On college campuses across the country, the pandemic was a disaster in many different ways. Schools faced tough choices when deciding whether to return fully to in-person instruction. What if their decision-making process ran something like this imaginative scenario?
Nearly every college campus accepted the need to go remote in the spring semester of 2020. But the fall semester at the time looked like a different story. On this particular campus, the administration first pushed for a full reopening, then shifted to remote learning for most students. When the campus became a hot spot, it became remote for everyone. This created a backlash, where the administration was faulted for the lack of transparency and allowing financial considerations to dominate their decision-making process.
To address these accusations, the administration changed its decision-making process when they were creating their policies for spring 2021. For guidance on making their decision-making process more inclusive, they consulted with Amber Dennison, a faculty member who taught public deliberation processes.
Dennison had the university start with a series of focus groups to identify possibilities for the spring semester. Each focus group included student, faculty, staff and administration representation. The focus groups ensured that diverse stakeholder views were represented in each focus group.
Each focus group was tasked with identifying and weighing possibilities for the then upcoming semester. Each group started with a unique scenario representing a possible pandemic-related situation. The scenarios were designed to generate a range of possibilities in response to the scenarios. The focus groups were conducted on Zoom and facilitated by Dennison’s students.
Once the focus groups completed their work, the possibilities were clustered to represent different options for the upcoming semester. Dennison facilitated a small group of student, faculty, staff, and administration to identify the clusters.
Once the clusters were developed, the next step was to identify probable outcomes of each cluster for different scenarios. Dennison emphasized that these outcomes contained a full range of impacts (e.g. enrollment, financial, learning, etc.) rather just focusing on one dominant concern. The impacts were rated in terms of likelihood of occurring.
The outcome assessments were summarized in a contingency planning document for review by the President’s cabinet and the trustees. Dennison facilitated this discussion with the goal of finalizing the plan for the upcoming semester. The plan contained both the details of what was decided and also the rationale behind it. Contingencies were included to address situations that might arise. The plan was presented to the campus community in a series of facilitated conversations.
Responding to disruptive forces works best when there is a transparent process that is developed by those with the know-how for inclusive engagement. Unfortunately, transparency is too often a PR ploy to give the illusion of openness. A process such as the one described here is an example of how collaborative discussions can lead to an honest, transparent process that gives everyone a voice.
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“A lack of transparency results in distrust and a deep sense of insecurity.” – Dalai Lama
This post is part of our “Think About” education series. These posts are based on composites of real-world experiences, with some details changed for the sake of anonymity. New posts appear Wednesday afternoons.