Community, Resilience

The Bright Side

It is March 23, 2020 and Western Connecticut State University has officially launched as a virtual campus.  Spring “break” was filled with activity. Faculty were preparing materials for online course delivery with lots of help from our Instructional Design team.  Information Technology & Innovation (IT&I) has been deploying hardware and software at a dizzying pace, all the while working to ensure that there is enough support on the Help Desk, as our system strains under the weight of a sudden level-up in usage. Academic and Student Support Services have moved to virtual formats.  Student Affairs and the Residence Life team are finishing up the process of helping our residential students retrieve their belongings, and the facilities team has identified appropriate places on campus for emergency spaces for the City of Danbury, should that be necessary.  It has been all hands on deck, and people have been rising to the challenge with positive attitudes.  Whew.

It is sure to be a little bumpy for the next few weeks.  We’re all learning quickly but mistakes will happen.  Nevertheless, I see some potential positive outcomes from adapting to this new reality.

Online Teaching and Learning

WCSU does not want to become an online university.  I want to be clear on that. We are woven into our community and we serve students from many backgrounds with varied needs.  Not all of our students (or faculty) will thrive in an online environment.  But some students will.  At WCSU, we’ve been trying to determine the right audiences and approaches for our online offerings (graduate, returning adult, hybrid, low-residency, and so on).  This quick turn-around to an online environment creates an opportunity for us to gather some actual data on these questions.  I am hoping for some great conversations and analytics when this is over.

It is also important to note that this midcourse shift in medium places faculty in a good position to assess the impact of moving their instruction online. Working with students face-to-face for the first half of the semester has provided the opportunity to get to know how each student engages their education.  This will help them see where the change in medium is or is not impacting student success.  When there is a change in student performance it may be time to review the approach. If student performance stays roughly the same, things are probably on the right track.  There will be a lot to learn about instructional design from this simple metric.

Online Academic Supports

While many students, staff, and faculty prefer face-to-face experiences for academic support, this isn’t necessarily a great fit for a majority commuter campus.  As my colleagues have worked at breakneck speed to develop processes to support the virtual versions of our support services (tutoring, academic coaching, advising for students of all learning needs), we now have the opportunity to compare the volume of demand for services, and possibly the impact of interventions, with the face-to-face version.  We may learn that we should reconsider the proportion of online vs. face-to-face services when we return to normal operations.

Registration for fall is also underway.  WCSU has (wisely) committed to requiring students to meet with their academic advisors prior to being allowed to register.  This allows us to flag critical pre-requisites or course sequences, discuss challenges or the need for academic support, identify opportunities (minors, internships, study abroad), and most of all, build relationships with our students.  However, like the realities of academic supports, sometimes our students’ work schedules, etc., make traditional office hours problematic.  Testing out platforms for good virtual advising experiences could be good for us.  I’ll add that learning to keep our advising recommendations in Degree Works could be another good outcome.  Think of all the paper we could save!


I’m not in love with the collaboration tools yet, but I can definitely see their value. Between Teams for smaller group meetings and WebEx and Zoom for the larger ones, we are learning to stay in touch via technology.  I know lots of organizations have been doing this for years, but education tends to be a high touch environment.  We find the free flow of face-to-face conversation and debate to be vital for refining our ideas.  The awkwardness of taking turns in the online environment does kind of dampen discussion, but it will let us proceed with university business and we will get better at it.

There is the other kind of collaboration, too.  We are organized by schools, departments, and divisions in higher education.  We frequently spend our careers interacting within the narrowest of those clusters, without learning much about how our colleagues see things or how they do their work.  Ironically, this separation is making us reach out across divisions more than we usually do.  There’s an esprit de corps as we try to help each other think things through and solve problems.

The connection between Student Affairs and Academic Affairs and Enrollment Management has never been stronger as we identify the gaps in our areas that result from the lack of face-to-face engagement with students and faculty.  We might just discover some better processes that won’t lead to these gaps when life returns to normal. Likewise, the relationship between students, faculty, and the IT&I team has strengthened, as people become accustomed to the online support they used to resist.  As we moved to quickly vacate the campus, many of us came to understand the logistics routinely managed by our Residential Life staff, our Facilities Team, and our Campus Police.

