Covid ‘helping to cure campus compassion deficit’

With students stressed, academics see overriding value of showing more humanity

November 3, 2020
Woman holding man's hand providing support/kindness
Source: iStock

As US universities work hard to implement remote teaching during the pandemic, the most successful of them may be those that emphasise new levels of compassion, several institutional leaders are concluding.

Human stresses must get priority attention amid the work of online integration and safe in-person operations, leading administrators told the Times Higher Education Leadership & Management Summit.

That, said Thuy Thi Nguyen, president of Foothill College in California, means steps such as teaching academics to be mindful of their overall manner in talking to their students and handling issues such as assignment deadlines.

“I often tell our college: do not let perfection get in the way of progress,” Ms Nguyen told the THE summit in a THE Campus session designed to share best practices in university leadership during the rapid shift to online education.

Staff also deserve kindness, said Susan McCahan, vice-provost of academic programmes at the University of Toronto, which has created new meet-up opportunities for its teaching staff and found them growing more supportive of each other during the Covid crisis.

Cultivating compassion, added Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland Baltimore County, also means helping staff and students recognise that being in college often means enjoying a better situation than that faced by many others in society these days.

Just as online skills developed during Covid are durable, the exercise of compassion and appreciation should bring the institutions long-term benefit beyond the pandemic, Dr Hrabowski said.

“The role of leadership is to encourage people, and to say we can be better than we are,” Dr Hrabowski said. “That means helping each other with their emotional psychological state of being in this challenging time.”

Their advice follows months of indications that students and others working in academia are among the groups hardest hit by the mental and economic toll of the global coronavirus spread.

A national survey of US university presidents issued this autumn by the American Council on Education identified student mental health as their top concern. Other studies and surveys are showing record levels of depression and anxiety among college students, and surges in demand for campus counselling services, with the need greatest among lower-income and minority students.

Many US institutions are facing lawsuits and protests from students who feel that they should pay less money for an online experience during the pandemic. UMBC, Dr Hrabowski said, has made particular efforts to explain its costs to students and their families, and to show flexibility to those who cannot afford a full class load at the moment.

Toronto, Professor McCahan said, is among institutions that have created emergency funds to help its needier students with added costs, such as buying the computer equipment needed to work online.

Both are among a number of institutions that have prioritised their limited on-campus housing and study spaces for those with the greatest need for them.

Universities often think of themselves as compassionate places, but do not always realise the degree of intentional design it requires, said Douglas Becker, the founder of Cintana, a company that works to coordinate degree programmes across multiple institutions.

That shortfall can be seen in commonplace situations such as telephone service lines that leave students struggling to find a human on the other end, Mr Becker said.

Universities should be striving to “make your institution a little bit more like what you want yourself and your people to be”, he said. “We can almost always do a little better.”

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

University faculty, staff and leaders can find curated resources and share their expertise about online teaching and learning on THE Campus.

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