Everyone expects that there will be challenges when accepting a new job. But a pandemic? That was not on my radar when I accepted the role of president of Grand Valley State University last year.
I took my big leap to accept a new job at the right institution. I ended my 20-year run at a university of great strength and momentum. Many times during my first months in the position, I was asked why I took such a risk. I always responded with confidence, saying I looked carefully for the right institution: an institution delivering a high-quality education at an affordable price, with a faculty deeply dedicated to learning and the unique journey of each student; an institution confident in what it is and not struggling with what it wants to be; a university with steady growth and a stable financial picture; one that has made real progress with inclusion and equity; an institution with demonstrated agility and one that was fully embraced by its community; an institution, in my assessment, perfectly poised to embrace the tectonic shifts in the educational landscape and with foresight and passion to make a more profound impact. I found all this and more at Grand Valley.
My entry to Grand Valley was reaffirming. I engaged with more than 5,000 faculty, staff, students, alumni and community leaders in the fall. I was supported by my board, and we shaped our agenda. We defined our commitments around strengthening the lifetime value of our education and embraced a deeper role as an inclusive economic engine for Michigan and the nation. We agreed as a university to innovate with mission and purpose.
But all my calculations and plans never included COVID-19.
Who could ever foresee us shuttering our campuses in the interest of public health in the midst of a global crisis?
We were forced at a break-neck pace to go fully remote with our delivery of instruction, when just the day before we were weighing its efficacy. University leadership is now consumed with daily decisions and updates from the Incident Management Team. Zoom meetings and cell phones have taken over university life and provide the only infrastructure to come together.
We toil to bring control to the university amidst the uncontrolled virus spread. We wake up each morning to reports of growing numbers of deaths and positive cases. We lead now without a playbook and find that past data models are not useful in planning for a future no one knows how to predict.
Enrollment? Tuition? State appropriations? We have questions without answers. COVID-19 is leading this disruption. But we must lead our institutions and heal our communities. We must lead them now, and we must lead their recovery.
Our Mission is Still Clear
Leaders, myself among them, have long talked about the beauty and importance of disruptions, but we usually speak of those of a different character. We rather like the bold disruptions we can see coming, even those with a bit of the unknown—the digital revolution, artificial intelligence, technological and scientific advancements. We embrace these disruptions for their power to focus, awaken and advance us. We harness their early trends and often create the arc of change at the pace we believe is most prudent. We create guardrails, safety nets and plans to increase new activities as we wind down old ones. We carefully proceed with one foot in the present and one embarking in new directions.
In the COVID-19 disruption, there are no guardrails. We do not control the pace. We have no foot securely planted. We are all on a turbulent ride, with decisions to make for our organizations, for our families, for our communities. With a jolt of this magnitude, with this rapid of an onset, at this pace, and with this level of uncertainty, we must lead and make decisions without precedent—a massive challenge.
We all realize the profound gravity of what is occurring, and yet I, as a new president, have the same passion and resolve to assure that learners we touch are transformed by the experiences that come from the education and the community outreach and other opportunities we provide. We must ensure that students are ready for the rapid pace of change, with the greater uncertainty in their lives and in ours.
This is not an insensitivity to the devastation, but an acknowledgment of our deep obligation as educators to create prosperity on the other side of this virus, so people have hope and meaning in their lives. Never more than during this moment—this challenging, unparalleled moment—have we been called upon to fulfill our mission of education to our students, to take care of our faculty and staff, and fulfill our duties as partners in our communities and as producers of talent.
Every massive upheaval in our society has brought learning, wisdom and invention. This will be no different. There will be a “new normal” for sure, but it will be an amplification of much of what we already knew was our work ahead.
The forced disruptions ushered in by this health crisis can leave in their wake immense opportunities to right some wrongs and change some “tried and trues” that are no longer true. Let’s address the learning loss that some students suffer between educational periods and reconsider calendars. Let’s bolster bridges for the underprepared and those with life constraints to enable greater access and the democratization of education. Let’s move from remote and distance delivery of education to intentionally shaped high-engagement online learning, virtual experiences and forms of hybrid learning that recognize as essential what we are all longing for today: community and connection.
Let’s aggressively build new forms of integrated work and address the talent in our workforce. Let’s bend the cost curve in higher education and allow new ways to invest and support what is in our public good. Let’s consider and test any and all initiatives that will allow our students to thrive in new and changing times.
Any planned pace of change we thought we needed for acceptance and viability within our institutions has been completely upended. We now understand our great capacity for change. Let us embrace the adaptability we’ve built out of necessity. We must remain confident and steady as leaders, leaders willing to be learners, as there is new learning at every turn. Flexibility and adaptability are the qualities that will win the day or in this case win the future.
This crisis has also provided an opportunity to show the time-honored values of our institutions. Universities are communities, and we can show the care and concern we have for each member. This true sense of community allows all of us to have a shared responsibility and a determined will to solve complex issues. Let’s not lose this connection in the good times.
We must help each other take the long view so as not to be completely consumed with mourning the loss of life and stability, so we can be instruments in our country’s recovery. We must remember that our work will be a large part of what gives people hope, opportunity and tools for a vibrant and prosperous future.
We would never pick this particular path, but it picked us. Whether forced upon us or not, we must embrace the opportunity to harness the advances, creativity, care and humanity that comes from it and ensure our educational institutions thrive for generations to come.