Dean Diana Hess takes a look back at the difficult past year-plus — and the lessons learned that will make the School of Education stronger moving forward.
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By Dean Diana Hess
When I interviewed for the dean position in May 2015, I predicted higher education would change more in the next 10 years than it had in the last 50. I was thinking about: changes in teaching and learning; the development of new fields and programs of study; an increased emphasis on diversity, equity, and inclusion; the need for research to focus more explicitly on some of our society’s most pressing challenges; and new funding models.
Of course, I did not predict that five years into my deanship a worldwide pandemic would wreak havoc on virtually every aspect of our society. Nor could I predict that the killings of George Floyd and others by police officers would cause protests unlike anything we had seen in a generation, sparking a renewed emphasis on creating a society that is purposely anti-racist. Now, nearly one- and-a-half years into the pandemic, and just over a year after the murder of George Floyd, I am often asked what the “new normal” will look like. Of course, that is impossible to predict because the future so fundamentally depends on our deliberate choices. A “new normal” will not just rain down on us; we will create it, decision by decision. And those decisions will be influenced by what we learn from the COVID-19 pandemic, the protests, and heightened calls for racial justice.
It is incumbent on us to use what we have learned to build a “new normal” that is better than what we had before. While the les- sons learned are both numerous and varying in importance, there are four that seem most significant.
We can move fast
Higher education has a well-deserved reputation for moving slowly. On the one hand, intense and extended debate about what we need to do differently enables decisions to be thoroughly vetted, allows widespread participation of numerous stakeholders, and gives enough time for the culture work necessary for changes to succeed. Conversely, the slow pace of change in higher education can be downright maddening and damaging. It occupies the time of people who often have better things to do, it frustrates innovators who can’t understand why changes that seem so manifestly necessary take forever to implement, and it prevents the institution of higher education from moving at the speeds necessary to respond to societal changes.
Prior to the pandemic, if someone had asked me how long it would take to move hundreds of classes from in person to virtual instruction and transition almost 1,000 faculty and staff from working on campus to working remotely, I likely would have responded (somewhat flippantly), “At least a year, and it will cost a fortune.” I was thus stunned when we accomplished both in under 10 days in March 2020. We created a “Tiger Team” of leaders from across the School of Education who met each morning to identify what needed to be done, by whom, and in what way to deal with the multiple changes we had to make. For example, in March 2020 hundreds of students were working in field placements (schools, hospitals, and clinics). We needed to decide quickly whether to allow those students to stay in their in-person placements. Another problem we wrestled with was how to help instructors — many with no prior experience utilizing virtual platforms — move their courses online.
Across the School, everyone stepped up. The students were flexible, patient, and gracious, as were staff and faculty — even though their workload increased significantly and many had to cope with the challenges of their own kids’ virtual schooling. Staff and faculty had to learn new ways to get their work done, to communicate effectively with colleagues and students, and to roll with the punches that inevitably arose. The phrases “we need to pivot” and “you’re muted” became commonplace.
Crisis demands innovation
Precedent has great value. We often approach problems by looking at what we have done in the past. But we lacked precedents for much of what we have had to change since March 2020. For example, we had no process for quickly getting instructors and students the technology and internet access they needed to teach and learn virtually. And while the School contains much expertise in helping instructors design online courses, we had no system to deliver this help at the necessary scale. We knew our students were suffering from unprecedented and serious challenges caused by the pandemic, but we lacked a way to identify precisely how to deliver the services and help they needed.
Using the Tiger Team model, we quickly put together specialized groups to work on each of these problems. We enlarged our instructional design team and created a system so each instructor could get the one-on-one help they needed to redesign their courses. We provided “TechTAs” to provide technology assistance in operating virtual platforms. When it became clear that many fall semester classes would be virtual, we developed a grant program so instructors who were not normally paid in the summer could be compensated to dramatically redesign their courses and provided additional professional development to build their skills. Instructors who would be teaching in person in the fall needed to rede- sign their courses, too, because of the demands of physical distancing. The chancellor and provost provided funding so that The Discussion Project — a professional development and research project housed in the Wisconsin Center for Education Research that provides instructors with the tools necessary to have high-quality discussions in their courses — could quickly design an entirely new curriculum to teach instructors how to moderate great online discussions.
