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.

Higher Education, Resilience

Doing Less (Again)

Pause! That is how we are describing the two-week delay in opening our physical campus. Due to a change in COVID-19 conditions in our neighborhood, all of our classes will launch online for the first two-weeks of the semester. We have paused the move-in to residence halls and asked everyone to just log into their classes for now. Ouch!

A million logistical concerns follow. The list is too long to go through here, but let’s just say it is everything from re-testing residential students to figuring out how to get books to students who had them shipped to the campus, thinking they would be here. We are working through them, one by one, but I won’t lie, it is exhausting. After spending all summer preparing for a safe opening, and wondering if we would have to shut down at some point during the semester for a 2nd wave of COVID-19, not starting as planned is painful.

As always, though, whenever I feel overwhelmed and exhausted, I start to think of everyone else’s experience. Some faculty have to change their planned course schedules to accommodate the lack of lab time. Others are creating alternative experiences overnight, just to keep everyone on track. Student affairs is busy re-imagining first-week events (what we call LEAP week), so that there is still some sense of connection and excitement about starting the semester. Students are trying to figure out where to “go” and what the changes to their schedules actually mean. No, being overwhelmed does not get to be unique to me. It seems like a good time to think about virtues of doing less.

In other columns, I have suggested that we might consider pruning our syllabi just a bit. In our love for our disciplines, we have a tendency to try to engage our students with all of our favorite ideas and readings and exercises. Maybe all of it is just too much. What if you only had ten weeks for your course? What would you cut? If you know the answer to this, that’s the “too much” of your course. Now add the time back (perhaps in a new modality). What would you do with it, now that you have made the room? Can you do something more with the existing topics? Is there room to help students practice with the essential ideas? Is there more time for you to give feedback? I don’t know… have fun with it.

Then there are meetings. How much time can one person spend on Zoom or WebEx or Teams anyway? I can positively confirm that the answer is less time than I have been spending there. How about reimagining meetings as mini-meetings? If you only had 15 minutes, what would change? I bet you would get to the point pretty quickly, and still have time for a couple of pleasantries. If the point is a long, collaborative brainstorming session, ok, that may require more time. But for most of the long list of meetings on my schedule, 15 minutes is sufficient to set up the questions and delegate the work. That will definitely be my new model this year.

Then there are committees. Oh my. We are (rightfully) committed to a lot of conversations in higher education. This is important for shared governance, to be sure, and to support the general principle that a diversity of opinions can lead to better ideas. Great. But the thing is, we frequently have more than one committee devoted to very similar tasks. Maybe more specificity would help? Or just a little review of purposes and any potential overlap? Too many committees may effectively bury ideas when they were meant to unearth them. Could we trim a few from the list?

Finally, goals. I know my list is too long. I am guessing that yours is, too. We seem to always want to strive for that one more thing. But should we? Can we really do so much and do it well? Probably not. A few years ago, we were engaged in revising our general education curriculum. Part of this was creating learning outcomes for each category. People frequently laughed at me when I tried to limit the number of learning outcomes. There was a tendency to create 5, 6 or 7 (too many). In our learning-outcomes-across-the-curriculum approach to gen-ed, this is really too much to manage. It is also just too many outcomes for a gen-ed course to commit to fully engaging. I kept arguing for no more than 3 learning outcomes for any category (competency). People thought I was kidding, but I was not. Five years later, as I watch them evolve, they are shrinking in number. I think maybe I was right. Too many are just too hard to do well.

So, I am refraining from being overwhelmed by the ever-expanding list of things I need to attend to in a highly disrupted and changeable environment. Instead, I am re-committing to doing less. I am taking things off my list, and getting on with what remains. Feel free to join me in this exercise. It might help you weather this changeable storm of COVID-19, or just normal life. Or skip it. I mean, who needs one more thing to do?

Change, Growth Mindset, Resilience

Defaulting to Kindness

Last Friday, I had the honor of participating in a faculty session regarding our first year classes this fall. A lot of hard work has gone on, from the leadership of our FY director, to the contributions of our instructional designers, librarians, media services, student affairs, and of course all the FY faculty re-writing their materials for the fall. It was a tremendous effort and the people able to participate in our virtual meeting were enthusiastic about the materials shared with them. There was a clear sense of mutual support in this strange new world.

