President Wendler Announces Plans for Fall 2021

You may remember this time last year, after consulting with the constituency group leaders of the Faculty Senate, Staff Council, and Student Government, various perspectives were shared regarding the fall 2020 semester return. At that time, we were entering a tunnel of unknowns. Due to the continued impact of COVID-19 on our day-to-day operating protocols, my perspective is clear. We can expect fall 2021 to be very different from what we experienced in fall 2020 and more closely akin to what we are accustomed. 

COVID-19 impacts will create differences in how we conduct our affairs for the foreseeable future. For example, we are beginning to plan special events, such as the Phoenix Banquet, to recognize distinguished alumni next fall. We expect that event will occur in a relatively "normal" setting, but we will also be accommodating social-distancing options for guests. We now have the option to better live stream event ceremonies as part of our planning. It is safe to say we will provide more flexible options for human psychological and physiological comfort than we might have in the past. We could lament this or accept the challenges of recognizing individual choices and comfort levels to conduct our affairs in a way that is responsive to a complex and ever changing community. I believe the West Texas A&M University community will concur with me and choose the latter.

In anticipation of different safety protocol requirements and modes of operation for the fall 2021 semester, I share with you observations from our various constituency group leaders. To open the dialogue, on January 28, 2021, I sent a letter to the constituency group leaders with the following discussion questions:

  1. Has remote work been effective from your perspective?
  2. Are there special challenges that have arisen with digital teaching, learning, advising, or hybridized activity that you did not anticipate or have been amplified with a year of experience?
  3. Do you sense that as we return to increased face-to-face interaction (and the general assumption is that significantly more face-to-face interaction will exist in the fall semester), there will be hurdles created by a year of remote work?
    1. If that is the case, do you have suggestions about making the transition most effective?
  4. Do people in your respective groups miss the typical day-to-day interactions on the campus of West Texas A&M University? I have a bias that suggests people are social, and the limitation or diminishment of in-person interaction may have unintended and unpleasant consequences. Again, if a more standard set of day-to-day interactions are deemed valuable, are there some techniques or ideas that we might implement to facilitate a more productive return to the fall semester.
  5. Thinking back to the ideas of citizenship from each of your respective constituencies, are there things that faculty, staff, students, and administration might do as groups that could be unique to each in support of all?

As expected, the viewpoints of the constituency groups provided solid answers to the questions and provided other insights regarding the fall 2021 semester return. Each of the constituency responses are posted on the University's COVID-19 webpage. I appreciate the work of the groups and their attention to these matters.

The Texas A&M University System has suggested returning to "normal" operations after June 1, 2021. In its wisdom, the A&M System Board and Chancellor John Sharp understand and appreciate local variations related to COVID-19 that may require or allow different responses to the general guidelines that have been promulgated. As we reflect on what will best serve West Texas A&M University, the observations provided by and through the constituency groups and local circumstances will indeed impact our decision-making. I will attempt to summarize the observations of the groups shaping our decisions, accepting responsibility for any misunderstanding in capturing the essence of the various suggestions and observations.

Faculty Senate

The Faculty Senate membership was used in an "…informal process whereby faculty centers engaged with their immediate constituents and collated any input received in a synoptic summary." Many faculty appreciated the diligent work by many to maintain some form of normalcy during the pandemic. Remote work is deemed to be reasonably effective, with disciplinary differences cited in terms of instructional modes. Benefits of remote work were also reported. Additionally, it was stressed that remote work is not a "valid substitute" for the normal interactions in didactic and tutorial instruction.

One result, especially during the spring 2021 semester, has been extended utilization of high-flex instruction, whereby students have options of attending class personally or remotely. My perspective concurs with the general sense of the faculty that, while the convenience of such instruction seems positive, its effectiveness is open to critical questions. As I have walked the hallways and observed classrooms, classes that would typically have 20 to 30 students might have six or seven students. I spent over two decades in classrooms ranging in size from large lectures of over 200 students to more intimate tutorial settings where instruction was essentially one-on-one. While there may be a place for alternatives to face-to-face instruction, overall there is a cost we do not yet fully understand when face-to-face is eliminated. I believe the faculty are aware of this cost and suggest that high-flex instruction should "only be used as a last resort" or when it enhances student learning outcomes. I make this observation recognizing that faculty also appreciated the immediate context and the institutional response. Because of COVID-19, we were left with few alternatives, and we did what West Texans do by making the best of the situation. 

Through all of this, I see the depth of ownership and responsiveness that made our efforts a success. Having done some online teaching, I concur with the faculty observation that they felt they were "always working" at the house. Students would contact faculty day and night expecting immediate responses, further illustrating that being a student online is fundamentally different than being a student in a face-to-face setting.

The faculty generally appreciated the opportunity to anticipate a more normal return to teaching/learning environments this fall.  Faculty encourage their colleagues and University leadership to "take stock" of what we have learned through COVID-19. Some healing time will be required. "Patience and understanding that we are all doing our best to catch up…" is a valid and powerful observation. Faculty expressed the power of a well-functioning university as a social organization that requires much human energy and has great impact on many individuals.

Thankfully, as the intellectual leaders of this excellent University, the faculty are hopeful about the future and look forward to the face-to-face interaction that are the hallmark of our university experience.

Staff Council

The Staff Council commends the WT family for demonstrating a steadfast commitment to the University well-being during the height of the pandemic outbreak.

The effectiveness of remote work served its purpose of personal and institutional safety. However, the challenges were significant. For example, some employees could not work from home due to the nature of their positions. Employees encountered additional challenges related to completion of tasks in a timely manner, having adequate equipment to work at home, and swiftly developing social interactions virtually versus face-to-face contact.

Staff believe maintaining a level of flexibility and providing governing consistency across departments provides equality, improved accessibility to other employees, as well as a safe and comfortable environment.

Even in the face of obstacles, everyone's work over the past year indicates that WT staff devotion and commitment are an essential part of the success of this University. Overall, staff have "missed the typical day-to-day interactions" and are "ready and excited" to return to normal in fall 2021.

Student Government 

The Student Government polled campus student leaders to collect data revealing that students believe the virtual world exposed challenges that encompassed the quality of education and technology, classroom workload, and the inability to continue working on-campus jobs. Student respondents "miss typical day-to-day interactions in all areas of campus life" and recommend "removing the mask mandate."

The majority of students do not foresee obstacles for the fall 2021 semester. However, 24.25% thought, if the pandemic continues as in the past, classroom work ethic and attendance apathy, proper mask-wearing, and living on campus requirements would be hurdles to overcome. Students favor upholding enhanced open educational resources and virtual integration options when returning to face-to-face instruction, but think hybrid instruction should be considered a "last resort." 

Students asked they continue to be part of the decision making process as it relates to their educational experiences.

These summaries are just that. I think reading the reports have value. There are a wide range of decisions to be made as we reopen this summer and prepare for the fall. We will need your help and consideration as we do our best to accommodate the needs of a wide range of individuals on campus. We will do our best to accommodate the diverse needs and local circumstances that may dictate changes in our approach. Please stay tuned to announcements regarding the June 1 return to normal operations. 

Thank you so much for your service to West Texas A&M University.

On, On Buffaloes.

Walter V. Wendler