Reopening College Campuses During COVID-19

 

​​​​​​​​​​Part 7: Roslyn Clark Artis, President of Benedict College​

The campus of Benedict College, a private liberal arts HBCU with 2,100 students, has been open for the fall semester since early August. President Roslyn Clark Artis shares why she believes remaining all-online was not an option, how to help students succeed in the current environment, and the dual impact of COVID-19 and the protests for social justice over the past months.


Episode Notes

Here are some of the links and issues discussed on this week’s show:

Transcript

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Sherri Hughes: Thanks for listening to Engage Conversations and this special miniseries focused on leadership and higher education in the midst of COVID-19. I'm your host, Sherri Hughes, and today's dialogue is part seven in our series. And in this episode, we will be unpacking the value proposition of historically black colleges and universities in these uncertain times and talk about how one small private institution in particular has developed a strategic approach to reopening and the leadership challenges that come along with it. I am pleased to welcome in as our guest today, Dr. Roslyn Artis, President of Benedict College, who also happens to serve as a member of the ACE board. Roslyn, welcome to Engage Conversations.

Roslyn Clark Artis: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be with you today. Thanks for having me.

Sherri Hughes: Well, we're really glad to get started. So, I have to ask, Roslyn, I know that we're focusing on reopening, but you had an interesting event last week that brought the 2019-2020 academic year to a close. Can you tell us about that celebration and what it meant to your students?

Roslyn Clark Artis: Absolutely. Benedict celebrated its 2020 socially distant commencement ceremonies last weekend at our football stadium. Our commencement exercises were originally scheduled for May 8th, no different than many colleges and universities across the country. For those who may not be as familiar with Benedict, we are a small, private, historically Black college in Columbia, South Carolina, and the vast majority of my students are first-generation college students. And for those students in particular, commencement holds a special significance. So we were determined to host a commencement ceremony safely. We had the first ever socially distant ceremony. Unfortunately, socially distant meant no families, no parents, no guests. 200 graduates, myself, a speaker and a trustee really were all that were in attendance, but it was a beautiful, beautiful ceremony and I think our students were very pleased.

Sherri Hughes: That just sounds like a wonderful event, making the most of these difficult times. So maybe if you could just start by painting a picture for our listeners of Benedict College, and perhaps a little bit about your background as a leader, so that we can put all of this conversation in context.

Roslyn Clark Artis: Sure. As I indicated, Benedict is a small, private, historically Black college founded 150 years ago, in 1875, years after the Emancipation Proclamation, its primary mission being to educate the descendants of former slaves. We were founded by a woman, Bathsheba Benedict, a Northern missionary who invested $13,000 in the purchase of an 80-acre slave plantation on which we now sit for 150 years. I have the privilege of being the first female president. Even though a female founded the institution, they didn't trust one to run it until just a few short years ago. And so, I'm very, very honored to have that distinction. Our population is a very special one. We're about 2,100 students under normal circumstances, 84 percent of which are Pell dependent, low-wealth students; 74 percent are first-generation college students. And so it's a very high need population, if you will. And so as we have worked through COVID-19 and the challenges posed by COVID-19, those challenges really, in many ways, have been exacerbated by the demographic that we serve. And I think certainly the greatest leadership challenge for all higher education leaders right now is fully understanding and appreciating the nature of their populations, and how best to serve them in this really unique moment that we are living in.

Sherri Hughes: Let's get right into it. At ACE, we talk a lot about access, affordability and student success. And as you mentioned, Benedict College has played a vital role in that effort. So as you welcomed your students back to campus a few weeks ago, how did the needs and the circumstances of those students affect your decisions? And what are some of the unique features of Benedict College and its students that guided you as you made those plans to open this fall?

