Reopening College Campuses During COVID-19


Part 3: North Carolina State University Chancellor Randy Woodson

Randy Woodson talks with hosts Philip Rogers and Sherri Hughes about protecting the health and safety of the "Pack"—the top priority for NC State as it moves into the fall semester. Among his advice for fellow higher ed leaders: use your institution's values to guide your actions, make the best decisions you can at the time, then pivot when needed. (Recorded July 16, 2020)

Episode Notes

Overcoming COVID-19
How NC State is planning to reactivate its campus in the months ahead


 Read this episode's transcript

Philip Rogers: You're listening to ACE Engage Conversations, and this is a rapid response episode focused on leadership in higher education in the midst of COVID-19. I'm your host, Phillip Rogers, and today's conversation is part three in a series of episodes about how institutions are navigating the recovery and the reopening process at higher ed institutions as a result of the health pandemic that's creating so much uncertainty in all of our work. Specifically, we'll be unpacking what leaders have planned, what they're learning from those plans and those experiments, and how they're adapting in real time to the emerging issues of the crisis. And I want to welcome in my cohost for this series, Sherri Hughes, who's the Assistant Vice President for Professional Learning at ACE, and Sherri, glad to have you with us today. And I know you'll agree that this has certainly been an incredibly informative series for us with leaders around the country, and I know today's dialogue will absolutely be no different.

Sherri Hughes: Yeah. Phillip, you're so right. These conversations have revealed so much about the challenges our leaders are facing, and the amazing talent and resilience that they're bringing to the table. So I'm really looking forward to today's conversation.

Philip Rogers: Well, let's get right to it. And I'm pleased to welcome in as our guest today, Dr. Randy Woodson, who is the Chancellor at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, North Carolina. Chancellor, welcome to Engage Conversations.

Randy Woodson: Thank you, Philip, Sherri, it's good to be with you both.

Philip Rogers: Well, in a moment of full disclosure, Randy, I'm actually about 90 miles down the road from you today, as opposed to being in my usual home base of the DC Metro area. I'm in Greenville, North Carolina. So if I'd planned a little bit better, we could have just come together in person because I always love being on your campus.

Randy Woodson: Yeah, but we would have had to wear a mask and it would have been awkward. So we'll do it by Zoom regardless of where you are.

Philip Rogers: Here we go.

Randy Woodson: But I'm glad to have you in North Carolina.

Philip Rogers: It's good to be back and see the good state that I lived in for a long time. And we're glad to have you join us. And before we move into the heart of our dialogue, I'd love to ask you to share a little bit about your institution at NC State, and how you fit within the University of North Carolina system. Just to give our listeners a little bit of context around the conversation.

Randy Woodson: Sure Phillip, I'll be quick. North Carolina State University is the largest public university in the state of North Carolina. We're the land grant university for North Carolina. So we have a long history and disciplines of agriculture and engineering, and some unique disciplines that are really associated with the history of North Carolina. For example, we have a college of textiles at NC State. About 36,000 students, 25,000 undergraduate, about 11,000 graduate students. So a large campus and a very diverse of disciplines. We don't have a human medical school. We do have one of the nation's leading veterinary medicine colleges, and we're in Raleigh, North Carolina, the state's capital. So it's a very vibrant urban campus and in an urban setting, at least when we have 35,000 students on our campus.

Philip Rogers: Well, life on a campus with 35,000 students is a challenge day in and day out in normal times. In a time of crisis, it's an even greater challenge. So how are you holding up as a leader? How is your leadership team holding up? Something tells me that your email inbox is likely in an unprecedented place, too.

Randy Woodson: Well. It has been an unprecedented challenge. And I keep reminding myself and my team, we are in a global pandemic and it's been a long time since our nation has experienced a challenge like is before us now, but we're holding up very well. It's been really interesting to see the leadership team come together, both here at NC State and within the broader university system of North Carolina, because the challenges are so complex that we need the assistance of our public health officials. And we're trying to work our way through this, but there's no question that this is unchartered territory, and we know how important it is to try to get this right, but the goalpost keeps moving. Here in North Carolina, we're in a period of continued growth of infections, hospitalization is at an all time high, so we thought, when we started planning in the spring for the fall semester, that the models had us in a different place at this point in time. So that's created more uncertainty associated with what we're trying to accomplish, but the team is functioning very well. We've learned a lot about how to interact using Zoom and other video conferencing technologies. And I was just looking at the data this morning, Philip, and our faculty, I've never seen them as productive as they've been in terms of...we've submitted almost a 50% increase in grant proposals coming out of the university, which tells me that when faculty have had more time, as a result of COVID-19, they put that time to amazing use. So we're busy.

