SJR Column: United in Safety as the fall semester begins, August 2020
As readers of this column are well aware, UIS Chancellor Emeritus Susan Koch, who retired June 30 following nine years of dedicated leadership, cared deeply about making the University of Illinois Springfield an inspiring place for teaching, learning, research and service. A place where leadership is lived. And a place where people want to be.
Count me in as one of those folks.
When I was asked to consider serving as the UIS interim chancellor, I did so knowing I would be leading during an unprecedented time in our history. I have worked in higher education for more than 40 years, and believe that this is very likely the most challenging time for educational institutions across the country.
Though I was quite busy and happy working with other presidents and chancellors around the country as a higher education consultant, I saw the interim position at UIS as an opportunity to make a real difference during a demanding time and keep the university moving forward to ensure the success of our students, university and community.
UIS’ mission advances my belief that earning a college degree is a life-changing event for our graduates, their families and our community. This university is a place that provides a uniquely student-centered educational experience both in and out of the classroom and inspires learners to be not only scholars, but leaders and citizens transforming their local and global communities.
In my two short months as interim chancellor, I’ve already come to know UIS as a special place. And tomorrow—Aug. 24—we begin a fall semester like none before it.
Chief among my top goals for my time at UIS is effectively managing our response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Our greatest obligation is to the health and safety of our students, faculty and staff. To this priority have countless numbers of administrators, faculty, staff and students dedicated themselves over the past several months.
At UIS, we say (and believe!) we are United in Safety. Like most other universities, we released a plan (https://www.uis.edu/admissions/fall-2020/) this summer outlining our safety expectations, testing protocols, teaching and learning strategies and efforts to promote and prioritize safety on campus.
We are providing masks for all students, faculty and staff and are requiring everyone to wear a face covering when on campus. We developed enhanced cleaning protocols. We moved furniture and rearranged our facilities to support physical distancing. We blanketed the campus with safety signage. We continued to build on our nationally award-winning approach to teaching and learning online; we have led the country in innovating “blended courses” that offer teaching and learning in a sensitive combination of on-campus and online formats. We worked closely with our faculty while listening to our students to provide that right offering of courses.
Recognizing that not every student will learn on campus this fall, UIS is uniquely prepared for this time of increased demand for remote learning. For 20 years, UIS has been a national leader in online learning. Since the start of the pandemic, our online experts have guided faculty to adapt best practices for teaching remotely, provided training and other resources to students to support successful remote learning and also trained Illinois K-12 teachers to support their needs.
We also launched an on-campus COVID-19 testing approach using the University of Illinois revolutionary saliva test (https://www.uis.edu/covid-19/testing/), which every member of our on-campus community will undergo once a week at no cost to them. This is a critical piece of our United in Safety efforts and is another example of how UIS students, faculty and staff benefit from being part of the world-class U of I System.
Every measure has been taken with the utmost care and concern for our community, and it reflects strong, steady planning, dedication and creativity. We also have experienced tremendous collaboration with community partners, which I greatly value and appreciate.
This pandemic might influence how we teach and learn, but it won’t prevent us from offering high-quality teaching and learning.
As we embark on what I’m sure will be a rollercoaster ride of a year, we ask that our community continue to keep our university and students in mind. Please be respectful of our safety protocols if visiting campus. And please wear a mask and physically distance when patronizing local businesses or events to help reduce the spread of illness. It is so important to us, and to this community, that all students have a successful academic experience this fall.
Responding to COVID-19 is a team sport, and we’re committed to being great team players. Just as our work at UIS this summer has prepared us for students’ return to campus, our work together as a community this fall will help support these students as they pursue their academic goals.
We are United in Safety!
Karen Whitney is the interim chancellor at the University of Illinois Springfield. She is also president emerita of Clarion University in Pennsylvania and recently served as interim chancellor of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education.