With rising vaccination rates and falling numbers of new cases, the end of the pandemic – at least in the U.S. – seems imminent. Given this, it is reasonable for us to begin looking forward to a summer and fall in which we can slowly pivot toward working and learning in ways much more typical for a residential university.
Last July – before we could even imagine a second, much less a third wave of the pandemic – I said in this column, “I do not want to get back to normal.” By that I meant that the pandemic was giving us a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rethink and redesign the university. I wrote, “There is now emerging a vision for a post-pandemic MSU that is an even more powerful engine for good.”
Over the last year, as we have a tackled new and immediate challenges from the pandemic, we have also kept our eyes on the horizon. The pandemic has given us the opportunity to experiment with new programs and new ways of meeting our students’ needs.
What have we learned over the last year? What will persist after the pandemic ends?
The demands of the pandemic have made us much more willing to think creatively and flexibly about how and where we do our work. For example, two years ago remote advising was rare, but coming out of the pandemic we see a lot of enthusiasm for remote advising methods. Everywhere we seem more comfortable with Zoom and Teams, and we are more willing to do things differently than we have ever before been willing to even consider.
Obviously, we have learned a great deal about how to teach and learn online, and to some people’s surprise our students are telling us that they want more access to online courses going forward. This is a national trend as well as a trend among MSU’s students. Online courses allow students more options in arranging their schedules, which allow them higher rates of credit momentum and a reduction in their time-to-degree and cost-of-degree. Online courses also allow students to pursue their degrees when – for whatever reason – they want or need to be away from East Lansing for a semester. Students recognize the flexibility that online classes provide them and are asking for a modest increase in the availability of online courses across the curriculum.
Our commitment to increasing students’ access to MSU has clearly grown over the course of the pandemic. The continued growth of Envision Green – the program linking Lansing Community College to MSU – has been widely welcomed. President Stanley and Provost Woodruff have both made public commitments to this program and to finding ways to expand it to other community colleges. Governor Whitmer and President Biden are both strong advocates of the community-college-to-university pipeline, and I am optimistic that more students will have more opportunities to pursue their educations because of it.
Perhaps more than anything else, the pandemic has made clear to us that Student Success requires much more than just good grades. Health and wellness are critical to every student’s success, and we have a much more holistic view of how Student Success requires physical, social, emotional, and fiscal health. Essential needs – including food and housing security – are necessary components of Student Success, as is the sense of belonging and affinity for the university.
As the conception of Student Success has enlarged over the last year, so has the community of leaders who are stepping forward to help coordinate this work. Student Affairs and Services, the Provost’s Office, Residential and Hospitality Services and the many people in these divisions and elsewhere are working arm-in-arm to cultivate MSU’s Student Success ecosystem in more robust ways than I would have ever hoped possible before the pandemic.
All of this gives me a great deal of optimism about the coming months and years, and I feel lucky to be part of this important work.