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Fall 2020 Kickoff Event: President Steinmayer's Remarks

The written version of President Janet Steinmayer’s remarks to faculty and staff at the Fall Kickoff event on Tuesday, September 8, 2020


I would like to extend my warmest Zoom welcome to the start of the Fall 2020 Semester, and an especially heartfelt welcome to the thirty-four new members of our faculty and staff community since last Fall.

This fall, we also welcome 848 new students to Lesley: 500 undergraduates, including 23 new Urban Scholars, and 332 graduate students, including 75 Lesley alumni. We also welcome 16 new Threshold Program students.

Thank you to our team in Enrollment, and to each of you for the strength of our programs and student support that contribute to this strong showing this semester.

An Historic Moment

Each of us, no matter our role at Lesley, or how long we have been in our roles, is starting this semester at an historic time, perhaps an inflection point.

And what a sweeping historic time it is! I often think, from the vantage point of 14 months, that the first 7 months were so entirely different from the next seven months as to feel almost like we have been transported to a new dimension of time and space, where our physical worlds have shrunk and our virtual worlds have expanded, shifting our perspectives on how we spend our time, how we connect socially, even what we value.

Many people thought Y2K would mark the end of one era, but I think it’s 2020 that will be remembered as the watershed year in modern history—the real start of the 21st century. It’s given us a new framework for describing the way we lived and thought “before” and “after” COVID-19.

  • We are in the midst of a pandemic that has required us to re-examine everything we do—and face difficult trade-offs between physical health and social and economic well-being.
  • That pandemic has exposed the deep inequities and racism in our society.
  • And those systemic inequities and the devastating killings of Black people by police across the United States have ignited a global movement for racial and social justice.

And while I recognize that a great deal of our attention for at least this Fall and possibly into Spring of 2021 will have to be focused on maintaining our community’s health and safety, and delivering a vibrant and engaging student experience, I believe that out of these challenges come great opportunities.

Again, we need only to look at history to see how humans have a knack for finding opportunity in challenge. In particular, young people—our students— will use this time to imagine and invent new ways to live. As a university, literally a community of scholars, we—young and old—are poised to learn from each other. 

The opportunity now is to take all of the work from before the pandemic, and all of the work of the last seven months and use it to come to a collective vision of the future of Lesley University. The “uni” in university is key because it reminds us that although we are coming from many different places in our lives and bringing diverse perspectives and areas of expertise, we will need to collaborate and communicate as one university “team” working toward a unified goal.

Celebrate Work of the Summer

Let’s take a minute to celebrate the work that took place over the summer, as it not only will assure our students a vibrant experience but open new opportunities for the university going forward. In many ways, what we are doing this fall is not only in response to the immediate challenge of COVID-19 but will broaden our strategic vision.

Virtual Community Engagement Task Force

I’d like to talk first about the work of the Task Force on Virtual Community Engagement. Amid this year of historic challenge and change, in not too many weeks, we will have the opportunity to vote and determine who will lead this country for the next four years. This Task Force has put together a series of conversations about voting called “Lesley Votes 2020”. I urge you to participate in them.

The first event is a film screening on Tuesday, September 15 of the documentary “Suppressed: The Fight to Vote” followed by a discussion. The film tells the story of how voter suppression affected the outcome of the 2018 election in Georgia and spurred the Fair Fight voter rights movement led by Stacey Abrams and others.

The second event will be a panel discussion with local city councilors and community organizers on Thursday, September 17.

We’ll be posting these events and others to follow on the new Lesley Votes 2020 webpage.

And this work, where the team reached out and coordinated the work of many across campus, will continue as we pick up the work begun by John Sullivan and his task force last year, to centralize events and make sure they are coordinated, known in advance and represent all of the voices in our community.

Thank you to all the members of that task force.

Virtual Student Support Task Force

The second task force, which focused on Virtual Student Support, will debut the new interactive student support services directory at the next University Council meeting on September 10. This is a big step forward in connecting students more efficiently to the resources and information they need across different departments and programs. A huge thank you to the members of this task force.

Virtual Academic Experience Task Force

And the third task force, on the Virtual Academic Experience, together with over 400 of you, perhaps has made the most profound step forward for the Fall, and for this university. At an upcoming University Council meeting, we will be sharing with you how the work of this group, and many of you, is creating a new wave of virtual learning that fits the kind of personal education in the Human Arts that Lesley is known for. It is different than a MOOC. It is different than what is happening on a mass scale at SNHU and like institutions. It is much more like what is happening at small liberal arts colleges. And it is distinctly Lesley.