Philip Rogers: Well, Sherri is a former provost, and so you're speaking her language right now, talking about faculty productivity. And I think you're also speaking both of our languages as you think about aspiring higher education leaders, who are trying to take away some good lessons learned for how to move an institution and a leadership team forward in the midst of a crisis. And I know you've been literally in the midst, on the ground, of planning what the fall will look like, and would love for you to talk with us and explain for our listeners, how are you thinking about the fall semester and maybe most importantly, what institutional values did you take into consideration when you were designing your approach for the fall?

Randy Woodson: Well, we started, and this really started as you know, Philip, in the spring when we all had to pivot so quickly during the early stage of the pandemic to online. And we immediately began thinking about how to be prepared for the fall semester. And you made a very important point about values. As a land grant institution, and institution with a large number of hands-on disciplines, engineering is a great example, agriculture, and the fields that we teach at NC State, we've always placed a very high value on the student experience. What a student gets from being in a large residential community, their interaction with one another, how much they learn from one another, and their interactions with scholars.

So we began this period of planning by reminding ourselves how important it is to give students an on-campus experience, but knowing full well that it was going to be different. And so we launched into it in the early part of the summer by asking our faculty to be prepared for the potential pivot that might have to occur, where we had to shift again to largely online instruction. And we wanted our faculty to be prepared for that. And remember, this was happening in the spring when the vast majority of our faculty were getting ready to leave for the summer. And the majority of our faculty are on nine month appointments where they have summer leave and they're involved in research and other activities. So we wanted to capture their attention before that occurred. And we asked them all to think over the summer about being prepared for if we have to pivot to full online instruction. But in the process of doing that, we also made it clear that our goal was to provide as much face-to-face instruction as the pandemic allowed, because we know how important that is. I was talking to a parent this morning whose son is coming to NC State to study nuclear engineering. It's a bit hard to interact with a nuclear reactor over the internet. You can simulate a lot, but at the end of the day, experiencing that field in a hands-on way we know is critically important.

So we started with the values that we've always had for what it means to get an NC State education, but at the top of the value food chain, or the value list, is the health and safety of our community. And we knew that we couldn't sacrifice, we couldn't do anything that would put our faculty, and our students, and our staff in harm's way. And so we've spent a lot of time thinking about what does social distancing mean for an in-person educational experience? We've used the CDC as a guidance for that. We started with a six foot space that each student would occupy. And we looked at a lot of our large lecture hall format classes and said that those needed to be delivered in hybrid fashion, some online, some in-person, so that we could reduce the density on campus, but when we really started looking at what does it mean to have six feet of social distance around the student, we realized it was almost physically impossible in many of our classes. We set it as a goal and we've achieved it in many classroom settings, but we've come down to realizing that if we can get between four and six feet of social distancing in a classroom setting, then that would be a good compromise.

The other critical decision we made, and we did this as a system, is all students, and faculty, and staff on campus will be required to wear face coverings in classrooms, in all campus buildings, and even outdoors when they can't be assured of being socially distant. So that was a critical decision. The other step we made early on, which in hindsight has been a little bit of a challenge is, we moved the calendar up. So we started 10 days early. We're starting August 10th so that we could finish the semester by Thanksgiving and allow a lot of our students from all over the country, and around the world, to have a longer winter break, and not travel to and from campus over Thanksgiving. So we eliminated fall break. I got a few emails about that, Philip, but in exchange for that we gave all of our students an extended winter holiday. The reason I said in hindsight that's a bit of a challenge is that, obviously, we're not where we thought we would be with the virus, but we don't know where it's going, so we've not made adjustments to the calendar. So those are a few examples of using our values to guide our decisions, and then making the best decisions we could at the time and pivoting when we need to.

Sherri Hughes: So, Randy, we've talked a lot about, as you've tried to navigate how to find ways to do the work of the university, sort of holistically in these challenging times, can you talk about what you've learned from some of the experiments that you've run with research labs, with athletes, with smaller groups of students or faculty who were back on campus?

