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Leading Wilkes During the Pandemic: A Conversation with Interim President Paul Adams ’77

A deserted campus, heartbroken members of the senior class, remote learning, financial challenges and maintaining the health, safety and well-being of students faculty and staff. These are just a few of the issues facing interim President Paul Adams ’77 and his team since early March 2020. In this question-and-answer story, Adams talks about how the University responded to the pandemic and considers the future of Wilkes in a post-COVID-19 world. 

When did you begin to convene a team to deal with the pandemic and how often did you meet? 

The emerging pandemic came on the radar when Justin Kraynack, assistant vice president and chief of operations for risk and compliance management, and Mark Allen, interim vice president of student affairs, put together a team to anticipate a Wilkes response in the latter days of February. They were anticipating some of the challenges that could come with the upcoming spring break trips. The first task force meeting was on Feb. 26.  The travel guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention involved just a few countries at that point – China, Iran, Hong Kong, Italy. 

At what point did you realize that this was a situation unlike any other that Wilkes has faced?

As we grew closer to our spring break, given the travel advisories at the time, we were able to allow our students to travel. I think we had only one student decide not to go on any of our spring break trips because of the virus. 

Our students were on break as cases began to surge worldwide and pressures began to build. We received some concerns (just a couple) from a community member and students and parents that we had travelers returning from Europe from spring break, although none were in any (CDC) level one or two countries. Schools whose breaks were scheduled in the weeks after ours made the decision to extend their spring breaks – pending more information becoming available. Our early spring break, from Feb. 28 to March 8, turned out to be advantageous for our spring athletes because it gave them an opportunity to play some contests that were early on their schedules. What a blessing that timing turned out to be as sports seasons were eventually canceled!

By late afternoon on Wednesday, March 11, I realized we needed to finally make the decision to go to remote learning. We announced to the campus on Thursday morning, March 12.

I have always been struck by how quickly the landscape changed – not by the day, but by the hour. We made decisions based on the best information we had at the time, and then would find out shortly thereafter that everything we decided was already outdated. We were continuously disappointed to have to make more and more restrictive decisions to protect our campus community. 

I am so grateful to all of my colleagues for the support and counsel they have provided me. As impressed as I have always been with them, this experience has only served to raise my admiration for and gratitude to them. We have a bond through this experience we won’t forget. We have come to appreciate each other’s gifts and the efforts all have made to support each other and our students and colleagues.

Can you describe the process that you and other senior leadership have used to arrive at key decisions? 

We used four criteria to guide our decision-making:

  1. First, we must do all we can to protect the health and safety of students, faculty and staff and their families by sharing resources and information.
  2. We need to be certain that we are responsive and proactive in our responses to the changing and urgent needs of the members of our community.
  3. We need to support our faculty and staff to deliver high-quality remote education and services to enable our students to make progress toward their degrees. And
  4. We need to act to preserve the future of Wilkes by continuing to recruit our incoming class and retain those students who have already chosen us. And, at the same time keep our mission and goals front of mind.

Early on I suppose we were all naïve about the impact and extent of the pandemic and wanted to be optimistic that we would get through this faster than we could. I think we were also sensitive to make decisions that needed to be made to keep everyone safe, but to do so in an incremental way so as not to discourage everyone before they had an opportunity to come to terms with the depth of the crisis on their own. 

Communications have been vitally important as the campus community has worked remotely. Can you talk about the variety of ways you have chosen to communicate?

I would emphasize how important it was to have a vehicle to communicate with the campus. Establishing the Wilkes coronavirus web page proved invaluable for getting our messages out. The page had a feature that allowed us to answer questions from students, faculty, staff and families. 

In addition to that page, it has been important for me and other members of the senior administrative team to provide clear and candid communications about new developments and changing policies impacting our University community. These have taken the form of email messages from me, our provost, Terese Wignot, and others. Finally I have found using social media – Facebook and Instagram – great ways to share informal messages, often with videos, to help maintain our sense of community.

