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.

Higher Education, Thinking

Focusing on the Mission

It is nearly mid-January and we are preparing to launch the spring semester. Still juggling the ever-changing environment of the pandemic, we start with uncertainty — as we have for the last two years. The Omicron variant is an unwelcome wrinkle to say the least, but the protections we have used to maintain a reasonable level of safety on our campus remain the same: strongly encourage vaccinations, require masks, provide access to testing, and encourage everyone to stay home if they feel sick. Indeed, the only real change in CDC guidelines of late has been around the length of quarantine. We’re sorting that out, for the residential students in particular, and emphasizing the need to wear well-fitting masks. In three semesters of working in a COVID-19 environment, masks and monitoring infection rates have proved effective, with limited spread in the residence halls and none in the classroom. So, we face uncertainty to be sure, but a stable uncertainty at this point.

It would be easy for this new variant to steal our focus this semester. We’ve grown accustomed to emergency meetings and conversations about what to do next. But I think it is important to acknowledge that without a change in the guidelines, based on solid scientific evidence, there really is nothing left to discuss. So, while we wait for new information from credible scientists, I’m more interested in focusing on what we hope to accomplish with our students this semester. I’m starting with a look at our mission.

Western Connecticut State University changes lives by providing all students with a high quality education that fosters their growth as individuals, scholars, professionals, and leaders in a global society.

I love this simple yet profound statement. Changing lives is an exhilarating goal. It speaks to our commitment to the power of learning, recognizing that higher education creates paths to new professional opportunities, supports the development of new understandings of how the world is organized, challenges ideas about what constitutes evidence, and even fosters the growth of new friendships. For our first-generation students, education may provide a step toward a new socio-economic status and all that entails. For our students whose parents and grandparents attended college, their attendance expresses a continued commitment to the importance of education in shaping worldviews and futures. What a privilege to be part of this journey, as we simultaneously open our students’ eyes to new ideas and have them open ours to their experiences and perspectives.

Then there is our commitment to access as we strive to provide “all students with a high quality education.” This is a tremendous responsibility. It requires focused attention on the varied needs of the students we admit to our university. To truly serve all of them, we need to keep a keen eye on our data, in the aggregate and in the details. For our undergraduates, this has meant attention to the details of our retention and graduation rates. Over the last several years, we have worked hard to differentiate what I call the on-ramps for our students. This is the result of unflinching analysis of who we lose. In response to our data, and looking at strategies that have worked elsewhere, we have transformed our education access program, added a peer mentor program, included FY in the general education curriculum, and grown our honors program. Analysis of these efforts is positive (some better retention and graduation rates), but it is not good enough yet. We will continue to evaluate the results, looking for the next clue to student success and modify these efforts accordingly. The clues are readily available, but we must act on them.

At the graduate level, we have responded to student interest in programs that advance their careers. From transforming existing degrees to better align with career prospects, to developing new degrees that meet emerging needs and opportunities in the region, our portfolio of graduate degrees has evolved to appeal to the students we hope to serve. Most recently, much of graduate education has moved online, first due to the pandemic and then in response to the needs of working adults. We need to offer them more flexible opportunities as they juggle jobs and families. We want to meet them where they are. We want to serve all students. This, too, arose from detailed looks at data, including enrollment patterns, student feedback to our programs, and analysis of regional workforce needs. While this approach to curriculum may feel a bit more career focused and less idea focused than we like to imagine, I remind myself that graduate education has nearly always been about careers (advanced credentials or the path to a doctorate) and it has never been devoid of ideas. We are serving our students well in this regard.

What next? Well, on the path to any of our degrees, I am confident that all students will grow as individuals and scholars. It is less clear if we’ve created enough opportunities for professional growth at the undergraduate level and I’m not sure we’ve truly focused on cultivating leaders. Mind you, I think there are pieces of both woven throughout our majors and our co-curricular experiences, but I’m not sure our students can see it. I’m also not sure we’re specific enough. Since we’ve taken the time to identify all of these areas for growth in our mission, it is probably a good time to make sure that we are truly working toward them in a clear and coherent way. I’ll be taking a closer look at this aspect of our mission in the months to come.

Yes, the mission is where I will turn my attention this spring. It offers such clarity, reminding me of our purpose, and erasing the hundred other unproductive distractions that claim my attention daily. Our mission is necessarily broad and open to many nuanced steps (some of which are outlined in our strategic plan), but it is also really quite direct. It drives us to these simple and important questions:

  • Are we providing all students access to that high quality education?
  • Does that high-quality education create opportunities for growth as individual, scholars, professionals, and leaders?
  • As a result, are lives changed? And of course, that most vexing of questions of all:
  • How do we know?

I look forward to exploring these questions this spring. I am certain my colleagues will have plenty of answers to them.

Welcome back, everyone.

