The workshop’s final session focused on the processes that institutional leaders undertook to make decisions in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. In introducing the session, Kim Barrett, Division Director for Graduate Education at project sponsor NSF noted the importance of considering student voices and equity in institutional decision making as a means of moving toward student-centered education that also accounts for student well-being. She said that she is particularly concerned about STEM graduate students, who worry about completing their degrees and the uncertain job market that lies ahead as they envision starting careers. Barrett also noted that a significant proportion of graduate students have symptoms consistent with PTSD.1
HOW HIGHER EDUCATION DECISION-MAKING PROCESSES CAN CONSIDER THE NEEDS AND VOICES OF ALL STAKEHOLDERS
One challenge of making decisions during the COVID-19 pandemic, said Kim Needy from the University of Arkansas, was the need to constantly revisit those decisions and change them as pandemic conditions evolved. She and her colleagues ran benchmarking comparison studies relative to other Southeast Conference schools, while senior institutional leaders and graduate school deans remained in close contact with their peers to keep their responses collectively aligned. Her institution created 13 COVID-19 teams, each comprised of faculty, staff, and students, to look at virtually every aspect of how the university operated. Needy commented on the challenges that international students faced, such as the impossibility of going home and the loss of many on-campus jobs after the campus closed. Her institution increased its fundraising efforts to bolster its emergency fund for international students. The university’s website was a critical communication tool during this period. Her team focused on deciding what to do for the more than 120 graduate students studying abroad. The hardest decision, she said, was to cancel study abroad for the summer and come up with innovative ways to still give students international experiences through remote study experiences and remote internships.
Antoine Garibaldi from the University of Detroit Mercy decided that one important step would be to involve the institution’s instructional design studio in providing direct support for the transition to virtual instruction. Almost every faculty member took advantage of the program, which he said greatly improved the student academic experience given that many faculty had
1 Ogilvie, C., Brooks, T.R., Ellis, C., Gowen, G., Knight, K., Perez, R.J., Rodriguez, S.I., Schweppe, N., Smith, L.L., and Smith, R.A. (2020). NSF RAPID: Graduate Student Experiences of Support and Stress During the COVID-19 Pandemic. Bozeman: Montana State University. Additional information from this RAPID project was shared by Craig Ogilvie in the first session of this workshop series and by Rachel Smith in this fourth session.
never before taught in a virtual setting. As a Catholic university, administrators were concerned that the spiritual needs of the students might also need attention. He decided to have student affairs staff members call every student to make sure they were okay and to find out how they were adjusting to taking classes virtually while at home. Garibaldi said that a survey of faculty and administrators showed high support for efforts to be cooperative and collaborative for the sake of their students and that this helped him to increase buy-in for changes to policies and practices.
For Paul Goldbart from the University of Texas, Austin, a key decision he made was to keep COVID-19-related research going, in part by finding ways to safely keep storerooms and central facilities operating to support that research. The university has been wrestling with the question of how to address the tension between the eagerness of lab scientists to remain active in conducting their research and the recommendations of the health community to keep populations in laboratories low. This tension creates a dilemma for decision makers because students feel their careers are slipping away, and faculty fear falling behind their competitors. The university established a cohort arrangement that allowed defined groups of graduate students to work in their labs at assigned times—for example, for each building one cohort might work in the morning and a second cohort would work in the afternoon—and since then, infection rates have remained low. Goldbart said that the faculty voted on a slate of different approaches to safely repopulate laboratories, which let the faculty feel that they had some control over the matter. Town halls for doctoral students helped them feel vested in the final decisions. Goldbart noted that concerns exist regarding the mental health of graduate students who are feeling isolated and are missing the camaraderie of the lab and in-person interactions with their faculty advisors, who are also stressed. One popular decision was to move many graduate students off research assistantships and onto teaching assistantships so that they could help the faculty prepare for online teaching. Goldbart said his institution’s leadership did a good job listening and trying to understand more deeply the Black community’s concerns. The College of Natural Sciences, for example, encouraged students and faculty to talk about racial justice, and it created a website where people could post questions and ideas for the administration to consider (anonymously, if desired). An action team reviewed the hundreds of ideas posted and turned the entire process into a learning experience for how to create institutional change.
Lynn Andrea Stein from Olin College of Engineering said that when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, administrators and students worked together to decide which aspects of the educational experience were important to preserve and prioritize. The result was a strategy in which some students are living on campus, but most classes are being conducted remotely. The university created a “hard” bubble around campus to separate the people on campus from those in the surrounding area, which has required some sacrifices by students living on campus. However, said Stein, the students have strongly supported this approach, in large part because Olin engaged students in brainstorming solutions to challenges and students came up with this particular idea. Olin sees collaboration between students on course projects as a hallmark of their approach to engineering education and took specific actions to find ways to allow it to continue despite courses being moved online and many students not being on campus. One step they took to facilitate continuation of the collaborative approach was to start a shipping operation to send class and laboratory materials to students living off campus and get class projects back to campus.
