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.

Change, Higher Education, Inclusion, Resilience

The Balcony View

Managing a campus under crisis conditions is, well, challenging. All campus leaders, and I mean everyone not just the academic leadership team, have been immersed in the details of health and safety and the related enrollment challenges that came with COVID-19. At the same time, higher education has been grappling with the social injustices laid bare in this environment and heightened by the events surrounding the death of George Floyd. We have been running at high speed from problem to problem for a year now, and our ability to keep running may be reaching its end. Even Olympic athletes need to rest now and then.

So, at this one year mark (our campus closed on March 13, 2020), I am taking a moment to step back and consider our next steps. I’m taking a “balcony view” (coincidentally, I have just finished a course that introduced me to Heifetz and Laurie’s (1997) work on this subject, and now it is in the higher education news), and asking myself, “In light of all that we have experienced in the last year, how should our university evolve?”

Why ask this question, now? Why not just chart a path back to “normal”? After all, the vaccination roll out in Connecticut is progressing well and I feel very optimistic about our ability to be fully open next fall. It would be easy to just focus on that project, attending to the normal recruiting and scheduling questions and reveling in the knowledge that we can finally reduce our dependence on Zoom. But I can’t do that, because COVID-19 was not just an emergency for the last year: it was a powerful tool for surfacing structural issues that were already pervasive in our society and on our campuses. No, I can’t just breathe a sigh of relief. I must help our entire campus community dig into the necessary conversations about equity that have been made abundantly clear in this crisis.

So, as I invite my colleagues to engage in questions of what we should learn from life in a pandemic, I have a list of questions.

First, how should we respond to the access issues laid bare by COVID-19?

Questions about access to education and healthcare are not new, but they sure did move front and center over the last year. Last March, as students, faculty, and most of our staff shifted to remote learning and work environments, it became abundantly clear that the distribution of technology and wi-fi was not equal. We scrambled to deploy resources to students, only to find that our faculty and staff needed them, too. In 2020, this was kind of shocking. The world of work and the work of community has been at least partially digital for many years now, so how could we have found it acceptable that members of our organization did not have the basic tools necessary to interact remotely? As we return to “normal” let’s not lose sight of this fact. As we face the many budgetary challenges ahead, let’s not forget that this access issue is our responsibility. What can we do to reorganize our priorities so that the gap in access does not return?

While we are not in the health care delivery business, we are in the health care education business. The last year has made clear to many what some of us have known all along – not everyone has access to quality healthcare. But there’s more; communities do not just have financial barriers to medicine, they have cultural histories that lead to distrust of the health care system. As we work to educate future health care providers, how might we make those cultural and socio-economic barriers to health care a central component of our student’s education? How can we bring those same issues to the forefront of the education we offer to future educators, social workers, police officers, lawyers, and politicians? Can we become an organization that keeps these realities and histories central to all that we do?

Second, what should we learn from the experience of online and remote learning?

While none of us loved the abrupt move to online everything, it has become clear that this should be available to us for specific audiences and scenarios. Some of our students really benefitted from the flexibility of online courses and are hoping to continue in that modality for more of their education. The string of snow days in February was a good reminder that having all faculty prepared to hold some of their classes remotely is important for continuity. But not all students and faculty thrive online and not all disciplines are great experiences online, so we need to really explore what just happened. Perhaps the most important questions to ask right now are 1. What should we offer online to support our students and, perhaps recruit new ones? 2. How will we discover who is ready for online learning and who is not?, and 3. How can we ensure that our course design for online learning is as robust as it is for on-ground learning?

Third, how should we respond to the social justice issues surfaced by George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movements?

As we struggle to have the important conversations about race and equity in the United States, we must remember that these issues are not new. The differential experiences of communities of color in all social institutions has been real forever. As important as the questions around policing are, and they are incredibly important, the reality is that we should be focused on our own practices, practices that are re-enforcing inequity. So, while I do ask that my colleagues dedicated to educating law enforcement professionals carefully scrutinize the ways in which they are addressing social structures and racism, I am looking in the mirror first.

Among the things we should be considering are differential outcomes that cluster around race (retention, graduation, debt, and, yes, who enrolls in each major). We should be asking ourselves if the curriculum we offer reflects, at a minimum, the interests and histories of our students? We should be asking ourselves why we are still struggling to attract and retain faculty from diverse backgrounds? In other words, we should not let a demonstration last summer, end in a demonstration last summer. How can we keep ourselves engaged in meaningful and frequent examination of our own practices so that we progress toward greater inclusivity and equity?

