By Victoria Gill-Gomez
The Student Government Association and Office of Student Affairs hosted an open forum via Zoom on Wednesday, Oct. 7 with Interim President Dr. Wayne Powell to discuss rising concerns from the Washington College community.
Joining Dr. Powell were members of his senior staff, Interim Provost and Dean of the College Dr. Michael Harvey; Vice President of Student Affairs and Dean of Students Sarah Feyerherm; with senior and Student Government Association senior President Elizabeth Lilly to moderate the discussion.
The one-hour forum began with an introduction from Lilly, who clarified the structure of the event: a forum designed to give students the chance to meet Dr. Powell, and ask questions submitted by students prior to the event about his plans for his term as president.
Lilly said that many of the details about the spring semester are still to be determined and some questions may not be fully answered. However, she said that further communication about these plans will be forthcoming within the next few weeks.
Dr. Powell thanked the community members for joining the webinar in his opening remarks, and said his first five weeks of the presidency have felt longer, because he gets to “know a lot of good people very quickly,” even while in isolation.
The first question Lilly asked was to get to know more about Dr. Powell and what drew him to the position of president at WC.
“I never in most of my life had aspirations to do any one thing in particular. I kind of just let things happen and you take them as they are in any way, shape, or form. I have been sort of retired for three years after leaving my previous presidency, and during that time, I’ve done consulting…with several institutions, but never really thought about being a president again, because it is a lot of work…I got a call…and it encouraged me to start looking at the College seriously, and one conversation led to another, and here we are,” Dr. Powell said.
As a follow-up, Dr. Powell was asked about his initial impressions of the College and the student body.
He said that over the summer, when he started receiving calls about the position, he started his own research into the College through Google searches.
“You can find out a little bit there, but you never find out everything you want to know,” Dr. Powell said.
He also reached out to other contacts in higher education whom he knew in the region for their opinions on WC.
“Everybody said: ‘I think that’s a good place. We think it has a great environmental program,’” Dr. Powell said. “To me, that was both a positive and a negative, because I’m glad that that’s what they thought, but I wondered why they had to preface it with ‘I think this.’ And that made me realize that we have a great story here that we are not telling to as many people as we should. That’s something we need to be working on in the next couple of years. You know, I haven’t had the opportunity to meet many students,” he said. But referring to Lilly, Powell said that he expects the rest of the student body to be as exceptional as her.
As such, many of the current campus initiatives of diversity, equity, and inclusion were, as Lilly said, “spearheaded” by students. She followed this prompt by asking Dr. Powell about his plans for creating a safer student environment.
Dr. Powell spoke more on the College’s plans and how the long-term changes “have to transcend [his own ideas].”
Dr. Powell has spent his entire career working on various diversity initiatives at different institutions, and he said that DEI is “something I believe, no matter what your job is, is part of your mission and assignment. It’s absolutely critical. And it’s just a moral issue and commitment to me.”
He said that he is glad to see the phrase “diversity, equity, and inclusion,” because the last two words were forgotten back when he first started his career as an administrator.
“I knew so many people that wanted to be part of [DEI changes], and they would make initiatives to hire people of color in particular, and [those people] provided absolutely no support for them or respect for the different cultures. And so, equity and inclusion expands that whole picture to be a lot more appropriate,” he said.
In his early explorations of WC, one aspect he found interesting was reading about the incidents that occurred in the spring, and the student body’s voice to stand up against racial injustice.
“[I] read some, I guess they were called ‘demands’ by students…I remember looking through them and thinking ‘well, yeah, this is obvious”…[The College] shouldn’t let it get to be that kind of an issue. [WC] should’ve been doing those things anyway,” Dr. Powell said.
Another aspect of the College he was impressed with was the commitment to addressing its past. Most places attempt to veil their adverse narrative of history. WC, however, is currently addressing those elements of the past through the History Project and other initiatives.
“I have very mixed feelings about George Washington,” Dr. Powell said. “And [I] have always wrestled with how we should remember him. The best conclusion I’ve had is that we remember him in multiple ways, and sometimes that is just part of reality.”
He finished this statement by acknowledging that the mark of a good leader is their ability to address that certain situations haven’t always been right, but that they will not continue to be that way in the future.
“You can’t change a situation unless you first admit it’s there,” Dr. Powell said.
