning to push through the soil, it is that time of year when I feel the joyous rebirth and renewal that comes with spring. It is always a welcome sensation that helps lift me up from the endless to-do lists as I take the opportunity to reflect on all we have accomplished this year. As is natural to our structure, we are heading towards an intense period of productivity – exams, papers, grading, annual reports, assessments, and even a few accreditation visits. It could be too much, except we all know there is a break at the end, so we push ahead in this fury of activity, breathless, exhausted, and I hope, proud.

I have been thinking about our reflective practices a lot lately. In higher education, we have a way of broadening our students’ perspectives while unintentionally narrowing our own. We introduce ideas and worldviews with the passion we feel for our disciplines. We strive to develop the habits of inquiry that have served us so well as scholars, and perhaps even as citizens. But we are also specialists, focused on one field and even one aspect of our field. We train ourselves to attend to the details of that specialty and sometimes we miss the connections to other things that are so important.

If I am totally honest, we also get a little insular, not just in our field, but also within our universities and our departments. This insularity can lead us to think we are better than elsewhere or, much more commonly, thinking that we do not measure up. Neither of these are productive positions for educators. So, as the rituals and rush of spring are upon me, I am thinking about the value of external perspectives on our work.

When I began teaching in an undergraduate program in communication, our department had a habit of cultivating student research so that they might attend the professional conferences in our field. Several of my colleagues routinely took students to the regional and national communication conferences. There was an expectation that I would do so, too. I succeeded in doing so, starting at the regional level, but I must say that I was terrified. I was worried that the work was not good enough and that I had inadvertently set my students up for embarrassment. This did not happen. Participation in this experience showed me that my students were within the normal range of work, some exceeding expectations, and others solidly in the normal range. This boosted my confidence as a professor and did wonders for my students. It was an amazing peer review experience.

Soon I was involved in program review. I contributed to the department report and listened carefully to the feedback from colleagues from two external programs that our department admired. At that university, the norm was to select visitors from programs that we aspired to be. This, too, can make inspire insecurity. Our admiration for the visitor’s programs made us think we were somehow second rate. Yet, the experience was incredibly helpful. There was lots of positive feedback, and some good suggestions for how to improve. We took those suggestions to heart and the impact was clearly visible in our evaluation of our learning outcomes the next year. It was another eye-opening experience.

These days, I spend a lot of time reading reports written for accreditors. While I am fully onboard with regional accreditation, I confess that I have some misgivings about the many discipline specific accreditations that we ascribe to in higher education. Defining the norms and expectations of a field at a national level is incredibly helpful and I have zero doubt that this is productive and supports continuous improvement. What gives me pause is that some of these require overly complex evaluations and, well, the costs are not insignificant. I am not all that convinced that the results are more powerful than the simple peer review provided by colleagues from programs we admire. Nevertheless, there is value in the reflective process and the external perspective that these accreditation processes require.

Really, there is value in all of our self-assessments, external reviews, and even our annual reports. These tasks and processes force us to look up from our to-do lists and think about all we have accomplished. They force us to look around and ask ourselves how we fit into the higher education landscape. They ask us to consider whether we measure up to the expectations of our fields. Best of all, they provide an opportunity to think about what we might do better. For me, that last bit is where the fun begins.

Yes, I said fun. Amid the drudgery of doing assessments, writing annual reports, and preparing for site visits, the excitement is in the possibility for growth. We might revise a course or a program. We might find an opportunity to expand or re-focus our offerings. We might see room for building interdisciplinary partnerships within the university or with external programs and organizations. We might get a new idea. Nothing is more exciting than a new idea.

So, as we welcome spring and face the big race to the finish line, I am inviting everyone to see their to-do lists through this lens. We are not just finishing things; we are looking for opportunities to grow and improve. This is the why of it all and the true opportunity for rebirth.

Higher Education, Hope, Resilience

Spring into Action

This week is the start of WCSU’s spring semester, and I am excited. We have faced the hurdles that all campuses have faced in this COVID-19 environment. We now have a multitude of teaching modalities, from face-to-face to the myriad possible combinations of hybrid and online. Our safety measures on campus proved very effective in the fall, so we will continue them this spring, with an increase in testing and a continuation of masks and reduced classroom capacity. Our students and faculty appear to have adapted to online advising, and we continue to try to drive our students to the academic and social supports that we are offering online. In short, we have learned from our experiences last fall and we are ready dive into spring, better informed and with new insights.

Even though we must start online so we can safely bring our residential students back to campus (we move to the blended learning environment next week), I still feel that wonderful sense of excitement and optimism that comes with the start of a new semester. That feeling that once came from the smell of new course texts and the smooth paper of new notebooks, now arises from a neatly organized calendar, a full schedule of meetings, and the hope of moving initiatives forward. I love the constant renewal that comes from the rhythm of higher education. The rest of the world waits for New Year’s Day for resolutions, we get to do this every semester.

