About six weeks into my tenure as Vice President for Student Affairs at UTSA, a Trinity colleague asked me what had been the biggest surprise. One was the vast increase in the number of emails I was receiving, but my real answer was, “the number of decisions I’ve made since I got here, with basically no information.” It got a good laugh from my colleague, but I wasn’t kidding. My new colleagues had been waiting on me to make some important decisions and we were off and running. However, I was able to do it with relatively little risk, because I had years of administrative experience to draw upon and I was willing to trust my new colleagues as we worked through the list together.
I thought of this story this week as I thought about all of you making all kinds of decisions without nearly enough information. And while all of you have the experience to draw on that is useful, none of us have ever experienced anything like this and the number of unknowns before us seems to grow rather than shrink each day.
I’ve been reading a variety of articles about the big question of the day – should/will university campuses be open and if so, what will it be like on campus this year? Some of your campuses have already made the decision: online only/predominately – CSU schools and Dallas County Community College District; open but different – all UT System schools; or hybrid – UC San Diego. As expected there are widely or wildly varying thoughts about this from ‘well, of course, we’ll be on campus’ to ‘there’s no way campuses should be open.’ And for most, if not all readers of this newsletter, your job will be to make the decision work as best you can. But I encourage you to also raise questions, make suggestions, and propose ideas. Campuses need leadership and good thinking from everyone – now more than ever.
From campuses themselves, there is one specific form of rhetoric I’ve seen that concerns me and it’s an expression of the idea ‘we’re doing everything we can to keep students safe’. (Faculty and staff are rightly wondering where they fit in that statement, but that’s for another day.) How far is your campus willing to go to ‘keep students safe’?
During the Ebola outbreak, a student on our campus was exposed. We agreed that we would ask her to self-isolate – she was a graduate student who lived by herself off campus – for two weeks. Her professors were great in working with her and she cooperated fully. But what if she hadn’t? What if she insisted on coming to campus? Would we suspend her from class? If so, then what, give her a criminal trespass warning if she came on campus while not a student? Then have her arrested? If this all sounds far-fetched, trust me it’s not. Our instruments to enforce student behavior are blunt and drastic – disciplinary probation isn’t going to work in these cases.
Purdue University is going to give every student a “kit” with face masks and ask them to sign the Protect Purdue Pledge asking them to commit to a semester of inconvenience? (See link below) Is your campus going to require students to wear masks? What if they don’t? Are we going to ask students who had class or went to a party with someone who then is diagnosed with COVID-19 to self-isolate? If they won’t, then what? I have no doubt many of you are running these scenarios right now, but as I found when talking with the president about the Ebola situation, some of our senior leaders haven’t had some of the experiences we have and had to take them to their all-to-possible conclusions. The more we can help the decision-makers have information and context, the better their decisions will be and the more likely our campuses are prepared for the hard realities of the coming year. Because, unfortunately, we can’t promise to keep our students safe in the best of times and these definitely aren’t the best of times and campuses move into the unknown of this summer and fall.
Much good luck to each of you! And know I’m available for a phone conversation if you’d like a thought partner this summer – just ask.