Community

Belonging

It is late August and we are all gearing up for another year. Students will join us on Friday, classes will start next Monday, and I am sure that faculty are putting finishing touches on their syllabi. It’s that exhilarating rush of new beginnings and the optimism that comes from the chance to start fresh every fall.

There has not been much downtime for us at WCSU this summer. We have been collaborating on projects that we hope will re-shape our future. I am grateful for all of the hard work that took place, and the ways in which it brought together members from all areas of the university to think things through together. What comes of all of that hard work will be discovered as we review that summer work, but it is that sense of community and belonging that I am thinking about today.

There is a lot of research coming out right now about how important it is for our students to feel a sense of belonging. It is directly related to retention, it is directly related to the success of our students of color, our first-generation students, and our students who sometimes struggle to find their fit. Spring 2022 saw reports from faculty and student affairs professionals all over the country about students feeling at sea, disengaged, and wobbly about being in college. It is showing up in classrooms, mental health offices, and retention rates.

In Reimagining the Student Experience, a recent report from The Chronicle of Higher Education, there are lots of good observations about steps we can take to help students see themselves as members of our community. Here’s a short list.

  1. Everyone needs a group of friends, but building these friendships is not easy for everyone. Commuter students don’t have activities created by our Residential Staff, working students don’t have time for many campus activities, and many students find initiating conversations challenging. The best place to overcome some of these barriers to friendships is to build social connections in classes. Most of us initiate connections between students with icebreakers and introductions. We need to do it throughout the semester in intentional ways.
  2. Help students create a buddy system so they have someone to contact about notes, etc., when they have to be absent. This is so obvious, but it is hard for some students to ask.
  3. Try to schedule some office hours adjacent to your teaching time. For many students (especially commuters) it is easiest to ask their questions right before or after class. Even with all of our remote access for advising, which is probably the best outcome of COVID-19, the immediate conversation is still incredibly valuable.
  4. Demonstrate interest in students’ lives outside of class by participating in or attending some of the events that they value. See their shows or games, go to their fundraisers or service events, participate in a co-curricular activity. Faculty and staff can’t do it all, they have lives too, but a little bit goes a very long way.

These are good ideas, ideas that I know many of us have been doing for years. I enjoy the low-tech, simplicity of it all. If this will help our students feel they belong, let’s do it.

As I write this, though, I am thinking more about the people here who have been working all summer. Faculty, staff, and administration are trying to understand the path to a stronger university, together. People we once knew via email are now people with whom we have had long and passionate conversations. Strategies for student success that have been supported in one area, are now known by people in other areas who are trying to do the same thing. People who were struggling alone to try to solve problems, now know that others are interested in those same goals. In other words, I think our summer work has created a better path to a sense of belonging for all of us.

In that report about Reimagining the Student Experience, Sarah Rose Cavanagh argues that “Students– and indeed, people generally– are motivated by the feeling of being part of a team tackling a shared problem.” It is that common effort that makes us feel connected and valued. Certainly, this offers insights on creating a more connected campus community and a more connected student body.

But in that same report, Flower Darby asks us to think not just about belonging, but about the value of the learning experience, something many students have been questioning. Darby says, “[T]hink about the value that students get from spending time with you, the instructor….The benefit of taking your class is taking it with you.” Wow! That’s a reframing that I needed to read. I’d like to take it beyond the classroom: What is the value that our campus community gets from spending time with you, our colleague… the benefit of interacting with you is you!

This is a provocative and exciting observation. Instead of focusing on seeing the best in others (an effort that shouldn’t be ignored of course), it asks us to think about how we bring a unique perspective and vision to our roles and responsibilities. This question encourages us to see our value and it might even help us narrow our focus and hone that thing we are really great at. I hope so. What I am certain of, though, is that the question gives me a new way to think about this year. It’s a fresh start once again.

Higher Education, Resilience

A United Vision

As I drove to work this morning, I was overcome with concern for the future. Like many universities in the Northeast, we are trying to navigate the “demographic cliff” – long projected and clearly already here in Connecticut. Projections for high school graduates in the region continue to drop for the foreseeable future, and we have no choice but to re-think what we do. This re-thinking of what we do is not in our nature.

