Hope, Resilience

Lift Up Your Head

For those who know me, the reference of this title will be obvious. For those who don’t, well, I always have lyrics in my head. This one is from “Suddenly, Seymour” in Little Shop of Horrors. The rest of the verse ends with “I know things were bad, but now they’re ok.” These words have been running through my head today because I did take a moment to look up, and even if things aren’t quite ok, there is room for hope and inspiration.

You see the students are here. At our university, it is particularly exciting to see them here on a Friday. Like so many campuses, students often try to duck out for the weekend, or schedule their work hours on the weekends so they can attend to their studies the rest of the week. But it is Friday before Labor Day, and our quad is full of activity. We have a lovely, newly renovated Student Center, that has set the stage. It has a much-improved dining area (actually, kind of spectacular), a coffee shop and lots of seats for hanging around. I can’t wait for winter when the fireplace in the lounge is on. They’ll have to shoo me away.

But it is too nice to stay inside, and the Student Center completes the quad with Haas Library on one side (also filled with great spaces to hang out), Higgins Hall on the other. Higgins was renovated just a few years ago, with outdoor seating and indoor gathering spaces – all part of a design principle that is meant to encourage interactions everywhere. In the middle is the quad, a green space to just enjoy the sunshine. There are students playing cornhole, students listening to music, students chatting. It feels good.

I’m glad I lifted up my head to look around. Mired in spreadsheets filled with worries all morning, my afternoon stroll brought a wave of optimism. I am so encouraged that we’ve seen growth in our first-year class. We’re opening new programs this fall that I am confident will be exciting for our students. We have reorganized departments and schools to create stronger identities for each and to encourage partnerships that will cultivate more curricular change and interdisciplinary collaboration. We have a new Dean of Student Success and Engagement, a new approach to the First Year Experience, and we are piloting a new approach to math, that I think will have a positive impact on student success. That’s a lot of new, and there is more to come. It is exciting.

As I think of all of those new things, I realize just how fast we are moving at WCSU. We are not waiting for magical solutions to the demographic changes that are pervasive in New England; we are transforming ourselves. Indeed, sometimes I can’t keep up. As provost, I am responsible for reviewing all curricular change and shepherding new degree proposals through external review processes. With so many in the last year, and several more anticipated this year, it is easy to lose track of all the i-s and t-s that need to be dotted. For the first time ever, I’ve had to ask my trusted assistant (partner, really) to create a spreadsheet for me to keep track of everything. What a great problem to have!

And even as I write this, I am simultaneously preparing for a meeting to find funding to enhance spaces for student support and spaces for faculty research and collaboration. It’s a bit of a mind flip (oops, switched to Rocky Horror), but these mental gymnastics are the fun of this work. It is about imagining a brighter, stronger, exciting future. Thank goodness for the opportunity to do so.

Here’s the thing, we still have problems to solve. The spreadsheets are still a mire. Demographics are still scary. Budgets are still daunting. But as I look at all the work we have done, I am starting to see a path forward. It is in our innovative spirit – something that never gets enough credit in higher education. It is true that our core ideas have long histories, and we have deep commitments to tradition, but our actions are nothing less than breathtakingly inventive. New courses, revised courses, new approaches to teaching, new research, new texts, no texts, and when someone lets us, whole new visions for the future.

Let’s lift up our heads and see it together.

Welcome back, everyone.

Community, Hope

Turning off Fight or Flight

This morning I woke up thinking about the coming spring. I know we’ll have more snow, and I don’t dislike winter, but days are already lengthening, birds are chirping, and I can’t help but feel my spirits lifting. Born and raised in the northeast, I’m especially attuned to the changing seasons, feeling each one with joyous anticipation and embracing the patterns of life they bring. Spring means more outdoors, which I love; it also means the mad dash from midterms to commencement, which is also exhilarating. These are happy days, indeed.

Then it dawned on me that it was at this time three years ago that we got our first glimpse of the pandemic. It was late February 2020, when I was contacted regarding our students abroad and whether they should come home (they did). Shortly thereafter, we had to cancel the spring break trips of our athletes (trips where they launch their season), which was a precursor to the lost seasons to follow. Then going home for spring break turned into going remote for the rest of the semester, with students and faculty tossed into the deep end of online education, and the rest of us trying to figure out how to run everything else remotely. We pivoted to emergency conditions that lasted for way too long.