I know I might sound a little too Kumbaya, this week, but it is honestly how I feel.  I am proud of my colleagues and excited to learn from all that has occurred.  And if that’s a little to mushy, consider this – with this dash to online will never worry about snow days again!

Stay healthy.



And breathe

Well, last week was the whirl of decision-making.  First it was the cancellation of the spring break trips.  Our disappointed athletes saw their spring seasons quickly disappear.  Then campus events were cancelled and our performing arts students saw their seasons and trips disappear.  Then there was a cascade of schools sending students home for a few weeks (returns TBD), and our lab sciences shuddered, students in internships scrambled, and the stress of faculty figuring out how to move classes to an online format was palpable. It was a tough week for everyone.

But here we are, at the start of spring break.  Students and faculty are off.  Most staff are working remotely.  Our facilities crew is cleaning the campus and we actually have a moment to regain our composure. Whew.

So, here’s some good news.  First, what a wonderfully resilient group we are at WCSU (and I suspect in most of higher education).  My instructional design team has upped its support for faculty who have never taught online.  For those who have never done so, teaching online is not an easy shift.  Most people spend at least a summer planning for such a thing, so doing it in a week is lightning speed.  Nevertheless, people are figuring it out. I have received lots of notes from faculty wanting to help each other.  We are putting those helpful hints in our course management system, so people can get ideas from each other.  It is the kind of camaraderie that comes in a crisis, that I hope will last beyond the panic.

Our Academic Support services (librarians, tutors, and academic coaches) are all moving online  These groups are in separate clusters at WCSU, with varied uses of log in tools, training, and tracking of demand.  This week, they are all learning to pool resources and share techniques so that the supports for student learning do not waiver while we are a virtual university.

We are just entering our fall registration period and there have been questions about how advising will work.  As a blended system of faculty and professional advisors, we wanted to be sure students knew how to get help while off campus.  As it turns out, this part is pretty simple.  Advising is easy to accomplish via email, phone, or conferencing tools.  Faculty can review student transcripts from home, put advising notes and registration pins right in Degree Works (our transcript system), and the students will be all set to go. The bright side might be, however, that students happen to be reading their email right now because of their attention to the closure.  I’m hoping we end up with higher percentage of students registered for the fall than is usual at this time.

What about the rest of us, the ones who aren’t teaching, advising, or maintaining facilities? Well, admissions is still busy admitting students.  Financial aid is still busy helping address awards and manage accounts.  Registrars are still busy helping students register.  Our Student Affairs team suddenly has a few free minutes to plan for the fall, while simultaneously planning for an adjusted schedule this spring.  In Academic Affairs (including the Deans and all of the people who support us), we’re busy reviewing schedules, curriculum, and opportunities for growth, as we were prior to COVID-19.  The only difference is that we might have a few more hours of uninterrupted writing and thinking time.

This is that moment when we might wonder why we’ve built in so many interruptions in the first place.  Are all of those meetings a good use of time?  Is our committee structure so complex that it wears us out more that it offers insight?  Do we build agendas for meetings that are useful and achievable? Having this opportunity to think for just a few extra minutes a day, I can already see that there is room to streamline our efforts.

Then there are the electronic interruptions.  The good news is it is easy for me to shift my job to online, because much of it is about responding to email and writing documents.  The bad news is that much of the email is silly.  It is easy for me to delete all the sales pitches, but the never-ending stream of clarifications about our governance processes, suggests that a) our processes are too cumbersome, b) our instructions are too vague, and c) we must have hidden the instructions from view, because no one seems to have read them.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind answering.  People are doing their best and they don’t want to get things wrong. But I’m pretty sure my colleagues are smart, so I suspect there is something wrong with how we’ve organized things.  This shift away from meetings might give me a minute to figure out how to make some adjustments.

