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Standifird: Bradley's Fall Semester 'Very Different,' But Glad To Be Back on Campus

Bradley University
Bradley University President Stephen Standifird.

The first week of Bradley University's fall 2020 semester is done, but there's still a long way to go yet.

WCBU News Director Tim Shelley recently spoke with Bradley University President Stephen Standifird about how the first week went, how the rest of the semester may play out, and how the university is preparing to pivot quickly if needed in a time of great uncertainty.

Tim Shelley: Thank you so much for taking the time out this morning. Just wanted to start off with, obviously we're done with the first week of school, we got that cleared. And it's very different than probably what anybody was expecting this time last year. Can you just talk a little bit about how it's going so far?

Stephen Standifird: Yeah, I think your statement "a little bit different" as perhaps the understatement of the day. So it's very different, in fact, but we're just real thrilled to have students back on campus.

Credit Tim Shelley / WCBU
Tim Shelley / WCBU
A "Bradley Unite" sign notifying Bradley students and visitors of the mask requirement.

And I will say, I think we're off to a solid start. Classes are up and running. Students are here. During move-in weekend, it was really great to get out and meet some of our students and meet some of their families. Obviously, it's different. One of the things that we've had to do, like all universities, we've had to rethink a lot of things, including space. One of the things that we really emphasize is the importance of socially connected, physically distanced, and how we created those physical distances throughout campus. That was a big part of what we've had to do. So it changes up things a little bit.

And the other thing that we've had to do is we've created a lot of flexibility in the teaching schedule. And honestly, that's probably the work behind the scenes that a lot of people don't see. But it's really just been phenomenal work by my colleagues to be prepared for whatever, right? So if we have a student that has to  step out of the class for a while, they can stay connected virtually. And just to build that flexibility into the program that wouldn't be there otherwise. But I think we're off to a solid start. I can tell you, I know our students are excited to be here. And we're excited to have them back.

TS: And just to kind of give a broad overview. So I think there's about 700 students that opted for online only this semester, the rest of the students are back on campus, and then about half of all classes are online.

SS: That's almost exactly spot on. That's exactly right. So we gave both the students and quite frankly, our faculty--I want everybody to feel comfortable about how we're operating and what we're doing.

So we gave both students and faculty the opportunity to be remote if they so desired, and as it turned out, about 700 of our students adopted that option. And about half of our classes are online, and that actually works really well for us in terms of our flexibility and creating the space needs that we need to be able to operate in a way that creates that physical distance that's important to us.

TS: One really big thing this year is obviously the physical distancing and mask wearing. There's a requirement that you need to wear masks whenever you're you're unable to socially distance. There's a couple, you know, your dorm mate might be an exception to that. But in general, how's that going so far?

SS: You know, it's going really well. One of the things we actually, this weekend I was on campus a bit just wandering around and I, you know, a real shoutout to our students who are really doing a nice job of taking this seriously and behaving in a way that is appropriate.

And one of the things we've tried to do is we tried to take a very positivistic approach to this whole conversation to this whole effort. So if you were to go to our website, you'd see on that upper left hand corner, something called Bradley Unite. That's actually a slogan that came from one of our students with a bunch of videos and a bunch of posts around how we engage in way that allows us to be together, but in a way that is appropriate, so that we can create that social distancing and mask wearing.

In fact, there's some great videos on there from the director of our health center, Dr. Higgs, on why the masks are important and how to wear the mask, which is something that a lot of people may or may not know. So we really tried to be thoughtful about our campaign and making this something that people can understand and appreciate why it's important.

TS: And another aspect of coming back to campus in person is the the surveillance testing. I know you released those first numbers on the the COVID dashboard on Friday, and honestly, they look pretty good, all things considered.

SS: Well, we're off to a good start. It's really critical that we remain vigilant. And that's one of the things that we've been aggressive about.  I'm actually quite pleased with the way our testing, surveillance testing and contract tracing has played out, and a big part of that has been because of our partnership with OSF.

We made a decision very early on that we would do this in collaboration with OSF. And that has been such an important decision. Our health center is actually officially run by OSF. And you'll hear a lot this semester, much more than I think most people anticipated, about the director of our health center, Dr. Higgs. She's actually officially an OSF employee. And their partnership has been such a key part for us both thinking through the process, but then also being able to respond as things pop up. And that's this seems to be working really well so far.

TS: So OSF is working hand-in-hand with you on this. I know there was something with the University of Illinois getting a saliva test. Is there any word that coming to Bradley, or is it more OSF that's taken the lead?

SS: Yeah. So actually, the answer to that is yes on both occasions. So, the University of Illinois reached out to us, and we're obviously in conversations with them. Being able to do a rapid turnaround response would be great. I know they've struggled. I mean, they've got a volume issue, right? So I know they've struggled themselves, to keep up. But their volume, I think it was a piece about that in the newspaper this morning.

But perhaps more importantly, what we're doing is, OSF is looking at this as well. And there are a number of what I would call rapid response tests available right now. And one of the reasons we have decided not to adopt those yet is there still some concerns? I don't know specifically about the [University of] Illinois test, I need to learn more about that one. But until we have confidence in the reliability of those tests, we've decided to stick with the plan that we have.

And we're really letting OSF drive that for us. We've made a very strong decision to follow the science. And that's where having partners like OSF has been really helpful.

TS: And as of right now, most students are back in class. We talked about being socially distant, but finding ways to connect still. What's it going to look like in terms of student organizations this year? I know there's the fraternities and sororities, athletics. How does all of that change this year?

SS: Well, it looks very different. And a shout out to our students for some of their creativity. I've been to a variety of virtual activities that have been very well done. And so what's happening is our students are coming up with a variety of creative ways to interact and connect.