Well, that isn’t fair. We actually re-imagine courses and majors on a regular basis. Our program reviews and annual assessments drive some changes, emerging technologies and industries drive others. Indeed, in the last five years – un-slowed by the pandemic – WCSU has added six new graduate degrees – all designed to prepare students for jobs that are in-demand in the region. We also re-imagined our education degrees at the undergraduate and graduate levels to help meet the demand for, not just subject matter expertise, but also regional need for support for English Language Learners, and advanced certifications that support career advancement. We also closed two graduate degrees that were not attracting enough students. This was hard, but we did it.

At the same time, several of our undergraduate degrees have been re-imagined. Accounting, for example, has focused on tools for data analytics. Justice and Law Administration is adding a homeland security option. Social Work has strengthened its focus on social justice. Courses are regularly updated, and faculty have added new topics that speak to changes in student interests. History, Anthropology/Sociology, and Political Science have all added courses that call attention to the many peoples and voices that should be represented in a quality undergraduate degree. Important topics like Undocumented Migration, Race and Power in US History, The Irish in America, Model UN, Public Anthropology and Sociology. These additions also required a hard look at under-subscribed courses and decisions to eliminate some offerings.

We are also working hard to re-imagine the balance of online versus on-ground courses we offer. At the graduate level, most programs are now online or hybrid. With a focus on working adults, this transformation has been necessary to help them succeed while juggling jobs and families. We had been moving this way slowly, but the pandemic accelerated our path. At the same time, we identified several undergraduate degrees that could be good opportunities for students seeking degree completion options. Last week we had great news from our accrediting body that will allow us to move forward in offering these online degree completion options.

No, we are not complacent or even particularly slow moving. We have been working hard as part of our regular curricular review processes to evolve to meet the needs of our students and to broaden our offerings for adult learners. All of this has been happening slowly and steadily as a result of our last strategic plan. Unfortunately, our efforts – abundant as they may be – have not kept pace with the demographics. We are in a jam.

Although we are excellent at re-thinking things in constrained spaces (courses, majors), we are less adept at evaluating the full scope of what we do. Despite several recent attempts to work across departments, schools, and divisions, we are siloed.

  • Four separate schools have four separate visions of the university. None of those visions include perspectives from Student Affairs or Enrollment Services. How can we compete for a dwindling number of students without a unified vision?
  • Our student supports are distributed across three divisions, with limited coordination of efforts, and despite intense effort, with limited effect. How can we improve our retention and graduation rates without a unified plan?
  • Our campus is split between two locations, and the strains on one are different from those on the other. Yet, the use of these spaces has not been thoroughly aligned with projected enrollments, costs of degrees (including the types of spaces necessary to support them), costs of student support services and student activities delivered on two campuses. How can we build efficiencies in our operations without a thorough review of everything and a will to do things differently?
  • The coordination of schedules, the most basic of requirements for student success, eludes us every semester. Walking through our classroom buildings tells the tale. It is a sea of over specialized rooms that are empty far more than they are occupied. How can we build schedules that are both cost effective and easily navigable by students, without taking a more centralized view of our scheduling processes?

These are the conversations we have been unsuccessful in navigating. We try in fits and starts, with ad hoc committees, special initiatives, and even in developing our strategic plan, but somehow it just doesn’t come together or stay together. This big-picture thinking is not well-defined in our governance processes and routines. Indeed, those documents are really designed to keep our silos in place. It is not necessarily intentional, but it is the result. Those silos are not working for us. It is from this larger perspective that the real re-thinking has to take place.

I think we are ready to do this work together. I am excited by the possibilities the important conversations ahead might reveal. But whatever we discover together, the most important result must be a united vision and a map to achieve that vision quickly. A united vision is essential to our future: separate initiatives are no longer serving us well.

Evaluation, Quality

The Follow Through

Here is a question that I am frequently asked: Why would you want to be in administration? It started with my first truly administrative role, assistant dean, and it persists even now that I have served as provost for nearly six years. As a person whose career began as an adjunct faculty member, then tenure-track to tenured faculty line, it is not lost on me that there are losses when one leaves the classroom. That dreams that led me to higher education were built around love of my discipline and the desire to help students see its value. Teaching is hard work, often frustrating, often rewarding, but it carries with it a clarity of purpose–teach the students in front of you. Living that purpose is exhilarating.

So, why move to administration? Well, for me it was about an ever-widening circle of concerns about how students were experiencing their education. One of my earliest questions was about whether or not students were getting the most out of the totality of their degrees, instead of just focusing on the major. I worried about the connections students were not making between those required humanities or social sciences or science courses and their major. Once I opened that can of worms, my attention moved away from my discipline and toward education as a holistic. Thus, an administrator was born.