Roslyn Clark Artis: Yeah, that's really a great question. As I alluded, these decisions really are very unique, institution by institution decisions. As we were contemplating whether and to what extent it was safe for the institution to open this academic year, we considered a number of factors. First and foremost, the specific demographic of our students: low-wealth, first-generation, under-resourced students. That became very clear to us, even more clear than perhaps it already was, right after we evacuated the campus in March. Throughout the summer, we were plagued with challenges and concerns that were articulated by our students. Fully 12 percent of Benedict's student population does not have access to broadband in their home environment. So were we to go entirely online, fully 12 percent of our population would simply be excluded from the education process.

More than that, we really wrestled during the summer with a number of students who had food and housing insecurity issues. We were able to fund a relief fund through our COVID CARES Act dollars, that enabled us to provide food subsidies to students, to help to negotiate short term rents for students, first and last month, things like that. Many of our students, when they were initially evacuated, went to stay with a friend or relative, thinking it to be a very short term situation. When it became clear this would be much longer term, we began receiving calls from students, saying, "I have nowhere to go. I'm homeless." And so, we spent a great deal of the summer working through those food and housing insecurity issues. And then as the summer wore on, certainly we saw the racial unrest unfold in the country with the murder of George Floyd and some of the blow back, if you will, from that. Many of our students unfortunately live in underprivileged communities with high crime rates and a number of other challenges that they face from a socioeconomic status. And so we were concerned that, quite frankly, our campus was a much safer environment for those students. We certainly know, as it relates to COVID-19, the campus was safer. For example, Benedict saw three cases this summer among staff and faculty. We had 13 documented cases among our students who contracted the virus at home. Many of them live in multigenerational households where their parents or family members work in low-wage entry-level service line jobs, where they're fully exposed on a regular basis to COVID-19. So, for a whole host of reasons, myriad reasons, we made the decision that, quite frankly, we couldn't not open. It simply would have not been acceptable for us to not open the campus. And so we made the decision to do so under pretty tough circumstances, and we are open. We're up and running.

I will anticipate your next question in simply saying that, how do you do that? How do you get a campus open, particularly for this vulnerable population? For us, it looked like this: conversations between me and families and parents and students, saying, "If your child is safe, if you have a safe home with access to broadband, I urge you to leave your child, to allow your child to stay at home. Please do not confuse my decision to open the campus with an assessment that it's safe to do so. We are opening for a vulnerable population of students who need to be here, but our preference is that, if your child is safe and healthy and has access to broadband, that they consider matriculating online during this difficult time." We ended up with 964 students whose families believed it best for them to be on the campus at Benedict. So, the puzzle we had to solve is, how do we do that safely? Benedict made the decision to test everyone. We purchased rapid test kits, and we literally moved our Welcome Center off the main campus, over to our football stadium, and required all students to check in there and be tested prior to receiving room assignments, being able to unpack their belongings, get their course schedules and actually populate the campus. Fortunately, or unfortunately, we identified students who were positive for COVID-19. Those students were not allowed, obviously, at that point, to move onto the campus. We had a total of five in that initial population that were contagious positive for COVID-19. And as I reflect on that, you can imagine, asymptomatic positives are our greatest challenge right now. These students did not have a temp. They looked perfectly healthy; young, strapping, 17 to 21-year-olds who were excited about being back at college, who would have been in our dormitories, in our cafeterias, in our classrooms, engaging with other students. Even with PPE and distancing, there is a risk. And so I think by continuously implementing our universal testing protocols, as well as enforcing the face coverings and social distance, we are navigating a very tenuous academic semester, but one that we felt obligated to work through for our students.

Sherri Hughes: That is a very complex problem to solve, so I'm glad that it's at least going well to start with. So, can you maybe talk a little bit about how you've had to modify your academic schedules or modes of teaching, since it sounds like you've got students in all kinds of places, some on campus and some not?

