Focus on the Presidency: How Do We Meet Our Mission during a Pandemic?

By Mary Cullinan    //    Volume 28,  Number 3   //    May/June 2020

How does a campus respond when experiencing a new reality?

In 1989, when I was a faculty member at California State University-East Bay, the Loma Prieta earthquake hit the Bay Area during the World Series and upended campus operations. In 2005, when I was the provost at Stephen F. Austin State University, Hurricane Katrina pounded our campus, downed thousands of trees, and left thousands of students, faculty, and staff without electricity or supplies. In 2008, when I was the president of Southern Oregon University, a major recession hit the country and devastated university resources.

Campuses plan for emergencies. We create crisis management teams. We organize tabletop exercises and drills. We create communication plans and emergency notification protocols.

However, in the last few months, we’ve been facing a situation that differs in scale and type from past crises. Across the state and around the country, universities as well as businesses, families, and individuals face a new reality, a new normal. We’re all learning what a pandemic is, what terms such as social distancing and sheltering in place really mean.

At Eastern Washington University, located in the state that started as the epicenter of the crisis, we began urgent preparations in January.

First, I’m grateful that Eastern has long had an emergency response team and comprehensive emergency protocols. Coordinating with local emergency teams throughout the region, we routinely model emergencies ranging from fires and floods to flu epidemics. That preparation helped us significantly in getting ahead of COVID-19 when we first glimpsed it.

Second, we have clear priorities. We’re committed to the safety and health of our students, faculty, and staff. And we understand our mission: to support our students on a path to a degree and, as a public regional university, to serve the needs of our communities. Our priorities and mission clarify and guide decision making.

Third, we understand that constant communication is urgent as situations change. Will we delay opening spring term? Will we put all our classes online? What about labs and internships? How will students’ financial aid be affected? What about students on the G.I. bill? Do students have access to technology for taking classes online? How will we handle residence halls and dining? Will we lock down our buildings? What about childcare? Recreational facilities? Study abroad? Professional travel? Will the library remain open? How much campus work can be handled from home?

Our phones began ringing constantly. Our emails were flooded. Social media platforms were hot with rumors and misinformation.

To serve as the communication center for the university and external constituencies, we established a coronavirus website with resources for employees, students, future students, and families as well as our board of trustees and campus advisory groups. We used texts and social media to push out information. I began writing daily to campus constituencies with updates and information, and I worked with faculty and staff to organize virtual informational panels and town hall meetings.

I’ve never seen a campus work together so quickly or with such decisiveness.

At this writing, our governor has not directed the university to close. However, we are all working from home as much as possible. And we’ve made hard decisions: we cancelled spring events and extended the start of spring term; we discontinued face-to-face classes, labs, internships, and practica. We offered resources to faculty as they learn new technologies and put their courses online. We set up a fund for students who need laptops to take courses remotely.

We created ways to offer remote or online academic advising, mental health support, and other student services. We closed some residence halls and figured out how to provide shelter and food for those students who have no safe place to go during this terrifying time. We canceled athletic practices and spring competitions. We figured out how to recruit students without face-to-face visits. We changed admission dates and procedures. We’re rethinking grading options. We’ve temporarily frozen most faculty and staff searches.

As of this writing, of course, we have no idea how the pandemic will proceed. We haven’t yet cancelled June commencement ceremonies. We don’t know what decisions will be made in coming weeks or how profoundly and even tragically our Eastern community and our region will be affected. We know that our campuses, our families, our economies are being transformed in large and small ways. We know this is a time for us to think creatively, to be flexible, to realize that things we thought were always going to be the same are now changing.

And, even as we struggle to adapt, we know this is a time to support each other. This is a time to ask, “How can I help?” That question frames the ways in which we’re working to meet our mission and goals during this tumultuous time.

We support our students. We serve our communities.

Mary Cullinan, PhD, is the president of Eastern Washington University. 

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