Like everyone in leadership roles, I felt a heavy responsibility in a cloud of uncertainty. The ongoing work of making decisions that focused on safety and preserving learning was high stress, high energy, and continuous. It was an endless feeling of urgency, fueled by adrenaline and sleepless nights. I was not unique in feeling that stress: every single person in this community was in a constant state of uncertainty, anxiety, and fear. We were fighting for our lives and livelihoods. There were moments of creativity, invention, and even excitement as we made things work, but we were in a state of high alert in the face of danger.

And it didn’t end with that moment when we finally felt we could take off our masks and get back to something more like normal education. The fallout from COVID-19 is still a big part of our lives. Everyone is navigating enrollment impacts that will be with us for several more years, which impacts budgets, and our ability to plan for a better future.

This seemingly endless period of stress has got me thinking that we have all been in an extended state of fight or flight. In very real terms the pandemic triggered responses that were built on a fear so deep we were fighting for our survival. Some of us fled, leaving our careers or at least opting to continue working remotely long after others had returned to campus. People caring for children, sick relatives, or protecting their own health found it hard to transition back to pre-COVID life, and rightfully so. Others resolved to move forward, testing their faith in the recommended precautions as they went into grocery stores, classrooms, or took public transportation. All of us were afraid. We drew on the protections we could muster, tamping down our fear and sometimes succumbing to it, just trying to move forward. No wonder we have been so exhausted.

Our capacity to draw on our survival mechanisms is important, and it helped us get through the worst of the pandemic but staying in that mindset (and the physiological impacts that come along with it), is a terrible long-term strategy. It is bad for health (physical and mental) and eventually traps us in a cycle of behaviors that are only reactive. But moving forward requires us to be thoughtful planners, not emergency responders. For our health and our future, it is time to let that fight or flight mindset go.

As I bask in the happiness that the promise of spring always brings out in me, I am thinking about all of the ways this letting go can improve my work. I am no longer thinking about how to respond to external forces – at least not as a primary motivator. I am thinking about the factors that help create a thriving university. I am thinking about better strategies to support our students’ health and wellness and how to set them up for success. I am thinking about creating environments where faculty routinely exchange ideas about teaching and scholarship and find ways to collaborate on both. I am thinking about how to disrupt the separations between academic and student affairs, so that much more co-planning with shared visions can take place. Oh, how exciting! All of these thoughts have next steps — some mysterious, others obvious — but they are things to do that aren’t a response, but a chance for a plan.

Yes, the daylight is growing, and my heart is full. I am no longer preparing for attacks and disasters. That perspective has outlived its usefulness. Instead I am reveling in the fun that comes with imagining a brighter future. My mind is filled with ideas and I can’t wait to start new conversations with my colleagues about what could come next. It is not spring yet, but I’m there already and it is glorious.



I had the most delightful weekend. It started with playing music with friends and ended with attending a talk by Dr. Eli Noam titled, The Future of Video Media and the Metaverse. In the center was a truly outstanding production of Allegro, in our School of Visual and Performing Arts (if you’re nearby, go), a fun event in our art gallery which brought in lots of regional artists, and a special accepted students event for students from our local high schools. As I bask in the glow of a weekend well spent, I am struck by the through line of all of this: it is hope.

We talk a lot about the purposes of higher education. It is a path to enlightenment and lifelong learning. It is an on ramp for careers. It is an essential equity strategy for the nation. It is a place for young people to transition from late adolescence to adulthood. It is the place where we pursue questions to help us understand our contexts, illuminate and solve social or technical problems, experiment with form and genre, and, when we’re really lucky, simply play with ideas. All of these things matter. All of them are the essence of higher education.

But, as I moved through this wonderfully rich weekend, I came to understand that what we are doing when we engage in these questions, creations, and ideas, is allowing ourselves to have hope. Indeed, higher education, all education really, is the purest expression of hope that there is. How wonderful.

In a world where the news about higher education is filled with crises both financial and political, it is hard to move from the difficult details of managing our work, to the bigger picture question of our purposes. As provost, I am charged with continuously reflecting on the outcomes of the educational experience, focusing on equity, quality, and the impact of the opportunities we hope our students seize. Faculty are focused on trying to engage students in the topics they hold dear, reflecting on their teaching and puzzling over how to inspire their classes to go ahead and struggle with the material at hand. Those working in the areas of academic support (tutoring, advising, mentoring, financial aid, and the registrar) are paying attention to those processes that are helping and those that are blocking our students from succeeding in their college experiences. Our library keeps pivoting, trying to connect our students to the campus, so do our Centers for Student Involvement, Career Success, the Office of InterCultural Affairs, and Athletics. Our efforts are continuous as we reach out, trying to draw our students in.