First-year courses everywhere are likely to have undergone these efforts. No matter what combination of online and on-ground teaching a university has selected, one thing is clear: It will not be a normal start. Our entering first-year students are tasked with acclimating to higher education in multiple modalities (online, hybrid, flex, etc.), while also experiencing the socio-emotional growth that typically takes place as they transition from high school to college. They must do all of this with COVID-19 in their minds at all time. That is a lot to ask. We have spent a lot of time working on the safety part of this equation and we will spend the rest of the year, continuously reflecting on and adjusting the teaching and learning part.

At WCSU, the FY team has strengthened first-year courses because students might not get to meet each other, or their faculty, in person anytime soon. To bridge this physical gap, they have included clear instruction about navigating the online learning environment. They developed new strategies for helping peer mentors engage students within our learning management system and there was conversation about group work designed to help students interact with each other, not just for learning, but for making friends. There was also attention to seeking routine feedback from students to try to help them stick with their coursework, and build connections when those connections feel, well, intangible. I am proud of the team of faculty and staff who engaged these questions. They are doing great work.

It is not just FY faculty who are redesigning their courses. All faculty are doing so because they are faced with being prepared for anything. This is sometimes grueling work, but the opportunity to re-imagine courses can also a blessing. When forced to design a course for multiple modalities, there is the opportunity to look at material from multiple perspectives. This gives room for new exercises, clarification of material, and even just de-cluttering. Taking a more focused, developmental path through a course might help students and faculty alike. Indeed, doing less, and being very clear about our expectations, could actually improve our outcomes, even in a world with too many new variables. While not trying to minimize the effort this requires, I do see that there is opportunity for growth in all of this, which could be very rewarding.

It is the same with efforts going on everywhere else at WCSU. We are focusing on essential interactions and learning outcomes and trying to help our community be a community in the fall. As athletics conferences decided on safety, coaches reached out to athletes to build community and find other rewarding ways to interact as teams. Career services is all in on virtual recruitment, training opportunities, and even virtual internships. Turns out, employers like that virtual recruitment option and this is likely to be our new standard after COVID-19. Our performing arts faculty have developed creative experiences for their students to perform and rehearse in virtual, outdoor, and highly spaced indoor environments. As a singer, I know exactly how hard that is, because sound is a tricky thing… the farther apart you are, the less likely to sing together. Nevertheless, good things are happening with and without technology. All over the university, we may be doing less of what we are used to doing, but we are adding new experiences and trying to make sure that those experiences are truly meaningful.

But here is this morning’s clarity: With all of this newness, and the many options that the WCSU community (and all of higher ed) has worked hard to create for our students, it is more than probable that there will be many, many mistakes. From simple errors about which technology people will use for a meeting (Teams, WebEx, Zoom, etc.), to a mistake in the set-up of a course so that the assignment due on Monday, actually doesn’t open up until it is due (it happens), to uncertainty about when and where each type of course is supposed to meet, the room for error is tremendous. And let’s not forget the potential for a random storm to knock out our connections to each other. Yikes! I suspect there will be a few tears for most of us.

Every single one of us is likely to make more than one mistake this fall. That is the nature of mass shifts in organizational structures and high levels of uncertainty. So, I offer this one bit of advice, let’s default to kindness. Forgive your colleagues for missing a meeting or being unable to log in effectively. Forgive your students for being confused about the navigation through their classes, or being unable to log in effectively. Forgive yourself for your gaffes in design, or being unable to log in effectively. And so on. You know what I am talking about. Find that well of patience and draw on it relentlessly. Remember, when you need to explode, you can just log off and have a small tantrum or crying session, some tea or chocolate or a moment of Zen, and then get back in there.

The most productive phrases we will have this fall are simply these: “Oops, I messed up.” and “That’s okay, let’s try again.” We should use these phrases often.  If we do, we can skip the anger and shame part of messing up, and focus on the getting better part that we all really care about.  Indeed, if we default to kindness, we are likely to find the fun (and the funny) in all of this change after all.

Be well everyone.