Reopening College Campuses During COVID-19


​Part 9: ACE President Ted Mitchell

​​​​​Ted Mitchell joins hosts Philip Rogers and Sherri Hughes to wrap up the series, summarizing what they've heard from their guests and other higher education leaders and looking at the changes they've seen in reopening strategies and outcomes over the past three months. The fall 2020 semester has taken on many different forms depending on the context of the institution, and one thing all Engage Conversations guests have made clear is that when it comes to the mode of education delivery during COVID-19, one size does not fit all. Mitchell and the hosts discuss the challenges to leadership and decision-making structures, the importance of looking at who your students are and how to help them succeed, the need to protect and advance the gains in equity and access over the past 20 years in the midst of this crisis, and more.


 Read this episode's transcript

Philip Rogers: Support for this podcast series comes from Jenzabar who for over 30 years has been working with higher education leaders on over 1,350 campuses to provide creative enrollment and digital transformation solutions. Jenzabar, the smart choice for higher education.

You're listening to Engage Conversations. And this is the final episode in our mini-series, focused on leadership and higher education in the midst of COVID-19. I'm your host, Phillip Rogers, and today's dialogue will be an important opportunity to wrap up all we've been talking about over the last three months with college presidents, with chancellors and others in the higher education community who are working to keep our students, and our faculty and other stakeholders safe and healthy, not to mention the expectation of also offering a high quality educational experience. And we've heard in this series that reopening has taken on many, many different forms, depending on the context of the particular institution.

We've seen some that have launched online. We've seen others in person and still we've seen others that have taken on this hybrid approach. So we want to spend some time today reflecting on those decisions and what we've been hearing on the ground from leaders across the country, and especially talk about how things have changed since the first episode we recorded back in June and things have definitely changed since the early summer. Sherri Hughes and I have been on this ride together as co-hosts over the last few months and Sherri, I think it's been fascinating to, to really feel like we've been in the situation room in some respects on these campuses, as leaders are wrestling with these decisions, and I could at least feel the pressure and the stress and the intensity in their voices.

Sherri Hughes: It was really, it was amazing to be part of this and there was so much resilience, but so much sort of chaos and surprise. It was really interesting to be part of this and sometimes very sobering as well as inspiring.

Philip Rogers: Well yeah, I think you're right. And this final episode is a special one I think for both of us, because our guest is ACE's own president, Ted Mitchell. So Ted, welcome to your debut on Engaged Conversations.

Ted Mitchell: Thank you, Philip. Thank you, Sherri. Great to see you both. And it's been great to be in the middle of this with you.

Philip Rogers: Well, we're glad to have you in the middle of it, in even a more intentional way today. And I think your perspective is really a fascinating one, because your background in higher education just might be more diverse than anyone we've spoken to thus far. And as I reflect back on the first all staff meeting we had at ACE, when we brought you in as president, I had the pleasure of introducing you. And I remember telling the staff about your roles in public higher education, your time as the president of a private institution, a faculty member, a board member, federal policy maker, parent of a college student, spouse of a professor. We could just go on forever. Is there any role you haven't played?

Ted Mitchell: No, frankly, I worked my way through undergraduate school as a night watchman. So I think that that really rounds out the whole experience.

Philip Rogers: Well, I think you will bring a really thoughtful analysis to this conversation because you've sat in the chairs in many different sectors, in many different roles. And I think higher ed is really all about being able to mobilize stakeholders. As we heard from one of our guests, it's a culture of persuasion and let's dive right into the conversation here. Looking back on all of our episodes and other conversations we've had in between with ACE members and presidents and friends of the higher education and family here, I think we've seen about six or so major themes evolve. And I'd love for us to walk through some of those and talk through some of the big issues that we unpacked over the last couple of months. Sherri, why don't you do the honors? Let's spin the wheel, let's pick a topic and let's jump in.