I say that this will have an impact on the Fall, as I believe the work of the summer will provide our students with a dynamic classroom experience and the opportunity to learn how virtual education can open new doors and be a pathway for lifelong learning. I also see its potential to open our doors to more students, in more places and at different points of their lives and careers, and to make a Lesley education accessible and affordable to more students.

A huge thank you to the members of this key task force.

Students with Access to Campus This Fall

The work of the summer also included the work of many to bring back a limited number of students to have access to the facilities and people necessary to their experience.

A total of approximately 164 students in three cohorts (Lesley Art+Design, fall athletes, and Threshold) opted for the limited access we offered to campus facilities. This was complicated and logistically challenging to plan, as it required rethinking everything we do through the lens of safety and public health. As you have heard, for example, about 50 students will be taking the option of single-room hotel housing at the Sheraton Commander and the 1868 Hotel at rates near what a dorm would cost.

This work, like much of the summer work, is important for the Fall but also to what we might do with hotel partners in the future for low-residency and other educational opportunities. It is also an important component of supporting our surrounding community, as businesses struggle to stay afloat. I thank the many people who have had a hand in it to this point, and the many who will work hard to make this successful over the next 10 weeks.

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) and Anti-Racism Work – This Summer and Going Forward

And finally, and most importantly, is the work around DEI over the summer, culminating in the training on unconscious bias and anti-racism we all had over three days last week and the training taking place today, as I speak, with over 1,100 of our undergraduate and graduate students.

The trainings, which the Board and Cabinet have also had, grew out of the summer work of the President’s Diversity Advisory Committee. It’s all part of our campaign for Inclusive Excellence, which you’ll be hearing more about, and participating in, going forward at every University Council meeting, and occurring other times.

As you know, a search is underway to fill the new position of Vice President for Equity, Inclusion, and Justice. We also have searches underway for a new Equal Opportunity/Title IX Coordinator and a new Director of Multicultural Affairs and Student Inclusion.

And as I hope you took away from the “reset” trainings, this work is our collective responsibility, as individuals and as an institution, and we will be setting Cabinet-level DEI goals and systems to measure our progress and hold each other accountable. Again, we aren’t doing this to tick items off a checklist, but as part of a larger strategy to transform the way we work together. 

I’m excited about the potential for us to become a community of “upstanders” and “coaches,” working together toward a transformational cultural shift on campus to more truly fulfill Lesley’s social justice mission.

You should have received an email this morning from Maritsa with a link to a survey. We want to hear your feedback on the trainings and to include your voices in the work going forward. Maritsa also will send instructions on how to attend make-up sessions, if you missed one of the trainings.

Strategic Work for the Coming Year

Last year, when we came together on the Brattle Green for a BBQ, I had just met with each department in the university and your views of our strengths and challenges were clear.

Among our strengths were the commitment and passion you have for Lesley’s mission and students, the appreciation you have for your colleagues, and the transformative work you do.

Among our challenges were creating a better understanding of Lesley’s distinctive place in higher education, streamlining systems and processes and procedures, laying the foundation for financial equilibrium and a consistently strong student experience, and creating a plan for our campuses.

In response to these insights, in the first seven months of the academic year, we worked together, through University Council and Faculty Assembly meetings, town hall meetings, individual department meetings, and school leader meetings, among others, to:

  • Develop that understanding of the distinct place/position Lesley has in higher education through the “waterfalls” of information about the university and its schools and programs.
  • Begin the process of getting the right systems, processes and procedures.
  • Restore financial equilibrium through zero-based budgeting and centralization.
  • Start work on the campus plan for the future.

And then came this historic turning point, and we turned our attention to the huge and urgent challenges the pandemic presented—but not without an eye to the future, as I mentioned before.

So this year, we are going to pick up all these strands of thought, and weave them together into a collective plan for the future that will guide our work for the next three years, as was always imagined by, and will be guided by, our Lesley 2030 vision:

On Strategic Positioning, this year we will build on last year’s work, and the opportunities opened by COVID to explore where our greatest opportunities for growth lie, and to build plans to fund and support that growth.