What does that holistic perspective mean now that I am a provost? It means I continuously examine data about who we serve, who is thriving, who is not, what students are learning, where our programs are strong and where they need support, what new ideas about teaching are emerging and how to engage faculty with those ideas, and of course, since WCSU is in New England, what to do about enrollment. There’s more. There are questions about equity for everyone (students, faculty, staff). There are questions about processes and organizational structures, and whether they are doing what we want them to do. There are questions about the balance of scholarship, teaching, service, for faculty and appropriate support for professional development for everyone. There is no shortage of things to think about when you are trying to imagine an effective and rewarding whole.

Unsurprisingly, I do a lot of reading about higher education developments and trends. Indeed, this Sunday, as I settled in to review the news and enjoy my morning coffee, I found my attention drawn to a publication from the Chronicle of Higher Education, called The Truth about Student Success. I know, why ruin a perfectly nice Sunday? But I am worried about outcomes and so I downloaded the document and read it through. When I was done, all I could think was, but we’ve done all that already!

Except we haven’t quite. Despite my best efforts to foster an environment where ideas are welcome, strategies for improvement are implemented, and then results are examined, I think I am falling short on the part where we learn from it all. It reminds me of my early days in administration when I realized that higher education is very good at starting (adding) things, but terrible at finishing (subtracting) things. Even worse, we are often missing the part where we examine results and act on them, you know, closing the loop.

Over the last twenty years, higher education as a whole has developed some reasonable habits around the use of assessment to improve curriculum. Everyone has learning outcomes now and assessment plans to trigger reviews of the results. Some plans are better than others, and some programs are more committed to the meaning of those outcomes than others, but overall, folks are trying to learn from their efforts at assessment. At WCSU, I can see the impact of this work on curriculum and to some degree on teaching strategies. This has room to grow, and the sharing of this information is spotty, but it is going on.

We are (I am) less successful at systematic use of the data about the rest of what we do. For example, has the implementation of Degree Works improved academic advising? Has asking about advising practices in annual reports resulted in any changes in strategies at the department level? Are the pre-major pathways (meta-majors) reducing the time to graduation and the accumulation of excess credits? When faculty have participated in teaching institutes, has it changed their teaching strategies? Has it improved outcomes? Has the transition to embedded remediation reduced the number of students stuck in foundational courses? When we see that some courses have very high withdrawal or failure rates, are we acting on that information? There is so much more, but this is the main idea.

As fast as I run, I can’t seem to stay on top of all of this. I have not even managed to implement a good data dashboard to try to keep people in the loop on these things. I hope to complete one this semester, but in the meantime, things are filtering through Deans to Department Chairs to Faculty (maybe), listed in my weekly announcements (sometimes), announced at our University Senate meetings (when time allows), and listed in annual reports (usually). I have to do better.

Without consistent examination of information by the whole community, all of those good things we are doing will just be in pockets (silos). Departments (academic and otherwise) will continue to try new things, but we’ll never see the full impact. We risk not learning from each other and duplicating efforts that would be better if coordinated across areas. We risk abandoning strategies too soon or simply forgetting they are underway. We risk under-investing in things that show signs of working. Most of all, we squander the value of a shared effort to be better, and that is a fundamental waste of talent and resources.

So, as I finished my coffee and that darned report on The Truth about Student Success, I realize that there is no more pressing initiative than establishing good processes for gathering, analyzing, and distributing the information we already have. There is nothing new to do but that. We’re doing all of the other things that everyone else is doing. If we get this part right, we might be able to re-double our efforts on things that are working and stop doing the things that are not. That’s the follow through, folks. We need to learn from what we do.

Examining our processes and making sure that a data dashboard gets done this semester is one more thing on my endless list of duties, of course, and I wonder how I’ll get it done. But I have to because there are no magic bullets to discover; there are only evaluations of what we have already done and plans for next steps. The data dashboard is on me, but I hope that the result is for everyone. I’m hoping with better follow through many more members of our community will work together to improve the whole of the university experience.

Hope, Uncertainty

Vaccinations or Interventions?

Today students at WCSU are moving into our residence halls. Like everyone else, we’ve worked hard to create a re-entry plan that offers as much protection from Covid-19 as we can manage. We are testing our mostly vaccinated students as they enter, trying to stop an outbreak before it happens. We are stressing the importance of masks whenever indoors on campus and we’ve made the N95 versions available. We have isolation plans for what we imagine is the inevitable arrival of Omicron, and we have made getting tested as easy as possible so that folks can be proactive. That’s really all there is to do. This is as safe as we can be, and we are ready to go.