Sherri Hughes: Great. Can't wait. So Ted, one of the things we kept hearing from people was the incredible challenges to leadership and to the decision-making structures that are so typical in higher ed. You know, we all, we loved the values of shared governance and collaboration and deliberation. And so can you talk a little bit about how you've heard from leaders about how they're making decisions with those same kinds of values for participation and collaboration, but how are they navigating that in this really difficult space?

Ted Mitchell: Yeah, Sherri, I'm smiling, because it really is, it's the big question. And I think that it's clear to say and we've heard it from your guests, nobody prepared for this. This is not exactly what one learns on your way up the academic leadership chain or in the introductory programs that lots of us run. So people had to really dig deep and look at their own leadership styles over the course of COVID.

So, a couple of starting points. First, I think all of us in the academy were trained to make decisions in small, incremental ways. That whether it's writing a research paper or producing a play is that you work until you get it right. And then you put it out there and you might learn some things and you come back and you do it again. Think about the peer review process. The benefit of it is that by the time something comes to real life, it's been vetted pretty thoroughly by a large number of people. That extends to the culture of decision making in higher education. As you say, shared governance is really all about that. It's peer review taking to the level of facilities management.

And imagine, and we got to hear this from a lot of the people you had earlier. Imagine though, we're closing campus the day after tomorrow, and we have to put our courses online and there's this thing called Zoom. Good luck, see you Tuesday. And I think that's obviously an overstatement, but institutions across the country moved on with light speed, changing direction in 10 minutes time in what usually would take 10 months. And hats off to all of the institutions who belied this notion that higher education is not nimble and flexible because we've proved that to be wrong. We are nimble, we are flexible. And what I think was most impressive is that the decisions were embedded in maybe not the process that everybody would think would be ideal, but certainly the values. And at the center of that was the student. How can we continue to provide opportunities for our students, whether there's graduate researchers or undergraduates in their second term at the college. And I think that having that as the North Star really helped institutions make decisions in a way more comfortable.

Sherri Hughes: One of the things that fascinated me was you just identified there was sort of one point of commonality and that is around the student. And yet because of the variation in mission and in students and in institutional strengths, when they articulated what those values were, they came to very different places. And so Philip, I just found it really fascinating to hear so many people talk about value-based decision-making and that it led them to really different places.

Philip Rogers: It definitely did. And we looked at institutions in many, many different sectors of higher ed. Some ranged from, "Look, we're going online fully because we think that the value we're placing emphasis on right now is the predictability, consistency and the ability to prepare our faculty." And then there were other presidents who said, "Look, I have programs that I have to execute on that require students to learn how to operate nuclear reactors and to be out in the fields from a scientific standpoint, from a farming standpoint at some agricultural focused institutions to be able to do this work day-to-day. So we need to find a way to do face-to-face in a safe way."

Ted Mitchell: Yeah. And I think if I can jump in. I think that what the common denominator is, let's look at what students need and whether that varies by institutional mission, by program, by setting. I think that it's on reflex and point isn't it great, that's the reflex. Campus chancellors and presidents, trustees, and faculty members sort of ask that question, "Who are our students, and what do they need most right now?"

I know Tim White who was on earlier runs the largest four-year higher education institution in the country right now. Tim made the decision to go online early. And as you said, it was about the predictability of the environment. And if you look at the Cal State student body, they are low-income first-generation students, many of whom have family obligations and they needed to be able to know that they could count on their college to do one thing or the other, and not vacillate back and forth as circumstances change.

Sherri Hughes: Yeah. And I thought one of the most compelling examples of that came from Roslyn Clark Artis, who said, "There are students in our student body who need to be on this campus, and everybody can't be." So essentially saying to her student community, "If you have a roof over your head, if you have a stable WIFI connection, if there's food on the table every night, then you need to stay home and participate online because people who don't have those things need to be on our campus." And I just, I thought that was an incredibly compelling story of understanding who students are and what they needed.