Randy Woodson: Yeah, well, we have learned a lot, and we are a research institution, so I'll use your language and say that it has been an informative exercise. So let me be more clear about what I'm saying is, one of the first things that we did was to reactivate research. And I'll give you some examples. I mentioned that we're a big ag school. Well, when you do agriculture research, the summer season is a very important season, and the spring planting season to get your research into the field is critically important. So research, in many areas of the university, were some of the first things that we had to reopen, and we had to do it safely. And we learned a lot from that. And I'll tell you what we learned. Researchers actually get it. We haven't had a single case of community spread as a result of reactivating research. And we have over 400 laboratories across our campus that have been active now for almost two months with people in the lab, doing research, wearing face covering, and wearing protective shields and gloves, and all the things that they would normally do in a high intensity research lab. So that was the first experiment. And in fact, it's gone so well we've actually already gone to phase three of research, and are bringing back more people into the research experience.

The other experiment that we've run is athletics. And all of us that have the joy of being chancellors or presidents of universities with division one athletics know how important this is to our campus, to our alumni, and to our students. And so we started to bring back student athletes so that they could get the critical workouts in. And this is all voluntary. As you know, they're not allowed during the summer, to have formal practice, but they can have informal supervised training. And we began to reactivate athletics in, I would say mid June to late June, but really in earnest in early July. And today, knock on wood, as of yesterday, out of 430 athletes, and coaches, and staff that have been tested we've had five positive cases. And they've been quarantined, and we've tried to do contact tracing to make sure we know...but you've read the stories across the country. And you're in Greenville, Philip, so our friends at ECU have had a recent challenge and they've had to shut down voluntary workout workouts because of infection.

So to be clear, we can have all of the protective rules in place in our facilities. We can keep them clean, we can limit the number, we can limit the interaction, but these are young people and we have them 90 minutes out of the day and the rest of the day is theirs. And so that's where we're seeing some challenges, and those will continue in other areas of the university. We just have to have good contact tracing, and we do. What we're most worried about, honestly, is testing. And if you're reading the stories across the country, we're in a very difficult time right now, because of the growth in the virus in part, particularly in the Southwest, and the supply chain for testing has resulted in a significant delay of results. And for any of this to work, and for the contact tracing, and the quarantining, and the things that we need to do to limit the community spread, we've just got to get that problem solved across our country to improve the turnaround for testing.

Philip Rogers: Well, this situation certainly takes the term, or the phrase, agile university administration strategies to a whole different level, because I know you're having to pivot in and out of whatever comes your way, whether it's testing, or adapting the academic calendar, or thinking about hybrid online versus in-person courses. And we all know there's just so many university constituencies that it's impossible to please everyone with your planning. And I'm curious, how have your faculty, how have your staff, your students reacted, parents, community members to the approach you're thinking about here?

Randy Woodson: You know, I think that the greatest challenge in this time for all of us, and this is true for anyone that is living through this, is the uncertainty creates a lot of concern. And we've tried to be clear in our communications. You go onto our websites, they're constantly updated. We have frequently asked questions, and we've had town halls, and all of the things that we all try to do in higher education to keep our constituents informed, but it is very clear to me that there's a lot of concern. And it's justifiable. People are worried about their health, they're worried about their family.

Yesterday, the governor in our state announced a path forward for K-12, and here in the local school system we're going to have a hybrid model for K-12 that has young people in the classroom for a week, and then at home for a couple of weeks online. And of course, a lot of our faculty and staff are parents, and that creates a challenge for them. So we've got to continue to be thoughtful about the people that call NC State home, that work for us, that build their careers here, and put their health and safety first and foremost. But you point out that we have multiple constituencies, and on the other side of this spectrum, I have students and parents that can't wait to get back. Parents that have dreamed about their kid's freshmen experience, because theirs was so special, that want the university to be normal and want everything to be in place. And it's not going to be. It's not going to be the same.

