MVCC president: Optimistic, but higher ed faces sorting period


The next few months may prove to be a “great sorting period” for higher education as colleges attempt to reopen safely during the COVID-19 pandemic, Mohawk Valley Community College President Randall VanWagoner said during a forum on higher education in upstate New York.

VanWagoner was joined Thursday by Le Moyne College President Linda LeMura in a Zoom panel hosted by Upstate Venture Connect, a non-profit organization promoting entrepreneurship in the region, and the Rochester Beacon news site.

Both colleges plan to reopen in the next few weeks after shutting down in-person classes and most on-campus operations in March as the coronavirus pandemic arrived in New York.

MVCC plans to reopen for the fall term with most lecture classes delivered online or in a blended on-campus and online format, and many lab and technical classes in person.

Space has been rearranged to promote social distancing, and the Utica campus residence hall will be at about 40 percent capacity with all single-occupant rooms.

Similarly, LeMoyne, a private Jesuit-affilated four-year college in Syracuse, plans to open with mostly on campus instruction but with online delivery available, and an extensive screening and quarantine protocol and space for students who test positive, LeMura said.

Both presidents expressed confidence they can open their respective campuses safely for students, faculty, staff and their surrounding communities. LeMura noted the infection rate in Onondaga County is less than 1%. But they also acknowledged that their industry could be in for upheaval as students and their families weigh whether tuition and other costs are worth paying now.

“I think the pandemic has kind of exposed the underbelly of higher ed a little bit in that for those that just want the content they’re going to be able to find the content elsewhere and more conveniently and more cheaply, and connect to employers and jobs who aren’t as interested in credentials as they are about skills,” VanWagoner said.

Leaders in higher education say that the fear is that if too many classes are online and if too few non-classroom activities are curtailed, many students will sit out a term or avoid enrolling altogether, costing schools tuition and other student-based revenue from room and board to activities fees.  

Many institutions have backed off of tuition increases greater than the inflation rate in recent years, but many still rely too heavily on student tuition as their only significant revenue source, LeMura said.

VanWagoner, MVCC president since 2007 and author of “Competing on Culture: Driving Change in Community Colleges,” said colleges who thrive through the pandemic are likely those with an organizational culture of innovation, problem-solving and who know how to get across the value of what they do.

One value of a residential college that may be more difficult to carry out now, VanWagoner said, is helping students build social connections, particularly for those from lower-income situations who lack the kind of networks that lead to opportunities. Many connections are usually made in out-of-class conversations and faculty office hours, but technology might help, he added.

VanWagoner said staff are coming back in staggered groups to help ease the transition, and he he said he speaks often of the importance of getting used to what he calls the new “masked normal.”

“Masks will be with us for quite some time,” he said.

He also acknowledged that faculty have had to work hard to adjust how they teach, saying for many it was “a lost summer.”

At Le Moyne, the situation is seen as an opportunity for students to show they can act responsibly, LeMura said. They will even be given the chance to hold parties in a safe, socially distanced way as they navigate the whole college experience, she added.

“It’s a chance to prove the naysayers wrong and show ... you are perfectly capable on behalf of the greater good.”

Other institutions in Oneida and Madison counties have announced reopening plans:

Hamilton College: The semester was moved up about a week to begin Aug. 24, and end, except for exams, before Thanksgiving. Instructors may teach in person, online or in a combination.

Utica College: In-person instruction will be offered in classes and labs adjusted for social distancing, but faculty are to prepare to teach online if necessary, and students may opt for online.

Residence halls and other facilities will be open but with modifications and changes in procedures. All personnel and students are to be screened daily before entering campus. The term is also starting and ending early to minimize travel.

Colgate University: Students are to be quarantined for two weeks upon return, and while most classes are likely to be in-person, online options will be available.

SUNY-Poly: The college’s plan aims for 55-60% of classes online or in distance learning, and 40-45% face-to-face instruction. A goal is to provide opportunities for first-year and new transfer residential students to attend on-campus or on-campus versions of dual-modality classes in at least three quarters of their classes, and returning students in at least half their courses.


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