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Community Crisis: Staying Engaged with Your Faculty, Staff and Learners

The EvoLLLution | Community Crisis: Staying Engaged with Your Faculty, Staff and Learners
Ask faculty and staff for creative ways to keep the community engaged, like master classes.

As COVID-19 continues to develop and impact our everyday lives, higher education is trying its best to quickly respond to each developing issue. As everyone takes on social distancing, how can institutions keep their faculty and learners engaged? What initiatives can help hold the community during this time? In this interview, John LaBrie discusses how Clark University is responding to the outbreak, shares some of the creative tactics they’re coming up with and reflects on the scalability of their response.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): How has Clark responded to the COVID-19 outbreak?

John LaBrie (JL): As the institution responded to the challenges, it really brought out the best of what Clark University is.

For example, we had to close down our residence halls and asked all students to vacate the campus. In that period of time, our residential life staff really went up to bat and helped our students with free boxes and storage on campus for personal things. All of this happened in a very compressed timeline, and staff was able to make a relatively hard situation a little bit easier.

Evo: How have Professional Studies, operations, and learners been affected by the shift?

JL: Professional Studies at Clark is largely a graduate education activity. Many of our programs have a substantial number of online components to begin with. The faculty within the Professional Studies group, which includes our Graduate School of Management, really stepped up to the plate with their students to say, “We’ve got you.” And so, the coursework continues.

We’re now at a phase where we’re dealing with the intricacies of individual students’ lives. For example, our international students who have returned home are struggling to accommodate specific challenges with firewalls and learning management systems. So, we’re troubleshooting things with faculty and students on a regular basis. Our response from a curricular perspective has been much smoother than a lot of people had envisioned ten or 15 days ago.

Evo: How have these changes impacted staff both from a productivity and mental health standpoint?

JL: There are individual staff members who have very challenging situations on their home front. Today, the Governor of Massachusetts asked for any non-essential function or business to be closed down overnight. Nearly everyone on staff is working remotely so, we need to manage collectively as a team very effectively and efficiently. When a staff member has a difficult situation at home front, other staff members are picking up the slack and solving problems. This is a stressful situation for our learners and our faculty—but also for our staff who are trying to provide appropriate student services and faculty support in this dramatic shift mid-semester.

Evo: What kinds of changes are being made to continue delivering a high-quality learning experience during a time of social isolation?

JL: We immediately provided everybody with video conferencing capabilities. Students who had to physically come in for their advising sessions are now getting invites for video conferencing through Zoom and Microsoft Teams instead. We find video conferencing breaks down some of the isolation.

There’s a whole range of things that we’ve discussed regarding the students. For example, we know that our students will experience hardships in the last few weeks of the semester.To ensure that their grades are protected, we’ve given the option of having pass/fail courses.

There are some complications with that, but the gist of the policy for this term is for students to continue their work—but we’re going to recognize that they’ll be impacted by the situation.

We’re trying to keep academic integrity expectations as constant as possible. We took a look at our policy infrastructure and tried to make it much more student-centered. We’ve pushed back advising and thesis defense deadlines, all in the effort of giving our students  the time and space to accommodate to this seismic shift in their lives.

Evo: As we start to shift to remote learning, how can colleges maintain a unique identity and brand without falling back on reliable and traditional means?

JL: People are really starting to shift their thinking. When the institution realized it would need to close down, we were consumed with daily emergency protocols and communicating essential information. As we sit here today, 10 days later, a small group of us have started to meet and are rolling out a series of initiatives meant to keep our community connected.

It’s really forced us to look at the central premise of what Clark is as an institution and what our common values are. Community is one of its very important aspects. Students, faculty and staff all feel like they belong here. And so, our initiative in this early stage is to really bring this community back together in a very deliberate and interactive way. For example, we’re asking our students to engage in producing short 30- to 90-second video snippets sharing their experience of what it means to them to have been vacated in the middle of the term. We can all collectively process each other’s experiences there.

We’re also looking at shifting away from a text-based communication strategy to a more interactive video-based communication. Developing online tools for larger communities, not just at the classroom level, but at larger department levels. So, we’re brainstorming in relatively unique ways what the core essence of our university is, what we want to preserve in this process and how it can be our guiding light in how we engage students, faculty and our staff.

Evo: How scalable is this shift towards this highly engaging approach to student support and service?

JL: Well, check back with me in about three months. Scalability here is going to be a collective effort by the institution, not just reliant on effort from staff but students and faculty as well.

We are strongly encouraging our faculty to think about unconventional ways of engaging their student cohorts that they would normally be able to engage in the classroom. The life of a residential undergraduate campus is made all the richer by the special activities occurring on campus, the guest lecturer that comes in, the panel discussion, or the visiting faculty member with an on-campus art exhibition. We’re asking our faculty to envision what they could bring to the table to enhance the student experience in this virtual environment. We may soon be hosting webinars with master classes open to anybody, not just particular classes and experimenting with a range of other things.

From an infrastructure perspective, we certainly have the capacity to scale, but success will depend on how broad-based we can get participation at all levels of the institution–not only administration, but faculty, staff and students to bring to the table a new version of Clark University in this diaspora.

Evo: Why do you define this learner group as a diaspora?

JL: I use the word diaspora here quite intentionally. A diaspora is not just a group who has migrated away from their homeland. It specifically implies a forced migration away from your homeland.

We had a student forum the night we announced closing the campus. There was an awful lot of compassion for each other in the room of 100 to 150 students. There were a lot of tears, hurt, and anger—not directed at anyone in particular but towards the whole situation. And so, this is a Clark diaspora as much as it is a diaspora for many universities around the country.

How we respond to that diaspora is going to be an indication of the quality of our institution and the fabric of our academic and social plan for our students.

Evo: What are a few lessons about disaster preparedness that you’ve taken from this experience so far? 

JL: Emergency plans are great, but you need to bring real-time action to the table. In many cases, you need to take emergency planning groups and subdivide them into smaller ones. Empower people to bring what they’re best at to the table and allow them to make the best decisions possible in this situation. There certainly needs to be a lot of coordination, but the level of intricacies that we faced 10 days ago when we decided to close couldn’t have been centrally managed, for example. That had to be managed in a dis-aggregated and decentralized fashion.

Trust that your colleagues are doing the best they can in a really bad situation. At the end of the day, while there may have been a few glitches everything ended up running quite smoothly from a process perspective. It was still very difficult because it was ridden with all sorts of intense emotions, but from a function perspective, allowing people to manage at their unit level and in a decentralized fashion, really is-one of the strongest lessons we’ve learned about emergency planning. It’s that empowerment of the frontline staff to let us know what they need in the moment and for us to be as responsive to them as possible.


This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Editor’s note: This interview was recorded on March 23, 2020.


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