How to Ensure a Successful Opening This Fall

Full advice fall covid opening

Image: Randy Lyhus for The Chronicle

By David V. Rosowsky

Even as we continue to navigate this challenging and disruptive time, we need to turn our collective attention to what’s next. For college leaders, that means focusing on the fall-2020 semester. We must start thinking now about how we will ramp back up, what we will look like as an institution, and how we can best serve our students.

The goal is not just to reopen in the fall, but to reopen successfully. The financial realities of failing to do so would be devastating to many colleges.

Students and their families will be looking to college leaders to exude both confidence and compassion, as well as an understanding that students will come back changed. Some will be coming back with new or exacerbated mental-health challenges. Some will be coming back with new financial hardships at home.

We can turn this challenge into an opportunity for making some needed change, for demonstrating agility and adaptiveness, and for providing students a safe, nurturing, and inspiring place for learning and discovery. We can reaffirm our respect and support for the faculty and staff. We can find new ways to engage with our alumni. We can create a new sense of identity, community, mission, and purpose. We can create excitement, we can energize and engage, and we can create shared ownership around shared goals for a shared future, perhaps like never before. Here are some recommendations for how we might do that:

Improve online tours. Virtual campus visits should be designed to acknowledge that these will be the only tours most students will be able to take. They need to be far more detailed, more image-focused, and convey everything — from what it’s like to walk across the campus to what it’s like to engage in a lab session or a studio. Treat online tours with the same level of commitment and investment as you did your campus tours. Be creative. Help future students see themselves as members of your campus community.

Develop online tours of housing options, of community access and events, and campus gathering spots (student center, library, athletics and wellness facilities). Allow students and parents to ask questions in real time to admissions reps, to current students, or to a faculty member. Those who are most bold, most creative, and most successful at conveying their campus’s identity will win this new race.

Get creative with orientation activities. New and returning students are different audiences, but both will be looking for activities that reflect where they are. They crave certainty, confidence, and (for returning students) familiar contexts.

Even if strict social-distancing guidelines are lifted, it is likely that your campus will still restrict large-scale events. Residence halls, academic departments, learning communities, athletic teams, and other affinity groups will play a larger role in orientation and other first-week events.

Use this opportunity to create entirely different types of events and activities. That might mean combining, in ways we haven’t seen before, events for incoming first-year and returning students; conducting more activities online, including information sessions, trainings, and housing orientations; and replacing traditionally large convocation ceremonies with smaller group events.

Increase engagement with new students. Make an eight-week outreach plan to check-in with each student. We know that the first six to eight weeks are critical to student retention. Many students are comfortable connecting virtually, but offer in-person meetings as well. More than ever before, students will be thirsting for belonging, for feeling secure and confident, and for the knowledge that people are looking out for them.

For this to work well, it must be a campuswide commitment. Find people willing to serve in these important roles and give them the time to do it right. When reaching out to new students, consider using teams consisting of a faculty member, a student-life professional, and a current student.

Use this time to think about wraparound student-support services and what that could look like on your campus. From orientation to commencement, students should be receiving tailored services related to academics, advising, social development, health and wellness, and career planning. Recognize that students are returning with different needs, and with different levels of readiness and wellness. Show that you are responding to those needs.

Ensure that all student problems are reported to the right office and that students always receive a response. Check in again before the semester ends.

Simplify and streamline student options. This is the time to reduce clutter. Where colleges have always taken pride in adding flexibility and opportunities to individualize learning plans, now is when we should ratchet that back and present students with fewer options. This can help keep them from feeling overwhelmed, focus them on a productive path toward degree completion, and reduce anxiety and stress.

Re-examine degree pathways and major requirements to see they afford latitude, flexibility, or freedoms. Show students the most efficient way to complete their degrees, register for classes, or sign up for housing. Make clear statements that student success is the goal behind streamlining.

The more early successes student have when they return to campus, the more confidence they will have. Reduce alternative pathways, reduce redundant steps, reduce back-door options, and strive for uniformity in expectations. You can always add back options. But for the coming semester, the keys must be simplicity, efficiency, and lack of confusion.

Similarly, colleges should commit not just to on-time degree completion for returning students, but to shortening time to graduation. Make use of online courses, summer courses, intersessions, and experiential learning. Commit to reducing the cost of degree attainment and getting students into the work force more quickly.

Reset expectations for the faculty. Faculty members have been asked to do something remarkable in the middle of the spring semester — move to entirely online teaching from a remote location, often with no previous experience in distance learning. At the same time, their work-life balance has been shattered as they have needed to simultaneously care for their children or other family members. College leaders must recognize their sacrifices, efforts, and commitment.

One way leaders can do that is by reaffirming their support for professional development and promotion. That could include providing sessions or guidance on such things as how to restart a lab-based research program, how to manage a hybrid class that includes some on-campus and some off-campus students, how to reintegrate into the academic community, and how to cope with new or exacerbated mental-health issues in themselves or their students. In addition, there is little to be lost (and much to be gained) in allowing faculty members to extend their tenure clocks.

Be willing to make difficult and unpopular decisions. Financial implications of the pandemic are real, and they are significant. That must be communicated to all parties. Our colleges are committed first and foremost to educating students, but we are also committed to responsible use of resources, to seeking efficiencies, and to principles of affordability and access. Nowhere in our mission does it say we will be all things to all people, we will sustain employees when it is no longer possible or necessary, or that we will deliver unfunded or underfunded programs or services to our states or communities. This is difficult for many to hear, but the finances simply are not going to allow us to continue to serve beyond capacity, outside our core mission, or to provide every academic area of study and support service for students, faculty, or staff.

We must make some difficult decisions, and we must start immediately. The longer we wait, the deeper the financial challenge will become and the less likely it will be for some institutions to emerge from the crisis viable and sustainable. Undertake an institutionwide exercise to identify mission-critical programs. Agree to do all that you can to preserve and support those programs, even if it means downsizing or closing others.

Help faculty, staff, students, and alumni to understand that with or without their help in identifying mission-critical programs, they will be identified, and decisions will be made to begin defunding others. Anticipate resistance, but leverage the reality of the crisis. Our response must be swift, even as we commit to leading with humanity and humility.

Similarly, help campus-governance groups and their leaders understand that hard decisions are coming. The more the governance leadership understands the reality of what the institution and its leaders are facing, the more it will be able to be a partner in the decision making, advocate for responsible leadership, and effective messenger to its constituents. Now more than ever, we truly are all in the same boat.

Learn from the crisis. Be open and forthcoming about what this crisis has taught us, both good and bad. Establish a committee of faculty and students to assess best practices, what has been learned through the pandemic response, and what has the greatest potential to continue to be developed or used as part of the campus operations, whether related to pedagogy, advising, student services, or campus communications.

Don’t forget about alumni. Alumni, including your historically largest donors, will most likely expect changes. Think about how you will communicate those changes to them. More than ever, their understanding and support will be needed to ensure continuity and build a sustainable future. Philanthropy will play an outsize role in our institutions’ futures.

Alumni will want to hear reassuring news about the college and its future. Donors, while they may be slow to return to historical levels of giving, will still want to back a winner. They are predisposed to love your college. Give them reason for optimism, for hope, and for wanting to re-engage and offer support.

David V. Rosowsky is a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Vermont, where he is also a former provost and senior vice president.

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