The last two years have taught us that these measures are relatively effective, despite the moving targets surrounding this Covid-19. We have had low campus-level infection rates, with only one brief school-level shutdown (not university-wide), and the protections in the classrooms in particular seem to be doing what they need to do. Outside of class people may be willing to take more risks, but in the classroom we seem to be pulling together to protect each other. That has been a bright spot in this whole thing – that impulse to protect each other, at least in the classroom.

But off campus is a different story. We have definitely not been pulling together to protect each other. Instead some of us are focused on individual rights, some of us are lost in a lot of misinformation about the vaccinations, others are swearing by the science and claiming ignorance or malicious intent in those who have questions. And all of these positions are accompanied by scorn for those with whom we disagree. These attitudes have been exacerbated (created?) by politics, to be sure, but there is more to it than that, and with the emergence of Omicron, it is time to evaluate some of what that “more to it” might be. I think one of the biggest culprits in this mess of disagreement is the word “vaccine.”

Throughout my life the word vaccine has meant full protection from a disease. I am vaccinated against polio and the measles and tetanus. As a child I had the mumps and the chickenpox, so I’m safe from those as well. I have had no occurrences or recurrences of these diseases. I appear to be fully immune; my faith in this science is strong. Given this understanding of vaccinations and immunity, it is no wonder I was eager to get my vaccination for Covid-19. Honestly, the emergence of one so quickly appeared to be a miracle to me. I signed up for my first dose as soon as I was eligible. When summer came, I happily returned to restaurants and playing music with my friends. Then Delta hit and boosters were recommended. I got one. Now it’s Omicron and, well I’m seeing a pattern here. The vaccinations that I’m signing up for are not quite what I mean by vaccine.

It seems like the shots we are getting are more like our annual flu vaccines, which offer some measure of protection but not complete immunity. Flu vaccines definitely reduce the number of people who get sick each year, but some number always get sick anyway. These vaccines are always being reformulated as new variants emerge, and that reformulation might miss a variation. I have always known that these shots were helpful but not perfect. This was ok with me, as I lined up for a flu shot each year, but I’m guessing this is because I was young enough and healthy enough not to see any real threat from the flu. Covid-19 has been something different.

Obviously, I’m not discussing the science. I am sure that the doses I am getting for Covid-19 work sufficiently like vaccinations to warrant the same name, but the breakthroughs and the quick mutations are really not helping us all come together to protect each other. The state of affairs with Omicron appears to bolster the arguments of those who didn’t believe in these vaccinations in the first place. The changing understanding of how masks should work are adding fuel to that fire. I get it. I don’t get the politics at all, but I do understand why some people are not confident in these measures because the story appears to keep changing.

I think it is time to re-think that word vaccine. Given the lack of permanence in the protection, and the moving target of the mutations, perhaps we need a new word for these shots that conveys the difference between them and my polio vaccine. I like to think of mine as an intervention. It is clear that the multiple doses provide some protection from Covid-19 overall and severe illness in particular. This protection doesn’t make me fully immune, but it is very likely to keep me out of the hospital. I feel relatively safe because of it, so I’ve done my best to take care of me.

My decision to engage in this intervention, along with my decision to wear a mask, also reduces the likelihood that I will accidently get others sick. We shouldn’t lose sight of this part of the intervention; it is about others. I really don’t want to get others sick. I do not want to be responsible for someone else’s trip to the hospital. I do not want to put all of those folks working in restaurants, grocery stores, hospitals and, yes, classrooms, at a higher risk of infection because of my behaviors. I also want to keep going out to play music with my friends. I want classes to be in person and to see my colleagues at work. I want a relatively normal world.

So, I am reimagining the steps we are taking on campus as interventions that make us safer, not as paths to immunity. I am taking part in these interventions on and off campus, even if the morning news continues to shake us all, because I am doing my very best to contribute to a relatively safe environment for all of us. I am trying to get my mind around the word endemic and the conditions that will signal that we are in that phase of this virus. I’m hoping the decisions we are making are getting us there. Most of all, I am hoping we can leave the scorn for each other aside and pull together to protect each other.

Engagement, Higher Education, Hope, Resilience

Collegiality and Happiness

Over the past two weeks, I have hosted and/or participated in four different gatherings with students, faculty, and staff. We were trying solve problems, develop plans, and improve infrastructure and, well, to be better. After the year of Zoom meetings, it was fun to be in the room with colleagues, listening to ideas and working together to figure out what to do next. Preparing for these meetings took effort, but being in them was a joy. I am grateful to the many who participated and feel energized about the work ahead. Thanks everyone!