About a month into the pandemic, we realized that COVID- 19 had caused financial hardships for many students. Professor Lesley Bartlett led a Tiger Team to develop and implement a remarkable process that involved faculty, instructors, and advanced graduate students making personal calls to more than 1,500 students to learn about their needs. Using that information, another Tiger Team worked with UW–Madison’s Office of Student Financial Aid to develop a Bridge to Success scholar- ship program providing funds to mitigate financial hardships for students. Some students needed help with tuition because their parents had lost their jobs, and many students lost jobs themselves. Hundreds of generous donors who had contributed to Impact 2030 — the ambitious, donor-funded initiative that’s designed to dramatically strengthen our School leading up to its centennial in 2030 — enabled us to quickly distribute 869 awards to students that totaled $2.38 million. As a consequence, virtually all of our students were able to stay enrolled and on track with their academic programs.
Stay focused on long-term goals
Before the pandemic, the School of Education was intensely focused on innovations in global education, the Teacher Pledge, and developing new academic programs. We resisted the temptation to hit a long-term pause on this work. Thanks to Impact 2030, we had funds to develop a process to support instructors creating new study abroad courses linked to students’ majors. These courses will launch in summer 2023. Our team in the Global Engagement Office also began work on a scholarship program that will enable students without financial resources to take advantage of these unique courses.
The Teacher Pledge was launched in August 2020, along with the rest of Impact 2030. It’s the first program of its kind offered by a public university, with the initiative pledging to provide financial support — including up to in-state tuition, fees, and testing certification costs — for students enrolled in any of the School’s teacher education programs. In return, after graduating the students “pledge” to teach for three or four years at a pre-kindergarten through 12th grade school in Wisconsin. Students who go on to teach in a high-need school or in a high- need subject area will fulfill their obligation in three years, while all others will do so in four. By March 2021, more than 170 of our teacher education students had signed up to take the Teacher Pledge, and Professor Nick Hillman’s team began to research the program. Work continued across the School on developing new academic programs.
Moving ahead on our strategic goals, even while dealing with the pandemic, proved smart for two reasons. First, as we come out of the pandemic we are on track to provide students with remarkable new opportunities in a timely fashion. Second, focusing on clearly valuable innovations helped the morale of faculty and staff, especially in the long days of winter when the pandemic sometimes seemed endless.
Equity, diversity, and inclusion must infuse all of our activities
Prior to the pandemic we had initiated a process to determine what we needed to do differently in the School to make meaningful progress on equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) goals. We did a “deep dive” to assess what we were already doing and to identify new goals. We decided to add an associate dean for equity, diversity, and inclusion to the senior staff, along with staff to work on EDI goals with all the departments and units. In June 2019, I hired Dr. LaVar Charleston as associate dean. Prior to the pandemic, he ran our existing diversity programs and worked steadily to develop a strategic plan. Within days of the pandemic hitting, it became clear that some students, faculty, and staff were going to be affected more than others. For example, our international students from Asian nations and our Asian-American and Pacific Islander students, faculty, and staff bore the brunt of discrimination and fear when politicians started calling the pandemic the “China virus.” One student reported to us that she was afraid to leave her apartment to get groceries.
Then the murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, enraged and activated the School of Education community. Many of our students, staff, and faculty participated in protests and asked, “What can we do within our School to work toward a more purposely anti-racist society?” Since then, our School and campus have focused more intensely on EDI goals than I have seen in my more than 20 years at UW–Madison. We are working hard to recruit and retain more diverse students, staff, and faculty. We are working to ensure that all academic programs pay careful attention to EDI goals. Our research and scholarship are attending more to EDI than in the past.
Our Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion has instituted numerous affinity groups and other programs. In collaboration with our Office of Professional Learning and Community Education (PLACE), it implemented a remarkable program called Real Talk for Real Change. More than 2,600 people across the nation signed up for these provocative and exciting programs in which our faculty and other experts engaged in high-quality “real talk” designed to help us think about the “real changes.” These much-needed conversations will help us ensure we engineer reimagined policies and practices in our post-pandemic world.
Looking ahead, I am often asked about the pandemic’s “silver linings.” So many lives have been lost and so many people have suffered so much that, to be frank, I can’t even entertain the question. But we must ask, what can we learn from the pandemic that will enable us to create a better society? How can we enable people to deliberate together, across their differences and disagreement, about what would make society better? After all, one purpose of higher education is to help us imagine not just what is right and wrong with what is, but how to improve.
Our people, and our partners in multiple communities across the state, are remarkable. This makes me confident and optimistic about what the School can do post-pandemic. Throughout an exceptionally challenging period, our students, staff, and faculty have manifested resilience, determination, and creativity. Our Board of Visitors, alumni, and friends have, throughout, enabled us to move forward by providing advice, emotional support, and significant financial resources. Our campus leadership has done a wonderful job on so many fronts. While we normally say “On, Wisconsin,” in the last year-and-a- half it seems more accurate to say we were “On It, Wisconsin.”