The outbreak of the COVID-19 global pandemic in March unleashed months of uncertainty, a period of time that redefined the words “unprecedented” and “surreal” and gave rise to the phrase “new normal” as a way to describe the way the world was learning to adapt. Facemasks and social distancing have become as routine as carrying your ID and not butting in line.
Learning how to conduct business amidst the coronavirus crisis became job one. Ottawa University’s leadership team joined their colleagues in higher education as they tread the unfamiliar waters brought on by the pandemic, being forced to make rapid-fire decisions to prepare an action plan for academic delivery in the short term and a return of students to the university’s residential campuses in the long term.
The presidents of Ottawa’s Midwest and Arizona regions – Dr. Reggies Wenyika (OUKS) and Dr. Dennis Tyner (OUAZ) – were both intensely aware of the stakes involved and in separate conversations revealed their strategy in maintaining the university’s mission, while at the same time keeping their campus communities safe.
Wenyika has been a leader in higher education for two decades, serving as president of Southwestern Christian University in Bethany, Okla., for four years and vice president and provost for six years prior to his July 2018 arrival at OU. Tyner has been with the university for 13 years, having served as vice president and provost on the Kansas campus before being appointed in 2017 to lead the launch of OUAZ, where he was named president in May 2019.
Below are excerpts from the conversations with Wenyika and Tyner:
What was the biggest challenge you faced as president in dealing with the pandemic?
RW: I think the biggest challenge was trying to get the campus ready. There was so much uncertainty as to what the future held, and the toughest thing was determining whether we were going to be able to open, whether we were going to be able to bring students back and, if so, whether any kids were actually going to show up because of the pandemic. As a college, obviously that is our mission and core business, serving students from all walks of life with a rigorous education in the liberal arts tradition undergirded by Christian values. We cannot be in operation if they are no students. So, that was the primary thing. Everything else was secondary.
DT: There were so many challenges. I think the toughest of them all was trying to determine the exact procedures that we were going to implement when the campus re-opened. Because we were all experiencing this pandemic for the first time, we couldn’t rely on documentation that described how best to make it through it. So, it was important to stay abreast of the seemingly daily recommendations from the health community and learn from other organizations.
What were the key components of the University’s action plan when COVID-19 hit in March?
RW: 1) Making sure we were able to continue to deliver academics through a flexible modality. And as part of that, making sure our students were actually ready because there is this assumption that since most of these kids are digital natives, they naturally would take to it like a duck to water. But it did not take long for us to learn that that was not the case. These kids are here for a residential style of education. 2) The health and safety for all was a key. We had to coordinate all the logistics of getting all these kids back to their home safely, and we had to keep faculty and staff safe as anyone above 60 years old was identified to be potentially at risk. 3) The financial impact on families and the institution. Some students might not return, then you have to issue refunds. This affected the financial picture of our university, weighing heavily on my mind and other people’s minds. 5) Optics have to always be considered. If you choose to close, there are those who won’t be happy. If you remain open, there’s people unhappy. The same applies to extracurricular activities. So, we had to strike that middle ground, and of course communicate, communicate, communicate.
DT: 1) Recommending that residential students who had other living arrangements vacate their place of residence at OUAZ. 2) Transition all courses from an on-ground to a virtual teaching modality. 3) restricting campus access to essential personnel only.
How did you handle the unpredictability of the pandemic as spring turned into summer with seemingly daily changes?
RW: Well, let me tell you. It’s easier to handle when you’ve got a good team, and not out there alone on an island. A lot of the handling of logistics in all of this was shouldered by student affairs, admissions and of course academics. Our student affairs and admissions teams made sure we were communicating with new and returning students to make sure they felt comfortable about the decision to attend OU during the pandemic. I’m blessed to have a good team that knew what they were doing and worked out all the contingencies.
