University Days 2020 Opening Remarks

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Good Morning and welcome everyone to the first online University Days in our history! It’s great to know you’re there even if I can’t see any of you. I know University Days and everything else looks a little different this year, but irrespective of how you feel about reopening campus to students it’s still great to see the campus come to life again and see students who are so eager to be here. This week we are kicking off the year ahead (our 150th year), with lively sessions, new ideas, and strategies to consider, and camaraderie. But, the important thing is that we are here whether in person or virtually, working together, pooling all of our talents to serve our students and to provide for them and us the best future possible.

I want to extend a special welcome to our new colleagues, including 10 new faculty and 7 staff members. It was great meeting some of you Monday and to hear why you’re excited to be here. I want you to know we’re just as excited that you have joined us. And, I want to welcome back those who were on furlough. It really is good to have you back.  Furloughs were the best option open to us to preserve both our future and university jobs, but I know it was hard on many of you. Thank you for coming back and helping prepare us for reopening.

I also want to take a moment to recognize the dozen task force teams made up of dedicated faculty, staff and students who met all summer and made this opening possible. They considered every aspect of reopening from health, safety, and testing to logistics, academics, programming, and more. These task force members worked very hard to reboot PSU knowing we are at the center of students’ lives today and of their hopes for the future, and that they’re here at PSU as much for the place and the people as for the programs we offer. Through all the planning the teams have tried to be as responsive as possible to our community concerns. Thanks to all the task force members, we are as well prepared as humanly possible for the semester ahead. We have not been like those who have just hoped for a safe opening, we have done everything possible to make it safe and keep it that way. 

Over the last year, we have demonstrated how capable we are in rising to the occasion and meeting urgent challenges. Thinking back on my notes and reports to campus from last winter, COVID-19 came upon us with such shocking speed. True, we had discussions about restricting travel from China soon after the virus was discovered there, but even as recently as Ski Day in mid-February we really couldn’t comprehend what was coming. Things changed quickly and dramatically in March, and we responded to the pandemic with a quick transition. Faculty made amazing adjustments in just a few days and had comparable and sometimes better results than those campuses that had a delayed spring break and significantly more time to prepare. You are incredible.

We have a lot to be proud of. Senior nursing students graduated a month early this spring to be the first in New Hampshire to join the frontlines, allowing them to begin working in the state’s hospitals and other health care settings. This group effort involved students, staff, faculty, Government Relations, and the Registrar’s Office. The transition to remote learning posed a unique accreditation challenge and our nursing program found a creative solution through virtual simulations. 

Faculty across the campus switched gears in days – all delivering their classes remotely in many different forms. Our digital tools, institutional knowledge, and flexible culture that has historically embraced adaption and innovation were key to our transition to a fully remote modality. Information Technology, the Lamson Library, the Writing Center, and the Open CoLab all offered immediate help to faculty, staff, and students at most hours of the day. Student Success coaches advised remotely on academic programs; and Career Services on internship policies and employment opportunities. These and other offices, including Campus Accessibility Services, PASS, and TRIO, continued to meet critical needs.

Members of MAPS, our student marketing group, have been making masks throughout the summer. They’ve been building inventory to have thousands to hand out to students, faculty, and staff at no charge. MAPS students are also assisting the University in distributing hand sanitizer.

We’ve been modifying campus practically nonstop since March in response to the pandemic, thanks to our dedicated Physical Plant staff. The punch list has included prepping quarantine spaces, moving and removing furniture, setting up the ice arena surge center, upgrading technology, assisting move-ins and move-outs, and coordinating cleaning, PPE, and health and sanitation measures across campus. Building service workers have worked long hours to meet campus needs, including fabricating and installing crucial signage. Our friends at Chartwells have also been busy preparing for students’ return, and Facility Services Manager Corey Grogan brightened the Holderness campus with her beautiful painting.

Helping one another and serving our community are fundamental to PSU, and as a community we’ve stepped forward in many ways. The Office of Community Impact spearheaded a PPE collection, and the new Draper & Maynard Makerspace manufactured PPE right here on campus for frontline workers.