On DEI and Organizational Accountability, we will be ensuring that DEI stays at the center of our work and that we build the organizational structures, policies, procedures and systems to ensure that that work continues, grows and stays at the center. This work is also important to operating as effectively and efficiently as one university, something that is critical to supporting all of you, and to financial sustainability.

I’ve begun working with the Cabinet to set both Common Goals and Cabinet-Specific Goals. Cabinet members will develop and measure goals with their teams in an iterative process, building in accountability and sharing their progress with the community along the way.

On Financial Sustainability, the work we have done over the last year to more deeply understand how we deploy financial resources will serve as a basis, with the work on how we will grow, and how we will approach campus planning, for developing a three-year plan, and a sustainable model for the university going forward.

And on Campus Planning, we will continue the work we embarked on last year to look deeply into how we use space and how we want to use space going forward. When we acquired the balance of the Brattle campus in 2018, we fully understood that we were taking on more space than we needed but also thought it was important to buy out the part of the campus that was owned by the Episcopal Divinity School, given that we would share the space with whoever took ownership. Now, we will come back to that question, and the bigger question of what space we need, what is the future of remote work, and other questions that bear on our real estate assets, with a view to creating a plan going forward.

In addition, the Threshold Program will celebrate its 40th anniversary next year. We’ll be forming an advisory council this fall to plan its future by asking what the next generation of education and support for young adults with learning differences will look like, and where Lesley has new opportunities to lead in this area.

Closing Reflection

I’m looking forward to working with all of you over the coming months and year to find opportunities in the unprecedented challenges we face and to reach a shared vision for Lesley’s future.

We have a lot on our plates! But we are in a stronger position to tackle this work as a result of what we’ve accomplished together over the past fourteen months.

While uncertainty and change can be stressful, it can also be energizing, and I hope that by staying positive and focused on the opportunities we can keep the challenges in perspective. Our students will be looking to us to guide and support them, and to do our jobs well we need to practice self-care and to take care of each other.

Though unfortunately, I can’t offer you a BBQ lunch today—and we can’t toss our baseball caps out on the lawn as we did at last year’s kickoff—I would like to offer you all a three-month free trial of the Calm app to use to build mental resilience during these stressful times—the app has modules to help you focus, meditate, relax and release tension through movement, or fall asleep. One of Calm’s mental fitness trainers is Lebron James. I hope you’ll give it a try. We’ll be sending you information about how to sign up next week.

I’ve been reflecting, as I’m sure you have too, on other first days of school. From a young age, we develop back-to-school rituals, and our memories of the start of the school year last a lifetime. Even in a normal year, and at every age, we still feel a mixture of excitement and nerves on the first day of school. There’s a palpable sense of possibility. Each year, we have the chance to reinvent ourselves—from starting fresh with new textbooks and a supply of sharp #2 yellow pencils, and adopting new attitudes (“This year I’m going to do all the reading before class!” or “This year I’m going to get involved in more activities!”) to a embarking on new field of study (“I’ve always wanted to take a course in fill-in-the-blank").

Some of us are reliving these memories with our own school-age children, or grandchildren, and wondering how their back-to-school memories—indeed, a generation’s educational progress—will be shaped by this year’s experience.

All of us chose to work in education because we are energized by the sense of possibility and growth that each academic year offers. The cyclical nature of the school year is both reassuring and regenerative. This fall, along with all the usual feelings, our rituals have been disrupted, and we have the sense that this will be a school year that we and our students will remember even more vividly than others.

The questions I will leave you with are:

  • What do we want Lesley students to remember about this fall?
  • Beyond what’s on the syllabus, what do we want them to take away from the experience of starting a new school year in the midst of a global pandemic?
  • What will each of us do—individually and together as a university community—to make 2020 a year our students will look back on as positive, productive and formative?
  • As educators, we have the responsibility and the power to help our students make sense of, and find new meaning in, this historic moment.

The Words of Edith Lesley

In that spirit, I want to return to the words of Edith Lesley that I shared in the closing session of last week’s DEI training: “I had perished had I not persisted.

Let’s make Edith Lesley proud of how we meet this moment with persistence and creativity and the knowledge that as educators we help shape the future. Thank you all for your creativity, your resilience, your vision, your passion for what you do, and for all your hard work to prepare for this semester. I wish you a smooth start to classes tomorrow and health and well-being for you and your family and friends.