Philip Rogers: Yeah. You both just hit on, I think one of the second themes throughout this series, which really took the student needs perspectives, the values perspectives, and it led to what I think we saw was a wide ranging set of approaches that many institutions decided to go with. And I loved the Roslyn Clark Artis example because she, as Sherri said, she didn't mince words. She said, "We are opening for a vulnerable population of students who need to be here. If your kids are okay studying at home, you keep them home." And that was something that really struck me as a part of the series. Perhaps the one size doesn't necessarily fit all. Is that fair to you, Ted?

Ted Mitchell: I think that you hit the nail on the head in saying that one size doesn't fit all. When ACE began working with our board and other presidents in April and May on these issues, that was one of our early conclusions, is that, the difference in mission, the difference in circumstance, and let's face it, the difference in the progression of the disease across the country really demanded different decisions from institutions.

It's a little frustrating to some of the pundits who wanted there to be a rule book, real frustrating for some parents, and certainly for some students who wanted the clarity earlier. But unfortunately this is a situation that wasn't a before and after, but has really proven itself to be a during kind of decision-making, which Sherri goes back to your question about leadership. Is that I think we're also used in higher education to doing things and then watching them out. And in this setting, we've had to do, watch, reconvene, redecide on really a daily basis. And that's been a challenge to everybody.

Philip Rogers: Yeah. It seemed the challenge of the wide ranging approaches was there were so many different factors associated with that. We talked a little bit about mission. We've talked about health status of a particular area, geography, community impact was another area. I feel like there was another person we talked to outside of this series, who was in a rural area who said, "Look, I have to go online because if we go in person and we have more than X number of cases, we're going to ... Our rural, regional hospital beds are going to fill up before we have a chance to even get three days in the class." And so the diversity of factors that institutions were facing, it was really difficult to do a comparative analysis across the board in this space.

Ted Mitchell: Yeah. I mean, just thinking about the math problem, if there was a combinatorics problem of incredible magnitude, and then all the variables kept changing over the course of the day or a week. And I think it's been interesting to see how you mentioned earlier about the institution started at sort of different places on the spectrum of staying open or going online. And I think what we've seen over the course of the last several months is that everybody has moved into a dynamic middle that I think everybody in one fashion or another is now offering a hybrid program.

To your point, there are programs like nursing, like agriculture, nuclear engineering, avionics, that really require people to be engaged in a tactile way with clients, customers, materials. And so those are going to be in person, safety precautions needs to be built into that. There are tons of things that are continuing to happen online, but we're really seeing institutions that may have declared themselves at one extreme or another, working into a middle.

Sherri Hughes: I also thought it was really fascinating how they, they were quite comfortable across the episodes. They were comfortable with that variety, right? Knowing that this one time where institutions didn't necessarily ask the question, "Well, what is everybody else doing?" There was a much more of an inclination to say, "What are the particular needs of our campus and our community and our students?" And if somebody wants to be judgmental about whether we're doing what they're doing, that's somebody else's problem. I just, I saw that as a really fascinating sort of theme throughout the time we talked to folks.

Ted Mitchell: Yeah. You know, Sherri, I'm glad you raised that because A, I think you're exactly right, and B, remember back to those early days when there was speculation that, well this institution was waiting for that institution to make a decision and this institution and that institution. We at ACE, we had the privilege of being involved in the situation room where our board of 45 college presidents met, still meets weekly to talk about these issues.

And there was nobody waiting for anybody else. They were just trying to figure out this complex bucket of variables on their own institutional, on their own campuses. And in a way, how freeing. And I hope that that's one of the things we'll talk a little bit later about, sort of what we learned from this. How freeing it is for institutional leaders to not feel like they have to be looking over their shoulder all the time, but really be focusing with their community on what's best for that subset of people.

Philip Rogers: We talk a lot about living and learning in the flow of work when we think about professional learning activities at ACE. And this was a moment where institutions fell into that space, and Sherri, it felt like the theme of sustainability kept emerging throughout this series. And this concept of walking into a situation that the points we were just making felt like there would be sort of a cutoff line where a decision would be made, but that's not what happened, was it?