For the first time since the doctor of education program began, we had 24 and still counting students defend their dissertations successfully in one year. Despite the impact of COVID on many students’ research, our doctoral faculty, chairs, and committee members from all over the world supported these students and helped them achieve lifelong dreams. And our Doctor of Physical Therapy program ran in-person classes throughout the summer.

Our collective generosity resulted in a record number of emergency grants to students awarded by the Student Support Foundation. Thank you to everyone who has donated to the Plymouth Emergency Fund or who has helped in other ways. We are all in this together.

I know that among our University community, there is tremendous uncertainty, anxiety, and fear about reopening campus. I’ve said more than once that there are real risks in reopening, but they are highly managed ones in which the best practices have been put in place after consulting with state and national experts. Yes, non-peer reviewed studies suggest all manner of things and there is much still unknown about this virus, but we have built a multilayered to account for those unknowns.

We recently had a tabletop exercise in Concord with other system schools and were given various mock scenarios that we may face this fall. The depth of our summer planning served us well, as PSU had already thought through how to handle every posed scenario.

We often speak of COVID as if it was the only risk, but we all know that there is a competing family of risks involving students and the future of universities such as ours, and their impact on the surrounding community. We offer hope for the future for our students and our community, and I have always believed that hopelessness remains, even in this pandemic, the greatest risk that young adults face. That is why I am so committed to higher education, the critical socialization that comes with it and the hope we bring, inside and outside of the classroom. I also believe PSU is a unique place and a home for our students.

We are fortunate to be in a region of low COVID incidence, with processes to control spread should the virus break out. We have bought large amounts of PPE, masks, face shields, and plexiglass, improved air circulation and fixed windows, mapped classrooms for social distancing, cleaned buildings, tested students, faculty, and staff, set up our own scanning facility, equipped classrooms for multimode delivery, developed quarantine processes, set up isolation facilities, and developed a campaign to address risky student behaviors. Finally, we have plans for a staged shut down, if necessary, after doing all we can to sustain campus learning through a mix of in-person, hybrid, and remote classes.

Looking to the year ahead, the grand experiment that COVID has prompted in higher education will continue this fall. Our Slipper Camp training in May was followed this summer by over 100 faculty members participating in professional development centered around online and hybrid teaching, and many are being certified for best practices in online teaching. Thank you to all who have made acquiring new skills a priority, and to those throughout the University who facilitated these activities. For although PSU is built on in-person instruction, we are ready to pivot anytime to online delivery and do it better than ever.

Some have compared COVID to an x-ray of society, revealing and bringing to the surface all of the cracks and fissures that were there all along much like the issues brought forward by the Black Lives Matter movement. This certainly has been the case in higher education. We’ve felt the pressures building for a long time and have known that unfavorable regional demographics and changing marketplace demands were forcing us to reimagine learning for the twenty-first century. PSU has had a head start over many peer institutions in grappling with these difficulties, but today they are an unavoidable discussion at every college and university.

We are at a historic turning point in higher education, which will be forever changed by the pandemic. Trends that were already occurring have been heightened and the speed of change has accelerated. Institutions that were already on the edge—and there were many—will likely be consolidated or closed before too long.

Consolidation across campuses will become more prevalent, and this includes both academics and administration. You’ve seen that in the case of our IT, and there are on-going discussions with Huron regarding Finance and back-office operations. The COVID-19 inspired enhanced retirement and separation programs show the seriousness of discussions. There have never been such generous plans offered before, nor are there likely to be again. What comes next depends on how we respond.  I for one would like ours to be the loudest voice in determining our future but that will only happen if we speak in harmony and work as a team.   

It’s clear that too many students and families can no longer afford higher education in its present form and the state doesn’t have the resources to provide the support we have traditionally received. So, we really have to think about what we want to be and move boldly in that direction, because otherwise our choices could become more and more limited and be made for us, rather than by us.

