Meet my two protagonists. Lee Kramer thrives on the energy of his college campus. As Director of Student Life at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business for the past 13 years, Lee and his staff deliver a rich co-curricular experience to 2400 undergraduate students. His office suite is on the ground level of the round and domed Huntsman Hall, just across Locust Walk from a statue of Ben Franklin sitting on a bench. Across the country, Chris Dito responds to the frenetic hum of another world-class campus. She serves as Executive Director of UC Berkeley’s Management, Entrepreneurship, & Technology program, going about her day cultivating relationships and building programs to introduce her students to a wide array of career opportunities. Chris can get out on most days and enjoy the East Bay sun from Sproul Plaza, the famed site of countless teach-ins, protests, and rallies through the years.
Lee and Chris have some things in common. They lead programs to meet developmental and professional needs of some of this nation’s most driven college students. They work at highly regarded institutions with expansive campuses and vast infrastructures. They are at the top of their professional games, both leveraging expansive networks of academic, staff, and external colleagues. And, for the first time in their careers, Lee Kramer and Chris Dito are doing this important work from their homes, Chris in her airy modern home in Northern California, and Lee in his tony high-rise apartment in Center City, Philadelphia. That’s where they will be based for at least the next semester, maybe longer.
Staying Home Wasn’t Part of the Plan
“The tide has turned,” writes senior Chronicle of Higher Education writer Goldie Blumenstyk. “Remote teaching and other operations will be a fact of life for most colleges this fall.” As new student orientations and campus move-ins approach, we need only check our daily news feeds to see that one-by-one, colleges are downsizing or eliminating their full experience residential programs, instead calling for students, faculty, and staff to play their roles from the socially distanced safety of their homes. Another Chronicle contributor, Macalester College president Brian Rosenberg, writes “Higher education, in its traditional form, promises many things—vocational preparation, rites of passage, a broadening of the mind—but at its heart it promises closeness.” Dr. Rosenberg goes on to punctuate his theory, “The narrative that draws students to campus is one of community.”
The same is true for faculty and staff, don’t you think? Don’t academic and staff administrators value the narrative of community? They surely do. Nothing beats the sense of place we feel when we stroll through a college campus. With all due respect to the mega-companies that have built out Disneyfied office parks for their employees, for me those sterile corporate office spaces don’t evoke that energy of infinite potential the way our college and university campuses do. Our clustering of green spaces and quads; our bustling student centers; our flier-plastered kiosks and bulletin boards; our sprawling athletic fields; that one hideously ugly building on all of our campuses (you know the one on yours); our “We’re the best and the brightest!” boulevard banners lining the entrance drive—today’s campuses not only nurture the idea of community, they enshrine it.
The Edifice Complex Isn’t New
Since the founding of Harvard in 1636 and William and Mary in 1693, academicians, donors, corporate brass, and eventually campus planners have created inspired communities for learning. In 1819, the founding of the University of Virginia was inspired by Thomas Jefferson’s vision for his ultimate “academical village,” or Central Grounds as UVA insiders call it. Even back then, as Jefferson oversaw the university’s construction from the north terrace of his nearby mountain-top Monticello, our young universities prized their footprints, developing spaces to enhance intellectual growth and to ensure meaningful connections among learners and teachers.
Fast forward a few hundred years to 2020. Our built campus communities have become all the more community-conducive, complete with plentiful opportunity for divine happenstance to occur. Think about your favorite campus haunts—like that cozy lounge in the library, or the new see-and-be-seen restaurant where administrative power deals are struck, or the java spot where you stop to chat and perk up your day, or the campus perimeter trail where you power walk to clear your head after a difficult conversation with a colleague. All those special places infuse our sense of connection.
We are different without those places. Today and in the months ahead, many of these places will be empty. Some of them are being partitioned with plexiglass. Others will be adorned with social distancing stickers (stand on the circle until it’s safe to advance to the next circle). For now, so much of community that Dr. Rosenberg defined has gone virtual. Emails and texts have replaced happenstance conversations. For our college leaders at all levels, their leadership is never an individual act. It is always a relationship.
But how will they pivot from leading by geography to leading by telepresence?
When Wishes Come True?
Working from home was an elusive dream for so many of us prior to Covid-19. I remember fondly those occasional WFH days when I was polishing a report for my vice president or completing performance appraisals for my staff. I could get so much done without the inevitable interruptions of sitting at my desk in the office. There was a freedom that came from WFH. I could do laundry, keep an appointment with the repair man, even guilt-pleasure for a short while over the fourth hour of the Today Show. It was fresh. It was comfortable. It felt efficient. If only there could be more of it.
Now there is. Lots more of it.
As of this writing, only one in five schools in the United States plan to resume their operations in person for the fall term, according to the Chronicle. Another 25% have yet to decide.