According to Dr. Powell, a recurring question from the student body was about the possibility of hiring a chief diversity officer for the College. He wondered why WC does not have one already, as every institution that he has been part of has had such a position.
A chief diversity officer should be a high-level position, according to Dr. Powell, falling along the lines of an associate vice president.
He believes that creating such a position should be on the agenda for the College.
However, he also said that he is not looking to hire any staff or faculty at the moment. His current plan is to create a position, list priorities for an ideal candidate, and wait out both the pandemic and financial crisis of the College until it is time to begin the search.
Without exact knowledge of the future, Powell is considering the possibility of adapting the position so that a current faculty or staff member could align their position assignments with this one.
“By the time I leave WC, you will have a culture, environment, and stability that every strong candidate in this country will be applying to be president here,” Dr. Powell said.
Before transitioning into questions regarding the spring semester, Dr. Powell said that it is both an interesting and appealing situation for him to enter this position right now, being that no one has ever experienced a situation such as this.
“It’s really refreshing to see the thoughtfulness and hard work students, faculty, and staff have put together and tried to address these issues. And I understand that being in a position that makes decisions sometimes that whatever decision you make, a lot of people aren’t going to like…but I can assure everybody that the decisions that are being made are done with the highest level of thoughtfulness,” Dr. Powell said.
A frequently asked question concerned why WC administration decided to let a select few students return to campus for the spring semester while other institutions have opened safely at full capacity.
Dr. Powell said that the senior staff has been monitoring what works and does not work for other institutions of similar sizes to WC.
While there are institutions who have returned to some semblance of normalcy, other institutions, such as Gettysburg College, had a “staggering amount of preparation” but still closed after two weeks, according to Dr. Powell.
“There are a lot of examples across the country. And instead of trying to pick and choose, and trying to compare us to other institutions, what we’ve been trying to do is learn from all of those. Even those who have opened at reduced capacity…Some have been able to reopen at ‘full capacity,’ but they are different conditions at those institutions,” Feyerherm said.
The Contingency Planning Group did learn that the institutions who were able to provide single rooms for students and limited sharing of bedroom and bathroom space were doing better than those who could not.
CPG also worked closely with the Kent County Health Department to develop their residency model, according to Feyerherm.
This cooperation is important partially due to the demographics of Chestertown and Kent County, which have retirement communities with health and safety concerns.
According to Feyerherm, starting the semester online instead of with a hybrid model allows students to start in the same place as the previous semester and provides instructors an opportunity to continue the previous successes they had with online learning.
In addition, unlike last spring when there was a sudden upheaval of transitioning off campus, this current plan for next semester allows some flexibility about who is on campus. Online courses also give time for the CPG to reassess the situation as the number of COVID-19 cases fluctuate.
According to Dr. Harvey, “this is the hardest situation that we’ve ever been in as a college.” But, after spending hundreds of hours making decisions, they realized that the institution must trust students themselves to place safety first.
“A lot of how the spring goes is going to rely on how we as a community handle our responsibilities. This is true for faculty members, it’s true for staff, it’s true for students. We’ve tried to set up an optimistic plan. [Feyerherm and I] would love to bring everybody back, but it’s just not safe, it’s that simple,” Dr. Harvey said.
In terms of teaching, Dr. Harvey and the administration continue to strive for enriching experiences for those on campus and online, whether they choose not to return or are unable to.
They still need to make decisions about how faculty can be inclusive and engaging with students who continue online learning.
“Learning does happen in the classroom, but learning happens all around our campus,” Dr. Harvey said. “We want to provide as many enriching learning experiences as possible. We are going to try to support learning for a whole bunch of different platforms, for a whole bunch of different kinds of students, in some familiar ways and some new ways. That work is ongoing.”
This segued into the topic of how students will be selected to return to campus, including the rationale of prioritizing first-years over seniors in on-campus housing. According to Lilly, many seniors are “upset or disgruntled” that they are unable to return on campus to complete their Senior Capstone Experiences.
Feyerherm answered that this was something with which the CPG wrestled. However, they want to provide first-year students experience with campus and town life.
“That is not to say that the experience of anybody in any of the other classes is not important. But we did have a lot of conversation about that, and there was consensus that at the very least we had to get that group of students on campus as quickly as we could…As we build out what the other slots are going to look like, we have this discretionary number of beds that are available, and how those are going to be allocated,” Feyerherm said.