Colleges and universities that survive will have classrooms equipped for simultaneous hybrid delivery, as we are doing, which allow institutions to share courses. Pedagogical gaps at one institution will be filled by another, allowing individual campuses to focus on differentiating strengths in which they both excel and which support the communities around them.

Remote learning is getting a powerful boost from the pandemic, and campuses must make even stronger cases for the value of their on-campus experiences. Colleges will need to move beyond housing, dining, and student social programs. These traditional services will continue in importance, but the added value of residential campuses will be scrutinized and compared like never before. Team-based experiential learning and problem solving across disciplines linked with strong ties to faculty will be critically important as will be the blending of in-classroom, out-of-classroom and community experiences. Fortunately, the discussions and brainstorming that we’ve had in recent years launching Clusters have strengthened our ability to successfully navigate this future. We know what we have to do, now we must all do it!

At PSU, enrollment remained strong throughout the summer and we haven’t experienced the typical summer melt. We have a large class eager to begin its studies and participate in athletics and other extracurricular activities, and our residence halls are filled. Clearly, we are doing some things right, which should give us courage as we begin an uncertain year. We are in a good and safe place for students to learn and grow.  

At the same time that we are working on new ways to make this semester a success, we can no longer delay making hard decisions about what programs to close or consolidate. Provost Ann McClellan and Associate Provost Pat Cantor are leading these discussions, some of which are already underway. PSU is fortunate in that we have tools at our disposal that can give us options beyond ‘all or nothing’ for these programs – more like reinvention. Possibilities can include Cluster majors and tracks, core modules, and 4+1 or 3+2 approaches. Chemistry and Criminal Justice creating a Forensics cluster major is just one example of how we can build related programs if we are creative and open to change. We can bring together disciplines in ways that establish and grow our unique strengths at national and international levels.

The Huron initiative and the strategic planning that the trustees reviewed this spring both stress greater operational sustainability, and retention remains a key challenge that we must solve. I am excited about the Ascent Program, the Retention efforts spanning academic affairs and student affairs, and the team-based approach to advising that links offices across campus together in united purpose – that all of our students graduate and are well prepared for the future. We must make a substantial adjustment in our annual budget through a combination of reduced costs or increased revenue, and to help address this we will be making key investments that lift the campus as whole. 

These imperatives will require our best efforts and no small amount of courage. Some of what we’re undertaking may be unsettling, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep moving forward together.

FDR famously declared in 1933, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” Despite the Great Depression and the rise of fascism in Europe, the militarism in Asia, the dust bowl in the Midwest, industry and finance leaders jumping out of their windows in cities, soup kitchens with long lines around the block, and war on the horizon, he made this incredible statement. It must have seemed like the world was coming to an end, but a dozen years later we emerged the strongest, most successful nation in the world.    Mark Twain said, “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.” He said that because fear as with complacency can paralyze. You can draw whatever parallels you wish between the 1930s and today, but as a university we too have many possibilities for a bright future; and to get there we need to get on the same page and see them together. We need to deal with reality, as Panthers of the past have done.

Let’s continue to debate and have vibrant, respectful discussions, as critical examination helps us to develop the best approaches. But when a path is chosen, we must unite. We are truly all in this together, and by moving forward together, we will be successful.

To one degree or another, we all have questions that may not have ready answers. I share these questions and the emotions they engender but I encourage you to join me in looking to the future as we consider the challenges we face, both as individuals and collectively as a community – to keep our eyes focused on the opportunities ahead while dealing with the realities of the present.

Nelson Mandela said, “Courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.” Let’s work together this year to address our fears and strengthen our university community. Together, we can be there for each other as brothers and sisters of humanity, for our students (no matter what their color), and for the community that looks to us for expertise, guidance, and leadership.

Thank you for your participation in University Days, and thanks again to all of you and to our talented colleagues who have done such a great job on this year’s programming and preparations. I look forward to joining you in the upcoming sessions this week and throughout the year. Finally, congratulations to our awardees and please stay tuned for the celebration and recognition coming up next.

As Tiny Tim said: God Bless Everyone.