With the first few weeks of online-only classes in the clear, students, faculty and administration can now take time to sit back and reflect on this new way of life.
For Illinois State University, the decisions and actions of administration that followed the coronavirus came quick with vague responses and loads of disappointment for many students.
For President Larry Dietz and his team, the decisions that have come in the previous weeks weren’t made lightly. It involved multiple groups coming together for quite some time leading up to the university’s spring break.
Here’s what Dietz had to say about what this pandemic has looked like from his perspective.
“We’re adapting and adjusting and moving forward like everybody else is. The faculty has really responded phenomenally well to this new online environment that we have and the students in my estimation have as well. I actually get some anecdotal information on occasion from faculty and some from students as there’s been a glitch here or there, but for the most part, I think it’s been a really terrific experience in showing that we’re all still devoted to gladly learning and gladly teaching.
“In terms of the staff and administrators on this, there have been a couple groups in particular that have worked independently and then they’ve come together and now they’re working back separately for a while. It’s been the folks at the Staff and Emergency Command Center, [known as the] Emergency Operations Center, and that group has been working together for a long period of time. I folded the Cabinet, it’s basically most of my direct reports into that group, so for nearly a month I would say we’ve been working together.
"It’s streamline decision making and saved a lot of time with that. We’re educating each other about the challenges that both groups are addressing, so I think it’s been a good organizational change. I think now that the classes are online and now that we have worked together to address the students going home, the housing issues, health issues, dieting issues and those kinds of things, now we’re working independently a little bit.
"We’re still in touch with each other, but I think that’s a good sign that now we can continue to address things that are not on an emergency basis. An emergency can happen as we’re speaking, but I think we’re more in a rhythm now that we have been for a while.”
What are some of the unusual challenges you guys have been facing? With the tough calls/decisions you have been making, what would you say would be the hardest of them all?
“We have 16 different working groups that are tentacles of the Emergency Operations Center and those work groups are still working. I would say that the major issue is around the health and safety of our students and our faculty and our staff, so there are a whole variety of issues around that. The Human Resources Office has played a key role in helping us work through things or legal issues compared or within all of these issues.
"The underlying theme is making sure that we’re doing everything possible to ensure the health and safety of our students, faculty and staff. I’m very proud of the work that everybody’s doing. You know, [it’s] kind of harken back to the good old days when we went in classrooms teaching and we could get out and about socializing and all those kinds of things.
How will this change/shape the university going forward in regard to being remote/onsite?
“Our brand is really a high tech, but we’re also a high touch kind of university and that’s really our brand. We want students enrolling here not only wanting a solid degree and a good discipline that will lead to career success and satisfaction, but we also are interested in providing students with experience while they’re here.
"That experience oftentimes is not only in the classroom, but it’s outside the classroom, co-curricular activities and activities that you’re working on right now that lead to your career in your field. We’ve got a lot of those experiences, so to me, the future is back to what we’re really good at.We’re really good at providing an experience for our students and students tell us that.
"It’s reflected in our high retention and graduation rates and reflected in our enrollment [and when] enrollments [have been] strong even in a very difficult budget time. So, I sense enrollment is going to be strong here. Again, we just have a bit of a diversion from that right now.
"Frankly, some faculty may say, “well you know, this has been an interesting way to teach and I might include a couple Zoom opportunities in my classroom for the future.” I think our bread butters still, you know, this face-to-face interaction, sharing of information, working closely with our students, I don’t think that’s going to change.”
How does the university plan to move forward with this decision? Are there any other actions that you plan to take in the coming months that will have to take an effect into next year? Are there any other actions or decisions that you are hoping that we either have to take or don’t have to take?
“I’d say just trying to adjust to a new environment if you will. I think none of us know [when] all of this will be over. They talked about different states peaking at different times. There is no one size fits all on this. I think social distancing [that] the scientists tell us [to do is] a real critical part of all this [and do it] as much as we can to the respect that will help all of us.
"But for the future, my hope is that students again will, if you know the virus is dealt with through the rest of the spring and people are feeling that they could go places and get over that. My sense is that our fall enrollment won’t be robust. Again, there may be some folks that might choose to stay a little closer to home.
"But I think our grant was very strong, going into this thing is going to be strong coming out of it as well. We've just had this diversion for the spring of the summer as well, but hopefully, go back to normal as possible this fall.”
You and your staff meet at least once a day and sometimes more to discuss everything going on with the coronavirus pandemic. What has that been like and what have those meetings mostly consisted of? How have you guys been handling things outside of that and within those meetings?
“My sense is that we've had good teams and a lot of different areas for a long period of time. The collegiality on this campus, and the collaboration between individual staff and family members. Units are really, in my estimation, a pretty high level. I think that always helps in these kinds of circumstances. We also try to, you know, keep the meetings as tight as we can and stay on task, because they're just lots of things to do.
"Everybody has risen to the challenge of my estimation. We better do that with your respecting time for other things that we have going but actually, we make sure that during parts of these meetings, that somebody has a positive story that they've heard about something that we're doing and they're able to share that.
Especially knowing that a lot of students will respond and have responded with disappointment, what would be some advice you would offer to them?
“One important thing to do is that you know, the sky is not falling on anything, got a bit of a cloud that's rolling through here, right now, but the sun's going to come out on the other side of that. Stay resilient, stay positive. Take care of yourself, take care of those that you love, and want to hold on to get through this together.
"I am convinced that we've got bright people, we have resilient people. We have two things that we control, I think I said this when we had the budget impasse, and I think it's true for this situation as well.
"And if we have a positive attitude about the sun's going to pop out tomorrow. That's going to serve us as well. So, I think those two things are really important to keep in mind.”