Adapting our educational approach to help students succeed

Dan Reed

On the "U Rising" podcast, President Ruth V. Watkins engages in insightful conversations with students, staff, faculty, alumni and community stakeholders who are at the center of the state's flagship research university. President Watkins also connects with other leaders to give listeners a fresh take on top issues and innovations in higher education in Utah and across the country. You can subscribe to U Rising via iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher and other podcast streaming services.

Dan Reed, senior vice president for Academic Affairs, oversees many areas that directly affect the student experience. In this conversation, he shares insights about our move to online instruction, grading options and enrollment. Learn how the U has adapted due to coronavirus and what we are doing to help students succeed. Recorded on Friday, April 17, 2020. Thanks to Brooke Adams and Dave White for technical assistance. Music by Taylor Hartley.

President Ruth Watkins: Welcome to the U Rising podcast where you get to hear from and meet the people who are helping us achieve new heights at the University of Utah. I am Ruth Watkins, president of the U, and my guest today is Dan Reed. Dan is our senior vice president for academic affairs. Welcome, Dan!

SVP Dan Reed: Good morning, President Watkins. Delighted to be here today and talk to people about the great things happening at the U.

President Watkins: Yes, I'm so proud of your leadership over the past months. You have done remarkable things leading your team in academic affairs through some pretty challenging times. I really just want to say thank you for remarkable leadership during an unprecedented time.

SVP Reed: I appreciate those kind words. But as we know, all of this takes a village. It's the work of hundreds, even thousands, of faculty and staff who moved our classes online and positioned the U to continue to support our students.

President Watkins: Yes. Maybe you could talk a little bit about some of the changes you and your team have put into place really rapidly to help support our students through this challenging period.

SVP Reed: One of the things we did immediately was develop training materials for faculty to help shift classes online, to give them a sense of best practices and mechanisms to support students. We expanded our online support for student access, made them aware of the student services that, although they were now available virtually, were absolutely still available. We've continued to reach out to students via social media and other mechanisms to make them aware of those things. And, of course, we changed our core system to support credit, no credit option.

President Watkins: How have students responded to that, Dan?

SVP Reed: Every student is in a different situation and that was part of the reason we wanted to provide flexibility, recognizing some students might want to continue to get grades, and others might find themselves in circumstances that made that challenging. And so by giving them the option, students were able to choose and tailor the best solution for them. And, of course, that was done by having students work with their advisors and with faculty to describe their situation, seek guidance and advice, and then make the best decision for them.

President Watkins: I think that's so important to give students some agency in this and what it is that works best for them. And speaking of that, I think as we look to the summer, we know we're going to stay online through the summer. And I think there are some significant strategic opportunities here for our students. I think your team has worked hard to make those opportunities available to students. Talk a little bit about that.

SVP Reed: Well, remember the summer session includes both the semester long session and two half summer sessions. So, their choices about whether to go to school for all summer or whether they choose one session or another. Recognizing that we're still in the midst of uncertainty, we extended the credit/no credit option to students to allow them up to the very last week of classes to make a choice about whether they wanted grades or credit or no credit. So again, this is about providing support, flexibility, allowing students to choose. And if you look at the spring semester, a large number of students did choose. We had about 7,500 students opt for credit/no credit out of roughly our 31,000 students enrolled at the U.

President Ruth Watkins: It's really fabulous. And as I look at this, I see an opportunity for a lot of students to stay in school and finish their degrees. Have you given any thought to that and how we can help students do that?

SVP Reed: Absolutely. We've been looking at where all of our students are in terms of progress toward degrees, looking at what additional courses we might want to offer in the summer to allow those students to complete degrees. We also recognize there are people who are looking to upgrade their skills, who might seek either a rapid one year master's degree or packaging certificates to allow students to find particular skills, with recognition of those skills. Knowing that we're in uncertain times, it's really about giving students a whole variety of options to choose and tailor things according to their need.

We also waived our online course fees for the summer. We're recognizing that students, of course, are finding themselves in some uncertain financial situations. And we want to make school as affordable and as easy to access as possible.

President Watkins: I wanted to ask about the financial situation for our students. Have you found some strategies and tactics that you've been able to deploy to help students financially in this time? And maybe talk a little bit about what's available for students.

SVP Reed: There are several things that are going on. Of course, for students enrolling in the fall, we announced our For Utah scholarship. For Utah graduates with a 3.2 GPA who are Pell eligible, it means they will be able to attend the U with zero tuition and zero fees for the fall.

In the near term, we pooled all of our financial aid for emergency services into a single point of contact that allows students to seek grants. This is emergency support for students who might find themselves in difficult circumstances around housing or food or other personal issues. And we've given out multiple hundreds of thousands of dollars to students this spring to support them. We're continuing to expand those activities as we look at mechanisms to meet students where they are, help them stay in school, because we know the best path toward socioeconomic success is a college degree.

President Watkins: Remarkable effort on the part of our teams and financial aid and scholarships. And I would give a big shout out to our donors for those efforts because we know that those funds are facilitated by what donors are doing.

And another shout out I'd like to give is to our faculty and our staff who made a lot of change in a very short amount of time. I think as you look at online instruction, we know we've had an online portfolio for a while and a lot of our students will match their face-to-face learning with one or two online courses every year. As you think about innovation in online instruction, are we putting any efforts in play there to help people think creatively about how they can move things online in new ways?