Roslyn Clark Artis: We do. So we spent the summer with our faculty. We allocated dollars towards summer salaries to enable all of our academic faculty to be certified in distance education. We had developed a module, thankfully long before COVID-19, for faculty interested in online or distributed education. And so all faculty were required to be certified over the summer. All of our courses then were uploaded on our platform to be able to be consumed by students at a distance. For those who were on the campus, we designated the first two weeks as online instruction only to give our faculty the opportunity to get comfortable; for them to walk around the campus; observe layout, location, PPE distribution sites, plexiglass; and be able to make modifications. If the faculty were concerned, I'd rather have fewer chairs. I'd rather have higher plexiglass. We wanted them to really own their spaces and feel very comfortable before they had students populating those spaces. And so, we are ending our second week of instruction now. We're a day outside our first two weeks ending. And so on Monday, we will begin in-person instruction. That will be done in a hybrid format. Students will take courses one day a week. So if it's ordinarily a Tuesday, Thursday class, students are divided into Alpha/Bravo teams, and they will either take that class, in-class, on Tuesday or Thursday, matriculating online on the opposite day, so that we can decrease the actual population that's physically present in the classroom, yet still providing some face-to-face instruction. We've also increased, a little bit of a bargain with our faculty, increased the requirement of office hours. That number has increased and a portion of them can be done virtually. And some of them must be done, obviously, one-on-one in specific locations that allow for maximum social distancing, again, installation of plexiglass and those kinds of things, to give our faculty some safety and security. They're our most valuable commodity besides our students, so we want to make sure they're safe.

Sherri Hughes: It's really important to hear you talk about letting people own their own environments and feel comfortable with the space, because there's so much anxiety in this situation, and finding ways to give people some sense of control in those environments is a really important piece. You've talked about a few of these things, but I want to just call attention for our listeners. You know, Benedict has done some really wonderful things and had some real obvious success in creating social and economic mobility for its graduates. And it sounds, from the things that you've said earlier, that that has continued to be sort of forefront for you and your team as you make these decisions. But can you talk a little bit about how the pandemic has made that work even harder, and how you're deploying both human and financial resources to support your students and to ensure their health and their safety and their learning?

Roslyn Clark Artis: Sure. Another great question. Given the fragile nature, if you will, of our student population, we know that the likelihood of their giving up may be greater than for students who do not have the same impediments that they have. And so first order of business for us, after evacuating the campus, was developing a comprehensive engagement strategy for the summer. Sort of the marching order from my office is, we should not be waiting, wondering, and worrying about whether they're going to come back in the fall because they should've never left. We should have been in touch with them consistently throughout the summer. And so, our faculty were wonderful. Our deans and chairs conducted Zoom conversations within the major. Our student activities team had all sorts of listening sessions. I think I got tagged to be a DJ or something one day. I mean, just sort of fun activities and 'how are you?' activities? It was really important for us to send out fun social media messages; "Take a selfie and send it to me. I want to see your face. A college campus isn't a college campus without its students, and I'm lonely here without you." And so we really wanted them to know that we missed them terribly and that we were looking forward to their coming back. So, the engagement was a big piece of that.

The more finite part, the harder part, is resources. Our students, as I indicated, 12 percent didn't have access to broadband. Nearly 34 percent did not have access to a device, even if they had access to a signal. And so things like our laptop deployment program over the summer. We provided emergency aid again for housing and food, but also for technology, childcare, medicine. Lots of needs that our students typically bring to the table. And those things really don't end when they come back to school. And so a number of students who, again, do not own a laptop ... Computer labs are tricky. Computer labs are not a good place right now. They are fertile environments for COVID-19. You know, everybody's little fingers are on the keys and there tend to be in close proximity to those workstations. And so it was important that every student have a laptop. So we developed a laptop deployment program. Students are checking in and receiving those devices now, so that on the off day, when they have to be in their dorm room, they have the ability to have their own device and are not required to go over to a computer lab or to the library to make use of that. So just really trying to think ahead, "What might our students need to be successful?"

