Welcome to the Spring 2021 newsletter. I hope it finds you and loved ones safe and healthy, and seeing some light ahead. By now you all have received my announcement of the AY 2021-22 residency and commencement plans. While delaying the return to our face-to-face gatherings is not what any of us wanted, it is the reality. I am hopeful that Fall will provide that magical moment when we can again meet in Yellow Springs and celebrate our learning community in so many important ways.
But for now, we need to wait and see.
As you might imagine, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the impact of COVID-19 on our program and the shifts underway across higher education. I’d like to share some of my thoughts. There is a growing body of literature looking at what this all means for colleges and universities. Much of it is dismal and full of foreboding. Some, however, brings to light opportunities for change. Where do we sit?
The Impact of COVID-19 on the Adult Learner Mindset (EAB, 2020) provides some useful insights. Seventy percent of participants in this study reported that the pandemic has negatively impacted their current or future employment opportunities and that has had wide-reaching and diverse effects on adult learners. In terms of undergraduate enrollments, the pandemic has accelerated the decline in undergraduate enrollments. Period. But what about graduate enrollments? It appears that there have been diverging responses. While there are definitely those who are deferring or hesitating about enrolling given job and financial insecurities, for many others the pandemic has been a “catalyst” to return to school and enroll even sooner than they might have previously considered in order to gain new skills, make themselves more employable, pursue a lifelong dream, or wait out a tough job market.
While not specific to doctoral programs, I am witnessing these diverging trends in our own PhDLC world. Certainly, we are seeing inquiries expressing interestbut indicating it is just not the right time, just as we are seeing applicants being offered admission only to defer for a year given pandemic-related challenges. However, these ‘hesitators’ are only part of the story. Equally noticeable are the ‘accelerators,’ as EAB refers to them, those who are grabbing the time and enrolling with eagerness. To date, we already have 14 students confirmed in Cohort 21 and we are early in the admission cycle with a good two months to go.
The divergent responses also underlie what I’m also seeing with student progress. For some, the burdens of work and the additional responsibilities with homelife and children have impacted academic progress. Indeed, I do see some students slowing down, finding it more difficult to focus on studies, missing advising appointments and so forth. At the same time, others seem to have found more time, perhaps because they are not sitting for hours in traffic or traveling for clients, and thus the pace of accelerating to candidacy or completing dissertations has quickened. I actually think more students will graduate this year than in any previous year.
There is turbulence and uncertainty, but there are interesting shifts underway. For me this means being laser-focused on how we make the PhDLC the destination for those seeking an interdisciplinary doctoral program designed for socially engaged professionals who want to research and practice positive change in workplaces and communities. Of course, there are always improvements as we learn what new technologies offer, what new cohorts need, what new faculty talents bring. Let’s call it, organic improvement. But what should we be looking at that might inform some explicit actions?
In a recently released report, The hybrid campus: Three major shifts for the post-pandemic university, (Selingo, Clark, Noone & Wittmayer; Deloitte Insights, 2021) several trends stood out for me that I think have tremendous relevance for the GSLC. The first is that the mix of face-to-face and online, what is often referred to as a hybrid approach (something we have been doing for over 20 years!) will be a feature of the post-pandemic student-centered university, not only in terms of academic programs but also in terms of services. The Deloitte report talks about a “radical reimagining” of the way higher education serves students by providing and delivering all services in a hybrid approach that is both flexible and personalized. This says to me we are on the right track and should be even bolder with the hybrid environment of teaching, learning and services, that we started two decades ago.The pandemic was not on our minds then, but serving adult learners in innovative ways was!
The other critical lens for me in terms of the pandemic’s lessons for GSLC is the unabashed recommitment to offering a doctoral experience that provides students with the necessary knowledge and skills to further social, economic, environmental and racial justice in the workplaces they lead and the communities they serve. It isn’t just words in Antioch’s mission. It can’t just sit on a shelf. The pandemic reveals ugly realities daily: The inequities in health care unmask the narrative of equal access and opportunity. The widespread distrust in science and belief in conspiracies that are racist, homophobic, nativist and antisemitic are endemic in the American experience. As I’ve said before, the pandemic didn’t create health disparities, it revealed the ugly truths. Black and brown and poor communities are suffering and dying in disproportionately higher rates than White and middle-income communities; essential workers whether in warehouses or fields or hospitals are not being treated with the care and respect they so deserve. Educating our students to boldly engage in data-driven sense-making of complexity is necessary and urgent.
We have a lot of work ahead and we are ready. That the PhDLC makes some contribution to your lives and your efforts to ‘win victories for humanity’ inspires me every day.