Three Phases of Telepresence
Since the beginning of 2020, what feels like years ago, I have consulted with administrative teams at four different schools, and I worked with them as they transitioned from their campus offices to their home office. One staff had a mere two hours to vacate their building back in March after a colleague tested positive for Covid-19. As I review my final reports, I can identify three prevalent mindsets that shifted as the days became weeks and the weeks became months. Can you relate to these?
Phase 1: Adrenaline (March—April)
Many I worked with felt a rush in those early months, setting up their home offices, ensuring that they and their teams had the equipment and WIFI they needed, and negotiating the space needs of others at home (e.g. kids, spouses, roommates). No one knew how long this would last, and people would jump on every alert and update from their senior administration to catch the latest in campus closure policies. For those who pined for the comforts and paper files in their offices, one’s status as Essential or Non-essential came with certain rights and cautions with regard to building access. Whether fond of or repulsed by video technology, people quickly mastered Zoom, tinkering with its waiting rooms, vanity backdrops, and screen-share capacity. Leaders commented how busy their days were in this new paradigm. The hours just flew by.
Phase 2: Pride in Execution (May—June)
We’ve got this! A certain work rhythm set in and with it a confidence that even in a virtual space, students’ academic and co-curricular needs could be met. Spring classes ended and virtual commencement exercises were held. I heard the word “gratitude” frequently as clients got more creative and playful in getting their work done in a manner that supported the blended lives into which they were thrust. One research program manager I worked with established a ritual to start and end his work days—including showering, dressing for work, and walking with backpack over his shoulder the 15 feet to his desk in the neighboring room where he joined his wife, at the same desk (well, alright, it was actually their kitchen table).
Phase 3: Running Out of Gas (July—Present)
Yoga in the morning. Zoom Meetings. Run after lunch. More Zoom meetings and desk work. Maybe virtual happy hour with friends. Limited CNN because it’s all so anxiety-producing. Quality time with the kids. Hulu and Netflix before bed. Rinse and repeat. The routines have been perfected. Summer staycations and even some more traditional vacations have happened. But for many, that early adrenaline rush has given way to sinking momentum. Sparking team morale at a virtual all-staff summer retreat is a worthy effort. Yet it’s not the same as bringing people together in a physical space. That community energy that comes from parking gridlock as parents drop off their kids and the bustle of getting classrooms and offices ready for the onslaught—those rituals are not happening for most. As one client asked, “Why am I so exhausted?”
Getting Past Phase 3
Depending on where higher education leaders find themselves in these three phases, could burnout be far off? Richard Mancusco suggests it may be closer than we think. As Co-founder and President of San Francisco start-up, Flourish, Richard and his colleagues develop programs and content to help people prevent and manage burnout. According to him, “One of the biggest impacts we’re seeing is that the high degree of uncertainty in the world is both exacerbating existing problems for those already struggling with burnout and causing new feelings of overwhelm and burnout in individuals who may not have been struggling pre-Covid.”
But aren’t college and university leaders more resilient than that? After all, we work in a world of intellectual inquiry, looking after students who are finding their voice and discovering professions and relationships to fully use that voice. Like our iconic campus communities, we stand for lives well lived and impact made on the lives of others. We model the way for others, right?
Lee and Chris
Back to our two protagonists, Lee at Penn and Chris at Cal. They both embrace the urgency and the opportunity of our current reality. As Lee describes it, “The Pandemic has illustrated the need and importance to be able to pivot. It has shown us that we all have the ability to act quickly, purposely, deliberatively, and proactively—and to do it successfully.” Chris sees tremendous opportunity as she readies her students to shine brightly for potential employers. In her words, no longer do her students need to “get ready to meet with employers in their business casual attire, trek to a location, and wait in some form of line to introduce themselves.” Instead they get to “beam into employer information sessions and feel an immediate sense of connection.”
Either Lee and Chris are mysteriously locked in Phase 2, or maybe they are realizing a new fourth phase, one of Clarity. Could it be that the two of them will leverage this time of continued uncertainty and define a new paradigm of community for their students, their teams, and themselves? Maybe they will fully own their telepresence and be full-on players in a new concept of campus community that will emerge from their creativity and relational leadership styles.
Maybe now could be the most exciting time to be part of a campus community.
About the Photograph
Thanks to Erin of Erin Ashford Photography. Aristotle said, “The soul never thinks without a mental image.” So true. So, when I reached out to my former Silicon Valley downstairs neighbor and go-to-photographer to ask if she might be willing to do a photo shoot to define this article, Erin was eager to collaborate with me. I am so glad she did. Erin’s self-portrait accomplishes all that I imagined: a home office with the necessary tech devices, such as multiple screens and a noise cancelling headset. I wanted it to be in color but with a sense of isolation. Check out Erin’s pink shading; trees outside; light coming through the window; her shadow on the wall; and accurately colorized colleagues on her Zoom call, as if breathing life into the room. And Erin and I wanted we the viewers to be coming up behind her, not in a creepy way, but in a “You’re in my bubble How’s it going? You look like you need a break. Wanna grab some coffee?” kind of way.