The decisions that have been required in have been especially hard for seniors in the Class of 2020. How difficult has it been for you as president to make decisions impacting that particular group of students?

I think nothing was as heartbreaking for us than to think about the impact on seniors and their families in their last semester. Our graduating students had worked so hard and achieved so much. And, now these life-altering events took away something that was uniquely theirs – a final semester on campus with their friends, classmates and faculty – celebrating all the milestones and traditions that are attendant to their final semester and graduation. And we mourn the loss of all the last athletic contests, theater performances, or conference trips – all the experiences that are missed.

What moments stand out for you as faculty, staff and students have dealt with this unprecedented time?

I think one moment was having to console seniors for the sense of loss they were feeling and not being able to provide any assurance as to when we will be able to have a commencement ceremony to recognize their achievements. (Note: At press time, the commencement ceremony was rescheduled for Saturday, Sept. 12, 2020.) Certainly there have been other difficult moments: learning that students have been exposed through their families after returning home and then contracting the virus themselves; learning that a student lost his father due to complications of the virus; and hearing that one our undergraduates, who while home was seriously injured in an ATV accident, could not have her family with her because of Covid-19 restrictions, while being treated for the trauma in emergency and ICU.

Probably the most agonizing decision for me to date was whether or not to send our 90-plus students from Panama home. We chose to keep them on campus.

I have felt so blessed at this time to be living on campus in the McCole House – being able to go to the office every day and ”hold down the fort” at Weckesser Hall. With each passing day, fewer and fewer visits to campus were being made by our colleagues. I am always so grateful to see our facilities, public safety, mailroom and dining service staffs who are deemed “essential” and keep all things running. It is, perhaps, the most beautiful time of the year on campus – first the cherry trees, forsythia and daffodils bloomed. Next came the azaleas and tulips – eventually the dogwoods! The campus looks so wonderful and I feel privileged to still be able to enjoy it. There are still some students in the neighborhood apartments. While few people are wandering the sidewalks, it is good to see our students from time to time and be able to check in with them. I’ve always felt connected to campus, but perhaps never more than now. We feel such responsibility for the well-being of all — campus, students, staff, faculty, alums, neighborhood. It can feel daunting at this unprecedented moment in time, but we never lose sight of the privilege it is!

You have a decades-long association with Wilkes. Can you reflect on what this time is like in contrast to the many other times you have known?

In all my decades at Wilkes, I’ve been through some challenging moments – three “near-flood” scares (one of which resulted in us evacuating the campus), student deaths, fires, serious injuries — but none, of course, that touched so many in what will be such a long-lasting and profound way. None of us, yet, can begin to imagine how Wilkes will be impacted for the long-term by the pandemic. I have to believe that the University, just like all of us, will be transformed by this moment in history. I try and tell everyone with whom I speak, that the Wilkes they left on March 13, won’t be the Wilkes they return to when all is safe for the campus to reopen. The uncertainty of when and how this will end makes this challenge so much more confounding and daunting than what we have experienced before. At this point, we have no idea for what we are preparing. We have to plan for the short-, medium- and long-term. We are scenario-planning for several different outcomes. 

Much of the decision-making has involved dealing with immediate concerns. What are some long-term issues that you foresee for Wilkes as a result of the pandemic?

The COVID-19 pandemic and associated economic disruptions arrive at a time that was already challenging for U.S. higher education. Flat or shrinking enrollments, intense competition over students, increased tuition discounting, rising costs and shifting demand preferences were among the challenges colleges and universities were already managing. Those challenges have been exacerbated by COVID-19 and we do not know what the long-term financial implications will be for Wilkes and other higher education institutions. 

