In the span of a few weeks, the world (and higher education) drastically changed. The effects of those changes will go beyond a few months. In “Facing Today’s New Norm in Higher Ed: Perspectives from the President’s Office” met with leaders from three universities to see how they are adapting to that change and learn strategies that could be useful as you prepare for the 2020 fall semester. Below is some of the highlights of the conversation.
- Dr. Susan Fritz, executive vice president and provost, University of Nebraska
- Dr. Andrea Luxton, president, Andrews University
- Fram Virjee, J.D., president, California State University, Fullerton
The impact of COVID-19 on higher education
One of the biggest reasons COVID-19 was so jarring is the speed at which change needed to happen. Institutions needed to transition to virtual learning and find new ways to support their students. It may not have been a simple endeavor, but it’s clear that staff across the country were able to rise to the challenge.
Fram: Our story is not vastly different from those of others — it’s been quite a journey. We began raising concerns about the effect of COVID-19 in January and began putting together a committee to look at what actions we could take. It wasn’t easy, but our proactive work made the transition possible. It was nothing short of breathtaking. We moved 40,000 students to virtual learning in a matter of days; 3,500 faculty to virtual instruction, many of whom had never taught virtually.
Our admission services, financial aid services, and supplemental instruction programs (tutoring, student success centers, support networks and extracurricular) all went virtual. Even the rec center offered virtual workouts.
Andrea: It’s huge — one day you have all your students on campus and then 48 hours later the majority are gone. Obviously the greatest pivots is, “How do you suddenly move the whole operation to remote?” Faculty suddenly found ways to make it happen.
The second question was, “How do you build community when everyone is in different places?” Especially for a smaller university, that community is so critical — it’s why a lot of students come into a residential situation. We used a lot of strategies to try and maintain and build community beyond just classes.
Susan: We, too, had faculty who needed the assistance of instructional designers. These individuals stepped in to provide training and consultations. We also had all sorts of permutations of teams that quickly assembled to work with other faculty.
And, of course, our IT team stepped up to help with all the technical matters that are engendered by such a dramatic shift to remote learning. I’d also say that we gave a great deal of thought to situations where individuals weren’t able to do their job. Individuals that depend on being face-to-face in order to work. We provided 160 hours of paid administrative leave for those staff who could not complete their tasks remotely.
Biggest issues for university presidents
Fram: I’d say there’s too many to mention, and they’re all coming at us at once. The ones that are the most pressing seem to be the ones that are the most immediate. As we moved from face-to-face to virtual and online learning it was the access to both the equipment and broadband that was needed.
But, very quickly, as we pivoted to address those issues, it became clear that we are the community for so many of our students. Whether that’s for places they can gather and study or the places they can eat or meet basic food needs. We were quick to see that and had to address food and house insecurity for a number of our students.
Susan: It’s kind of like living in a meteor shower — there are so many things to attend to right now. We’re certainly concerned about fall enrollment. Surprisingly, our applications are up significantly over last year. One of the things we’re a bit concerned about is that we don’t have a lot of data to compare [enrollment numbers] to. We pay attention to the national surveys and know students are expressing a lot of concern about going to college this fall.
We’ve also put in a couple programs in place: One is a new scholarship program for Pell-eligible students that looks to increase about 1,000 more scholarships for students. We also announced that we froze tuition for two years. Mental health is an absolute ongoing concern. We’ve added some services in a telehealth environment and hoping to try to respond to this need.
Andrea: We’re in an environment where we make decisions in one day that we’d normally make in a week. We have the data and information that’s flowing to us constantly, and it seems to change daily as well. In that context, the need to be flexible and agile as a campus is critical.
We’re also concerned about fall enrollment. Even though our initial figures are good, we know our international students will likely be hit. Really working into our budgets and planning the ”what ifs” and being able to switch and turn quickly enough when we need to be able to do so. Talking about mental health — that links back to the idea of community. How do we create a new type of community that still has the same values, that still lives out the mission of the institution, but does so in different ways?
What Fall 2020 looks like on campus
Arguably the biggest question in higher education is not whether things will change, but how they will do so. Creating online and face-to-face campus environments that are safe and engaging is a challenge, but one many institutions have already begun to prepare for.
Fram: That’s really the $64,000 question. The real answer is that we’re working from two touchstones. The first is the health and safety of our students, faculty, and staff. The second is learning outcomes and the continuity of education (which comes in a close second, but it is second). For that reason, we’ve been looking at the science carefully and paying attention to what we’re being told by the CDC, by our State Department of Health, and surrounding medical providers.
We came to the conclusion that it would be best to plan for a virtual start of the  school year with a small number of face-to-face classes — the ones that require the most hands-on learning and equipment. We’ll probably be at about 5percent face-to-face learning. We have a phase-in to bring students back to campus for things like instruction, residence, and athletics, as we are able and allowed to by the governor, state department of health, and local counties to be able to do that.
Susan: Our campuses are being guided by a higher education COVID-19 pandemic recovery guide that was developed by our UNMC’s global center for health security. It’s a 23-page checklist that provides guidance based on three steps.
The first is when campus and regional disease prevalence and resource availability has been stable for more than 14 days. The second is more than 28 days, and the third is more than 42 days. The checklist is consistent with current CDC, higher ed, and facilities recommendations and they are comprehensive. So, we’ve modified our academic calendar with some differences among our campuses.
Andrea: We are planning on operating face-to-face, though we have asked all of our faculty to create an environment where many of the classes are blended. So there will be some face-to-face elements and some remote elements — that will allow us to reduce the amount of students in a class.
We’re going to cut out Labor Day and fall breaks to finish our face-to-face classes by Thanksgiving. We’re also looking at robust public health mechanisms of testing students, a variety of apps to manage reporting. A lot of similar things — and we’re working with the Michigan organizations of private institutions that have put together excellent recommendations (and have also been working with the governor’s office). It’s been a huge group effort to put together what we think will be a workable and safe as possible plan for students and faculty who are returning.
To hear the live Q&A portion and full remarks from our guests, view the full webinar.