The Covid-19 pandemic has forced people from every walk of life to adapt to a new abnormal. The community of Thomas Jefferson University, where I am provost, is no different. We faced formidable challenges, with the imperative of establishing solid footing so we could live up to our responsibilities as educators, health-care providers, researchers, students and employees.
It is only natural for university leaders to long for simpler, pre-Covid-19 days. Shifting most classes from in-person to online delivery, almost overnight, was a herculean academic feat back in the spring. The demands across every dimension have continued unabated. While pandemic-driven complexities are very much front-and-center, we should remember that quite a few institutions were already in a parlous state last fall. The economic value of traditional higher education was rightly being questioned, as was its ability to foster the skills and knowledge that 21st century graduates need to succeed. If anything, these questions are now being amplified.
That’s why it would be self-defeating for us to simply revert to the pre-pandemic status quo.
If higher education is to thrive—and if we are to deliver the long-term value our students deserve—we must make significant changes in how and what we teach. As a starting point, we can build upon crisis-inspired lessons—such as how to conceive, develop, and deliver a hybrid flexible (HyFlex) curriculum, featuring a robust mix of in-person and online offerings, with some delivered in both modes simultaneously.
Some early lessons have already served the Jefferson community well, not only in facing the pandemic itself, but in helping frame a blueprint for the post-pandemic future. We seek to leverage those lessons to create an inflection point for higher education, and aspire to a new approach to teaching and learning that melds in-person and digital instruction into something even better than we had before. Doing so will enable us to expand educational opportunities, more flexibly respond to each student’s individual circumstances, and better prepare our graduates for careers in a dynamic, digital, interconnected world.
We have been inspired by those who stepped forward so selflessly, and innovatively, in tackling the challenges of the moment and envisioning what might come next.
Architecture professors at in-person studios remained behind plexiglass in another room while offering “desk crits” on students’ CAD presentations from close-but-afar. Fashion design classes permitted three students in a studio per hour while drawing was done outside, in groups and under tents. The simulation lab also used “drop-and-go” task trainers with Zoom to teach critical skills to medical students, an innovative approach to a critical training component.
In being nimble, flexible, resilient, brave and innovative, the Jefferson community harnessed an “it takes a village” approach, which became a shining example of what a community can be and can accomplish when it works together for the greater good.
No part of the university went unaffected, from getting a coffee made in the library to figuring out the safest way for students to get scanned into their rooms. Everything needed to be reconsidered.
At a leadership level, we were guided by overarching principles. Those allowed us to navigate an unparalleled situation and make tough decisions through our University Incident Command Center structure, which kept a close eye on internal trends, while monitoring external developments.
Protecting students’ academic progression meant working hard to minimize negative impact on educational growth and avoid delays in graduation. This translated into all students, undergraduate or graduate, receiving their degrees on time this past spring, in some instances calling on creative solutions to clinical, studio and lab demands. We always ask ourselves what is best for the students, academically, and at once, for their mental and physical well-being. Further, it has and will always be of paramount importance to protect everyone’s safety.
These principles motivated us to press forward as one of the handful of universities in our region to sustain a meaningful in-person, on-campus option for our students, through Thanksgiving. Not relying on luck, we planned for every scenario and acted quickly when called upon to do so. Home to the nation’s first college of population health, and rich with infectious disease and other academic medical center expertise, we were well-positioned to navigate the complicated decision-making. All told, we proved that our whole is greater than the sum of our parts.
Getting through the fall semester safely is an accomplishment in itself. This is a difficult time, but it will make our community stronger. We will now be able to draw upon lessons learned during the pandemic in charting an ever more compelling future for higher education. We now know well that tomorrow will most certainly bring unexpected challenges, and that being proactive will be key. We have learned the importance of breaking down silos, functioning as cohesive teams across departments and colleges, and applying creativity to every part of our work and planning. We must be prepared to provide students with the deep grounding needed to go out into a very different world, fully prepared for what will come next.
Dr. Mark Tykocinski is a molecular immunologist and the provost of Thomas Jefferson University. He is also the Anthony F. & Gertrude M. DePalma dean of the Sidney Kimmel Medical College.