Change, Reflection

The Sacred and the Profane

As I write this final post for 2021, the many holidays that we observe at this time of year urge me to think about the meanings we attach to our celebratory practices. For me our December rituals help mark endings, prepare for new beginnings, foster connection to family, friends, and community, and most of all, pierce the seasonal darkness with our festivals of lights. These activities, regardless of particular religious affiliations, set this time of year apart from others, imbuing it with sacredness, even in the face of the commerce that we have woven through it in the United States.

It is in this context of that I am thinking about the lines between sacred and profane in higher education. The sacred part is that part that is characterized as a social good that can help weave together our society; the profane is a regular business that lives or dies by its ability to generate sufficient income to survive. As we complete the final tasks of the year, I find myself pondering the impact of ordinary commercial considerations on the more exalted goals of higher education. (Apologies to Emile Durkheim and Mircea Eliade. Read them if you haven’t already).

You see, I just returned from the annual conference of the New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE), and if I’m honest, the news was not good. Despite several lovely panels reporting on new strategies for supporting transfer students, improving our efforts to improve diversity, equity and inclusion on our campuses, and even innovative new degree structures, the final session focused on the realities of demographics in the United States and it was sobering. Nathan Grawe’s review of the projections nationwide through 2037 tell the story. What we have been experiencing in New England for the last 8-10 years is now a national trend toward a shrinking population of young people. Here in Connecticut the projections are an 18% drop in potential students by 2037. Something is going to have to change.

But adaptation is complicated. Our potential students are changing, and we should attend to their needs and expectations. But, if we focus on the career development opportunities that so many students and families are looking for, we end up in conversations about the value of the liberal arts. No longer an assumed good (a once sacred component of what we do), we are faced with defending liberal arts education. If we decide to explore some of the new academic models being tested right now – the NEXUS degree (an employer/experiential learning focused two year degree) or the three year BA (90 credit equivalent) that looks a lot like the European model of a BA – we find ourselves having to make a case for the four-year degree. If we focus on new disciplines, we are faced with questions about how many majors/degrees we can effectively support, and inevitably what we might cut. Cutting things that are unpopular is the opposite of what many of us thought education should do. In all of this is a sense that we’ve abandoned the sacred world of education for the profane world of commerce.

In the 20th century, higher education took liberal arts and the four-year bachelor’s degree on faith. We believed in their ability to transform, without necessarily articulating how it did so. We believed the BA experience was enough to prepare students to navigate the world post-graduation and that opportunities would emerge. We also believed in the power of higher education, particularly public higher education, to create the opportunity for social mobility, supporting our faith in access to the American Dream.

Over the last two decades, this faith has been reshaped with questions focused on outcomes instead of experiences. We have found ourselves defining course outcomes, major outcomes, and degree outcomes as part of our routine practice. This is spurred on by the growing cost of education. It is also spurred on by the need to meet the needs of a broader group of students, who are seeking the opportunities that higher education provides, but would like some evidence that the investment is worth it. These explanations have led to a clear tension between our faith in the transformation that occurs as we ponder great ideas or conduct research or engage in interesting conversations and the seemingly necessary world of recruiting pitches that make us a means to an employment end.

My mind is juggling these tensions as I consider the realities of the projected population changes in CT, New England, and the nation over the next 15 years. It is clear that we must change to survive. Faith in our value has been shaken, so has our own faith in past-practices that we now recognize as exclusionary. We are worried that if we change too much we will create a new kind of exclusion: the kind that sends some students to places to explore ideas and other students to places that prepare for careers. If we are honest, that has been happening in higher education forever, so, I am not writing off new approaches, though I can hear the concerns about access to a traditional liberal arts degree, even before the conversation begins. We must explore them to be more inclusive. We must explore them to survive.

But will all of this adaptation eliminate the sacred part of education? I don’t think so. We must remember that the sacredness is not really in the structures we have built so far. Those have evolved over time to meet changing expectations and to include more people. No, changing how we organize education will not take away its place as a sacred institution, which at its core reflects faith in the betterment of both the individual and society.

We will always argue over the how of education because we should. Those arguments reflect our commitment to learning about learning. We will always argue over the cost, because as a society we have made this a cost we share, even if not as I would have it shared. We will always argue about purpose, because we have a healthy habit of questioning our assumptions about all institutions, even churches. This is the only way for us to uncover our good and bad ideas. It is the only way for us to grow.

No, the sacred part of education is not in the structure, it is in our faith in its power to transform, not just the individual, but all of us. It is a wish for better and a belief that better can be achieved. That is a powerful belief indeed. It gives me hope and brings a little light into the darkness of all the gloomy forecasts.

Happy holidays, happy new year, happy rest to all.