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, we have had to focus on operational triage. With the most immediate triage completed, it is time to contemplate what’s next:

  1. When will we be able to resume on-campus operations?
  • What will be the pace, scale and depth of action required by the University to respond to the pandemic and all its effects?
  • How will the pandemic impact social norms, our sense of community and how we manage events?
  • Will students in the fall want to return to a residential setting? Will first-year students and new transfer students still be willing to come away to college? Will families impacted financially be able to afford to attend Wilkes? For the foreseeable future, how will the pandemic change how students and their families choose their college or university?
  • How will the experience of remote learning this semester influence student and faculty perceptions of online learning?
  • Where are we most at risk? Where can we be most resilient?
  • What unique opportunities present themselves at this moment in time that may have been out of our reach or seemingly unimaginable?
  • As we adapt to a new normal, how do we keep our eye on continuing to become better, not just surviving?
  • How will our view of working and learning remotely change in the post-viral world?
  1. What adjustments will need to be made in programs across the University in the wake of a smaller student population?

What would you want future generations of Colonels to know about what happened at Wilkes during this time?

That this was a difficult moment for everyone. We all had to adjust our lives and our plans to safeguard public health and the well-being of all those around us. That everyone worked together to do what was right even though it meant we had to give up those things that we cherished the most. 

The core of my feelings were expressed in the letter that I sent to the campus community on March 18. 

Interim President Paul Adams ’77 MS ’82 has made communication with the campus community a priority during the pandemic. Here he is seen in the Weckesser boardroom waiting to confer with members of the senior team on the last day before campus was closed. Photo by Steve Husted/Knot Just Any Day

Editor’s Note: The campus community received the following letter from Paul Adams, Interim President on March 18, 2020

Dear Students, Colleagues and Families,

In the past few days I’ve written to you with operational details of how we will move forward with delivery of our curriculum. Today, however, I wanted to write with a more personal message to convey the University’s commitment to all of you in this unprecedented moment.

Every day at noon, the carillon in the Burns Bell Tower has played our Alma Mater. In the first verse of our Alma Mater are these words: honorfaith and couragetruth and loyalty. These have always been guiding words for our experience at Wilkes. At this time of uncertainty, as we plan our short- and long-term response to COVID-19, these seven words have resonance for us as we continue to reach out to you with the latest news from campus.

First, I want you to know that we honor the experience you, our students, colleagues and alumni have at Wilkes. We are doing everything we can to assure the continuity of your experience, but we will do so in a way that places your health and safety foremost in our concern.

Second, we have faith that this is a temporary situation and we will find our way through this — with patience, resolve and care for one another.

Third, we all need to have the courage to face this adversity head-on. While we are unclear how long we will all be away from campus, we won’t lose our bearings and we will continue to remember those values that make Wilkes unique and special for all of us. A hallmark of a Wilkes education is that we extract wisdom from our experience. We will capitalize on our past experiences in this moment of challenge, and we will call upon all we know about our students and their families, our colleagues, our alumni and our community to restore the experience at Wilkes that we have come to value.

Fourth – truth. We are committed to keeping you informed of the latest news from campus and sharing that with you in a timely way. And, we pledge to do that forthrightly and candidly.

And lastly – loyalty. We have been so touched by the responses we’ve received all across campus from every one of our constituencies who have pulled together to provide support for one another. The loyalty that you demonstrate is the spirit of Wilkes that will carry us through this temporary interruption and dislocation.

One of the truths of this COVID-19 pandemic is that things evolve quickly and that decisions we have made on one day may have to be changed the next based on new guidance from local, state and federal authorities. While you are away from campus, please continue to check your Wilkes email and Wilkes’ social medi accounts for the latest updates. You can also find the latest information at our Wilkes COVID-19 web page at www.wilkes.edu/coronavirus. That page also has a resource that allows you to submit your questions to us. We’ll work every day to address those questions and post our answers on the website.

Until we are with you again, please stay well and stay informed. And, through all of this – Be Colonel!

Paul S. Adams ’77 MS ’82, Interim President

Panamanian student Jenifer Nicole Yanez enjoys a solitary meal in the Henry Student Center cafeteria. She was at Wilkes on a study abroad experience for the spring semester and returned home soon after this photo was taken. Another 89 Panamanian students remained at Wilkes, unable to return home during the lockdown. Photo by Steve Husted/Knot Just Any Day

Office of Admissions turns to online experiences to recruit incoming class

By Kimberly Bower-Spence

The COVID-19 pandemic required a quick pivot by the Office of Admissions.