For those who are scrambling to figure out online instruction, you can pause for a minute, too.  Look at your courses and ask yourself what you must accomplish in the remaining weeks of the semester.  In complete honesty, is it everything you included at the start?  Could you get to a good set of learning experiences and outcomes by doing a little less?  Probably.  Take this opportunity to make those cuts, with essential concepts at the heart of the decisions.  It will keep you from trying to do more than is actually possible in this quick transition.  It might also teach you a few lessons for next year.

In other words, after the panic, there really is time to breathe and think. While I remain concerned about the potential spread of this virus, I will simply be grateful for the time it has added to my day. It is almost as if mother nature scheduled time for spring cleaning.  I’ll take it.


Higher Education

Do Less!

Help!  It is Monday and I am faced with a list of priorities that is impossible to complete.  There is the usual business of running academic affairs.  At this time of year that clusters around graduation planning, student problems surrounding graduation, attending to the usual curricular issues (new programs, revisions and external evaluations thereof), program review and associated actions, personnel decisions, participation in events, and meetings of all kinds. Added to the mix this year are university assessments of our enrollment patterns (demographic dips), and the allocation of resources related to those facts and, now COVID-19 preparations.  Whew!

I would like to complain, but I will not.  What I am thinking about is a question I have raised in this column in the past … can we do less?  I do not mean can we do more with less.  I mean simply, can we just do less than we are doing now and still create a great educational experience?

Let’s face it; everyone’s to-do list is too long.  I am not unique. The question is why are our to-do lists too long?  Why do we consistently add things, without taking things off the list?  Why do we think we can absorb new duties without dispensing with the existing ones?  Why do we have no clearly defined ends to our goals so we can take them off our lists? I don’t know, but it is definitely time to try to figure it out.

Here are my starting points:

  1. How many events should a university have? Until now, many of us have operated on the assumption that things should happen organically so that everyone has the opportunity to host interesting talks, events, etc.  The result is lots of good events with tiny audiences.  There is no coherence to the programming, so there is no way to think about appropriate representation of our community.  There are also budgets involved in all of them.  Perhaps, we could consider a new planning model that sets the number and the budget and makes a clear and coherent plan.  Maybe that plan could include a maximum number of events overall.
  2. How many clubs do we really need?  Like events, we have tried to facilitate an environment where all interests can be met.  This encourages action on the part of students in very productive ways.  However, like the events, the participation is varied, there is no sense of balance of interests, and there are overlapping themes.  Perhaps, we can set a few targets in this area, too.
  3. How many curricular options do we need?  Without considering majors (yet), I notice that we have many options within majors, often overlapping.  We also have lots of general education options for our students. This leads to a certain amount of sprawl with some courses oversubscribed and others with low enrollments.  Perhaps we could focus on the heart of a discipline with just a few options. This might help us plan more coherent schedules that yield fewer cancellations.
  4. How much can we really cover in a semester?  When we plan our syllabi, are we being overly optimistic? Are the goals set out achievable in a meaningful way?  By meaningful, I mean something more than simply “covering” material. Instead, I’m hoping for some level of understanding and, ideally, a few “ahas.”  When we consider that our students are taking four, five, and sometimes six courses in a semester,  there is some doubt as to the room for true engagement. We may be setting up a situation in which students are forced to divide their attention so dramatically that little depth of understanding can be achieved.
  5. How many meetings do we really need?  How long should those meetings be?  Are they leading to action?  I struggle with this one on a regular basis.  It is important for me to have direct conversations with many university constituencies, but I am not sure all of those meetings are productive.  I think, if I could reduce more of them to very clear and meaningful agendas, we could have fewer meetings and complete the work discussed in a timely manner. (NOTE: The next question must be how many committees do we really need.)

If we take seriously all of these questions, we might significantly reduce our to-do lists.  Then we might even have time for lunch with our colleagues.  Think of all the good work that gets done when there is actually time for lunch!



Higher Education, Quality, Regional Comprehensive, Return on Investment

Being a Community Asset

In the past decade or so, many higher education institutions have worked hard to raise their profile. Savvy enrollment directors and presidents had their eyes on the coming demographic shifts, and they worked hard to establish reputations beyond their traditional recruiting area. They knew there were not going to be enough students in that region to sustain them. Some invested in new programs, others rushed to specialized accreditations, and still others celebrated winning athletic contests that brought them national recognition.  It was an exhilarating race.

