President Feaver reflects on a year unlike any other
When President John H. Feaver began 2020 at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma, he expected an exciting year where the state’s only public liberal arts institution could capitalize on some important improvements that had recently been completed and continue work on some major renovation projects still underway.
“At our Board of Regents meeting last November, we discussed four areas going into the new year that I was going to focus on: increasing enrollment through new admissions and marketing strategies, improving retention by improving student support services, leveraging certain fundraising opportunities and talented individuals we have right now, and lastly, extending our recent technology upgrades into the wider Chickasha community,” said Feaver. “I think they have only been reinforced throughout our experiences this year.”
Within weeks of the actual start of the spring 2020 semester, the emergence of a novel and lethal virus completely changed the calculus for everyone at the university. While health and safety considerations are an important part of any school’s protocols, a once-in-a-century pandemic was not the kind of thing that anyone had any real experience with. Feaver and other executives at USAO had to carefully monitor a rapidly changing situation and make decisions that both protected the health of staff and students while also continuing to provide the kind of engaging, personalized educational experience that has become a hallmark of this university.
“I had initially hoped that we would get the virus immediately under control, but as it became fairly clear that this would not happen any time soon, we realized we would have to make the switch to online learning,” said Feaver. “We expected that this would only be necessary through the end of the spring, but, as we entered the summer session and COVID-19 continued to spread essentially unabated, we knew that to begin the fall semester in-person, there would have to be significant safety protocols in place in terms of mask wearing, social distancing and cancelling all in-person events.”
Like almost every other institution of higher education in the United States, USAO’s quick switch to digital classes mitigated the very worst of the pandemic in terms of its impact on campus, but the disease continued to disrupt wider society. In order to protect the health and safety of every single person at the college, Feaver understands that the current protocols will have to remain in place well into next year.
“I don’t see a return to normality until at least the fall of 2021,” said Feaver. “I believe that we will go through this spring and summer much as we have this year, and I hope that by the fall we will be in a better place in terms of the pandemic so that we can resume a more normal way of teaching and learning. That is going to require better coordination between state and federal agencies, better therapeutics, and of course not only the development of an effective vaccine, but the infrastructure to distribute it efficiently to the people at the greatest risk of COVID-19.”
As the school nears the end of the fall 2020 semester, officials are reviewing the effectiveness of the methods that have been in place and looking for ways to further improve them. Ensuring the safest possible atmosphere is of paramount importance for everyone at USAO, but especially for those involved in Drover Athletics.
“I am acutely aware of our responsibility to our student athletes because they face a higher level of exposure than pretty much anyone else on campus,” said Feaver. “Whether it is having close contact with people from other cities during games or just the general team spirit itself, I know that the whole culture of college athletics has struggled due to these health guidelines. I want our students to know that they have my utmost support in managing this incredibly disrupted time.”
For many, the rapidity and relative ease at the transition to online classes at USAO came as something of a surprise. The university has rarely offered digital courses in the past, preferring to leverage its small size to appeal to students who value close connections and interrelationships. As COVID-19 hit Oklahoma though, the school had little choice in the matter. Thankfully, by the end of 2019, USAO had completed a major upgrade to its IT infrastructure, greatly enhancing bandwidth capabilities across all campus spaces and focusing on the “internet of things,” or the seamless integration of multiple connected devices.
“To have made this transition overnight, at a school like this which has never done it before, I think is really extraordinary,” said Feaver. “Yes there were glitches here and there, complaints here and there, but we saw no patterns of problems that have been significant. I have to give our faculty so much credit because they have had to surmount a lot of these hurdles with minimal assistance or precedent, and they have done a truly remarkable job.”
While students and faculty alike are eager to get back fully inside the classroom, the close-knit nature of USAO has also helped both sides be more understanding of the stresses and frustrations that everyone is working through. At USAO, the sense that “we’re all in this together” is much more than a platitude, it is part of the educational spirit that drives the institution and encourages outside the box thinking. For his part, President Feaver is listening carefully to the concerns of the faculty as they navigate new ways of educating their students.
“I’ve had separate Zoom meetings with different groups of faculty and staff throughout this whole time in order to understand how they are adapting to this situation and what their needs are,” said Feaver. “As far as teaching goes, I am a child of the podium, so it is hard for me to even imagine operating from the platforms that faculty are now using in terms of the pressure on them to perform. I have no idea whether the techniques of dialogue, discussion and group interaction carry over into the digital world. It bothers me that I don’t have more wisdom to impart to these instructors, all I can do is listen and try to provide the best council that I can.”
Though COVID-19 thrust USAO into the world of online learning rather unexpectedly, there are some clear benefits to students going forward. The university is currently looking at ways to partner with other institutions across the state to expand course offerings and possibly even develop new degree programs. Without compromising the distinct and intimate atmosphere of the small liberal arts college, USAO post-pandemic format will undoubtedly incorporate more digital content.
“We need to elaborate and enrich the diversity of our curriculum by importing courses that we might not be able to offer on campus,” said Feaver. “We also need to leverage our technological capabilities to ensure that our students are graduating from this institution with the tools they need to thrive in the 21st century.”
USAO’s educational model will also focus on teaching students how to effectively navigate the digital world, a skill that will prove evermore crucial for success in the 21st century.
“We have got to understand how to assist students in using digital platforms as a sort of universal library that they can bring to bear on their work on campus and in life, but also how to effectively distinguish between credible information and disinformation. This is going to be a constant feature of the academy going forward and of this institution in particular,” said Feaver. “COVID might have thrust us into this digital realm, but even when the pandemic is over this aspect of the educational experience at USAO is not going away.”
This emphasis on critical thinking, adaptability and interdisciplinarity is of course nothing knew to anyone who has worked or studied at USAO. The college has a long and proud history as a community of scholars who value ideas and input from all sides. As the country emerges from this pandemic and the other major upheavals of the last year, USAO is ready to show the world how the liberal arts mindset can build bridges and lift up everyone in our society.
“As I read about what is going on around the country in terms of higher education and in terms of society at large, I hope that this college’s culture reinforces the belief that we are all a part of a coherent community that values scholarship and inclusion,” said Feaver. “I truly believe that the coronavirus has only further solidified this sense of our history and our community, and not promoted the kind of divisiveness that we’re seeing in other institutions, whether it’s due to the virus, conflicts on the economic front or due to sociocultural disagreements that we have seen growing in society.”