Doubling down on a “student-centred” university in COVID-19.

St. Francis Xavier University is one of only two schools in Nova Scotia offering in-person, on-campus delivery of classes in fall 2020. While there were mixed reactions to the re-opening, the student response was overall positive. That feeling of positivity has waned with the latest, July 10th released from the university:

Now, the people who know me know that I am a genuine StFX supporter. This school, my peers, the faculty and staff, all hold extraordinary places in my heart. Through years of working alongside the university, I’ve seen good days and bad. However, July 10th was the first day I truly felt disappointed and saddened by actions from StFX University. 

I shared these feelings with twitter through a series of tweets that received over 25,000 views, thousands of interactions and hundreds of messages from students, staff, and faculty not just from StFX, but all across North America. I ended this series of tweets asking a simple but essential question: what should documentation on re-opening look like? 

The next section of this document could be a list of finer point details that could be implemented (ex: if a student contracts COVID in December, the university will guarantee they will allow the student to write exams, receiving credit for the class 😉 ), but let’s discuss a broader topic. I want to talk about navigating a global pandemic as a university and how having students as partners would result in better policies, procedures and communications. 

So, what does the concept of “Students as Partners” mean? 

For me, Having students as partners creates a working standard where meaningful collaboration exists between students and administration, staff and faculty of the university. The keyword here is partners where students not only have seats at the table, but their input and contributions are valued. 

Why is it important? 

In light of COVID-19, higher education is being re-designed and re-imagined. The pandemic presents all higher education institutions with a set of challenges unlike they’ve ever known. While some campuses are operating online, others are welcoming students back in person for face-to-face classes or in hybrid models. Both options have a series of pros and cons, but in either case, one of the most affected groups are students. If you think you have cancer, you call an oncologist. If you need new brakes, you call a mechanic. If you need to open a campus in fall 2020 with a safe, positive and meaningful student experience, you should be calling students. 

In the context of StFX: 

StFX consulted students on many things during the pandemic, and students have been consulted on most practices so far. However, the liability waiver and associated communication plans were a colossal oversight.  If this document was discussed with one student, the concerns of many would have quickly come to light. Putting the contents of the waiver aside, any student could have pointed out issues in the communications that came out with the wavier. These issues range from lack of understanding of the purpose of the document, what signing the document means, and lack of framing of what StFX will be doing to keep them safe. In the same email the waiver was sent out in, a document outlining StFX’s re-opening plan was added — but the efforts and value of that document were lost by the ugliness of a legal waiver. What undergraduate student truly understands legal jargon? A bigger question that I have is, what outcomes (potential student strike, negative media coverage, and broken trust with the student body) could have been avoided if students were involved with the design and communications of this document from the beginning?

Now, what should the next steps of StFX be? 

Most people understand that attending university in person during fall 2020 will have risks associated with it. Of course, re-opening in a pandemic requires different rules, policies, procedures, actions and responsibilities from both students and the university. I haven’t spoken to a person who believes otherwise. However, a lack of communication and collaboration with students led us to where we are today.

My recommendation to StFX would be:

  1. To modify the one-sided waiver released to a collaborative, approachable document satisfactory to students and the university;
  2. To run a survey to get a sense of the concerns from students and publish the collected concerns;
  3. To run focus groups with students who are willing to participate in more detailed conversation; and 
  4. Bring together a group of StFX staff, faculty, and, most importantly, students to write a contract that will be signed by StFX students and the university with the expectations and accountability measures for both groups. 
  5. Communicate, communicate, communicate.

As a final thought, I point back to a quote StFX’s strategic plan: 

StFX will not be defined by our reaction to unforeseen roadblocks; rather, we will be known for our ability to prepare ourselves and our students for a tomorrow that won’t resemble today.

StFX 2017-2022 Strategic Plan

COVID-19 is a challenge that hit the entire world as an unforeseen roadblock, and tomorrow will look different than today. It isn’t too late to better communications and open dialog with students for better policies, procedures and communications. The final question I pose to StFX is, how do you want to be looked at in a post-COVID world? Do you want to be known as a transformative, collaborative, and student-centred institution or defined as an institution that fell victim to COVID-19?  

Tiffany MacLennan | @tiffmaclennan (twitter) 

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