SVP Reed: Absolutely, and we were already planning to do that before this crisis forced higher education to shift online. We recently hired a new inaugural dean and associate vice president for online and continuing education—Deborah Keyek-Franssen. She will bring all of our efforts around online and continuing ed under a single purpose with the goal of thinking about, and in these shifting times, what are the best mechanisms to support student needs? That means things like non-degree certificates that give people skills. It means degree certificates that allow people to package a set of courses that relate to a specific need. It means looking at tailored programs that allow students to shift when they learn based on their work and life availability. And it means engaging with our state and our communities to understand what those needs actually are. Work with our faculty to create those courses, package them in ways that meet both individual and student needs.

And that, as I said, includes a combination of credit and noncredit courses, degree bearing and non-degree bearing. Recognizing that the traditional model that said you come to school at 18, you go to school for four to six years, you get a degree, has changed. Though always important, lifelong education and the ability to allow people to continue to upgrade their skills, refresh them in a globally competitive world, will be critical because we're in the business of providing learning for a lifetime.

President Watkins: It seems so timely because I can imagine in the present moment we're going to see some shifts in how work is conducted and the kinds of skills people need to work in the present environment and in what may be an altered future environment. When is Deborah joining the U?

SVP Reed: She will be joining us in just a month, May 15.

President Watkins: Great.

SVP Reed: And we're looking forward to it. We've already been engaged with her as we begin to plan.

President Watkins: That's wonderful. So timely. Thank you for your leadership on that. Another area where you provide leadership and vision for the university is our enrollment, the Office of Admissions and of course its relationship with Financial Aid in an area that we call Enrollment Management broadly because we know it all works together.

As you look forward, this has been a very unusual spring for high school seniors and frankly juniors who are often doing college tours as well and even sophomores and freshmen. What are some of the things our enrollment team is doing to help students see the U, know the U, understand the U and really recognize what an opportunity it is to think about joining us at the university of Utah?

SVP Reed: One of the things that traditionally happens this time of year is students and families come to visit campus. And it gives them a chance to see what's here. Of course, in these unusual circumstances, that's proved impossible. So, what we have done is host a large number of electronic town halls to meet with students, with parents, with families to talk about the U. We've mailed out a large number of swag boxes to all of our fall admitted students, over 13,000 black boxes with materials, encouraged them to respond and providing the information to do so to welcome them to the U.

As I mentioned earlier, one of the new programs we launched this year was the For Utah scholarship. We sent over 900 letters out to admitted students telling them that they could attend the U with zero tuition and zero fees beginning in the fall. And over 450 students so far have accepted that invitation. We're really excited about that. And we're really engaging students in every way we can think of because what we know is that the U is an incredible opportunity for students to gain an education, build a network with like-minded students, learn about how to engage in the future and position them for success.

The other thing that we have done is extend the deadline for students to make a decision from May 1 to June 1 because we know this is a time of incredible uncertainty as students, prospective students and families think about what they might do. And so, every way we can think about, we want people to know that the U is the University of Utah. But for many of our prospective students, it also is the University for Utah and we are committed to being here and accessible in every possible way.

President Watkins: I really appreciate that you've extended the timeline for students. I think that is incredibly helpful. So, for everyone who's a prospective student or family member out there, definitely look at the Office of Admissions on our website and realize that you have until June 1 to decide about your offer of admission. Seek help, ask questions. We want to hear from you.

And even though people are working in lots of different places, they are working, and they are watching for our prospective students. I think that's really, really important and very, very special. Now you and I both, I think, would be strong advocates for the opportunity for students to come to and learn at a research university. Maybe comment a little bit on what you see as the special opportunities that a research university can provide for undergraduate students.

SVP Reed: That's a wonderful question and observation. One of the distinct characteristics of a research university is we not only educate people about existing knowledge and insights, we create new knowledge. And students, undergraduates included, have an opportunity to be part of that. And that ability to ask questions where the answers are not yet known, as I describe research, is really a pretty good description of life. It's about solving complex problems with no immediate solutions.

Gaining that experience about how to break down a problem, work with a team, understand how pieces of a solution fit together to create an integrated solution, that's what life is really about. It's about working with people. It's about solving complex problems. It's about asking the important questions, the ones that will give you a solution that allow you to move forward.

Our faculty are delighted and, in fact, welcoming and interested and passionate about having students engage in that experience. Because what they get to do is share what they do, the passion of their lives, and that combination of passion, insight, questioning, those are the things that make informed and successful business people, citizens, workers, all kinds of places that successful graduates engage. Research is a preparation for life. And it is a unique attribute that the U, as one of the world's leading research universities, can offer to our students.

President Watkins: Such an important point and I think it is really what distinguishes the University of Utah from many other places—the opportunity to be a part of that process of generating knowledge and to learn lifelong skills here. Dr. Reed, we are so fortunate to have you at the University of Utah as a leader. Thank you for everything you're doing to help our university, to guide our university, and, frankly, strategically lead our university through this challenging time.

SVP Reed: Thank you so much. We are a team. Thank you as well for your leadership. The U is here for the citizens of Utah and for the citizens of the world. And it's important that we participate and help people in this difficult challenge. We're here for everyone.

President Watkins: And listeners, thank you for joining us today to meet Dr. Dan Reed, our senior vice president for academic affairs. I hope you'll tune in for the next U Rising podcast.