DT: As much as we could, we continued to closely follow the recommendations of the health community. Our work (especially that of the Admissions Department), like the classrooms, took on a different form, but we assumed all along that the campus would be open for business for the start of the new academic year. So, while almost all employees were working from home, we continued to recruit the current class of students for Fall 2020.
How would you rate the success of the University’s transition to a distance- learning modality in the spring?
RW: For us, it was natural because we have been offering distance learning for decades, and so already had the infrastructure and resources in place. Naturally, there a few tweaks here or there and perhaps some minor modifications were needed. Our faculty had good support on how to execute the transition. I think we did we did pretty good. We knew what we had to do, and we were mostly ready because we had planned for this a month of two prior. A lot of work had already been done by the academic support team, so it was fairly seamless.
DT: Extremely successful. After announcing the transition to a virtual delivery of all courses, phone numbers and Zoom accounts were set up for all faculty and training sessions on the use of Zoom and Collaborate were offered internally. Faculty were creative in determining alternative methods of delivering virtual labs. In the first week of virtual classes, we monitored attendance and communicated with students regarding any issues they had.
How did students and faculty react to the distance-learning transition?
RW: The students understood it needed to be done, but hated being away from the campus, and from friends and classmates. For some students it’s just not their preferred modality for learning and we learned some things because they proved some assumptions wrong. As far as our faculty, they were prepared and made needed adjustments. They took care of business.
DT: Though the virtual classrooms added to the workload of the faculty, they embraced the challenge of modifying their teaching methods and the administration of exams and quizzes, which resulted in a fairly seamless learning experience for the students. In the course evaluations, students were clear that they preferred the face-to-face learning environment, but they also indicated their appreciation for the faculty and their willingness to make the virtual learning experience as good as they possibly could.
Was a return to campus and on-ground instruction in the fall a high priority?
RW: Absolutely, a return to campus was a high priority for several reasons. One because it’s consistent with our mission. Our Mission comes first, and that is to provide a quality liberal arts education. A liberal arts education presupposes a campus life. And, of course, there are economic considerations, but those were secondary to who we are, and living out our mission. This is what we do, it’s our core business and the service we provide to those students we’re able to reach.
DT: It was a high priority, as the majority of traditional-aged students excel better with face-to-face instruction. The key factors in ensuring it became a reality were establishing a system of daily health screening and developing policies for mask-wearing, social distancing, building access, extracurricular activities, dining, contact tracing, isolating and quarantining, disinfecting, and more.
How did the University handle COVID-19 testing and quarantining students?
RW: To date, about 900 tests have been performed on our students all thanks to Franklin County Health Department and Ottawa Family Physicians. The county assisted with the parameters for us based on the CDC’s national guidelines. And as far as contact tracing goes, we followed what they said were the standard guidelines and our campus nurse oversaw the efforts. The county assistance lightened the load.
DT: When student returned to campus in July and August, in Arizona COVID-19 testing was not readily available to anyone, so we were not able to test students. We work closely with Banner Health to arrange for testing for any student who is presenting COVID symptoms or who has had close contact with someone who tested positive.
What are you most proud of regarding the University’s response to COVID-19?
RW: I’m proud of how a majority of our faculty and staff responded, and of our collaborative relationship with the county and our preferred health providers. I’m proud of students and their families for trusting us to provide an education amidst all the uncertainty. And I’m proud of the fact that we were able to serve the highest number of students in decades this semester.
With 805 students, we have the highest enrollment in more than 35 years.
DT: I’m proud of way our employees worked as a team and are sincere about ensuring the safety of OUAZ’s community.
What are the biggest takeaways on the pandemic as it relates to the future of higher education?
RW: The future of higher education is never going to look anything like its past. COVID broadsided us, exposing our fragility as an industry. For those of us who are in private higher education, it is apparent that the next set of discussions need to be centered on how we future-proof our institutions against such disruptions?
DT: Since the primary product of higher ed is education, schools need to be nimble in their ability to teach students, wherever they are. Faculty and institutions need to be able to transition quickly and need to continue to improve distance-learning modalities.