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The Way Forward

 

Leaders of ACCU member institutions offer thoughts on what they’ve learned from the pandemic, as well as a few insights on how Catholic higher education can move forward

 

Sunrise

It’s not unusual for the academy to be reflective at this time every year. Another term has ended and campus leaders take a deep breath to look back. In 2021, the process takes on more poignancy in the wake of COVID-19, and Catholic college and university leaders are taking time to consider the particular experience of the last 18 months. Here, six leaders share some reflections about how their campuses are recovering, where they found hope during the pandemic, and what lessons they will carry with them into the fall.

The Speed of Sound

My job as president has taught me a number of important lessons about activities I once disdained as a humble academic – activities like sales and marketing, finance and accounting. The lesson I learned this year had to do with communication. Not the basic facts, like that more is better than less, or that when you’re the president people actually listen to you. It was about how the process works.

Between April and September 2020 I held, together with the vice president and the chief human resources officer, about 75 Zoom meetings with different groups of faculty, staff, and trustees – the Academic Senate, the University Budget Committee, the Administrative Council, the Council of Deans, numerous town halls, etc. And yet after all this, I continued to hear concerns that the university was not being transparent enough about its plans for dealing with the pandemic.

At first I felt aggrieved; we had intentionally tripled our customary outreach. But I came to realize that there was a reason for the concerns. In ordinary times things I say at a meeting are repeated by my audience to other people over coffee, at lunch, in the hallways, on the commute home. But in the time of COVID, things I said on Zoom went no farther than the people on the screen. They didn’t bump into other people.

It’s like the tagline from the movie Alien: In space no one can hear you scream. Sound travels by causing particles in a medium (air, water) to bump into each other. In a vacuum there are no particles. Sound does not travel.

— John Garvey, President, The Catholic University of America

 

Deep Roots, Strong Mission

I would identify two lessons from the pandemic. These aren’t anything new or earth-shaking, but they are important and easily forgotten in the day-to-day of university life.

The first is best expressed in the words of our student government president, Noah Cunningham, who said this during his commencement speech:

“We must not forget that in a time where we were so easily isolated, we came together more than ever before. Moving forward, we must not forget to love one another and put others before ourselves. Set your focus on things above and not of this world. One of my favorite verses from the Bible is one that I have found pertinent to any situation life throws at you: First Corinthians, chapter 13, verse 13 states, ‘Three things will last forever — faith, hope, and love — and the greatest of these is love.’”

 

...The pandemic created the impetus for a deeper understanding of community and our responsibility for each other.

 

Noah’s reflection reminds me of the importance of a community rooted in love, and that not even a pandemic could destroy that. In fact, the pandemic created the impetus for a deeper understanding of community and our responsibility for each other.

The second lesson concerns the importance of those who have dedicated their careers and lives to the education of our students, our staff and faculty. Each of these individuals had their own challenges during the pandemic. Many had to be concerned about vulnerable family members, struggle with home schooling their children, and caring for their own physical and mental health. Despite the difficulties, they met the need of educating our students without hesitation, finding creative ways to ensure that the mission of Brescia University remained viable and strong.

— The Rev. Larry Hostetter, President, Brescia University

 

Waiting in the Lobby

It has become commonplace to speak of our current reality as “a time like no other.” The pandemic sweeping the world has transformed our planet in arguably the most profound way in a century. It has affected how we interact as families, as employees, and even as citizens of a global community. One area that changes under extreme circumstances is our everyday language — our social codes — and it is remarkable just how many new words and phrases have entered our lexicon because of the virus.

A few months ago I stumbled over a headline that referred to a new skin condition: maskne. It took a moment for me to realize it was a play on acne and I marveled to see companies already exploiting the skin irritation that masks were causing to market new ointments. I had no such confusion upon hearing everyday citizens — from grocery clerks to journalists — referring to PPE, with no explanation needed. Colleagues spoke unselfconsciously of our need to “flatten the curve” and the importance of “social distancing.” Our tech team at the university explained the strategies we were adopting to guard against “Zoombombing” and everyone understood the context.

In our virtual world, a whole new phraseology was also born. The phrase of the year is certainly, “You’re on mute!” And “Do you have a question or is that a legacy hand?” has been asked dozens, if not hundreds of times in the hours I have spent in virtual meetings. Another phrase that feels somehow symbolic is “waiting in the lobby.” The first few times that I read that a colleague was waiting in the lobby to be admitted seemed odd. Now my hand moves to the Admit button without a second thought.

Perhaps my favourite word in all of this is Covidiot. Somehow that pun captures the sense of frustration we all feel when another individual refuses to follow the rules that we believe in and displays what we understand to be spectacularly poor judgement. What crises amplify, of course, is how divided we can all be on what is right. The conflict between maskers and anti-maskers is a case in point, and I was surprised to discover that similar conflicts arose during the 1918 flu pandemic. In Australia over a hundred years ago, “mask slackers” gathered to protest against masked “freedom takers” at a local cinema.

Over time, the meanings of words can change. It might surprise some to know that bully was once a term of endearment, and could refer to a friend or protector. Terrific referred to a bad thing, playing on its root: terror. It is hard today to think of words such as awful or tremendous as terms describing goodness and negativity, respectively, and yet this was exactly their original meaning. Cultures change to reflect their times, and language helps to articulate the process.

