2020: The Year in Review

Two years ago in Edmonton, Alberta — I had no idea what the future would bring… Photo by By Kieran Leavitt, StarMetro Edmonton

We were planning for 2020 to be an auspicious year for The Center for Higher Education Leadership (CHEL). In January we had updated our website, added new courses, and we were ready to launch our new offerings at SXSW EDU. My partner Shelley Seale and I had set up a series of meetings with potential clients and investors. I was excited to be getting back to Austin and was planning to visit with many of the friends I had made during the 12 years I was at the University of Texas at Austin.

It was early March, the week before I was to head to Austin, when I headed up to Portland to attend a parent meeting at my son’s college, Lewis and Clark in Portland. When in Portland, I stay with my friend, Ken Stedman, who happens to be known as the “extreme virus hunter” — we have known each other since undergrad, and I felt like I lucked out when my son Andrew decided to go to college nearby. We knew at that point that COVID-19 was in the U.S. but there wasn’t any clear sense of how it was spread. At the parent meeting, we avoided handshakes and the usual hugs…but we had no idea that we should have been wearing masks and keeping our distance. By that Friday, I heard the news that SXSW was cancelled — I was sad, but also knew it was probably for the best, given the concerns being raised about the virus.

On the flight home from Portland, I only saw one couple wearing masks — I wasn’t sure what to think of that, it would be another month before wearing masks would become mandatory. Events were cancelled, and I knew that it was time for CHEL to pivot — I immediately booked my friend Ken, Bryan Alexander and a series of speakers to do weekly webinars as higher ed worked to understand the virus and make the pivot to online learning. It was an incredibly stressful time. Although we were able to connect with some of the folks we had planned to meet in Austin, it wasn’t the same, and everyone’s attention was on the shift to remote teaching — in the face of a pandemic, professional development would have to wait.

In the meantime, I was working to complete the first full draft of my book, Radical Empathy: Finding a Path to Bridging Racial Divides. Not long after I submitted the draft, a horrific video would start circulating on social media — the death of George Floyd would once again bring the issues related to the Black Lives Matter movement to the fore. Protests, proclaiming the need to end racism and reform the police developed across the country and around the world. Even here in my small suburban neighborhood, Black Lives Matter signs popped up on lawns and we marched with our neighbors, in solidarity with those from more diverse areas of Silicon Valley. Interest in my book grew, and I knew it would be important to develop workshops and content to help those who felt the need to learn more about structural racism and White supremacy.

The month of May would also be one in which I focused on the plight of small, private colleges and universities. Along with my colleague Gary Stocker, we reached out to colleges to encourage a more collaborative approach to surviving the crisis. We wrote several articles and had several webinars discussing the ways that colleges could collaborate to cut costs while maintaining the quality of academic programs and finding new ways to use technology to innovate and become more effective and efficient in providing academic programs. We have worked with several organizations to provide different components for colleges that are interested in exploring different types of collaborations. We embraced an agile approach to strategic planning with colleagues around the country who were focusing on helping higher education with a difficult transition. My main concern at the time was that some smaller, tuition-dependent colleges would not survive the shift to online and remote learning — particularly those who were dependent on residential students. That concern remains as we get through the first semester of the year — enrollment is down, and many campuses have limited or no students in dorms. Despite some support from the government, many institutions will be facing existential crises as we head into the Spring.

Although the main focus of our efforts has shifted to the diversity and inclusion workshops we have created based on my book, we continue to focus on our commitment to support and empower faculty who are moving into administrative positions and providing a forum to share best practices on everything from strategic planning to using educational technology.

On the personal front, I have had several family members who have survived the virus, and like many parents, I have had to deal with my own sons who shifted to online learning. My older son had to return home only two weeks after I had gone to visit him at Lewis and Clark College in Portland. He finished the semester online but was able to return to his dorm in the Fall. His campus managed the hybrid semester with only a couple of cases that were quickly contained. He returned home before Thanksgiving and is looking forward to going back in January.

My younger son had a more challenging semester. A junior in high school, he struggled to complete the spring semester and his ADHD combined with a slapdash shift to remote courses created problems for his ability to focus for hours of zoom classes. The school district was completely unprepared to deal with the needs of students with learning differences and I spent the first few weeks of the Fall semester trying to ensure that he got his accommodations and that his teachers were aware of his needs. After contacting everyone from the principal to the superintendent, we finally got a reasonable set of options that would allow him to focus and complete his schoolwork in a timely manner. They never managed to get their attendance policies set up properly — I got way too many calls saying that my son was absent when he wasn’t, because they changed the way teachers reported attendance. My frustrations were high, but my son managed to survive the semester and I hope the school district will change their policies and provide more support for students.

My story was repeated across the country and I often turned to social media to find support and common cause with parents around the country who were frustrated with the lack of resources to help them get through a semester with their children learning from home. Women in academe were hit particularly hard, with several studies showing that women faculty were having difficulty managing the shift to online learning, managing their children at home, and maintaining their research and writing.

On the business front, we have developed a new website and we are planning to provide even more support for faculty who will be facing another year of disruption, budget cuts and new strategies to address issues students will be facing as we all continue to be impacted by the pandemic. We have transitioned to become Brighter Higher Ed — a shift which focuses on our perspective of a bright future for higher education. Higher ed will play an important role in the recovery, as the vaccine is rolled out and new strategies are developed in a world where we will have to live with COVID-19 and its mutations for the foreseeable future. Diversity and inclusion will continue to be at the top of agenda, and I am already planning to continue writing on these topics and supporting all who want to create change.

I am very hopeful that 2021 will be a year of innovation and growth for higher education. There will continue to be challenges, some existential in nature, but I know that there will be more students than ever who will need what colleges and universities have to offer. Join us to continue this discussion into the New Year at https://community.brighterhighered.com/ — I send my best wishes that your New Year celebration will be full of cheer.