Tutoring has been turned on its head, engagement has been turned on its head. Student activities looks a lot different, how we structure those activities. We know that ACE, of course, has been participating in a lot of poll surveying, and 18 to 21-year-olds in general are saying, "We won't do it. We're not going to mask. We're not going to distance. We want to enjoy the college experience." And so, for us, it has been trying to be strategic about tricking them into doing the right thing, creating fun activities. We have a mask contest, we have spirit contests. So if I catch you wearing a particularly cool mask, there may be a gift card to the food court or something of that sort. So, trying to think of ways, fun ways, to really encourage students to comply. Because you can have a great plan, and I think we've seen that across the country, higher education leaders and their teams have done a phenomenal job with planning, but the plan is only as good as the implementation. And so when the students get injected into the system, that plan can go up in smoke very, very quickly. I think the advantage for an institution like Benedict is, my students need to be here. And so their incentive to comply is that, if I have to expel you, I will, to protect the rest of the environment. And I think they kind of know that. So there's an added incentive for those students who are high need and really need to be on the campus [inaudible].

Sherri Hughes: As you keep doing this experiment, what are the things that keep you up at night? What makes you anxious as you think forward to the rest of the semester?

Roslyn Clark Artis: I think the thing I worry most about, at least now, we're three weeks in, our students moved in the week of the 3rd, they started classes the week of the 10th, and we're seeing exactly what we predicted: students are coming back to us with traumas, having experienced traumas. We have a tremendously underserved, underrepresented population in the first place, that come from environments that make it particularly difficult for them to stay motivated, for them to stay engaged, for them to be encouraged. And when you add to that, the displacement from the campus ...We evacuated them in a matter of days, and so this place they called home, much more so perhaps than their own homes, we kind of sent them away and they weren't sure if they were going to be able to come back. And when they came back, it was under different circumstances. Again, the racial unrest in the country has made that even more difficult. Helping them unpack their feelings about what's happening in our greater world has been a challenge for us. And so, we know that our students come to us carrying all of this baggage. And so how do we effectively engage them? Certainly, Zoom is wonderful, but human contact is wonderful-er, and I know the right word and that's not it, but it really kind of makes the point, right? Our students need us desperately. They need human interaction. They need us to say, "I love you. I care about you. I'm pulling for you. I'm praying for you. We're here for you." And it's sometimes tough to convey that level of either empathy or commitment or love or support electronically. And so, we're trying to be as strategic and creative as we can.

And for those who need a little more, the deployment of mental health services is a challenge for an institution like Benedict that really does not have a very significant health services footprint. You know, we have a nurse and a counselor. The reality is, we find need of much more so often for our students. We lost a student to gun violence three weeks ago. You know, that's been a very difficult thing to swallow. Had we been operating under normal circumstances, he was a rising senior football player, had this been a normal academic year, he would have already been in pre-season training, he would have already been living on the campus. He would not have been wherever he was and would probably still be with us today. Students were friends with him, the football team played ball with him. They needed grief counseling. And so how do we distribute that? Via Zoom, but how do we engage those young people and help them unpack those feelings? And so, while that's an extreme circumstance, unfortunately, it is not a rarity in the communities that we serve. And so we really have to find creative ways to help our kids heal sometimes from the things that happened to them alone .

Sherri Hughes: Yeah. Those are some really long-term difficult issues that make it really hard for students to learn and to be in community.

Roslyn Clark Artis: I crave the simplicity of the good old days when I grew up and the important challenge was whether you had breakfast, right? Kids who haven't had a good breakfast can't learn. Well, now we think about, you know, kids who live in areas where gun violence is normal or drug abuse is normal, where poverty and hunger is normal, how do they learn? How do they learn? And that applies not just to K-12, but certainly for college students who may have had a lifetime of traumas, adverse childhood experiences that they bring with them to college. And so I think, we really have to dig into the literature and be creative and innovative in finding ways to, again, show empathy and provide care and support for students.

Sherri Hughes: And now that students are back, are you finding that they're also apprehensive about being away from home, or being away from their families or people that they care about, and worrying about what's going on in those communities?