Sherri Hughes: No. And we heard that sort of repeatedly. I think it was fascinating to hear, folks they thought at the beginning of say May or June, that they knew where we'd be in July or August. And they were just, it just kept changing. And I think one of the things I heard concerns about most recently is the level of fatigue that that is creating in leaders. That normally the start of the academic year is a fresh start on a college campus. And nobody's feeling like it's a fresh start this year. So I just, I wonder, Ted, if you that see sort of how that's playing out with folks as well, that they've been in the decision-making hot seat for an extended period of time without a lot of time to restore and reflect and recreate.

Ted Mitchell: Yeah. I think that that's, we talk a lot and I really give our leaders great kudos for early on understanding that student mental health was a big and important thing to think about in this figuring out ways to provide mental health services, extend mental health services to students at a distance. But we also need to remember the toll that all of this took as you say on the leaders themselves. The privilege of meeting with university leaders on a weekly and monthly basis, who gave us an insight into how those leaders are feeling about this.
And about a month ago, one of our presidents encouraged us to have a topic on our meeting of presidential wellness. So they're feeling, and they really, justly so by the way, they're feeling it. And any support that we can give to the community is going to be really useful.

I think what's particularly telling and, Sherri, and you guys talked about the sustainability, is that part of fatigue is not seeing the finish line. And like all of us university leaders, if they see that finish line, they can suck it up and keep going for a little while longer. But this is an indeterminate crisis that will go on at least until the end of the calendar year. And that's a lot of time to be monitoring variables that have significant impact, material impact on the very existence of campus life.

Philip Rogers: It was something that we heard consistently across the board. I thought Clayton Spencer from Bates, who happens to be on the ACE board was really thoughtful in the way that she described the fatigue on campus leaders having to not only shift in a matter of days to online this past spring, but to then go through the entire summer with virtually no time away from this work to plan for the fall and then to jump right into the fall. And in some instances, campuses across the country did a ton of planning to have to make that shift back to online again. And so it has been a long ride for this group, and it was also something we heard in an episode, Sherri weeks ago with Cissy Petty at George Washington University, who leads the student affairs work there around student mental health.

One thing that concerns me and that I think continues to add to this. And I think Sherri and I, one of the joys of this podcast is that we get to relive our past lives a little bit as provost and chief of staff. And sit back in the chair through the eyes of some of these leaders. And if we thought fatigue was tough now, I can't imagine what it would have been like sitting back in the chief of staff chair and getting one crisis after the other.

I could handle a couple a day, but when you throw a long-term pandemic on top of an economic crisis, and then you think about the racial injustice issues that are in our society and the violence that's emerging in all of these different situations, that's a heavy load for a college leader in an institution to handle, Ted. What is your sense of the impacts of all of that, both on the leader, but also higher education more broadly?

Ted Mitchell: Yeah, I think you're right. I think that this is a confluence of crises that we haven't seen since probably the late 1960s, early 1970s. And I think that calls on leaders to be leaders in a very different way that might otherwise be the case. I heard through the conversations on the podcast and in our conversations with others that central to that is authenticity. And that leaders are not going to get through this, much less help their institutions thrive, unless they are absolutely authentic in their engagements with every part of the community. With Black students who are working hard to make their experience better known across the campus to faculty who are feeling like they're displaced in new ways, alumni who are wondering what's happening to their institution.

And you mentioned communities earlier. I think that the connection between institutions and their communities has never been more. So in all of those ways I think university leaders are being called on to be authentic, to share the issues, be upfront about them. Not pretend that they are less than they are. But to admit that we all have a lot of work to do on all of these fronts and that this isn't opposition all of us to be part of it.