So I'll give you a sense, and this is a statistic that blows me away. When we set up our student housing, we set aside, we have 10,000 beds in student housing, and we have a required first-year freshmen residential requirement that we've been much more lenient on this year, for obvious reasons. And we set aside rooms for quarantine. So we've reduced our student housing from 10,000 to about 9,000 by offering students more single rooms than we would normally have, for those that are concerned about having a roommate, and having rooms available in the event that we need to provide quarantine. And when those 9,000 students sent their deposits in for NC State, 31 asked for a single room. So they are excited to be coming back. And the RAs are already here because they're going to start moving in the last week of July, an extended move in period. And the RAs are training and making sure that they're socially distant. They're wearing face coverings when they're outside of their rooms, and all of those things. So we've got the students that want a full normal university experience, the parents that are a little concerned, and then the faculty and staff that are very concerned.

Sherri Hughes: You've outlined so many of the things that you've had to take into account, and you mentioned a few minutes ago, the power of the freshmen experience, and that so many students and their families are looking forward to that. And so can you talk a little bit about how you're going to plan to cultivate engagement and community among that group of students knowing that many of their classes will be online, and they might be in single rooms, and those kinds of things?

Randy Woodson: Well, let me just start with, I am worried about that. And just to be perfectly honest, and remember this as a group of freshmen that lived through this last spring. Their senior year was interrupted by COVID-19. Many of them did not have a great experience with the end of their high school time online. And so they're coming to us with all the anxiety associated with that experience. I'll give you a couple of examples. Normally the first thing that we would do with our freshmen, we have something we call Wolfpack Welcome Week. And it's all the orientation things that you try to help your students understand about their responsibilities and about campus life, and it concludes at the end of the week with something that we call Packapalooza, and it's a street party, and literally it's 20 to 25,000 people with a concert at night. And it's just a wonderful community event.

Philip Rogers: I've seen you play the guitar at that street party before.

Randy Woodson: Well, I occasionally do that. Yeah. And that all can't happen. We can't do that. Our convocation, where we bring 5,000 freshmen and 1,500 transfer students together to have a meaningful educational... To get their minds right for the academy and get them excited about the scholarship that is higher education. Well, that can't happen. At least not in-person. And in fact, I recorded a video for that this morning for the virtual convocation. What we are doing though, is we're trying to get all of the advisors, the RAs, all of the people that are student-facing, that interact with our freshman, to be thoughtful about small group experiences to try to help our students. We're desperate to keep open our student service centers, our tutoring centers, and we're opening this summer. We just spent a lot of money to build a student engagement center in our D. H. Hill library, one of our big libraries on campus. And it's gorgeous. It's an interactive facility. And so our students need that experience and we've got to do it safely.

We learned something. I think all of higher education learned something last spring, at least the residential universities like ours, is when you have to shut down and go online, and you have to send your students away from your infrastructure, they lose the level playing field that is the college campus. They lose the library, they lose all of these centers that provide support to them. And they go wherever they had to go, where they're in a house with parents that are home from work, with siblings that may be in school that are trying to learn online with limited internet access. And one of the things that we came away from that experience saying is, we've got to protect, at not at all costs, it can't be at human health, but we have got to try to keep this campus open for the benefit of the almost 26,000 students that don't live on campus, but live in Raleigh, and have signed leases on apartments, and are going to be here. And we need to help them.

Philip Rogers: That had to drive some of your thinking around how to strike the right balance between in-person, between hybrid, between online courses, especially knowing that this is a community institution, as you said, where you have students who've already signed leases, who were both living in the dorm. Some who may not be able to travel for various reasons.

Randy Woodson: Right. And I think that, when you've been in this business and you're as gray as I am, it's hard to give up on the notion that a community of scholars interacting with one another is a really valuable way to learn. And I know that we've got to do it differently, and we are doing it differently, but I also know that the students that are least prepared to be successful in a full online experience are the ones just starting at our university.

Philip Rogers: I want to raise it up a level here. We've talked a lot about the tactics and strategies you've been using to reopen the campus, and the reactions from campus constituencies. And as you think about higher education, as you think about the future of this pandemic, what's keeping you awake at night as more of a major institution of higher education?

Randy Woodson: Yeah. I think what keeps me up at night is the uncertainty and the fact that so many people that I care about and rely on to be successful as a university are very concerned. And I'm specifically talking about faculty and staff. And so what keeps me up at night, and keeps me focused on trying to do the right thing, is knowing that there's just a lot of uncertainty, and a lot of concern about...The last thing we want is for the university to become the community spreader. And it's a little different for us, Philip. You know our state well, and we're in an urban setting, and many of our students are already here living in our community. If you compare that to, let's say a campus like Appalachian State, or my good colleagues at Virginia Tech, where it's a big university in a smaller community, you have to be concerned about, are you doing everything you can to protect the community? And so those are some of the things that keep me up.