Roslyn Clark Artis: You know, I have seen that less. To be quite frank, what I see is relief on the faces of those young people. What I see is, "I really missed you and I'm so glad you opened." I, like half of America, go to Chick-fil-A a couple of times a week. I had a young student who worked at Chick-fil-A, and who slept in her car in the parking lot at Chick-fil-A all summer, who asked me every time I went to Chick-fil-A, "Doc, are we still opening? Doc, are we still opening?" For her, we're open. For her, we had to open. So I see relief, I see gratitude, I see appreciation. And I see commitment to follow the rules, at least so far. I know they're human and I know that, after dark, it may look a little different. We're trying to police that very carefully. But my interactions with students at this point have been incredibly positive.

Sherri Hughes: So as we wrap these podcasts up, we always try to ask at least one question of every guest, and that is, what are the key observations and lessons learned that you might want to share with other leaders about the work that you're having to do and the way that you approach things in this challenging time?

Roslyn Clark Artis: I think for many higher education leaders, like in any field or discipline, we occasionally become complacent. I thought I had a pretty good handle on my population. I am very clear about the kinds of institutions I've worked for and led. I'm clear about the kinds of students that I'm committed to educating. But I think I forgot just how much they need us and just how much their lives are impacted for the better because they have an opportunity to come here. And so, through the course of the evacuation and the intense interaction over the summer, I was reminded that I'm very fortunate to be able to do this work. I was reminded how much our students need and appreciate it. I shared with my faculty and staff when they came back, in kind of my opening address, "Let us show grace this year. Let us commit to show grace. They are not angry with you. They are angry with COVID." We have to give each other a little bit of grace right now. This is an incredibly challenging time. And the truth is, I have been absolved of my presidency. So for other presidents out there who may be feeling as though you've lost your authority, I share that with you. I've been in a deep state of depression. I am not running Benedict College. COVID-19 runs Benedict College. I work for her. And so understanding and appreciating that, sometimes, these things are beyond our control, but that we will get through it. We are smart, we are committed, we are engaged, and this work is important. And so I think, as long as we keep those things as our sort of polar stars, we'll get through this, we'll get through it.

Sherri Hughes: Well, thank you. You've given us so much to think about and so much to be grateful for. And I know that your students are obviously benefiting from the hard work that you and your team are doing, and the creativity that you've put into it. So it's been really inspiring.

So, just to remind our listeners, there are a couple of things I heard you say several times that are consistent with some of the things we've heard from our other guests. You've talked about the importance of communication and outreach; not waiting for them to call you, but for you to be there-

Roslyn Clark Artis: Right. Intrusive.

Sherri Hughes: Intrusive, that's a great way to put it. And that you have to sort of recognize that the communication tools that we have are still less than what you really need in person and the power of that in-person interaction. I love your, "Let us show grace", both to your students and to each other, because this is a really challenging time for many, many people. And then, I just loved your conversations about creative solutions. You obviously have generated some really creative ideas to face some of these challenges, from your commencement to the mask contest. I'd love to see those. That's really great.

Roslyn Clark Artis: It’s pretty awesome.

Sherri Hughes: That's great. So this has really been a wonderful conversation, and Dr. Artis, I want to thank you for your time today. It's been a pleasure visiting with you, and we are so grateful for the work that you are doing at Benedict and in the larger sphere of higher education.

Roslyn Clark Artis: Well, I appreciate you.

Sherri Hughes: Well, it is just great to have you with us. And so that concludes this special rapid response episode of ACE Engage Conversations. You can listen to the other podcasts in the series at acenet.edu\conversations. And register on our Engage platform to listen to previous episodes of Engage Conversations and more, including plenty of content on COVID-19, at engage.acenet.edu. So thanks again for your 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 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 www.engage.acenet.edu to listen to past episodes.

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This podcast series is generously supported by Jenzabar.


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