Philip Rogers: It certainly in many ways puts a spotlight on equity issues that were already top of mind for higher education leaders. And I remember for Sherri, Rolando Montoya. He was particularly compelling in this space talking about the nature of the students that he serves and that he has served for years and years in the Miami-Dade college network there. And purchasing laptops for underserved students. We talked to Paul LeBlanc some time ago, not a part of this series, but Paul and his team purchased hotspots and things like that to be able to help their students be more accessible during this time. And then you think about the conversation we had with CUPA-HR around equity workforce issues. There's so much at play right now in this space it feels like.

Ted Mitchell: Yeah. And so again, looking for the silver lining in all of this. I think that the good thing is that so many of what we used to think of as the normal operating procedures of colleges and universities have been from up in the air. And we have probably one once in generation lifetime to bring them down to the ground again in ways that reduce structural racism. That do their best to eliminate social injustice. That even the playing field on issues of economic and racial privilege. And that we can do that now, because so much of what was normal is off the table. And we need, once we accept the fact that so much of what was normal, reinforced structural racism, reinforced privilege, then I think we can bring the new normal into place in a way that reshapes those issues.

Sherri Hughes: Yeah, Philip, I'm reminded of, I think it was Andy Brantley, who said, "One of the things we had to be aspiring to is if we look back three years from now that we have not missed this opportunity to really address equity issues that were laid bare." So that's really compelling. So Ted, you mentioned the silver linings. We've heard this as well, particularly in the last few weeks, people talking about, "Well, we think there are some good things that will come out of this. So what are some of the ways that you think higher education will be better because COVID-19 forced us to rethink them? What elements of this grand experiment will serve us well going forward?

Ted Mitchell: Yeah, I do tend to see the glass always as half full. So I hope that there will be fundamental positive shifts for higher ed, a couple things come to mind. Even before COVID, ACE is at the front of reminding institutional leaders and the public at large that the traditional view of who are college students is are pretty outmoded. And that more and more college students are not 18, but 26 and have family obligations, whether that's children of their own or adult parents that they're helping tend to.

And I think that COVID took that and raised it exponentially to help institutions recognize that almost every one of their students is sort of different then they might've expected going forward. Philip mentioned, and you mentioned as well, that Roslyn's story. Just thinking about their living circumstances. There's students in a much more textured way than they ever have before I think is quite meaningful and will help institutions personalize their attention to students. So personalization, I think, our attention to students is one of the things that will persist.

Second, and it's related is that I think that we've all become more comfortable with students learning at a distance, which will help us provide instruction to students where they are, not necessarily where we want them to be. And then third, I think we are coming to understand that our students are demanding a high level of instructional integrity that I'm not sure we really paid attention to before. But you know, students are being very clear that they want really good instruction. And I think that that's focusing all of us back on the very basic work that we do in higher education.

Philip Rogers: I love the reflection on the silver lining points. Personalization, students are getting more comfortable with this virtual learning experience. And then this, students demanding higher level instructional quality I think is important. And it speaks to one of the messages that we heard from several of our participants around ultimately the value of higher education. And one of them said that this experience is really the perfect setup for the long-term viability of higher education, because it demonstrates our ability to be adaptive and to pivot and to be agile in the face of these things and be able to live up to those three silver linings that you mentioned.

At the same time, all three of us having lived through an economic recession before and having to ensure that we can sustain an institution and be able to come out on the other side in a recovery mode and maintain all of these changes is also an important part of the equation. And it's not one that is not expensive. It cost some dollars to be able to move there. I know ACE has been working hard to advocate for Cares Act funding and to help institutions prepared for the recovery aspect of this as well, Ted.

Ted Mitchell: Yep. So we'll continue to do that work and we'll continue to work to convince the federal government and state governments to provide the resources that are necessary for institutions to keep going and to invest in the recovery as you say, Philip. I think that, yes, I think about recovery and I think about the long-term and we've talked about this in ACE a lot.

My big fear is that we lose ground on access and equity, ground that we have gained very slowly but significantly over the last 25 years. So as I think about recovery, I think the first priority for institutions ought to be recovering our capacity as institutions to serve the students who are traditionally underserved. Low income students, first-generation students, minority students, particularly Black students who have always been at the low end of the success spectrum. Native students as well. And we don't recover as a sector unless we recover there first and most powerful. We'll be fine with students who typically do fine in higher education, but we need to have a laser like focus on the underserved as we move out of this.