Regardless of class, students who face personal hardships with food or housing insecurities will remain to be utmost priority in on campus housing situations for the spring.
If first-years decide to not live on campus, then other students will have the opportunity to claim the empty rooms.
Currently, SCE-related decisions are made between faculty members and the CPG. They are determining what situations would require a student to return to campus and how to fairly apply those standards to the students who may need to live on or have regular access to campus.
“Believe me, none of us like having to limit this. What we are trying to avoid…is not ending up at a place where we are backed up into [reversing the work],” Feyerherm said. “Where we are right now is start with the small…and monitor over the next couple of months to see if there is a way to expand that…We have to be able to do it safely. I don’t want to have to go back into a situation, I want to go into it [with] forward thinking, and make sure we’ve planned for it.”
For students who wish to remain home but do not have access to other campus resources, Lilly asked if there will be any compensation or support for those individuals.
Feyerherm’s initial response spoke on current and continual conversations about this problem.
While digital resources are still available, such as the Clifton M. Miller Library, the Office of Academic Skills, and the Writing Center, she said that many of the smaller student fees are either now flexible or no longer being charged to student accounts.
At the same time, the health services fee remains. Tuition will continue to be the same, as the academic model and delivery is the same no matter where students are based.
Regardless of who decides to return to campus, in the possibility that a vaccine for COVID-19 is created, online classes will continue to be an option.
According to Dr. Powell, “there is no vaccine that will change the environment this spring.”
Students who decide to take a leave for the spring semester are encouraged to reach out to the financial aid office with questions regarding specific scholarships, but their academic and financial aid records will be supported and upheld no matter what.
This also includes students who would like to take a lighter course load if the online format continues, as this may affect certain scholarships.
Students who are not permitted to live on campus will not be able to live off-campus and have access to the campus, as Feyerherm said that the administration is no longer approving any off-campus waivers at the moment.
“Having additional students come to Chestertown can cause some unintended consequences. Again, we are a fairly small town, small county, [and] the health resources are certainly limited. We have to assure the town and the county that we’ve got ways to handle that,” Feyerherm said.
At the beginning of the fall semester, while consulting with the health department, the CPG approved an estimated 235 students to live off campus. While there were initial concerns regarding the number of students in Chestertown, Feyerherm said that the CPG have relayed those concerns with the health department and have taken the necessary actions to have these students tested.
Dr. Powell said that the conversation about spring athletics is ongoing but continues to be undecided until a cumulative decision can be made with the other colleges and universities in the conference.
In the meantime, Feyerherm continues to support the current allowance of practices with testing.
Regarding graduation for the Class of 2021, it is still undecided whether the ceremony will be a limited attendance event or a live stream.
Dr. Powell said he hopes that graduation can still be done in-person. As May is still far ahead, he said not to take the possibility off the table yet.
Regarding online courses and the structures of them, Dr. Harvey said that improvements for the spring are currently a real-time experiment for both students and faculty as “we are improving classes as we go.”
He said students who feel as though they are receiving less-than-satisfactory or up-to-value educational experiences should reach out to their professor and advisors now.
According to Dr. Harvey, open discussions have been an important part of WC’s culture. For first-year students who may not feel comfortable being as open, he provided sources such as peer mentors, the SGA Academic Committee, and peers for help approaching a professor.
“Part of the gig of being a WC student is to speak your mind,” Dr. Harvey said.
Regardless, those on the administrative panel said that the plan for the spring feels more certain than that of the fall semester.
“It takes a while to come up to speed with what this pandemic means, what does the data tell us, what have we learned from other places that have failed or succeeded, what do we know about the virus, what do we know about how our faculty can best teach and plan. When we had to make decisions in the summer, we were not as pandemic as we are now,” Feyerherm said.
The panelists’ closing remarks started with Dr. Powell, who said that he appreciates hearing people’s questions because “the best way I learn about what the issues are are the kind of questions people ask.”
For Dr. Harvey, he finds this online course experience rewarding. Teaching a First-Year Seminar with 13 students, together the group developed a “disciplined, unified approach at looking at each other’s writing, examining our own prior writing…So we are finding strength in unexpected ways in our teaching.”
“Frankly, [this is] the hardest year the College has ever had and I sure hope to Gosh that it’s the hardest year we ever have going into the future,” Dr. Harvey said.
Featured Photo Caption: Interim President Wayne Powell answers questions about the spring semester. Photo by Izze Rios.