All of this matters. All of it is necessary. We must constantly examine results and work to get better. We must be reflective educators, looking for new opportunities to make all students feel welcome, supported, and able to succeed. I think we do this by nature, even if sometimes our efforts are dispersed or not fully seen by our colleagues. But as I think about the notion of hope as the heart of what we do, I wonder if we need to make a little more room to acknowledge the things we are all hoping for when we cross that threshold to the university.

Applying to college is scary, exciting, financially daunting, and fraught with uncertainty. For our traditional aged students, it is a step encouraged by guidance counselors, parents, and peers. It is the stuff of movies and television programs, offering an option for what to do after high school. Students may take this step because it is expected or because they don’t know what else to do, but when they do, they are hoping for something wonderful to happen.

Returning to college after a gap, whether because one’s first try didn’t go well or because a person wanted or needed to do something else first, is also daunting. Adult learners worry about the money, to be sure, but they are more worried about whether they remember how to be students, whether they will be able to keep up, and even whether or not they will find a way to fit into a space that is largely designed for those coming straight out of high school. But they are also filled with hope. They are taking this step because they are hoping for something more – a new opportunity, a new sense of self, a new view of the world.

Those of us who have chosen careers in higher education are brimming with hope. We hope to keep learning and to help others share our joy in the ideas we hold dear. We hope that our own efforts will make a difference in the world – whether as scholars or as teachers and mentors. We hope that somehow, we will move forward challenging conversations, impossible research questions, and inspire ourselves and our students to imagine and pursue new acts of creativity in all of its forms. In the face of the myriad challenges and sometimes disheartening evidence that our efforts may have failed, we bravely and optimistically start each term, and often each day, with a sense of hope and wonder.

We are a lucky group. Our lives are shaped by a deep faith in the possibilities that education creates. We are charged with guiding others as they uncover their hopes and dreams and open their eyes to possibilities. Sometimes we see the results of our efforts plainly, in the performances, projects, and culminating experiences that mark the ends of things. We also see them in small wins everywhere — like when a student finally grasps a concept they’ve struggled with, or when one who is pondering leaving connects with their advisor and decides to stay. Through each of these steps our students are transformed and so are we. Their questions, triumphs, and challenges bring new understandings of the world; they bring new understandings of ourselves. I cannot imagine anything more wonderful.

Education are the deepest expression of hope a culture can muster. It signals a firm belief that things can get better, that problems can be solved, that ideas are meaningful things, and that we all have the capacity to grow. It is a place of constant reinvention and discovery, and a path to discontentment and contentment all at once. What an exciting and optimistic journey! I hope you can feel it, too.

Engagement, Hope, Resilience

Skeptical Optimism

It is raining today in Connecticut. The children waiting for the school buses this morning were clad in rain jackets and protective parents held their umbrellas over their impossible to still children. Cars plowed through the puddles creating splashes that made those efforts to stay dry futile anyway. No matter, everyone was smiling. We are grateful for this wonderful replenishing rain.

Long strings of sunny days are a wonderful thing, but we all know that without the rain we perish. The soil needs moisture, and so do we. Sometimes, we even need the break from activity that the rain might postpone. Rain not only nourishes, but it balances us, and makes us question our devotion to blue skies.

I know, I’m going on too long about the rain (I’m just so happy to see it), but it has got me thinking about the kind of balance we try to achieve in all educational settings. We are charged with educating our students about all manner of things – things that are complicated, things that don’t have clear answers, things that are impressive, but not yet done. This is an exciting and daunting responsibility that requires us to be able to celebrate both the sun and the rain.

Consider the work that science faculty must do. Discoveries in science require theories, hypotheses, experiments, results, new hypotheses, and ultimately new theories. All of this is natural for scientists; they see no problem with this cycle. For the uninitiated, though, the certainty of scientific results is shaken by any real understanding of this process. All scientists and students of science must find ways to embrace the temporary nature of our certainty. Each new breakthrough is a miracle that should be celebrated, but also distrusted. For those who find the balance, the path to the next set of questions is the win. They find a way to enjoy the wins (and the knowledge generated by the losses), while maintaining the absolutely necessary skepticism about what they think they know.

