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Putting People First

Concerns about the mental health of our students during this period of remote learning led us to partner with MSU Counseling and Psychiatric Services to establish the position of Director of Student Wellness in the College of Arts & Letters, led by Dr. Jonathan Ritz. As a scholar, teacher, creative writer, advisor, and now also as a credentialed counselor, Dr. Ritz brings a deep understanding of our students and their experiences together with a sophisticated understanding of mindfulness and mental health practices that will support the well-being of our undergraduate students through the pandemic and in the years to come.

To assess the manifold ways that the novel coronavirus has impacted faculty, academic and support staff, the College conducted a COVID Impact Assessment Survey in May 2020 and held a series of listening sessions in October/November 2020 to capture the experiences of different job categories, caregivers, and the impact of research. The College has remained in continuous dialogue with Chairs, Directors, and support staff through virtual check-in meetings. The Dean and Associate Deans have provide guidance to faculty and staff in memos regarding workload and annual review expectations, followed by an impact statement workshop and most recently a COVID Relief Fund developed with the College Advisory Committee (CAC). Graduate study in our MFA cohorts in Studio Art & Theatre (Acting and Design) are particularly impacted by remote learning. Art studios have been able to function, though not in an ideal way to support learning in spaces such as our ceramics studio which currently is running on a pickup/drop off or appointment basis. Our MFA actors’ and designers’ experience has been completely disrupted with the cancellation of performances and the inability to learn in a company or ensemble setting. Both programs have made major adjustments to online and remote practice, performance, and exhibitions in a good faith-effort to prioritize safety. But all are eager to return to group learning experiences in the studios and performance spaces when it can be safe to do so.

Starting with the rapid shift to online learning in March, we mobilized funding to ensure all our graduate students were covered over the Summer 2020 session, leaving nobody out, knowing that many students had other work opportunities, study abroad trips, etc. suddenly cancelled. Next, we created a new program to help students prepare for online teaching in Summer and Fall 2020. This program, called, COLA (CAL Online Learning Academy), provided graduate students a stipend to attend workshops and mentoring sessions focused on shifting courses to online delivery. Students who completed COLA also met many of the requirements for the University Graduate Certificate in Online Learning, as the goals of the programs were deliberately aligned. Coming into the Fall semester, we turned our attention to ensuring that graduate students whose progress was delayed by the pandemic and who may have to remain longer in their respective programs than anticipated will have options through Summer 2020 and into Fall and Spring 2021 semester. This contingency planning was undertaken in collaboration with the Graduate School and ensures that we can meet the needs of our current students while still admitting a cohort of new graduate students for Fall 2021. During a time when peer institutions have halted graduate admissions, our programs will be admitting a smaller cohort of new students. This will be the most significant test of our sustainability formulas for graduate admission, but based on our admission projections, we have reasons to be optimistic.

The College’s Emergency Fund has supported nearly 60 undergraduates since the onset of the pandemic and we have raised over $11K to provide artists with short-term assistance to students facing unexpected financial hardships that threaten their ability to attend MSU.

College faculty rose to the challenge of online teaching by participating in record high numbers in the summer training offered by the HUB and our own academic technology team. In total, 150 instructors committed their time to these professional development opportunities.

The COVID Relief fund ($50,000) draws from College discretionary gift monies and is designed to help support unforeseen needs of faculty and staff related to teaching, creative and research activity, or office work/support. The College Advisory Committee (CAC) held several focused meetings, distributed a needs survey to faculty and staff in December/January 2020/2021, and devised equitable and transparent criteria and award processes based on the College values to be put into place in January 2021 and awarded until funds are spent.

The College began conversations with faculty regarding adjustments to annual reviews in Fall 2020. Qualitative data from the May COVID Impact Assessment Survey of College faculty and staff and listening sessions report, department chair-faculty and academic staff conversations, Council of Faculty Associate Deans (COFAD) and Council of Diversity Deans (CODD) discussions, and several College meetings with chairs served as the initial basis for proposed adjustments. In December 2020, the Provost’s Impact Statement Memo, a College-level workshop on writing COVID-19 annual reviews, and an all-College meeting of December 10 resulted in the collaborative creation of a College guidance memo to departments/centers. Currently, departments/centers are holding unit conversations to vote on local parameters/bylaws alterations for annual reviews in 2020. As a next step, the College is planning to create an RPT parameters document in conjunction with chairs, RPT committees (i.e., senior faculty), and pre-tenure faculty. This document will outline shared values and principles in the evaluation of the COVID-19 impact on future cases beginning in 2021.