Hope, Reflection, Resilience

Don’t Forget the Joy

Higher education (all education) is a lot of hard work. Faculty are writing curriculum, grading papers, advising students, and doing research. Tutors, advisors, mentors, and counselors of all kinds are not just meeting with students, but they are actively evaluating their impact and striving to do more. The folks in admissions, registrar’s office, and financial aid are equally engaged in the question, how do we do more to meet the needs of our students? They evaluate processes, looking for the points where they might reach one more student and meet one more need. Student Affairs is endlessly reaching out to meet the changing expectations of our students, trying to find ways to bridge the gap between classroom and life beyond the university, supporting recreation, career development, and access to interest groups that represent the students we serve. Even those of us in administration are obsessed with improvement, digging into our outcomes and looking for new opportunities to thrive. We are positively obsessed with doing better.

All of this hard work can be taxing and sometimes we get lost in the details of the immediate questions on our plates. This can keep us from looking up and seeing all of the wonderful things going on around us. As we head into final exams, this is a good time to reflect on those wonderful things and remind ourselves that even the hard work is rooted in joy.

Joy, you say! How can this final slog through papers, exams, registration rates, and analysis of data be truly joyful? Well, I boldly claim that it can be. Why? Because those of us who choose higher education as a career are dedicated to learning as a way of life. Every activity that I have listed is all about learning. We are the original life-long learners. We are the ultimate data wonks. We are the very definition of a learning organization. And learning brings us joy.

The key to recognizing the joy in the myriad lists of problems we hope to solve, and the goals we have not yet met, is not to neglect the small triumphs and breakthroughs that occur while we’re striving for more. Let’s face it, when we are focused on doing things better, we will always fall short. There is always one more thing to implement. There is always another percentage point to reach in improved outcomes. There are always pieces that we miss as we lay out our plans to do good things. If that’s all we see, joy will be elusive.

Duh! Right? How simplistic can this provost be? Don’t we all know that already? Yes, but we have a habit of short-changing ourselves in those small wins. We have a way of focusing on what we missed, not what we accomplished. Let’s take this moment to shift that focus and celebrate what we did, not what we have left to do. To get us started, I’ll mention just a few things that I’ve seen on our campus this fall that are filling me with joy.

Our Computer Science program applied for ABET accreditation. We will see how it turns out, but here is what was joy inspiring. The department fully engaged in questions of what they do well, how they might do better, and what they’d like to do next. They had intense pride in their work– and, deservedly so. The visiting team saw that spirit of collaboration and the hard work. This gives me such joy. I am proud of their efforts and their commitment to growth.

We launched our new peer mentoring program, using the data on the students we are losing and acting on that information. Even as we complete the first iteration of this program we can see places for improvement for next year. Nevertheless, getting this started involved collaboration between library faculty, our tutoring centers, the first-year program director, academic advising, orientation leaders, and the director of education access programs. They shared knowledge and resources to get this off the ground. This effort brought together constituencies that often operate separately. They left those silos, focused on student success, and built something together. When I see that collaboration, I can practically walk on air from the joy it brings me.

Building on the momentum from our abrupt move to online last year, several programs have identified online as the best modality for their students moving forward. This means tons of work in the move from emergency online courses to fully developed online programs, yet faculty in these programs are willing to do that work. Their commitment to meeting the students where they will thrive has driven them forward in this effort. I am proud of their ability to learn from this crazy pandemic and build new things. I am excited by the thinking and effort that this represents and feel inspired to imagine new educational models and opportunities that these dedicated faculty might explore. That student-centered innovative spirit always brings me joy.

I feel immense joy every single time I hear from faculty and staff about the great experiences they are having with students now that we are back on campus. Those stories include tales of experiments in teaching, reports of honest conversations about tough subjects, strategic group projects that inspired students to cheer for each other, and the relieved smiles of people happy to just be in the room with other people again. Stories also flow from people reflecting on the good things that happened as a result of the pandemic — like remote access to career services or advising or counseling — and how these things have expanded the opportunity to connect with students. I love when these tales are shared with me because it allows me to share in the happiness that my colleagues are feeling.

There is so much more because there are so many people doing things large and small every single day. There is so much more because we are always looking for the opportunity to do things better. There is so much more because we work hard. As I think about all of these wonderful and inspiring accomplishments, I think it is safe to say that the hard work of higher education is the joy. Let’s just remember to notice it.

equity, Inclusion

Good Intentions Derailed

In the summer of 2020, students at WCSU, like students all over the country, planned a demonstration in response to the murder of George Floyd. I stood with them as they held the moments of silence representing the time that Floyd was held down, the stunning amount of time for the police officer to stop what he was doing and not take a life. The tears were flowing.