Sherri Hughes: And that's doubly important, because some of those populations have been the hardest hit by this pandemic. So I know we heard several of our guests talk about, as those students returned to campus, they came with even more additional burdens and worries on their shoulders. And that institutions are going to need to find not only the old ways of supporting students well, but additional ways, because it's just that much more difficult.

Ted Mitchell: That's right. That's right.

Philip Rogers: Well, Ted, I want to move to wrap us up with a question that we ask every single one of our podcasts guests. And so we're not going to let you off the hook with this one. We're going to ask you as well. And you said, as you were talking about recovery, that one of the things that really sort of keeps you awake at night is losing the 25 years of gains in the equity space. And you also said that, I love the way you phrase this, this is an indeterminate crisis.

And so, we have a whole host of leaders out there at our member institutions and all across higher education who are in the midst of this crisis. Who are thinking ahead, not just to the end of this semester, but to the end of next semester. And I think it was Rolando Montoya who said, "One of the dangers is not looking beyond the next year. This is really a three to five year situation that we need to be thinking about very strategically as higher education." So what advice might you give to leaders who are sitting in these seats, to leaders who are aspiring to these senior level roles in higher education at a time when the unprecedented nature of the job is looking us right in the eye?

Ted Mitchell: Yeah. It's boy, that's the $78 billion question, I think. And I also think that this is a crisis whose legs will be long and you both will remember that we did some survey work at the beginning of my time at ACE. And one of the things that we came to understand was that even in 2016, 2017, the Great Recession had an impact on the way people were thinking about higher education.

And I think that this will be even more profound. So I think we'll be thinking about this for a decade, for a decade or more. And so I think my best advice to leaders in the sector for whatever it's worth is that we really have to continue to not be constrained by our vision of what's normal. We have to continue to color outside the lines. We need to continue to try things out, and we need to be far less concerned with regulating the inputs into our process and far more concerned about the outputs. So let's try a bunch of different things on the input side, on the process side, but let's keep our eye on the outputs for students. And if we can do that, I think we'll be okay. And again, the diversity of American higher education will mean that there's not one path through this, but there are thousands of paths through this. And each of those paths will be determined by the values of the leaders in the community, the missions of the institution, and the fidelity to making sure that whatever they're trying is for the benefit of theirs.

Philip Rogers: Well, Sherri, I think these last few months have been filled with a wide array of powerful and inspirational stories. And it's been a joy to unpack them and explore them alongside with you. As we try to think about how to make the higher education community a stronger place as we achieve our ultimate goal of serving the students who are a part of our institutions.

Sherri Hughes: Yeah, it was just so inspiring to see so many people working on behalf of students and being so thoughtful and deliberate in that work. And so it's just, it's been a wonderful journey.

Ted Mitchell: Well, I want to thank both of you for hosting this, for engaging in these conversations and for bringing out, talk about authenticity earlier so the authentic voices of leaders across the country. So we are in your debt, thank you.

Philip Rogers: Well, it's our pleasure and Sherri, I think we should make Ted a honorary cohost of this series and bring him back many more times because this has been, this has been a lot of fun to have him at the table with us.

Sherri Hughes: Absolutely. It's been a great way to wrap this up.

Ted Mitchell: Fun for me too, so thank you. Thanks for having me.

Philip Rogers: All right. Well, this concludes our final episode of ACE Engaged Conversations, the campus reopening series. You can listen to the other episodes in this series at You can also register on our Engage platform to listen to previous episodes of Engaged Conversations and more, including plenty of content on COVID-19 at We want to thank our listeners and all of our guests on this series for their time and dedication to sharing their stories. And we look forward to bringing you more interesting conversations on the Engage platform to help you learn and to lead in front of everyone.

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.

Listen and Subscribe