One of the more favorable parts of surfing through this pandemic has been a couple of the professional friendships I’ve made. Since no longer I have to compete face-to-face, I’m pretty happy that I’ve created bonds with more than a couple of people who have solid insights on how the future of higher ed might unfold.
In particular, I’ve shared more than one cup of coffee with two very interesting individuals — Stephen Gavazzi, former dean at Ohio State University-Mansfield and family therapist; and David Rosowsky, former provost at the University of Vermont. All three of us have a combo of insight and niche in the higher ed landscape. Steve’s the land-grant champion — he came out to WSU and gave a workshop in more settled times last year. David was a successful provost and reliability engineer. And me? Veteran windmill tilter — but I’d also like to think, wise after the event.
If we had three tags, they would be healer, resilience expert and empathy dude. Steve’s been working to coalesce our vision around the theories of Urie Bronfenbrenner — a pioneer in ecosystems theory applied to organizations. Bronfenbrenner says that universities (and most organizations) operate on a number of scales — micro, meso, and macro — small, medium and large.
Both administration and faculty occupy these places, with administrators operating more externally, while faculty hang out in the smaller dimensions. This creates discontinuities in understanding, that prevent resilience, which David is interested in, empathy and connection — my gig, and then inhibits healing.
Empathy is the answer, if we want our universities to be able to handle the brutal quickness of the COVID-19 landscape. Empathy will fuel resilience, but it requires healing to get there. The challenge is to mix things up between faculty and administration, so the legitimate concerns of all parties are heard, as well as understood.
Framing things with Bronfenbrenner’s model can help. For both parties to have empathy for each other, the information for shared understanding has to be presented. Too often, I do see faculty not have much compassion for the larger budgetary woes of the institution, a burden borne primarily by those in administration forced to balance the books. The big picture money comes from those meso- and macro-scales — donors, and state government, and comprehending that financial pie would go a long way toward healing the rifts.
At the same time, I see faculty passion for their students and well-being often compromised, or given short shrift, for things like national or international ranking. We have a market here in the Pacific Northwest, and our students, though they may go far, are concerned about their immediate prospects. It’s going to be a brutal job market out there for all of them when they graduate into a post-COVID environment. Greater information feed down to the lower levels would help faculty feel that they were on the same page as administration, and help build shared goals that both administration and faculty should get behind.
Even before we went online, I personally felt that the WSU administration gave a large demonstration of empathy through acting on faculty concerns about COVID. Equally, I’ve felt that faculty have been reasonably resilient in moving often complicated, and complex curricula into an online environment. We can focus on our side of the current crisis, and find failings in both parties.
But we can also look past the various missteps, and think about how we’re going to coordinate our response on the scales that Bronfenbrenner discusses, and think in terms of what call ‘empathy ladders’ — behaviors that help all of us grow in connection with each other.
Because we’re going to need that evolved, empathetic relationship as we navigate reopening our universities. The pandemic is going to end. And what happens next, good or bad, is going to require healing — or we’ll never get to resilience. And institutional persistence.
Chuck Pezeshki is a professor in mechanical and materials engineering at Washington State University.