We then participated in a brief march around the campus and ended at the podium where some students and faculty took a moment to air their concerns, not just about the treatment of African-Americans in the criminal justice system, but the state of diversity, equity, and inclusion at our university. While many of the things said represented a moment of pain beyond my ability to respond, one concern that was raised was about our curriculum. This is my bailiwick, so I called the student leaders in for a meeting and tried to get at what they were worried about. From this conversation, I attempted to take action.

The concerns expressed by the students were two-fold. 1. There was a sense that our curriculum did not fully represent the histories and contributions of the diversity of peoples that make up our campus community. 2. There was a sense, demonstrated through various examples, that students of color are marginalized in the classroom. Not being aware of the range of literature about inclusive teaching practices, the students struggled to express their concerns. Nevertheless, I thought I had an idea of what they were experiencing.

As provost, my default next move is to reach out to the faculty and ask for help in addressing these concerns. In the fall after that demonstration, I visited our University Senate and asked for volunteers to form an ad hoc committee and charged them with the narrowly defined task of identifying some tools for looking at our curriculum from an equity and inclusion lens. I thought that this group would review the many tools that have been developed by other campuses to look at curriculum and recommend one for adoption. This tool would then be used by faculty within their departments to consider opportunities to be more inclusive. Oh foolish me.

I should have known better. You see the trouble is that there is too much equity work to be done on our campus, and the areas of inquiry just kept expanding. There were questions about our campus climate (good questions) that got bundled into the report. There were concerns about our recruiting practices and the persistent results of our searches that still skew toward historic representations along race and gender lines. There were concerns about trying to address diversity and equity in every class, potentially distracting from the overall goals of the course. There was no concern whatsoever about our own achievement gaps and how our pedagogies might be contributing to that, but I assume that would have emerged eventually. It was not a happy conversation.

Well, we are moving on to another committee whose charge will be to address these many questions, broadening the scope of the analysis, which is probably appropriate. But this will likely take another year, which doesn’t seem right to me. I must admit, I am disheartened.

From the range of questions and comments that emerged, it is clear that our community cares deeply about diversity, equity, and inclusion on our campus. Nothing that was said suggests that there isn’t concern about how to best serve our students from this perspective. Unfortunately, I think we are so aware of just how complicated these questions are that we are paralyzed. It reminds me of how I used to feel in the library stacks when I was getting my PhD; I just couldn’t figure out where the end of the question might be. This knowledge of the layers of complexity makes it difficult to take action.

The trouble is, I think those students deserve some action, sooner rather than later. So, at the risk of over-simplifying things, I’d like to suggest a few first steps for our community. These are baby steps, available to us right now, while we wait for the more complex DEI plan to be fully developed.

  1. Each faculty member should take a look at their syllabi and simply ask if there are any opportunities to include a wider range of voices in the readings assigned. This does not mean that math classes need to teach subjects that are more appropriate to anthropology classes. It simply means looking at the many people who have contributed to the field of mathematics and consider whether or not their voices or discoveries are reflected in the materials.
  2. Each department might come together to look at the whole of what they are offering and consider whether or not, taken together, the curriculum includes opportunities to encounter a diversity of scholars who have contributed to the field. That work together could reveal a few insights about the dominant narratives being presented and whether or not there are opportunities to grow the range of voices encountered by our students. This holistic approach to the major can help address any gaps in perspectives while at the same time avoiding trying to make all courses do the same thing.
  3. Our curriculum committees might take a moment to scan our catalogs (graduate and undergraduate) to see if there are ample opportunities for students to pursue some of the particular histories, fields, and narratives of interest to them. Can we find more than one course focused on women, or African-American, Asian-American, Latin-American, or LGBTQ+ communities? Can we pursue a line of inquiry about the role of religion or culture or social structures in social justice movements? Is it possible to complete a degree at our university without ever hearing about a culture or community that is different from our own?
  4. For all of the above, can we include our students in the conversation? They might not see things the same way that we do. Perhaps we should try to learn what they are seeing.

And when we’re all done with the process above, it might be a good idea to a) communicate about it in some way and b) make a plan to do this work every few years.

There is a lot more to do. We really do need to look at the literature about inclusive teaching practices and get serious about finding out why some of our students are feeling marginalized. We need to get serious about looking at the ways in which that lack of attention to inclusive teaching practices is impacting our students in terms of successful course/degree completion. We really do need a climate survey to help us gauge how widespread the feelings of exclusion might be. Then we need to act on the results of that survey. We really do need to examine our hiring practices to try to get a better understanding of why we keep replicating the status quo. All of this is important, and I hope that the next committee will do a great job on this.

But for right now, the simple steps above could help us move forward. They allow the content experts to do the work. They do not involve any external reviews of anything, and so might encourage departments to have honest and thoughtful conversations. They do not suggest that every course needs to become a course about diversity or culture. Instead, they just ask all of us to be mindful of our decisions and look for reasonable opportunities to be more inclusive. That doesn’t have to take another year.