Nevertheless, I feel time slipping away. Oy! The spring semester, though the same length as the fall, always flies by. I usually describe this as the downhill slide to commencement. I suppose it feels faster because of the summer break at the end. Or perhaps it is because the many projects started in the fall are nowhere near complete. And since the opportunity for action is limited by the finite number of campus meetings that are possible, the time crunch is real.

How wonderful this urgency feels. You see it is a normal feeling. It is the usual, pre-pandemic sensation that comes with the launch of the spring semester. As we obsess about when vaccinations will be available, and what the prognosis might be for the next fall, it is easy to feel that this quasi-lockdown status will never end. But it will and we should be thinking about the world after. The good news is, once you recognize that, the wait for a more normal world doesn’t seem as long.

So, here is my to-do list for the next several months:

  1. Focus on equity in the curriculum. The issues driving the Black Lives Matter movement have not disappeared and they must not be forgotten. While there are many areas of the university that deserve attention when it comes to equity and inclusion, as provost, it seems that a thorough look at what we are teaching is a good place to start. It took all fall to get this project started, but we are off.
  2. Determine the right blend of online, hybrid, and on-campus offerings for a post-pandemic world. This is hard to do quickly, and I must admit we will only have a first draft of a plan this spring, but we need to learn from everything we just, well, piloted. We must identify and evaluate the appropriate variables to determine the right mix of learning modalities for next year.
  3. Prioritize investment in academic success programs. In what is likely to be a multi-year path to financial recovery for all of higher education, we must not neglect the initiatives that will best serve our students. It is natural to think that we cannot afford new things, but our data are telling us that we must intervene where students struggle. The task is to reimagine our constrained spending plans to meet these urgent challenges.
  4. Increase awareness of all the important work that our students and faculty are doing in the surrounding community. COVID-19 has provided lots of opportunities for WCSU to partner with health care, education, and other city services. We have risen to these challenges and worked with partners throughout. But we always do this, and no one seems to know. Now is the time to make our expertise and community engagement visible.

This is the short list of specific things to work on this spring. It may be short, but it is strenuous to be sure. I am diving in with optimism and enthusiasm, not just because of the renewal I feel with the start of a new semester, but because all of it has real value for students and the future of the university. There is nothing like working for things you believe in to inspire hope.

But that short list is just a small glimpse of my dreams for higher education. In reality, my list starts here: 1. Re-imagine the role and structure of the regional comprehensive university such that it provides opportunities for all learners and supports the informed citizenry necessary to sustain a democratic society. This is what I wake up thinking about every morning and it both inspires and frightens me.

But I am not afraid today. It is the start of a new semester. Students and faculty have returned to my inbox, if not my office. My calendar is full of opportunities to move things forward. And hey, there’s even a little more daylight to celebrate. I am ready!

Hope

Let it Snow!

Something totally normal is about to happen, we are going to have our first winter snowstorm in the Connecticut. It is December, and despite the obvious impact of global climate change, it tends to snow this time of year. The weather forecasters are excitedly warning us of potential accumulation. Families are checking their shovels, salt, and food supplies, and we’re all looking forward to the joy of the first storm. It feels so good to feel this way.

Of course, this is not a normal year. Usually, when that first storm comes, I relax into the realization that nature will have its way with us. I revel in the notion that the foolish delusion that I am in charge of anything will be disrupted by impassable roads. The very idea that things will stop for the weather serves as a reminder that I am not in control. As I write this nostalgic reflection on my relationship with the snow, I am laughing. No reminders of nature’s power are necessary this year. Snow will not disrupt nearly as much as COVID-19 has already done.

We’ve gone and changed the snow storm rules, too. No more snow days in this predominantly online world. Unless the power goes out, most things can continue as usual. I suppose that is a good thing. Some years, snow has made it close to impossible to complete the goals of our curriculum. And for the K-12 group, they often extend the year in ways that disrupt family vacations and summer camp plans. Ok, it is probably a good thing to not let the snow disrupt everything. But maybe a little pause is in order?

As I reflect on my usual joyful feeling for all but those late March snowstorms, I am wondering how to reap the rewards of the modified snow day. Here’s my list.

  1. Let the sound of snow soothe you. Even if we are working from home snow storms bring quiet. I always know we’ve had a storm before I open my eyes, because of the change in the sound scape. That blanket of snow muffles the noises outside my window. When coupled with the reduction in traffic, it is a wonderfully quiet world. Something about that quiet helps me slow my pace, enjoy my morning coffee, and think more clearly. It just seems to say, don’t rush.
  2. Even if you are a person who hates winter, you have to admit that a fresh blanket of snow is beautiful. Take it in. I think looking out at the snow evokes the same feeling of awe that staring at the ocean conjures. Perhaps my brain knows that snow is water and so creates the same response. Well, beauty tends to bring joy, and we need some joy in our lives, so let it come through. Joy often makes room for ideas and insights, too, so taking that moment to see the beauty may inspire new productivity elsewhere. Maybe, or maybe the joy is enough.
  3. Go out and play. We are all tired of our homes. Many of us have done our best to take in the foliage, bicycle until the last possible day, or just take a walk to counteract the sense of monotony that our constrained movements can inspire. Snow is just one more opportunity to disrupt that potential despair. You don’t have to ski or shovel if you don’t want to (I admit it, I even like to shovel), but a few minutes of walking outside and breathing in the cold snowy air can inspire a feeling of health and wellness. Who doesn’t need that, right now?