Yes, it would be easier to “go back to normal” now that we can see the light at the end of the pandemic. But going back to normal is not a good idea. The pre-pandemic normal was not adequate or fair or just. So, I’m looking at this moment as the end of a yearlong sprint and the start of a marathon. We’ll just call that sprint the training I needed to go the distance, because I don’t want to go back to normal. I’ve taken the balcony view and I see at least part of the big picture. Now it is time to get back into the details and work with my colleagues to find some answers.

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!

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.

Resilience

Thankful

Well, it is the Monday before Thanksgiving and we are hosting the last of our in-person classes this week. By Wednesday all of our residential students will have gone home and, after a few days off, we will return to classes online for the rest of the semester. It seems we averted the worst disasters of COVID-19, with only a small number of infections related to campus and no known spread in the classroom. I am thankful.

Our collective efforts seem to have worked. We reduced room capacities and wore our masks. Our facilities team kept hand sanitizer distributed everywhere and produced plastic barriers in the necessary locations. Hours of operation were reduced in common areas, mostly for our sanity – it is stressful managing the protocols and the fear. Most of our classes are hybrid and online, but we preserved important in-person experiences, particularly in our labs and our visual and performing arts programs. It hasn’t been an ideal learning environment, but it has been acceptable.

As we look ahead to spring, our campus is not planning to make many changes to our fall plan. Given the outcomes, it seems like we have chosen a prudent course of action, and with all magical thinking in place, I don’t want to jinx it. So, as I reflect on the fall, I want to say thank you to our entire university community for their collective efforts at safety. Despite the distance and the endless virtual meetings, we came together as a community and rose to the challenge of this crisis.

What next? Well, since we already know that spring is more of the same, I think we can focus on getting better at creating connections in a virtual world. As a person who has taught online, I know that it takes a few semesters to get really good at teaching this way. Since online teaching is no longer a one-semester (plus the abrupt spring exit) experience, I hope that everyone takes to opportunity to review what worked and revise what did not. It is an effort, of course, but these online courses are likely to be part of our regular teaching portfolio from now on, so getting good at it is not a bad goal.

We might also look at how to strengthen our support programs. Our tutoring centers are reporting a drop in usage, which is unfortunate, so it is clear that some in-person tutoring is a good idea. Perhaps, we should be examining how to get that first connection, that usually happens face-to-face, to happen online. It is clear to me that once the connection happens, people use the services. It is also clear that for some of our students, online is the better platform, for scheduling reasons. That being said, we should also look at that schedule. When not bound by buildings, it is easier to imagine support at later hours, which often suits students well. I’m not sure what we need to do, but there are lots of things to explore, because this online delivery of support services is also likely to be a permanent part of our portfolio of services.

Office hours moved online this year. This was probably the easiest decision I had to make in this whole mess, because the technology we have is great for one-on-one meetings. I am very curious about how students and faculty feel about this. Was it effective? Did students show up? Perhaps, it is time to take a look at how well this is working and recommend some best practices to everyone. Like later hours for tutoring, it might be that the flexibility of on-line office hours is better for everyone involved. I’m not sure, but I’d like to know.

It is also time to figure out if we were able to make our first-year students feel like they were part of our community. Our returning students, though not thrilled with the distance, know us already. They expressed their connection by re-enrolling. We are happy to have them back and, it should not go unstated that we feel grateful as we see familiar faces and names in our classrooms – virtual or otherwise. But our first year students had a tough start to college. Some opted out of college this year, and I get it. I am tremendously grateful to those who chose to try this strange campus environment out, but I do wonder if we were able to support them enough. Perhaps, as we move to the completion of the fall term, it might be good to ask them how they are doing. I’m thinking about how to best accomplish this one.

All of this is a to-do list of sorts, but I feel so lucky to have this list. It means we are still here, and we are still working hard to create good educational experiences. It also means that we are no longer in the morass of unknowns that made decision-making so difficult last summer. We have acted on the best guidance of the health experts and it worked. Uncertainty about how to navigate this environment has been reduced. There is a path forward–a path I recognize, where the choices are within the realm of my experiences.

So here we are on the Monday before Thanksgiving, and yes, I am thankful. I feel so much better than I did in August and I hope that everyone else at WCSU feels the same. We showed that adhering to the recommended protocols can work. We showed that we can do this thing called higher education in a COVID-19 world after all. So, yay team!

Now let’s not blow it people. Keep following those CDC recommendations during the holidays and protect your loved ones. Because, after all, my magical thinking is silly. It’s not magic – it’s masks.

Stay healthy everyone.