The other thing that you may notice if you were to walk on campus, we were trying to create spaces where students can engage, but in a way that is appropriate. You'll see a whole fleet of red chairs that have showed up all over campus. There are literally hundreds of them. And the idea is to create these appropriately spaced outdoor spaces that allow people to interact but in a way that, again, is healthy and appropriate given our current environment. So it's just different.

And I will also give a shout out to our fraternities and sororities right now. The leaders of those respective organizations have done a wonderful job of talking about the importance of their behaviors. And so far, they've just done a really fantastic job and that that that has been encouraging, to watch them really step forward and be leaders in helping us navigate this crisis.

TS: Right. Because that's really the other aspect of this. It's not only what happens on campus, it's also what happens off campus. So everybody has to also adapt their behavior off campus, whether that be faculty or students.

SS: Absolutely. What, and you obviously [have] seen the news as well, nationally, that's often where things spread and these events off-campus where people are getting together and not behaving in a way that that is appropriate given our environments. And at least thus far, I've been really impressed with the way the campus has responded to that.

And I have every reason to believe that they'll continue to do so. The other thing that I'm a fan of--and I'm a strong advocate that we are an important part of the community. The community is an important part of who we are. So I actually sent out a letter to the area businesses talking about how we're thrilled to have the students back to support them. Help us do that in an appropriate way by making sure that everyone is engaging in the process, level of social distancing, wearing masks when appropriate, and so forth.

TS: And I want to switch gears real quick. I know after George Floyd['s death] back in May, that you had taken a couple steps to, you know, be proactive on campus such as renovations to the Garrett Center, and also forming some new committees. If you can just talk a little bit about that, and kind of where we are ... now, with, again, you know, with the Jacob Blake [shooting] happening, you know, all across the country.

SS: So this is a really important area of activity for us. And if I can deviate for just a second, part of the reason [it's] is so important is in some ways, one of the things that my colleagues talk about is this idea of inclusive excellence.

And if you look at our peer institutions, we do a really good job of attracting a diverse student population. But we outperform our peers significantly in that space. Where we have an opportunity to do more is to create a more inclusive environment when our students get here.

This is just the beginning of a process for us. This is something that is going to be a major strategic initiative for us moving forward.

So we've done a variety of things. We've expanded the level of scholarships, specifically for the Peoria public schools, which I'm pretty excited about. We've made some major changes to the Garrett Center. This advisory group being led by one of our alums and community leaders--Glenn Ross--is working on some ideas, really working hard to help us understand our opportunity set. And you'll be seeing a lot more moving forward in terms of activities and things are going to be doing to create a more inclusive environment. Again, it can and should be a definitive strength for us. And that's something that we plan to really focus on extensively in the upcoming years.

TS: So what are some of the things right now that this, this advisory group is working? I know it's still just getting started, especially the school year [is getting] started here, but can you talk to us a little bit about what's happening so far?

SS: Yeah, it's a great question. And there's an old phrase of a problem well-defined is half-solved. So one of the things that this group is really doing is trying to dig in to really understand the situation.

In fact, I'm working with the Garrett Center, working with this group. I want to create a dashboard that helps us really understand the environment, how are our students doing in terms of performance in terms of their experiences, and we've been thoughtful about not being too fast to create actions until we really understand the situation.

So I met with a number of student groups, a variety of groups from different areas to try to understand the situation and what the advisory group is really focusing on right now is getting a better grip around what are the challenges, what are the opportunities? And only after we have, again, a problem well-defined is half-solved. Only after we really understand the situation better when we get into some more aggressive issues of exactly what kind of behaviors we're going to get into.

But please know that this is not this is not a moment in time for us. This is a major strategic initiative on how we're going to function moving forward. So we're being thoughtful about collecting data, getting information, so that when we do act, we're acting in a way that is transformational and really changes who we are and how we create a more inclusive environment.

TS: President Standifird, obviously, there's a lot of uncertainty with the rest of this semester, right? Because nobody knows what it's gonna look like a month from now or even a week from now. How do you as a university president navigate all that it might require you to make have some very fast decision making?

SS: So, flexibility has been the theme of the year and other two things that have been really interesting about this current environment. I've long maintained that if you want to really understand the true nature of an organization, watch how you operate in a crisis.

And boy, I was excited to be here when I first joined a few months ago, [and] I'm even more excited today, because I've watched my colleagues operate in crisis and they're amazing. Their passion for the success of our students and for each other is remarkable. And that's the core right? As long as we remain focused on the health and well being success of our students and of each other, we'll get through this fine and be flexible.

The other thing that I've been really pushing on campus that I think is something for all of us to remember is the term I use is survive and then thrive. It's not just getting through this moment, it's getting through this moment in a way that prepares us to be long-term successful as well. And so we're being very thoughtful about we're navigating the crisis. We're dealing with the issues, but we're also making investments on how to continue to move the university forward.

TS: And just just before I wrap up here, I'll just give you an open mic. Is there anything that you want to tell the Peoria community? I know you're still a relatively new arrival here. Anything that you would want them to know or tell them that maybe we haven't heard yet?

SS: I've just got to say, I'm absolutely thrilled to be part of this community. You know, we've actually talked about how in our community, I think we now have closer friends here in Peoria than we did after five years in a previous community. So it's a really embracing community. And I just want to say thank you to everyone for really stepping forward and helping us feel welcomed.

The only thing I'll mention is I think it's really important in this highly contentious environment that we're all navigating, is that we we remain patient and kind with one another. And as we all try to navigate through this crisis, just remember that we're all working through this as partners, and excited to be part of this community and excited to work with the community to figure out how to not just survive, but to thrive long term.

TS: Absolutely, and President Standifird, I'll wrap up there. I'll just say, welcome to Peoria and hope we get to talk again soon.

SS: Looking forward to it. Thank you so much.

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