Don’t worry, you can do all of this and still keep up with your work. It’s just a small pause, a shift in your pace, an opportunity for mindfulness that the change in the scenery can inspire. Take the time to let that work.

Here’s the thing, folks, we have a long way to go before normalcy returns, and we all need strategies to keep us from COVID-19 fatigue. Even with all the changes in our lives, anticipating the fun of a snow storm feels, well normal. So, let that anticipation excite you. Let the natural world inspire you. Let the positive disruption of a modified snow day create a feeling of hope that things will be better in the spring. And yes, let it snow!

Dialogue, Hope

Policies Not Parties

On the day after the presidential election was completed in 2016, a colleague wrote an impassioned email to me. People were scared and shaken by the results, they said, so the provost should send out a soothing email. I respectfully declined. Given the not insignificant number of students and faculty who were happy with the result of that election, it seemed overly partisan.

To be fair, my colleague teaches in a discipline that attracts students who were likely to have voted for Hillary Clinton and for what are often called “liberal” policy initiatives. The heart of that discipline focuses on care of the neediest members of our community. In that department, people were shaken (honestly, so was I), and they did need to discuss the results of the election. They held conversations in the department where it seemed more appropriate to me.

Here we are four years later, and I continue to think about the appropriateness of any kind of message about winners and losers in political campaigns coming from my office. I support a diverse community of students, faculty, and staff, and we vote according to our consciences not as a block. The usual conversation in the media about liberal indoctrination on college campuses just isn’t true. Disagreements abound and most of the time they are respectfully expressed and passionately argued. Teaching students how to respectfully disagree, using credible evidence, is one of the core purposes of education at every level, and that is where my commitments lie. So, like four years ago, I do not find a message to the whole community appropriate.

Committing to the diversity of opinions is a core value for me, not just at work, but also in my life outside of the provost’s office. Whether in my elected position on a school board or in my social life among my musician friends, I do not agree with everyone’s position. Nevertheless, these are my friends and neighbors and I want to understand our differences, so I continue to communicate with them. Over the last four years (and the last 7 days) political comments on social media have been vile and inflammatory, and I have worked hard not to participate in that kind “conversation.” I have also refrained from unfriending people with whom I disagree (although I confess to an occasional “mute” to regain my perspective). Unfriending just leads to echo-chambers and no chance for understanding the underpinnings of our disagreements. Social media sites are terrible places for conversations, mostly because they support instant reaction, rather reflection. They are, however, good opportunities to find out what people are thinking.

It is that “what people are thinking” that I am focusing on today. You see, I have had some really great conversations with people who disagree with me over the years. Those conversations helped me move past party lines and into the heart of what was bothering both of us. Sometimes the conversation was about what we disliked about a candidate, but more often it was about how we think the world should be. I have learned how powerful and long lasting a sense of betrayal can be, from a Vietnam Veteran voting against Kerry those many years ago. I have learned that disagreements about accountability measures in a school district benefit greatly from sustained conversations about scale and measurement. Our board did not disagree about improving the outcomes, just the meaning of the measures. The discussion moved us forward. I have understood that even though most of my neighbors are not as committed to the kind of social safety net that I support, they are committed to making sure that no one in our community is hungry and that is as good a place to start a policy conversation as any. Sometimes these conversations actually lead to a path forward, which is great. Not always, of course, but sometimes is pretty rewarding.

So, this is what I propose–let’s stop talking about politicians and parties and start talking about policies. Let’s not talk in slogans or memes or partisan doctrines, but instead dive into the boring details of the policies that might help us create a better world. Let us acknowledge our differing worldviews but then speak in the possible shared goals rather than our seemingly insurmountable differences. And let us please let go of absolutes. While there are some proposals and ideas that I find absolutely offensive and unlivable, the path forward is not in stopping the conversation at that point; it is in starting it there instead.

Here we are, the Monday after another tough election. Some are cautiously optimistic, some are devastated, some are still angry with the choices we had. No, I will not send out any announcements about the election. I will, however, continue to focus on the intersection of equity and education, moving forward policy discussions in an effort to make a better educational experience for everyone at this university. There will be disagreements reflecting deeply held beliefs about the meaning of a good education, the notion of merit, and what equity looks like. I welcome those disagreements because policies always improve with thorough and passionate review. But as we argue, I hope we remember that we are a community that wants to create a great educational experience for all. It isn’t partisan, it is our shared purpose.

I also hope that we remember that our actions are not infallible, and that all policies will need subsequent review. Keeping that fallibility in mind will remind us that no one is completely right, and we are never done working for a better world. No, the party lines won’t help us right now, but I am cautiously optimistic that the policy conversations will.