Stein discussed how her institution worked to ensure that their decisions did not exacerbate existing inequities for students by striving to support students in terms of technology
and Internet access. As part of that effort Olin allowed some students to stay on campus when there was no other good place for them to go. She added that shared, student-created online spaces have been effective at helping students adjust to the changes wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic. Having campus partially reopen for the fall 2020 semester also helped reduce inequities, she noted.
When asked to name one COVID-19-related change their institutions would like to keep after the COVID-19 pandemic ends, Needy said her institution has grown more comfortable dealing with uncertainty, change, and the time it takes to make good, data-informed decisions that won’t need revision soon afterwards. Garibaldi said he wants to keep the workgroups assembled to tackle specific issues during the COVID-19 pandemic, and Goldbart and Stein both replied that while some courses might retain online offerings, in the longer term in-person education is here to stay.
Suzanne Ortega from the Council of Graduate Schools discussed some of the major impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic based on data from NSF. One finding is that a substantial number of current graduate students and undergraduates in their final year have been affected economically, and that job losses are disproportionately affecting women and communities of color. Deans are finding it difficult to secure sufficient emergency funding to support those graduate students who, along with their families, find themselves newly vulnerable to food insecurity and other hardships. Ortega noted that as universities stretch to find the funding necessary to keep their current students enrolled and on track to graduation, many are doing so by considering either a substantial downsizing of next year’s graduate cohorts or the complete elimination of admissions. As a result, seniors preparing for graduate school are having to reconsider their plans to begin doctoral studies. A percentage of these students have instead decided to pursue master’s degrees at their undergraduate institutions, while others have deferred their plans to begin graduate study entirely. Ortega said it will be critical to keep in touch with undergraduates who decide to postpone graduate study in order to avoid creating a lost generation of students, which could undo the incremental progress of the last decade toward creating a more diverse and inclusive science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) graduate school environment.
Camille McKayle from the University of the Virgin Islands discussed how her institution has continued to support its STEM students during the COVID-19 pandemic and through two hurricanes that hit the islands in September 2017. She noted that the university reopened in mid-October 2017, following the two hurricanes, in order to cause minimal disruption to the educational experience. In particular, the university made sure that students could complete their academic plans in time to participate in internships the following summer. For those students who could not continue without disruption, the university employed what she referred to as high-flex or hybrid classes to make sure they were not harmed financially or academically. This experience, said McKayle, served as a good preparation for the COVID-19 pandemic so that when the university switched to online classes in 2020, it already had a robust training plan in place for faculty as well as summer offerings it could move online.
Natalia Villanueva Rosales from the University of Texas at El Paso, cited access to a computer and reliable Internet connection, lack of an adequate study environment, and the challenge of collaborating with peers as important factors that have influenced student
experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic. Teamwork experiences are critical for the classes she teaches, and while students are engaging more in remote sessions, too many students are having trouble staying motivated online. Despite these challenges, 86 percent of the students reported that they were maintaining the same level of commitment to stay in their majors, which she credits to student resilience. From the student perspective, the help received from faculty inside and outside of class along with peer interactions in study groups outside of class were the most effective elements of the online experience. Villanueva Rosales believes that the strategies to help students continue their STEM education should include providing them with regular opportunities to share and then resolve their challenges and concerns.
Relying on data collected in June and July 2020, Rachel Smith from Iowa State University noted that one-quarter of the 1,700 STEM graduate students surveyed had to pause data collection and extend their timeline for completing their project, while 22 percent reported they were unable to complete required field placements, internships, or practicum experiences. Some 5 percent of the respondents said that COVID-19 provided new research opportunities. Students reported that some of their advisors were flexible and understanding, while others increased their expectations for productivity. Beyond their educational experiences, students were affected by the Black Lives Matter protests in their communities and the way that the current political climate highlighted existing racism. Both Black and Indigenous students reported being disproportionately affected by having someone close to them die from the coronavirus. International students exhibited increased levels of anxiety and depression, in large part because of the effect that the political climate was having on them. The survey also found that about 12 percent of STEM graduate students were parenting through the COVID-19 pandemic, and that female students were bearing a disproportionate share of the parenting duties. Many students talked about missing the social aspect of science, while some students of color said that working at home allowed them to avoid some of the microaggressions they often experience in the laboratory setting. One-third of the students experienced moderate to severe anxiety, depression, PTSD, and a generally low level of well-being. In focus groups, students talked about the importance of local support from their research advisors, mentors, and peers.2
In terms of research needed, Ortega said that it would be important to understand the factors and program supports that help students remain interested in and committed to attending graduate school. McKayle wanted to know what conditions students are facing at home that could either encourage or interfere with their studies. Villanueva Rosales and Smith commented on the importance of determining how to effectively engage students and foster collaboration and interdisciplinary research in virtual environments. Smith said that the proliferation of online conferences and courses offers students new opportunities to broaden their exposure to information and network with potential collaborators.