 

Cultures change to reflect their times, and language helps to articulate the process.

 

And so, as I always do, I look back to how Jesus changed our lexicon, arriving as a much-needed vaccine to help inoculate against a world plagued by cruelty, greed, and division. When we ask someone to follow the Golden Rule or when we speak of turning the other cheek, we know immediately that these lessons come from Christ. Few Christians would hear the phrase “our daily bread” and not immediately think of the Lord’s Prayer. Were someone to suggest that we not throw the first stone, most would remember Jesus’s teachings as recounted in the Gospel of John.

Indeed, it is easy to forget the origins of influential moments and individuals, and as such to have words lose their meaning. There are hundreds of articles and books written about how the Bible and Jesus’ words have been misused to justify everything from slavery to child detention. Context is everything, and it is important to return to the source — to study Jesus’ words and understand that a loving God calls on us to be kind, compassionate, and accountable. This is more important than ever when we are suffering from “grief overload” and “tragedy fatigue.” At a time such as this, no one should be left waiting in the lobby.

— Gerry Turcotte, President & Vice Chancellor, St. Mary's University, Calgary, Alberta

 

Looking to the Past to Guide the Future

The challenges of leading a university community through a worldwide pandemic have been extraordinary. At Seton Hill University, we have planned and re-planned, set scenarios for a variety of “what-ifs,” and developed protocols and plans of action.

The care and safety of our students and the members of our community remain our priority. Throughout these months, decisions and deliberations have been rooted in and guided by a deep commitment to our Catholic-Setonian Mission. We have consistently returned to the spirit and charism of the founding Congregation, the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill; St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, Mother Aloysia Lowe, and the wisdom and strength of the Sisters who guided the establishment of Seton Hill College (University).

In 1918, the Sisters dealt with the realities of obtaining a charter for the college in the midst of a worldwide pandemic. That spirit of risk-taking and resiliency, along with the admonition of St. Vincent de Paul to “do always, that which is before you” inspired them and us a century later. The words of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton prompted our actions: “Be prepared to meet your grace in every circumstance of your life.” Her words and our commitment to student-centered education in a residential setting provided the grace and courage that we needed to face the challenges that came our way and have brought us to the conclusion of an in-person academic year.

Students, too, have met their grace in these unusual circumstances. Their concern and commitment to the mission and the common good continue to inspire us. We have all found new and creative ways to live the four pillars of our Catholic Setonian Identity: Welcoming, Learning, Celebrating, and Serving.

Ever before us has been the university motto, taken from the Seton family coat of arms: “Whatever the risk, Hazard Yet Forward!”

— Maureen O’Brien, SC, Vice President for Mission and Identity, Seton Hill University

 

From the Pandemic to the Endemic

In a recent New York Times article on former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the author noted Mr. Blair's hair was white and unusually long yet, despite his different appearance, once engaged he felt familiar. As we transition from the pandemic this is a familiar metaphor – life is different, yet is becoming familiar again.

Niagara University’s challenges from COVID-19 included transitioning to remote learning and new modalities, as well as creating a safe environment for in-person learning. Added protocols and operational challenges combined with the anxiety of people living in isolation and the fear of illness presented a pronounced fragility and vulnerability of human life.

Through our Catholic identity, we know that God walks with us through the valley of darkness, and as a Vincentian institution, recovery is in our DNA. Our patron, St. Vincent de Paul, was recognized with the title honorary secretary of state for his leadership in disaster relief and assistance for refugees. 

Following St. Vincent, Niagara aims to recreate a space that prioritizes human relationships for every member of our campus community. By modeling this behavior, our leadership will reignite a community of belonging, placing human dignity at the heart of university life. Having heard too many stories of people succumbing to despair, we must care for our community and regenerate layers of protective and mental health.

We must also build on our legacy of service to the marginalized. Drawing on our faith, looking to our own frailty, we are able to recognize the pain and isolation of others and offer them God's healing balm of new life.

 

Having heard too many stories of people succumbing to despair, we must care for our community and regenerate layers of protective and mental health.

 

One year ago, we set Niagara on a path that would lead us to be a stronger institution once the pandemic began to recede. Let’s pray that the life lessons from the pandemic guide us and allow us to build a stronger, more whole faith-filled community.

— James J. Maher, CM, President, Niagara University

 

A Community Rich in Gifts

The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged all of us in ways we could not have imagined. We have had to learn how to work, to study, to worship, and to engage with others in new and often unfamiliar ways.

As vice chancellor of The University of Notre Dame Australia, I’ve been continually inspired by the way our students, faculty, and staff have adapted so quickly to the crisis. For our students, this meant discovering not only new forms of learning but also new approaches to celebrating significant life achievements such as graduation. For our faculty and staff, this meant transitioning the university to an entirely new model of teaching within a matter of weeks.

It is this creativity and resilience of the human spirit, particularly in times of adversity and uncertainty, which has really shone for me during the pandemic. We can never underestimate the richness of the gifts we have to draw upon in our communities or the willingness of people to offer those gifts in responding to a common challenge.

This has been a great source of hope to me as the university has navigated its way through COVID-19. It is also perhaps a lesson worth remembering not only for times of crisis but also for responding to any other trial or challenge we face in the day-to-day existence of our Catholics universities.

— Francis Campbell, Vice Chancellor, The University of Notre Dame Australia