Then there are faculty charged with educating our future artists. Learning to be an artist requires a balance of technique, inspiration, and context. Faculty and students in the arts move from the position of the paintbrush, the horn, the toe, to the traditions of the genre, to the reinvention of the rules, often in the same sentence. For the uninitiated, though, art is all opinion and talent, without any of that hard work or precision. In fact, the most successful artists make all of the hard work invisible. The challenge for faculty is not just about convincing students to do the hard work, (counteracting the cultural narrative), it is also about doing so in a way that makes room for the inspiration and yes, talent. The critiques that are central to the creative process must help students find their way to excellence, not make them feel lesser. It is a balance of celebrating success and finding the path forward from the failures.

Ok, I’ve stalled long enough; then there is history. By history, I mean the history of everything-social structures, political structures, art and invention. Oh boy, how we’ve politicized this! Whenever we are charged with guiding students through the past to where we are today, we are going to be stepping into some tricky waters. Our histories are full of awe-inspiring moments. I’m particularly happy about the revolutions that were supported by the invention of the printing press (things like the way we do science, the way we imagine individual and human rights, the way in which governments are formed, come to mind). Understanding the importance of contact between different groups of people, how their ideas about right, wrong, medicine, or art interact with each other is both fascinating and sometimes unsettling. There are exciting tales to tell. But of course, there are no histories or societies without great achievements and great failures.

For those in the humanities and the social sciences, this is obvious. They are adept at examining the complexities of how right, or good, or even success is defined. They are also adept at seeing problems in our assumptions and places where work still needs to be done (and work always needs to be done). It is incredibly important that they have open and honest conversations with their students about the good, the bad, and the ugly that we find in our histories and social structures. They must be fair about the ambiguity in what they see and acknowledge that the meanings ascribed today are likely to change tomorrow as we learn more and expand our thinking. They work to elicit thoughtful critiques and ideas from their students and wrestle with the contradictions those observations may reveal. And, like their colleagues in science and in art, it is important that they help their students find the joy in the good stuff and the path to improvement for the not so great stuff – perhaps with some inspiration and talent.

Eboo Patel describes some of what I’m trying to get at in his essay: Teach Students to Be Builders, not Critics. Patel argues that criticism only goes so far, students need a path to action. I agree with this, although I think more of this is happening in our classrooms than is widely understood. Still, it is a good reminder that as we insist on the fullness of conversations that should happen in all of our disciplines, conversations that must include the failures and the successes, we should always help our students imagine themselves building something better. It is a balance of skepticism and optimism that we hope to strike.

So, I’m back to the rain. Some will curse it as their plans are cancelled, but most of us recognize the essential role it plays in our lives. Those streams we swim in are re-filled, those forests we walk through are lush again, that day of rest from our ballgame is healing our muscles. We can embrace the balance of sun and rain. Let’s also embrace that balance of the great and the awful in our histories and our capacity to grow; the discoveries that cure our ills and and the knowledge gained from those that ended in disaster; the inspirations that brought forth breaktaking new performances and those that resulted in giant ugly messes, from which new inspiration will certainly arise.

Embracing failures, mistakes, and limits are all essential to learning. So is the excitement of being able to see the next question, the place for improvement, the path forward when nothing seems to be working. Dedicated faculty all over the world are starting the fall term, striving to achieve the right balance between those essential pieces of a good education. Balancing them is the complexity and the joy of this profession. It is the sun and the rain.

Higher Education, Hope

Degrees Re-Imagined

Generally, when I write this weekly post, my ideas are inspired by some interesting development in the higher education news, a recent book on teaching and learning, or some new initiative here at WCSU. This morning, when I was reading the Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed, I just shook my head. The higher ed news is littered with battles over academic freedom, affirmative action, and the ongoing impact of COVID-19. There are concerns over admissions strategies that reflect our cultural obsession with big name schools, and the details have almost nothing to do with the rest of us. There are tales of demographic disaster, no longer looming, but fully here, and well, I’m already living the reality, so welcome to the club. I just wanted to go back to bed.

