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.

Change, Hope, Resilience

Optimism Lives in the “We”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Higher Education, Quality, Resilience

Thinking Small(er)

So here we are. We’ve worked hard all summer to prepare our campuses to receive students in this topsy-turvy COVID-19 world. Some of us had to delay our starts due to local outbreaks, others have had to send students home due to campus outbreaks. We invested in masks, hand sanitizer, and plexiglass barriers. We significantly reduced class-size and moved a lot to online or hybrid modalities. We tried to improve some of our technological infrastructure. We invested in more training opportunities for faculty moving to online teaching. With each step we spent money.

While we prepared, we saw a predictable drop in first-year students. They and their families are waiting it out in hopes of a better (normal) environment next year. With the switch in modalities, a fair number of returning students opted to complete their studies from home. They are sticking with us, but no longer see the value in a residential experience that is mostly virtual. It is a rational economic choice, but it is also a huge hit to the university budget plan.

And, of course, all of this is hitting campuses at the same time as funding streams tighten. States are juggling financial challenges for education, but also social services, health care, and unemployment insurance. Private universities are likely to see weakening donor bases for the next year. Indeed, private universities saw this coming early and started furloughing staff as early as April. For the publics, the realities are hitting home now. It is not that we didn’t know that we would have budget challenges, we just held out hope a little longer.

Now what? The inevitable hiring freezes have begun, and we are bracing for the impact. But I don’t think hiring freezes are going to solve the scale of this problem. They are too arbitrary, and they often hurt performance in key areas. No, I think we need to think more carefully about the whole of our institutions and make more thoughtful decisions than a freeze allows. Is it time to consider growing smaller?

For those of us in New England, enrollment projections have been troubling for some time. Higher education news has been filled with discussions of strategies to manage the demographic trends of the region. Some have focused on widening the recruiting radius, others on adding attractive new majors, and still others on merging campuses for greater efficiencies, particularly around administrative costs. While each of these strategies might offer partial fix, the reality is that there are limits to their impact. With COVID-19, I think we’ve hit that limit. To put it plainly, I don’t think we can grow our way out of this one.

I am sure everyone who just read that last sentence is thinking about layoffs and furlough days, etc., but I would like to think about this a little differently. What I would like to do is imagine a process by which we develop a plan for slightly smaller, more focused university. As normal schools became colleges became universities, we all aspired to a breadth model. We chased after ideas and expanded our offerings, with no end point in sight. That is natural, perhaps, for people who are curious by nature, but it is simply not sustainable without continuous growth, and continuous growth is a myth. It is time to stop buying into that myth and build something more sustainable.

Every university has academic programs that are no longer attracting students. Then there are co-curricular programs with low participation. Our impulse is to try to save them all. Maybe we shouldn’t. Instead of preserving the programs, perhaps we should ask ourselves two important questions: 1. Can we deliver a high quality liberal arts education without this program? 2. Is it possible to discover better ways to use the expertise devoted to the program in support of our students?

This first question is particularly challenging because we all love our disciplines. But let’s face it, not everything is essential to providing a quality liberal arts experience. If it were, we’d still be requiring Latin. We want to help students become adept at analytic thinking in multiple formats (quantitative and qualitative), competent and thoughtful communicators in multiple contexts (writing, speaking, various digital forms), and aware of the contributions to our knowledge and values from many cultures over time. None of this tells us which ideas are most important. It simply suggests that we want our graduates to be able to navigate the world after graduation with a broad set of skills and understandings, and hopefully, some degree of curiosity. Can we achieve those goals without every program? Probably.

But what of the talented faculty and staff involved? Since we are not working on a growth model, we should really think about how to successfully reimagine the resources we already have. In the case of an academic program, that might mean asking talented scholars to re-group and work with another department to make something new (or stronger). This is hard because all members of the faculty have spent years pursuing a passionate interest in a discipline. They are doing what they have prepared to do. For co-curricular programs, our staff members have honed their skills in particular areas. It is what they are happiest doing. Now they might need to let go of some of that specialization and reimagine their passion in a new context. It is not necessarily what they planned for, but it might help preserve the demand for their expertise by repositioning its place in the path through education. It might also improve the experience of our students.

As I write this, I can hear the collective shudder. We do not like thinking this way in higher education. We are experts at expanding expertise and offerings. The history of departments and initiatives tell that tale very well. We are also experts at arguing for the value of every single thing we have ever done. Unfortunately, that’s just too much for us to manage, at least not without continuous growth. (Still a myth.)

It is time to start making some tough choices. But let’s not just talk about cuts and losses and wish for the status quo. Let’s recognize how many resources we have on our campuses already. Let’s ask ourselves about our goals for our students and the ways in which the talent we already have might help us better reach those goals. We won’t get bigger, but we might just get better.