Regarding changes likely to continue after the COVID-19 pandemic is over, McKayle said that the flexibility offered by hybrid classes and asynchronous learning has been well received by students and faculty and should continue. She hoped that conferences would continue offering their sessions online. Villanueva Rosales agreed and added that the lessons learned about addressing inequities in access to services and resources should serve higher education well going forward. Ortega noted that the promising practice of virtual collaboration has a good chance of continuing once the COVID-19 pandemic is over.
2 This is the same study discussed by Craig Ogilvie in Session #1 on September 22, 2020.
The workshop’s final panel reflected on the lessons learned since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and how those lessons and the actions taken could benefit future STEM undergraduate and graduate students. Alex Johnson from Cuyahoga Community College said that two adjustments his institution had to make were figuring out how to offer laboratory instruction remotely and safely and how to expand its technology infrastructure to accommodate things such as virtual reality systems. He and his colleagues also focused on students achieving essential outcomes that would ensure they could use their experience to transfer successfully to a 4-year institution.
Dawn Alston from Spelman College said that her institution had focused on developing new strategies, access points, and policies to address the digital divide, as well as how to make higher education more affordable, how to allocate resources to ensure student success and retention, and how to adjust its business model to continue supporting the traditional residential college experience. For Andrew Hsu from the College of Charleston, the COVID-19 pandemic revealed some limitations of the higher education business model, which has created an opportunity to accelerate efforts to reduce costs and use online learning to increase efficiencies and access. His institution is using various approaches to continue offering in-person laboratory courses, including the reduction of class sizes and the rotation of teams of students in which one partner is in the laboratory and the other partners are connected virtually. One lesson learned is that the brick-and-mortar campus and in-person learning still provide important experiences, particularly for STEM students.
Julie Posselt from the University of Southern California reiterated the message that the COVID-19 pandemic has magnified inequities within STEM that students had already been pressuring institutional leaders to address. The heightened awareness brought by the Black Lives Matter movement, she said, has additionally motivated many institutional leaders to engage students around the issue of inequities. Meeting student demands cannot be treated as a one-time event or a list of to-do items: such demands should constitute only a starting point for action that she says must include listening, strong messaging, and proactive approaches. Posselt noted that trust can build when institutional leaders do something that is counterintuitive such as acknowledging that they may have fallen short at following through on the antiracist values they espouse. She believes that when leaders communicate that they have heard specific requests, that they are making their best efforts to act on them, and that there is real pain and exhaustion that lead students to express such needs, it opens a space for healing that many colleges and universities need. She hopes that the COVID-19 pandemic leads to a humanizing of interactions between students, faculty, and administrators and that the STEM community will see education and racial equity as being intertwined and not separate.
When asked how her institution thinks about repurposing equipment purchased to meet student needs during the COVID-19 pandemic, Alston said that improving ventilation systems and installing air purification systems could cost upwards of $500,000, but improving ventilation systems is a good thing regardless of whether there is a pandemic or not. The equipment needed for polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing for COVID-19 infections will be valuable for research and teaching purposes, and it will eventually be repurposed in the school’s innovation laboratory. Johnson said that his institution will probably not revert back to the same level of in-person learning that existed before the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, it is using the COVID-19
pandemic as a catalyst to expand its information technology infrastructure so that faculty can deliver course materials in an innovative manner. However, he noted that enrollment by Pelleligible students and students of color has fallen, indicating a need to expand wraparound services to complement their needs in ways never done before.
Hsu believes that universities and colleges will continue to evolve in the way they approach educating their students. The use of technology will accelerate, and the mode of delivering courses will continue to change. He predicted that more faculty will continue to prerecord lectures and use class time for problem solving and answering questions. Both Posselt and Johnson predicted that students, having experienced remote learning, will be more discerning about their educational experience. Some will continue to value the on-campus life, but for those dealing with particular life circumstances, remote learning may be a better alternative, and in the future, institutions will have to accommodate both of these student types. Johnson noted that the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed some of the barriers students confront in higher education as they try to pursue their education, and higher education will now have to determine how to address those barriers.
Johnson said that he is excited about technology’s potential to open higher education to a broader spectrum of people and contribute more to an U.S. ideal of creating an enlightened citizenry. Alston agreed and added that the COVID-19 pandemic has been such a disrupter that it will drive higher education to change its business model and become more equitable in the process.