Academic Leadership in the Time of COVID

"COVID-19 - The year of the virus" by joncutrer is marked with CC0 1.0
“COVID-19 – The year of the virus” by joncutrer is marked with CC0 1.0

by Luke Lara, Ed.D.

Part I: How it Began

One year ago this week, I began my journey as the Academic Senate President. It also happened to be a few days after the death of George Floyd and right before the pandemic began a second wave in America. Our local Academic Senate usually does not meet during the summer. I thought: How should I respond? What do the faculty expect to hear from me? It did not take me long to decide what to do.

There were many ways I had imagined embracing this important role; however, entering a quickly and ever shifting world of remote education and reckoning with systemic racism were not on my mind three years earlier when I ran for vice president and then president-elect. The latter I was well prepared for, but the pandemic certainly exacerbated it and forced a racial awakening for everyone, everywhere.

I had just finished a year of consulting with the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges, collaborating with various constituency groups, writing papers, and doing presentations across the state. I made contributions to moving policy and discussion around student success, equity-driven systems, anti-racism, equity in hiring, and faculty diversification and retention. Equity, anti-racism, and naming systemic racism were at the root of my writings and presentations.

My initial reaction was to take this opportunity to address the faculty. Everyone was on break. I did not know what to expect. I sent a letter to my faculty colleagues on 5/30/2021. It contained a personal message to introduce myself, a uniting message in the face of chaos, and resources for action including allyship training, anti-racism resources, petitions, donations, mental health resources for the Black community, and organizations for those who want to get involved.

Excerpts of the letter are here:

  • …This is not the way I imagined my first email to our community as the Academic Senate President during my first week in this role. I write with a heavy heart and tears in my eyes. While many of our own Black faculty, staff, and students are mourning their loved ones as a result of the disproportionate impact that COVID-19 has had on the Black community, they are also grieving in unison for the victims of police brutality, their families, and communities. The recent police violence and hate crimes against members of the Black community (Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Nina Pop, D’Andre Campbell, Tony McDade, Regis Korchini-Paquet, and Ahmaud Arbery) have seared a pain that has reverberated across the nation.
  • …Diversity, equity, and inclusion are buzz words for most, but these terms carry a spirit that has defined how I embrace life and how I move in this world.
  • …Given that we will remain in a mostly distance education format for the summer and fall, it is important that we engage purposefully as a community. I urge us to be race conscious, to be equity-minded, and anti-racist in what we do, teach, and how we enact our roles.

Part II: What has Developed

We met on June 25, 2020, in a special meeting of the Academic Senate to review, discuss, and approve a resolution of the Academic Senate: Declaration that Black Lives Matter and a Call to Action. Throughout this past year, we have steadily implemented changes based on this resolution. The following are examples of implemented changes:

  • The Academic Senate surveyed BIPOC faculty to learn about the faculty experience of the tenure process and institutional retention efforts. A taskforce gathered the survey results and presented recommendations to the Academic Senate in May 2021.
  • The Academic Senate’s subcommittee on Diversity, Equity, and Cultural Competency created a joint taskforce with the Tenure Review and Evaluation Committee to make recommendations to changes to the tenure review process, evaluation criteria, and training.
  • The Academic Senate worked closely with the administration to create a Student Conduct and Police Advisory Committee in the fall of 2020. The charge of the committee is to review data on campus police interactions with students, give guidance on restructuring of the police department, and make recommendations to policies and procedures.
  • The Academic Senate subcommittee on curriculum, the Courses and Programs Committee, have steadily reviewed policies and procedures around the philosophy of the associates degree to make changes that are equity based (pending approval), including: allowing the use of “C-” grades for major courses, reducing the number of units required for the science general education area, and reducing the number of units required in general education for the high unit Nursing degree.
  • Professional development partners, including inter-college groups, our online educators’ group, our teaching and learning center, and others, have been creating, facilitating, and sharing opportunities locally, state-wide, and nationally with all faculty on topics ranging from anti-racism and equity in online course delivery, curriculum, teaching, and student engagement. Faculty have been inspired to create discussion groups to discuss race and racism. Two faculty leaders have coordinated a formal group of 12 faculty during a year-long journey to review their own curriculum and teaching practices through an equity lens. This group is called the Cultural Curriculum Collective.

All of the above, unfortunately, would not have been possible within one year if the tragedies of our Black community have not happened. We are only just beginning to make transformative change. Before I get burned out, I need to take a step back, take a deep breath, and be mindful in this moment.

Part III: How I Sustain a Forward-Attitude

In the academic world we talk about GPA’s all the time, but one thing is for sure, my GPA has strong this past year. No, I am not talking about an academic GPA. I am talking about having Gratitude, Patience, and Adaptability. I want to acknowledge that my colleagues have demonstrated a strong GPA and resolve this year and we were only able to accomplish the above list as a collective. So, you could say that our cumulative GPA is what allowed us to be successful.

I am grateful to all of my colleagues. I have seen us work together, complain together, brainstorm together, laugh together, and still be focused on what’s most important—our students.

I have learned to be more patient and to practice mindful breathing. As many of you may have experienced, I am not only working at home, but I am teaching my children, being responsive to important relationships in my life, being anti-racist, and also trying to stay mentally and physically and healthy.

Lastly, I am completely in awe of our adaptability to the changes that this past year has thrown us. In 2019, we could not have imagined what it would be like to offer the majority of our courses through distance education, conduct our work remotely, or even begin to decolonize our institutions or even have campus-wide discussions about race. But here we are!

This is not a moment. This is not a blip. We have embarked on a journey that will lead to healing and transforming practices and policies. We cannot go back to how things were in 2019. That was the past. I look forward to reflecting again in a year from now when my presidency ends. Until then, join me in sustaining our collective GPA through community. Equity work is hard. Transforming systems and institutions is hard. Yet, we can do it together. ¡Si se Puede!

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