All of these seemed like sane strategies, and there have been some big winners.  But the field is crowded, and not all of us have the resources to found a medical school or compete in division one sports. For those of us designed to serve a broad range of students while working with more limited funds, this quest for national brand identity was and is out of reach.  To put it simply, being recognized costs money. When choosing to invest our resources, schools like mine tend to focus on direct student services, rather than reputation.  It may seem shortsighted to some, but when faced with the day-to-day realities of our student’s needs, direct services win every time.

But, here we are.  The demographic shifts are upon us, the big winners in the branding arena have been determined, and we are not among them.  We don’t have national recognition, and as we work hard to maintain reasonable enrollments, we are facing difficult decisions about the allocation of our resources. As we make those decisions, it might be a good time to focus on the value we bring to our local community.

WCSU is a wonderful option for so many people. We have a diverse array of programs, highly qualified faculty, interesting research opportunities, and some very nice buildings.  Many of our students go on the impressive things, like law school, medical school, and other interesting graduate programs.  Others win prestigious scholarships like Fulbright’s and Goldwater’s, or full-funding for graduate degrees in math or economics.  However, the vast majority earn their degrees from us, secure employment in the region, and get on with living productive lives. I am very proud of every one of these accomplishments.

Having lived in this region for over twenty-five years, it is impossible for me not to see our impact. Everywhere I go, I run into our graduates.  They are running small businesses, inventing new things, and working for global firms.  They are in our healthcare agencies, our schools, our police forces, and running social programs. They are volunteers, elected officials, and proud parents. They are my friends and neighbors.

Just last week, I was out to dinner, listening to some friends play music, when I ended up in a conversation with another musician who earned his business degree from us and is now working for an international accounting firm.  His wife earned a degree in social work from WCSU as well. Both are having wonderful lives, working in their fields, and raising their children in CT. Their parents also attended WCSU and if they send their children to college with us, they will be third generation WCSU graduates. That is some kind of endorsement of our offerings, don’t you think?

These kinds of conversations are a common experience for me. I hear of great outcomes in grocery stores, at concerts, and local fairs.  I am occasionally called upon to give advice to families whose children may be struggling.  I have helped friends of friends guide their children back to college, after the study-away experience didn’t work out. Sometimes, I find myself explaining our policies on park benches or at the beach. It is actually an honor.  I am happy to be that resource for so many members of my community.

Reflecting on these experiences, I realize just what a privilege it is to be a good, regional comprehensive university.  Instead of focusing on being a national brand, we’re focused on doing quality education.  Our offerings are typical of our kind of school and they are, in fact, pathways to productive lives. From the generalist degrees that serve as great foundations for careers in many fields, to the more direct career focused programs that prepare students to be nurses or social workers, we provide opportunities for all students to thrive. When appropriate, we add new majors that meet emerging demands (cybersecurity and addiction studies come to mind), and that is important, but mostly, we offer quality education that sets our graduates up for success.

I guess what I am saying is this–as the number of students in our region drop, I still want to be that great option for my friends and neighbors.  I don’t want to chase a trend or invest resources in the ratings race or hire a consultant to tell us what we already know about who we are. Instead, I want to invest in the things that support this environment, so that we can continue to be the community asset that we have always been.

This makes us a little vulnerable. We have to figure out how to manage our resources while we wait for a new generation of learners to be ready for college. It is a real challenge to budget for status quo, rather than growth.  But, I think we are on the right track if we keep quality education as our focus, rather than shiny objects.   It may not be glamourous, but it is sure does change lives.