It seemed serendipitous, then, when I discovered an interesting essay about collegiality in Inside Higher Ed. Michael Weisbach argues that being a good colleague can benefit both the university and the person. He writes:

To be a good colleague, you must find some productive way to contribute that goes beyond your direct job description. By doing so, you will benefit your co-workers and the organization you work for. But equally importantly, you will benefit yourself. Your colleagues will appreciate you more, your evaluations will improve and you will most likely enjoy your profession more. (In Praise of Academic Collegiality, Inside Higher Ed, November 5, 2021).

I had two thoughts: 1. More? You want more from all of the over-taxed people who work with me?! 2. Maybe it isn’t the more, but the ongoing interaction that really defines collegiality.

Higher education is filled with work that is often invisible to the world outside of our (not so ivy-covered) walls. The work that most people associate with us is that of direct instruction in the classroom (virtual or otherwise). When looked at as a simple number of hours “at work” this looks like a pretty light load. At schools like WCSU, this means 12ish hours per week. The ish in my statement reflects the variability of this formula when we consider different types of classes–studios, labs, clinical placements–which may increase those hours. Still, even after those adjustments life looks pretty good. Except the work is way more than that. Faculty are also grading papers, preparing instructional materials, staying current in their field, which should also be regularly incorporated into their teaching (read new instructional materials). Oh, and they conduct research, attend/present at conferences, advise students, mentor scholarship–and this is just the stuff related to their actual job descriptions.

Right after the list above is the rest of it, which is not just faculty but everyone else at the university. We are an institution committed to peer review and shared governance. This means there are committees for everything from evaluations of personnel to the development and/or closure of academic programs, to the evaluation of co-curricular programs or student support services, to discussions about campus master plans or strategic plans. We also believe in the wisdom of our community and regularly see initiatives emerge from small groups with big ideas and these also require time and effort and evaluation. Each of these things happen regularly (weekly, monthly, and so on). We have no trouble identifying the hundred ways that the entire community “adds value…beyond the specified requirements of the job.”

So, the first part of what Weisbach discusses — looking for opportunities contribute beyond job requirements — is just a given of life in higher education. Indeed, the larger concern is how to keep those opportunities from overwhelming us. It is very easy to do too much and undermine some of one’s core job requirements. National data suggests that this overdoing often ends up disproportionately impacting women and colleagues from under-represented groups, which is an ongoing concern. Add to that the reality that those who volunteer to lead committees tend to become the go-to people for other projects, thus overburdening them in general, and we have a situation that needs to be thoughtfully monitored for equity and health.

Nevertheless, there are two other pieces of the essay that I think are incredibly valuable for thinking about collegiality on our campus. The first is his observation that while some people demonstrate collegiality in their willingness to take on committee or project leadership roles, or by participating in social gatherings or campus events, for others it takes the form of less visible action. Perhaps a colleague shares teaching materials or offers to talk about how they approach a topic with another faculty member. Maybe a person makes it a point to share information about grant opportunities with a colleague whose work is in a relevant area. Maybe a person reaches out to a colleague in a very different kind of role to talk about improving a process for students or colleagues, initiating a productive examination of where improvements could be achieved. Sometimes a person might just pass on positive comments they’ve heard about a colleague’s work. All of these examples, and the many more that take place every day, need to be acknowledged as the actions that contribute to a collegial environment.

The second important observation is that the actions we take to be collegial can also make us feel good about the work that we do. I couldn’t agree more. Nothing raises the spirits more than the feeling that we have had a positive impact on other people. Each time we reach out to help, to offer suggestions, and even to ask for input, we are building our sense of community and feeling more engaged with our colleagues. As frustrated as we may be now and then with a process or an individual, the ongoing commitment to having a positive impact is the best path to getting past those disheartening moments and feeling hopeful again.

It is not just the big projects that demonstrate collegiality, those smaller day-to-day interactions may matter most. They help connect us and they demonstrate a commitment to creating a great university. There is room for each of us to define the boundaries of those interactions; we don’t all have to contribute in the same way. But I think that we all benefit from the contact and the conversation that collegial interactions can bring. So, I’m thinking about how to foster that sense of happiness and common purpose that a collegial community can create. I promise not to create a task force, but I will be on the lookout for small actions and ideas.