Philip Rogers: Hopefully not-

Randy Woodson: And then the two dogs that seem to think that they have a place between my wife and me in bed. And they, occasionally, are a problem. I know you wanted to elevate it. I'm sorry.

Philip Rogers: This gets personal. So we want to keep it... That's good. Let's keep it going.

Sherri Hughes: That's terrific.

Philip Rogers: Sherri, up to you.

Sherri Hughes: All right. Well, Randy, we are coming to the end of our time together, but we have one question that we try to ask all of our guests. And that is, what advice or takeaways do you have for aspiring leaders or others, who are facing the kinds of tough decisions that you are due to the pandemic and its effect? What would you say to them?

Randy Woodson: Yeah. I think the most critical thing that I've learned in these kinds of crisis situations is that you can't over communicate. You've got a lot of constituents that feel anxiety, that need to hear from the leaders of the university. So it's difficult to over communicate, and you know what? You're going to make mistakes. And you've got to be in a position to pivot, to change, to react to changing circumstances. And you can't, at least my experience with this is, you can't let uncertainty and ambiguity prevent you from making critical decisions, because the institution needs to be prepared. And to be prepared you have to make decisions. And it seems like we're making a lot. And we've corrected some, and we've changed some. So communicate. And that communication comes with both listening and speaking. So that's my limited advice. The other thing, it's interesting, because... And I'll conclude my comments with this, is that I was talking to a lot of our deans in the last day or so. And I said, "I know how all consuming this is. Everything we're doing is focused on COVID-19, how to be prepared, but let's not forget that with this, we have opportunities for the future." And we can't lose sight of, what are we going to be doing five years from now? And how can we be better prepared to be successful at that? So, we've got to keep thinking about the future too.

Philip Rogers: Well, this has certainly been a fun conversation. And I want to wrap up by hitting a few of the top themes that you mentioned throughout the dialogue.

Randy Woodson: Sure.

Philip Rogers: Number one, I think on all of our lists is, top of the chain is the health and safety of your students and your faculty and your staff and your community, and doing everything possible in your reopening strategy to protect that community from the challenges that we're facing. Number two, I heard you say that using your values to guide your decisions is vital in this environment. Number three was placing an intense focus on the student experience was a top-of-mind decision driver for you. And I have the nuclear reactor front and center in my mind from the student and the faculty experience. You can't over communicate, you will make mistakes, and you can't let ambiguity get in the way of making tough decisions. And then finally, I think this is thoughtful and important is, that we just can't lose sight of the future and what higher education is about. And we have to be strategic about being agile and being able to pivot in the moment so that we can serve the students in a way that we intend to serve them in the days and weeks and months ahead. And I want to thank you for your time with us today, and for your leadership in higher education, and for your candor in these tough times.

Randy Woodson: Thanks. Thanks, Philip, thanks Sherri. It's been good to be with you. Thanks for all you're doing, too. It's helpful for the community.

Philip Rogers: Well, it's been great to contribute in some way. And this concludes this special rapid response episode of ACE Engaged Conversations. You can listen to the other podcasts in this series at, and you can register on our Engage platform to listen to previous episodes of Engaged Conversations and more, including plenty of content on COVID-19 at I want to thank everyone again for their time, and we look forward to bringing you more interesting conversations on the Engage platform to help you learn and lead in the flow of your work.

About the Podcast

A short podcast series from ACE focused on reopening college campuses this fall as COVID-19 cases continue to surge in many regions of the country. Hosts Philip Rogers and Sherri Hughes talk with college presidents and chancellors and other members of the higher education community about how to ensure campuses are safe and workable for students—and when to make the decision to remain all-online. They unpack monitoring, testing, tracing, cleaning, teaching and learning, responding to the needs of faculty and staff, intercollegiate athletics—and the all-important question of how you get students to social distance in dorms, at parties, and everywhere they go. 

Part of ACE Engage Conversations. Sign up at to listen to past episodes.


This podcast series is generously supported by Jenzabar.

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