Change, Higher Education

Starting Fresh

I admit it, this morning’s review of the higher education landscape has got me a little down.  In the Northeastern US, we are facing devastating demographic predictions–well over a 5% decline in high school graduates through 2025 (NCES).  The closure of the week was Concordia University in Portland, Oregon.  The announced merger of the week was the Minnesota Rural Community Colleges.  This comes on the heels of Maine’s plans to unify it’s four-year system. Pennsylvania seems to have sold out its public university system in favor of SNHU’s nimble degree completion programs.  Relaxed recruiting rules from the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) mean last minute (and continuous) efforts to poach each other’s students is now standard operating procedure.  And, my personal favorite, we’ve become accreditation crazed, shelling out tens of thousands of dollars annually to say we are the best in business, education, nursing, art, social work or music… just like everyone else who can afford to do so. Our collective response to innovation, competition, reduced state support, and changing demographics has been to act like for-profit industries.  Oh dear.

So, now what?  It isn’t like we can afford to do nothing.  In the simplest of terms, there aren’t enough students to support all of the colleges and universities out there (particularly here in New England, but we aren’t alone).  At the same time, we cost too much for many of the families that need us most.  For the public systems, the taxpayers are no longer willing to bear anywhere near the full cost of our operations. For all of us the student loan system is broken. We have to do something, but is taking a corporate approach the right answer?  I don’t think so.

What if we were forced to start all over again? If we had the opportunity to design an education system from scratch, would it look like what we have today? With a blank slate, what might we come up with? Here are some considerations.

Question 1: Does the traditional four-year degree model still make sense?

We did not always think everyone should go to college. Even a high school education for all is relatively recent.  The increasing demand for advanced credentials has come from a variety of stimuli, including social justice, GI bills, and the world of work and invention.  The expansion of access to higher education was and is crucial for a society built on advanced technologies and socio-economic mobility.

Nevertheless, it is not necessarily true that the traditional path to and through post-secondary education meets that need.  That is why things like technology boot camps, and mega online universities are gaining traction in the education landscape.  So is the investment in high school programs that grant college credentials, and community college technology programs. This isn’t all bad, but for many of us, it is a limited approach to education.  But, it might be a good clue to what we should be thinking about.

Question 2: Does the going away to college model, with all of its attendant co-curricular supports, still make sense? 

When we first imagined higher education in the United States, it was a place to which students had to travel. Universities were a destination, and as such required an infrastructure to house, feed, and (eventually) amuse students. These services, and the attendant healthcare, mental healthcare, and co-curricular programming are a significant part of the cost of higher education.

Yet, the majority of students do not live on college campuses. In the US, about 73% of students attend public colleges and universities (Statista). Only 40% of those students live in dorms (The College Board). In addition, about 56% of students choose to attend colleges and universities within 50 miles from home, another 12% within 100. The tendency to attend a relatively local institution has risen consistently since 1990 when it was about only about 37% (Econofact Network) .  Much of this change is probably driven by economics.  Some of it is social, as we see trends of students living with their families longer both during and after college. Maybe we should take a hint from these patterns.

Question 3: Is it possible to structure education in away that truly meets the need for life-long learning?

Colleges and universities (and accrediting bodies) all assert that life-long learning is an essential outcome of an undergraduate education. Yet, we very much suggest that learning is complete upon graduation.  We hand out a diploma and call it a day.  We may be laying the foundation for learning, but we are also shutting off access to the things that support learning in very real ways.

Meanwhile, the need to keep pace with changing cultural and technological demands is persistent.  Whether we are discussing re-tooling for world of work because new technologies have emerged or jobs have disappeared, or we have to adjust to an increasingly diverse community and need to know a little bit more about how cultures interact, it is clear that life-long learning has never been more important. But this need for knowledge often emerges in contexts that one did not anticipate in school and then we are ready to learn.  Should we be considering structures that truly support life-long learning, by being available long after the first part is done?

As usual, there is so much more to think about.  What should the role of online education be? Why do we still entwine athletics with education? Should everyone have a gap year or two?  How should we re-structure the funding of higher education so that there is actual equity? Why are we spending so much on accreditation? And the list goes on.

It is a big project, when you think about starting from scratch.  It might be uncomfortable, because we may have to let go of some of our favorite things.  We may have to face the fact the tiers of access that we have built are unfair or insurmountable. We may have to acknowledge that our priorities need to be realigned. Nevertheless, it might be a better place to start than the for-profit priorities we’ve drifted toward in the recent decades. At least I hope so.