Besides canceling spring events designed to help high school seniors decide if Wilkes was the right fit for their goals, the closures and economic freefall resulted in many students rethinking not only where they would attend college but if they would attend at all.

Wilkes University responded by offering additional financial assistance, temporarily adapting application requirements, and creating virtual experiences to give students a feel for life at Wilkes.

“We acknowledged the major disruption to the lives of our admitted students and the economic impact on many families,” says Kishan Zuber, vice president for enrollment management and marketing since July 2019. “We were able to ease the financial burden somewhat, particularly for students who may wish to stay closer to home.”

Economic relief awards of $1,000 to $3,000 help local students transferring to Wilkes from another institution for fall 2020 who were impacted financially by COVID-19. These are in addition to merit awards of $9,000 to $16,000. 

Amy Patton, associate director of transfer admissions, says, “There have been a number of transfer students affected by COVID-19, and they’ve been very appreciative of the economic relief awards.” One lost a summer job, and others suffered financial losses due to family businesses being shut down.

Other responses to the crisis included:

  • cutting the tuition deposit in half, to $150;
  • extending the deadline for confirming enrollment to June 1;
  • temporarily waiving the SAT or ACT score application requirement (excluding pharmacy and nursing applicants) due to test cancellation;
  • allowing applicants to submit unofficial transcripts and test scores for evaluation, with an admission decision contingent upon receipt of official documents when available.

The pandemic canceled Accepted Students Day, a signature spring event that introduces admitted students to life at Wilkes. New Colonels normally meet classmates, talk to current students, get to know potential roommates, and attend mini classes with professors in their majors.

“That experience is crucial to helping these students make an informed decision about where they want to invest the next four years of their lives,” says Zuber. “While you can’t replace that in-person experience, our staff quickly created online experiences to engage students and start to build community.”

In just two weeks, the Admissions and Marketing Communications offices launched the Wilkes University Virtual Experience. The webpage, found at wilkes.edu/experience, immerses students in blue and gold by curating the virtual tour, numerous student videos, and welcome messages from recent alumni. It allows admitted students to schedule virtual face-to-face meetings with admissions and financial aid counselors. And it encourages connection to a Facebook group dedicated to the incoming class.

Plus, the webpage features brief online lectures from numerous professors throughout the University, highlighting Wilkes scholarship. For instance, students could check out criminology professor Andrew Wilczak’s talk on “Serial Killers in America,” integrative media faculty member Lisa Reynolds’ insights on “Politics in Design,” or pharmacy professor Judith DeLuca’s lecture “How to Mend a Broken Heart.” The site was also adapted for high school juniors and sophomores.

The Office of Admissions hosted Accepted Student Week April 26 to May 1, bringing admitted students together via the web-based online videoconferencing tool Zoom. The week included sessions with faculty, a virtual mixer, and discussions of financial aid, student life, residence life and career development. The week culminated with Blue and Gold Day on May 1. 

Ian Schreffler, associate director of admissions, says families thanked him for the extra efforts. “We’ve been very transparent and open with our communication, and we’ve been very available.”

Senior biology and secondary education major Seth Platukis studies at the kitchen table in his family’s home in Weston, Pa. With the transition of University classes to remote learning, family kitchens, dining rooms and other spaces became classrooms for Wilkes students. Photo courtesy of Seth Platukis

Wilkes Faculty and Students Persevere Via Remote Learning 

By Vicki Mayk MFA ’13

Thomas Franko, Wilkes University associate professor of pharmacy practice, says he tries to present class material in a way that is both entertaining and engaging. Maintaining that philosophy was put to the test when classes moved to a remote learning format because of COVID-19. 

As Franko delivered video lectures, he still included amusing stories and popular culture references to superheroes and villains from the Marvel film universe. But it’s not the same as teaching face-to-face. 

