Shortly after the onset of the pandemic, I had the opportunity to convene a group of national higher education leaders to learn how they had responded in the weeks following the closure of many college and university campuses. Joining me in that conversation was Dr. Mary Marcy, president of Dominican University in California. Much of the attention in the early days of campus closures seemed to focus on large universities and statewide systems — largely because of the numbers of students impacted and the magnitude of the response needed to ensure connectivity and the continuity of support services. I wanted a different perspective.
What I learned from talking with President Marcy was how the response of a small campus, such as Dominican, might actually signal the promise and potential of other small colleges on the other side of this public health crisis.
Prior to the pandemic, President Marcy had authored The Small College Imperative: Models for Sustainable Futures. Its lessons are more relevant now than ever.
In this interview, President Marcy and I talk about Dominican’s early response to the crisis, lessons learned that can inform the future of small colleges, and why she plans to reopen (in-person) this fall.
Alison Griffin: Walk me through Dominican University’s response to the pandemic. What happened in the first few weeks, and how did that change in the months that followed?
Mary Marcy: It has been an intense few months! In late February, when we started hearing the warnings about the growing spread of COVID-19, I activated our Incidence Response Team in order to monitor developments. As we approached spring break, we requested that all students and employees complete a travel form so that the university was alerted to anyone who may need additional follow-up upon their return to campus. We ended up needing those forms more than we might have imagined, as President Trump’s Executive Order – which stopped travel to and from Europe – was issued during our spring break. We monitored our study away groups and were able to get everyone safely home.
Things escalated quickly, and by March 9, my cabinet had moved from meeting weekly to convening daily. On March 16, we were ready to launch a week of intense on-site professional development training for faculty and staff to prepare for the possibility of remote teaching and work. On that day, we were quite literally sitting in a Cabinet meeting when the Bay Area became the first in the nation to issue a shelter in place order — instead of a week to design our remote learning and work, we had a few hours. It was startling and intense, but we did it.
For an industry known for lugubriousness, the rapid and successful move to remote work and learning was extraordinary. Our faculty quickly adapted to delivering their courses online while retaining that important Dominican commitment to creating a community of learners. They maintained meaningful online interactions with students through Zoom, providing content through lectures and then context for that content through smaller discussion groups. They worked with community partners to ensure many service-learning, clinical, and internship placements were able to continue through the semester. Our staff ensured that support systems and business operations continued without interruption. It was intense, complex, unprecedented — all the things that you hear about. I’m proud that we pulled it off, and did so with real quality.
Alison: How are your fall plans shaping up? What data or which organizations are influencing your decision to re-open in-person instruction in the coming months?
Mary: We intend to conduct in-person courses this fall. Our mission, as embodied by The Dominican Experience, will not change, but some things will look different. We will have more structured schedules, even smaller classes, and a lot of flexibility as we adapt to evolving public health protocols. The close-knit community and sense of engagement will remain intact; if anything, we have bonded as a campus through this experience. We are fortunate that our spacious campus grounds allow for community even as we employ best public health protocols. Our relatively small size means there are almost no large classes in our curriculum, and will allow us to continue to be nimble.
I have appointed a cross-functional task force to develop a comprehensive plan to prepare the campus for fall 2020. Its members are designing in- and out-of-class protocols that will enable us to remain flexible while continuing in-person work and learning in a healthy environment. Fortunately, these efforts will not be as difficult for us compared with larger schools or those in denser urban areas. The team also is identifying the technology, training, policy, and infrastructure needed to offer our high-impact learning experiences in hybrid or remote delivery contexts if necessary. We will ensure that students have equitable access to learning in any scenario.
Alison: Not long before the pandemic began, you released a book that looked at the challenges ahead for small colleges — and the ways in which those institutions could prepare for the road ahead. What do you see as the role of small colleges in helping the country recover from the impacts of the pandemic?
Mary: Higher education is a complex ecosystem, and many facets of that ecosystem – particularly small colleges – are under severe financial stress, dramatically exacerbated by the pandemic. In many smaller and rural areas, the small college is the key economic driver. What would happen if the college – the area’s main employer and job creator – disappeared?
There is no doubt that this nation needs the economic and social opportunities generated by its small colleges and universities, and small colleges and universities must become full partners in the economic and social recovery of the nation.
The contribution of small colleges focuses primarily on the student, not on research or athletics or one of the many other strands of large institutions. It is these small institutions that will nurture the personal and professional skills students need to be gainfully employed and contribute to society.
We have a signature program that we call the Dominican Experience that touches every student regardless of their major. Every student has an integrative coach from the time they enroll all the way to and beyond graduation who helps them with a guided pathway through college. Every student also has some type of community-engaged learning. Every student has a signature experience of their own before they graduate, and every student has a digital portfolio that helps them reflect while in college — and represents their best work as they move on to graduate school or apply for jobs. Dominican’s student retention and persistence to graduation has increased dramatically in the last decade, largely because of the Dominican Experience.
Alison: In the wake of COVID-19, how do you think the playbook for small colleges will need to change? And, equally importantly, how will it stay the same?
Mary: The pandemic is highlighting issues of equity, access and stress on the business models. There is an urgent need to explore alternative ways to finance higher education. There are some interesting new consortia and partnerships just starting to emerge, and I talk about some of them in my book — from new online consortia designed to increase programs and lower cost, to creative new partnerships that capitalize on aligned institutional strengths. The reality is that the financial model is not working for too many campuses and too many students. As student demographics continue to shift, the need for new models becomes more urgent. If higher education is to be the great equalizer, then that means that opportunity cannot be available only to a select few.
One of the most under-appreciated aspects of independent higher education is how many first-generation students, Pell-eligible students, and underrepresented students attend and are successful in these institutions. That is not true across the board, of course, but it is true at a large number of these campuses. Dominican is not an exception — we often say that Dominican students look like California, which means they look like the future of the United States. Well over half of our students are students of color, most are from underrepresented groups. About a third are Pell-eligible and one quarter the first in their family to go to college. A big part of our work in the last few years has been responding to this student demographic and ensuring our students are successful. Dramatic increases in our graduation rate and post-graduation satisfaction means we are succeeding. Yet we have work left to do in making that education accessible and continuing to improve our graduation rates.
Alison: What has inspired you amidst this crisis? What lessons are you learning that you hope the institution will embrace in the years to come?
Mary: I am inspired by the way communities have come together to solve problems in the best interests of the larger good.
One example: Many of our hospitals and health care facilities suspended clinical rotations for students due to COVID-19, and for a while it looked like many of our seniors would not be able to complete enough clinical hours to graduate. Our nursing faculty reached out to a long-time community partner to turn a face-to-face program serving vulnerable and at-risk elderly clients living in rural areas of our county into a telenursing program. The Board of Registered Nurses approved the program, and more than 30 of our nursing students were able to complete the clinical hours needed to graduate. The nonprofit and its clients were thrilled that they were still able to interact with our nursing students during the crisis. This was a tremendous example of compassionate nursing care. Some of the students are continuing to volunteer their time over the summer.
Our faculty shifted their delivery almost overnight, yet they were able to maintain that close connection with their students. Our students – especially our graduating seniors – overcame disappointments and focused on the task at hand. And, everyone got really creative! Internships were completed, research was presented, lab work continued, and our student athletes remained part of a team.
I hope we can continue that spirit of looking for the common good, and leading with compassion, as we address other profound issues such as race, equity, and access and emerge from the pandemic.