But I have never been one to walk away from hard things, and I have a habit of getting up and moving forward despite the gloomy news, so I spent some of this morning thinking about a real reimagining of higher education. In particular, I have been thinking a lot about two things that, when combined, make me wonder if it might be possible to rebuild the entire system (well, not those elite schools, but the rest of us) in a way that reflects the needs and interests of the students we are serving now. Those two things are the short courses of study that lead to immediate credentials (recognized by various employers as valuable) and the potential emergence of the 90-credit BA in the United States.

The short courses of study – certificates and micro-credentials – are a favorite topic of politicians suddenly interested in education. Of course, what these politicians are mostly interested in is workforce development. Economic plans are drawn up by economic policy developers of various states. These plans identify gaps is talent for fields that are either critical to support the current socio-economic infrastructure or necessary to attract a new kind of industry to the state. That gap then becomes a focus of the conversations about education and, well, four-years just seems too long to wait to fill it. Enter the certificates.

Many of us in higher education find the motives for these programs a little suspect. We see our expertise downplayed and the demands of the market/employer amplified. This is true, and sometimes it is downright insulting. We also worry that the overemphasis on employability diminishes the perceived value of the rest of what we do (holistic education, that is rooted in the liberal arts). This is also true and worrisome. Finally, many of us worry that students will be steered towards these programs in ways that replicate the structural inequities in opportunities that have long pervaded all of our systems, but higher education in particular. This is a valid concern.

Nevertheless, there is a part of this emphasis on short-term credentials that we should be paying attention to specifically because of the interests of our students. Many of us serve students who are a) in need of skills they can use right away, to support themselves and their education, and b) not convinced of the value of the four-year experience we currently offer. So, I’m wondering if we might be thoughtful in our response to this approach to education. My colleagues in community colleges are already adept at navigating these kinds of credentials. They have been serving students who need an immediate payoff for their education for years. They are also committed to opening doors, not closing them with these degrees, so they have been focusing on stackable credentials, weaving the short credential into a longer path to a two-year degree. Those degrees transfer to us. Great. Half the job is thinking about this has already been done for us.

But there is more for the four-year colleges to do. If we choose to go in the direction of micro-credentials, we need to ask ourselves a few things: 1. What are the right kinds of credentials for a four-year school? It’s not a great idea to replicate the work of the community colleges. They are expert in this, and they cost less. No contest. But surely there are things that are more appropriate for the university context, where there is a presumption that students will continue after the short credential. 2. How do we make it easy to return to campus, when some students decide to stop out and earn some money with that credential? 3. How do we communicate the value of continuing after that credential and can we do it with evidence?

The other end of this story is the potential emergence of the 3-year (90 credit) baccalaureate degree in the United States. This model has existed in Europe for many years, with many schools there labeling the four-year version as an honors degree. The four-year version tends to focus on research and independent reading in addition to the core 3-year program. It is an intriguing idea, but there are some key things that need to be considered.

The first thing is to acknowledge that the three-year degrees have fewer electives. These degrees are far more focused on the major with a few slots left for breadth. This is a loss for the breadth that we love about our traditional, four-year liberal arts degree. Still, this might be an attractive option for many of the students attending college right now. For those who are ready to declare a major in year one, this is a faster route to the engaging their area of interest, which can be motivation to stick with us. This is not a degree devoid of breadth, so students will still have some room to wander and with careful design, a change of major might not be too damaging. Certainly, we could engineer a plan that would allow degree completion within the original four-year model if students change course.

Where it the 90 credit model is wanting, is for those who are a) missing some academic foundations or b) not ready to declare a major. The work that many of us have done with embedded support in foundational math and writing might be a strategy for this. For those unsure of their interests and talents, we might strengthen our pre-major pathways (meta-majors) and include some education about careers and self-assessments to facilitate decision-making. This could work, but I’m guessing these folks will need the four years. So will the students planning to pursue advanced degrees – much like the honors courses (majors) in Europe.

These options are intriguing, and I am keen to think them through. These are fun questions, questions that involve invention and imagination and an honest look our students’ needs and the expectations of the world we hope to prepare them for. The options could actually expand opportunity by letting go of our commitment to a one-size-fits-all model. This could be the creation of multiple paths to success, instead of just offering fallback plans that are less than satisfying for everyone involved. It is even a chance to disrupt the traditional timeline for degree completion, focusing more on completion points than a single ending. That might encourage graduates to return later. Oh, now we’re talking.

This is a lot more fun than all the doom and gloom I woke to this morning. Like the lengthening of the daylight hours, I am shaking off the darkness and looking for a brighter future after all.