“It’s delivering a performance without an audience,” Franko says. 

Many Wilkes faculty shared his experience while teaching online. An initial decision to move to remote learning was made on March 13 with plans to return to campus on April 6. With an escalating number of Covid-19 cases and the announcement on March 16 that Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf was closing all nonessential businesses – including colleges and universities – it was necessary to finish the semester online. 

In preparation for moving to a remote learning format, faculty attended workshops with the Office of Technology for Teaching and Learning. Photo by Steve Husted/Knot Just Any Day

When classes transitioned to remote formats, the staff in the Office of Technology for Teaching and Learning moved quickly to assist faculty. It was a significant undertaking for a small staff. Associate provost Jonathan Ference PharmD ’03 praised their work, saying, “Consider they are a staff of five who support 5,000 online (undergraduate and graduate) students and 200 full-time faculty. They’ve done an incredible job.” The teaching and learning team provided one-on-one tutorials, webinars and workshops to ensure that faculty had tools to teach in the virtual space. They continue to supply support. 

Resources include the University’s multi-faceted online learning platform, Desire2Learn, a video platform called Panopto, Zoom and many other online teaching and learning resources. Some faculty met with students in synchronous sessions, holding virtual classes in real time on the hours and days they would have met on campus. Others took an asynchronous approach, recording lectures and providing course materials to be accessed whenever students choose during the week. 

Making real-time classes optional was done for practical reasons. Mia Briceno, associate professor of communications studies ,says not all of her students have consistent internet access. “My biggest concern was being as fair and humane as possible,” says Briceno. 

University Provost Terese Wignot agrees, saying a sensitivity to student needs was at the forefront of many decisions. “On the academic side, students are going to remember how the University treated them at this time. None of us knows what each student is experiencing during the pandemic.

Environmental engineering students Jill Weston and Scott Heffelfinger take advantage of the free Wifi that Wilkes made available in the parking lot behind the University Center on Main for students without internet access. The pair, who are roommates living near campus, chose to remain there during the lockdown. Photo courtesy Scott Heffelfinger ’20

Wilkes administration knew student access to technology varied. The University loaned laptops, but other students struggled with internet access at home. With social distancing, using public places for available Wifi was not viable. By mid-April, Ference states, “We had deployed upwards of 50 computers. I’ve shipped over 20 hotspots to students. Some days I’m in UPS twice a day shipping hotspots.” Wilkes made wifi available in the parking lot behind the University Center on Main and nearby students parked in cars to access it. 

Classes in all academic disciplines were tasked with finding creative solutions for remote learning and fulfilling academic assignments. Meeting clinical requirements for pharmacy and nursing posed special challenges. For fourth-year pharmacy students, it means they will not complete requirements until late May, more than two weeks after their original planned graduation. Please see the sidebar on this page for other examples of remote learning solutions. 

An awareness that students might be feeling economic stresses, dealing with serious illness in their families and working jobs led Wilkes to institute an optional satisfactory/pass/withdrawal grading policy, which students can choose on a course-by-course basis. The policy was developed with input from faculty. 

Creative Solutions Helped Transition Classes to Remote Formats

  • Science and engineering faculty filmed themselves doing lab demonstrations and required students to make calculations based on results. Others used software packages that included laboratory simulations. 
  • A portfolio review of the work of digital design and media arts students conducted by design industry professionals, was moved to the virtual space. 
  • Education students completed student teaching requirements via online platforms. They also created activities to post online or send home in hard copy.  
  • Engineering students completed senior projects by presenting the work done to date and outlining next steps needed to complete projects face-to-face. 
  • Pharmacy faculty delivered the Objective Structured Clinical Exam using the Zoom video conferencing platform. The exam for students entering their final pharmacy year includes interacting with 12 different people who role play patients with different health care issues. 
The Wilkes campus, deserted during the shutdown cause by the COVID-19 pandemic, waits for the return of its Colonels. Photo by Steve Husted/Knot Just Any Day

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