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Post-COVID task force recommends continued remote options, ‘culture of empathy’

Grace Hromin | Senior Photo Editor
Former Provost Brian Blake commissioned the 18-member task force in January to identify lessons learned from the pandemic.

A University-wide task force found the GW community is looking for a “culture of empathy” and continued remote options coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the group’s report released last week.

The task force – which consists of 18 faculty, staff members and students charged with developing post-pandemic recommendations for GW – established four working groups in February focused on graduate and professional students, undergraduate students, faculty and staff and academic support personnel. Task force members conducted surveys, town halls and research over the course of almost nine months, releasing a culminating report with dozens of recommendations on upgrades to GW’s academic environment.

“The pandemic has required higher education institutions to adapt and innovate more rapidly and comprehensively than any other event in modern history,” the report states. “Transforming from the long-time model of in-person classes and residential students to a virtual one necessitated a wide range of innovations and accommodations across the University.”

Here are some of the major recommendations from each of the four working groups:

The faculty working group recommended that officials create an option for professors to teach remotely, in person or in a hybrid format and invest in equipment and training for virtual teaching when appropriate.

“Faculty members also expressed that rigidity in policies, such as deadlines for grade submissions and dropping and adding classes, created obstacles to providing empathy and support,” the report states. “Teaching demand overwhelmed some faculty, especially adjunct and part-time faculty whose extra time preparing for virtual learning, was not compensated.”

The group also recommended that officials should extend the tenure clock – the period of time after which administrators make a decision on whether to grant tenure – beyond the one-year pause currently in place because of pandemic-related research delays. Faculty said in April that they were concerned about the amount of research funding in the proposed Fiscal Year 2022 budget.

“The pandemic and post-pandemic era will likely last two to five years, and the University’s response needs to recognize that there is no ‘one and done’ solution,” the report states. “The institution should be mindful about setting in place the correct scaffolding that will allow us to rebuild better, but the process will need to be iterative and to evolve. We will need to adapt systems and solutions to the new realities as time goes by.”

The report recommends officials allow professors the option to continue virtual operations for office hours and faculty meetings to improve faculty’s work-life balance. University President Thomas LeBlanc has previously expressed support for increasing flexibility and offering virtual meeting alternatives for meetings.

“Faculty members reported emotional overload due to COVID-related illnesses and death,” the report states. “Faculty also said they were overwhelmed by the amount of emails from students who required additional advising due to increased needs for learning support and work-life imbalances.”

Undergraduate students
The undergraduate students working group found “strong” support for recording lectures and offering virtual student services, like office hours and health care.

“Students cited flexibility and accessibility as major advantages of the online platform,” the report states.

The group also found students want the University community to continue a “culture of empathy,” which was fostered during the pandemic, stating that faculty empathy contributes to student satisfaction.

LeBlanc made improving institutional culture one of his five strategic initiatives as president in an effort to eliminate the “fear-based” culture that administrators said was present among GW employees. But some faculty said the culture initiative, which was organized in April 2018, inadequately addressed those issues, and others said they didn’t believe a culture problem existed at GW in the first place.

“We do not suggest spending more money on outside consultants,” the report states. “We suggest bringing students and faculty together to develop further ideas for developing a culture of empathy and respect. This would replace or supersede the previous ‘culture initiative.’”

Graduate and professional students
The graduate and professional students working group recommended that officials work to build community among graduate students through investments in staff members who schools and colleges “find necessary for community building.”

“In our town hall meetings and in survey responses, graduate students mentioned that group work was difficult to coordinate, that establishing connections with professors and faculty was difficult and that it was difficult to get a sense of community,” the report states.

The report recommends that officials offer a virtual option for some classes and record lectures in the interest of accommodating graduate students’ schedules. The group also requested officials to offer students universal high-speed internet to make virtual spaces more accessible.

“The pandemic underlined the fact that accessibility to online research resources is key to graduate education,” the report states.

The report suggests that officials assess the net impact of the pandemic on improving diversity, equity and inclusion, and provide resources for the working group to also make that assessment.

“While the University as a whole has reportedly become slightly more diverse during the pandemic, the working group does not have access to enrollment data specific to graduate students to evaluate the issue,” the report states.

The working group also outlines that officials should be more transparent in their decision making and communications.

“Graduate students, faculty and staff express appreciation for communication by programs and schools during the transition to online learning but also expressed frustration at communications concerning financial aid, layoffs and technology changes,” the report states.

Officials laid off 339 staff members last year as part of several budget mitigation strategies to limit the financial impact of the pandemic.

Staff and academic support personnel
The staff and academic support personnel working group recommended that officials support telework with necessary equipment and software for staff, and it encouraged a “culture of hybridization” with options for remote work. The group also recommended officials identify a chief online learning officer within the University.

“Some aspect[s] of staff activities could be more online even without a movement toward hybrid and virtual classes; the likely reorganization of the classroom experience requires involvement of the staff and further coordination of resources and training,” the report states.

The group called for officials to encourage innovation and creativity through an inclusive environment.

“Maintaining a highly functioning and effective University community is highly dependent on the encouragement, development and maintenance of an organizational culture that values strong relationships,” the report states. “For academic support staff this is an important part of their work-life arrangement with the University.”

The group recommended that officials revisit the possibility for a “staff council,” which would provide feedback to administrators.

“Communication is the means by which all University stakeholders ensure that information is shared equitably and uniformly,” the report states.

The report also states that officials should also work to ease issues during staff turnover.

“Clear processes must be developed so that turnover is easier on everyone – staff and clients, universal University tools that don’t differ across schools, scalable infrastructure, technical support, greater digital security and privacy,” the report states.

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