After all that college students, their families, institutional leaders, faculty, and particularly staff and student affairs professionals have been through the last two months, I must begin this letter with an overwhelming extension of gratitude and empathy. You have supported students and colleagues through uncharted experiences, while living with tremendous uncertainty in your own personal and professional life. I have never been prouder of the student affairs and higher education community. Thank you for all that you have already given of yourself during this strange and challenging time in the history of our world and work. I am grateful for each and every one of you.
You can imagine that I am regularly asked to make predictions about college and university reopenings for the fall 2020 semester/quarter. What I feel confident is sharing is that institutional decisions will not be one-size-fits-all, unlike the mass decisions to close campuses in March 2020 when the pandemic began to spread in the United States. If you are exhausted from hearing the word “unprecedented” to describe the last two months, prepare yourself to also grow weary of our field’s use of “hybrid” for the coming academic terms.
In truth, student affairs divisions have been preparing for this workplace crisis for the past ten years – the pandemic forced us to act. There has long been discussion about programs, services, and supports that are important to conduct in person, or face-to-face, versus those that could be moved into virtual environments. The push-and-pull for student affairs has been about how we continue to live out the values we place on humanity, justice, and personal development in our work if we begin to minimize interpersonal contact. My shift from working in a campus student affairs division to the association world has allowed me to learn that different forms of interpersonal contact does not necessarily mean harm or reduction to relationships. And it is the centering of relationships, my friends and colleagues, that must remain core in how we design, implement, and evaluate remote or virtual forms of contact that allow for relationships to continue to flourish. In the world of association management, everything we do (except for member conferences and events) is entirely virtual including our weekly staff meetings, one-on-ones, and other methods for communications and relationship cultivation. I feel just as close and connected to my colleagues in the association management world than I did working in a campus environment, so I want to encourage you that it is possible to maintain and care for relationships even in circumstances where contact may be different.
The question remains for our institutions, however, on whether to go fully remote with courses, to implement a hybrid experience with in-person and virtual components, or to reopen the physical campus environment with modifications that account for physical distancing. On a panel I joined in March 2020 at the start of the pandemic, I shared my perspective that how institutions deal with these decisions will determine how they are transformed by the COVID-19 pandemic. It is not my intent to oversimplify the complexity of these decisions, but I offer the following questions as themes of conversations that should be occurring with institutional decision-makers about how campuses will be changed in the future:
- What must change?
- What can change?
- What do we want (or not want) to change?
Each of these questions are guided by a different set of motivators. Answers to the first question, “what must change?,” are to be informed by considerations related to state and federal government requirements/restrictions, financial realities, and institutional fear of consequences. This question is driven by regulatory and political compliance, extent of insurance coverage, ability of endowments and investments to fund operations, comparisons to like or peer institutions, threats to reputation and public perception/image, and the sustainability of the organization beyond the next 3-5 years.
The second question, “what can change?,” is one of capital and access. Most institutions are thinking about this question in terms of available technology and the cost to the college to move classes into virtual environments, but we must help to expand those conversations to also include access to technology for students, the human capital involved in the various planning and implementation scenarios, and the long-term implications on people and culture for short-term, “make it work” decisions that solve today’s challenges. It is difficult to quantify or count some forms of capital and access, and this is where our advocacy and voice has never been more critical in campus decision-making. We must help leaders to identify there are more costs to consider beyond hardware, software, and personnel. How are our institutions planning and accounting for the medium- and long-term implications of this trauma on our campuses, and including those conversations in today’s decisions?
The final question, “what do we want to change?,” calls us to account for the roles of mission, purpose, and culture in our institutional decision-making. This question asks us to also commit to the elements of our community where we are not willing to make a sacrifice by naming and holding firm to those things that we cannot or do not want to change. Although each of the previous questions should be informed and influenced by an institution’s mission, values, and cultures, including this as an overt part of decision making is important. This is where student affairs educators may have to be loud and proud of the ways our work contributes to student success. This is where we affirm the importance of prioritizing relationships over contact. This is where we demonstrate that across-the-board budget cuts affect student affairs departments and student-interfacing functions and services disproportionately to the rest of an institution’s operations. This is where an institution has the greatest potential to do additional harm to already marginalized populations of students, staff, faculty, and alumni. This question matters as much as the first two, and I’m afraid that it will not receive equal attention.
I’ll conclude where I began by thanking you for the work you continue to do in supporting your students and colleagues. In difficult times, I am reminded of a favorite quote:
“In every crisis, doubt or confusion, take the higher path – the path of compassion, courage, understanding and love.” – Amit Ray
This is who we are, and I am honored to be in community together. Continue to center love in all that you do.
All my best,
ACPA Executive Director