College Culture and COVID-19 Response

by Steve Robinson
Owens Community College
Perrysburg, OH

[Editor’s Note: This article first appeared on the Owens Community College (Ohio) website. It is reprinted with permission.]

A reporter from a national higher education magazine just asked me what the climate was like on our campus now that we are two days into our COVID-19 response as a college. I was able to share my personal perspective, which is one of gratitude for the amazing work being done by faculty and staff as we consider the needs of our students and community.

I have seen many people over the past 48 hours, but not in the same ways I normally do. Our leadership team has been busy, and we are not holding large events: spaces where I often get to interact with our Owens community. I also told the reporter that our people have been incredibly understanding and flexible. I am so thankful for and impressed by this.

Twitter has become an active and important part of the way I stay connected, nationally regionally and even here on campus. Last night, I posted a series of tweets inspired by things we are learning and working on here at Owens Community College. The tweets are also reflective of the great ideas I have heard from colleagues across the country. My tweet made five points, and I thought I would expand on those five in a blog entry.

Five Things to Keep in Mind

Our efforts to move Owens through the COVID-19 response with the least disruption to our mission of student and community success will be a long-term effort. I am concerned about the levels of stress, anxiety and burnout among members of our teams. I am also concerned about our students. These five points are a distillation of things that are currently on my mind about this concern. I shared them on Twitter, and folks within higher ed seem to think they are helpful; I have slightly expanded the text of each thought because I don’t have the character limit present on Twitter:

1) Equity and student impact. Our college responses to COVID-19 will not impact all students in the same way. Like many other colleges, our faculty and staff are deeply exploring equity in student outcomes; we know that all of our students do not benefit at the same rate or respond in the same way to college programs and services. We have gaps that need to be studied and closed.

This will be equally true (perhaps increasingly true) of our efforts to operate during this disruption. Apply what you know about equity to strategies and plans. If your equity efforts are lagging, research what other colleges are doing. Not all students are coming from the same place. You know this.

2) Stress and well-being. I am very concerned about how the stress and anxiety of this new reality will impact our Owens people. I let the rest of the higher education community know: Team members at your college will experience this stress differently. It is taxing on mental health, physical and social well-being. Watch each other. Take breaks. Ask how folks are doing. This stuff is hard on people. Be human and help when you can.

3) Patience/flexibility. We all came to the realization that COVID-19 would be a big disruption to our college on different timetables. Some people may have been actively dismissive or grumpy about our initial bold moves to respond. Cut everyone slack, especially the people who complain, are rude, or don’t want to listen and learn. This thing is getting real fast, and they will come around. Don’t take it personally when students and employees vent. Teach them what you know about the now and the future. We all need to exercise patience and flexibility.

4) Social “first responders.” I’m not sure if “social first responders” is a real term, but it is now.I am talking to our colleagues who read and respond to social media posts, angry e-mails, complaint visits and cranky phone calls. Pay special attention to the folks who have to deal with social media, phone calls, and responding to traditional media. Many are trained to not to take this personally, but that only lasts so long. They need your care. And help. And breaks.

5) State leadership. The leaders in your state are doing the best they can. Personally, I am blown away by the seriousness, responsiveness, and clarity displayed by Gov. Mike DeWine and OhioHigher Education Chancellor Randy Gardner. From my perspective, their quick, decisive action and effective communication made all the difference in the world this week. Their leadership will save lives. Tell your leaders you appreciate them and let them know how they can help.

John Hetts, an IR professional in the California community college system added the following: “Take moments to love those you love and savor the experiences you savor.” I love that. So true. Leave it to an institutional researcher to suggest we savor and love experiences and people. Love it!

Doreen Larson, president of Ohio’s Edison State Community College, added another good piece of advice to my Twitter post: “Despite all our effort and thoughtfulness, we are bound to just get some stuff wrong, and so we will learn.”

In the coming days and weeks, I intend to pay special attention to these and other issues as our campus community mounts a long-term effort to promote student and community success under difficult conditions. Please accept my thanks for all you are doing for Owens.

Steve Robinson, Ph.D., is president of Owens Community College in Perrysburg, Ohio, and the NCMPR 2019 Pacesetter of the Year.

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