March 16, 2020
I know that you are likely nearing complete overload on communications regarding the COVID-19 (coronavirus) situation at the University of Oregon. However, I wanted to take a moment to express my thanks and admiration at the rapid and extremely impressive work of the faculty in response to changes in plans for finals and teaching next term. Whether it be emails among math faculty about how to move forward without access to their chalkboards or conversations with leadership in the College of Design about how to ensure that studio reviews in architecture capture the essence of that experience, we are all working together to support one another and to focus on the student experience. I am also grateful for the hard work of the Academic Council and University Senate in ensuring that our discussions have included broad representation from across campus. I am deeply heartened by this work, and it reminds us that every interaction in which we participate is an opportunity for us to show individual leadership. I am grateful to have you each as colleagues as we push forward together through this time of uncertainty.
Here, I want to discuss some of the actions we can take to ensure the future strength of the university, as well as to address a few concerns regarding how the coming term may impact reviews and other employment-related issues.
The key features of truly resilient organizations are open communication and a sense of deep connection across the community. The entire academic experience, and particularly the student experience at UO, is defined by the special relationship between each faculty member and their students, which for us is usually experienced directly in the classroom, laboratory, or studio. It is natural that everyone will feel some sense of loss caused by a change in the physical environment.
It is critical that we do not allow this social distancing to become isolation. This is, of course, important for all faculty and staff. But it counts doubly so for our students, who are at critical points in their lives and personal development. Maintaining a strong connection to the university that they have come to know and love will be critical to both their and the university’s well-being and future success. As the mentors and teachers on this side of the relationship, it is incumbent on us to find new ways to maintain connection. Even as we are called to keep to ourselves, we must move through this together.
With this in mind:
- I expect every faculty member to contact the students registered for their courses for the upcoming term as soon as possible. This is actually quite easy via Canvas or by obtaining student email addresses from course rolls on DuckWeb. I suggest that you thank students for sticking with us during this rapidly changing situation and express your commitment to ensuring their success and the quality of their academic experience. (If you need them, there are suggested talking points for reaching out to your students on the Teaching Engagement Program webpage.)
- It will be important for students to begin to understand how you will engage with them remotely during the term. Per our usual guidelines, you still need to offer regular “office” hours, remotely, of course. I would also encourage you to think about providing additional avenues of engagement and contact during the term, as many faculty already do as part of the normal course of their work. Scheduling time to make yourself available for questions in advance of the term would be even better.
- For most lecture and conference-style courses, simply shifting to the Zoom platform for content delivery will provide a fairly easy path to replicating the classroom experience (our enterprise license has been purchased and should be fully active within the next two days). Making things even more interactive will, of course, take a bit more thought. Other courses will naturally require planning and/or restructuring to work well in this new format. We are here to support you as you work on your courses. Please see the Academic Continuity website for guidance. As important: If you have a great plan or an idea for effective remote instruction, don’t hesitate to share it with others by posting it to the TEP blog or sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Your efforts are the essence of creativity upon which we all rely.
When we talk about academic continuity what we really mean is our dedication to each student being able to continue along their path toward graduation without any delays or detours. Ensuring this will take the collaborative effort from all of us. It is essential that we communicate often with our students so as to build the resilient community that we seek. Only faculty have the authentic, credible voice that can personalize this message in a way that will resonate with students.
I also recognize that the next few months are going to be personally challenging for each of you, a situation made doubly difficult by school closures and other changes in the home lives of many. In order to achieve our goals, we are all going to have to reprioritize our regular work to fully focus on our educational programs, as outlined above. It is natural that this reprioritization may raise concerns among faculty, some of which I hope to address below. Please note that we have been working in close collaboration with United Academics on the decisions that impact faculty working conditions and will continue to do so as this guidance develops over time.
To address these challenges:
- Faculty should feel free to explore how best to deliver their courses in a high-quality fashion this term. To allow space for this to happen, we will suspend formal teaching evaluations for the coming term. I trust each of you to fully commit to providing high-quality instruction to your students during this challenging time.
- I encourage department heads and other administrative units to suspend all non-essential service and administrative activities this term. This might not be the time to finish discussions on restructuring your curriculum, for instance. Each unit will need to decide what is essential or not, but the central idea here is to allow as much time as possible to be devoted to high-quality instruction. I will also be working with central administration to ensure that non-essential projects that impact faculty workload are put on hold over the course of spring term.
- Shifting of priorities is likely to require some delay or suspension of scholarly and research activities during the term. I will work with appropriate units to ensure that disruptions in research activity do not negatively impact reviews, including tenure or promotion decisions, promotion decisions for career faculty, and merit reviews moving forward.
- I will work with appropriate units to ensure that disruptions to teaching evaluations and changes in instruction over spring term do not negatively impact reviews for instructional career faculty, including merit review and promotion decisions moving forward.
- I recognize that moving to remote instruction will be new to many, but it is important to recognize that this is not equivalent to “online instruction,” as online courses are subject to special design considerations and faculty-led curricular approval. Please know that the university will not seek to capture any of the streaming lecture materials developed by faculty during this time. It may be that some faculty will discover new educational opportunities generated by their experiences with this new modality and may want to retain their materials for this purpose, but that is up to them.
We are clearly at the start of a very dynamic situation. There will be bumps along the road, but we cannot give way to panic. Rather, we must approach things calmly and systematically, and face each challenge to the best of our abilities. And we must display the grace, kindness, and openness with each other that is firmly based on the knowledge that we are each working with the best of intents and for the best interest of the University of Oregon, our faculty, staff, and students.
Every single interview that I have conducted over the last week has ended with the interviewer asking me personally, “How are you holding up?” I am able to answer immediately and without hesitation, “I am doing fine.” And I am doing fine because we are doing fine. That is because we have dozens and dozens of people who are working tirelessly to make it all work, whatever “it” may end up being in a given day. I am truly proud to be your colleague in this effort, and I thank you for all that you do.
Please don’t hesitate to reach out to me at email@example.com with your comments or concerns. Take care.
Provost and Senior Vice President