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In Conversation: Post-Pandemic Leadership and Engagement

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Virginia Tech President Tim Sands and Washington State President Kirk Schulz, a Virginia Tech alumnus, share their thoughts on higher education. In part three of this on-on-one conversation, the two discuss being leaders in higher education in a post-pandemic world.

One thing that we're struggling with, and it's a little probably a controversial topic based on different states, is diversity equity, inclusive excellence and, and we manage that and what types of things that we do. And we've struggled at a rural land grant university, especially with faculty diversity. You know, our numbers are just not where they would like to be. And I'm curious just a little bit how you're thinking about that. And we found our urban centers, we have a much more diverse set of faculty and staff than we do at some of our rural campus locations. So the overall numbers sometimes deceiving, look a little deceiving. And you know, how, how are you thinking about that? SANDS: Well, it is a real challenge and a focal point. We spent probably the last six years working really hard on the undergraduate diversity in Blacksburg. And we've made a lot of progress, but it's not been easy, but we went from 13 percent under-represented minority in incoming class 2017 to over 20 percent now. And yeah, it's moving and I think it's not I wouldn't say it's sustainable yet, but it looks like it's going to be. If we can keep doing this for a couple more years, I think it will be become a permanent feature if you will. But, you know, you always struggle with inclusion and making sure that everybody feels welcome. And now with a lot of discussion around free speech and what are the borders or boundaries on that. And, you know, it's really become a central conversation on campus. But on the faculty and staff side, it's been a harder slog. Part of the challenge is that, you know when you're moving here as a student, it's temporary. You get a sense, well, I can come to a community that maybe can't fully support me. They support me in these ways, but maybe not in these other ways, because I can always go home. But you're asking a staff member or faculty member to come and commit a real, a chunk of their career here. And you find out that the community surrounding us doesn't have the resources and probably, it'll be a while before it does. And that has been the biggest challenge we've had. But you know, a lot of it is shifting and that's something I wanted to talk to you about too, you've already alluded to it. You have urban campuses or, or centers that, that where they do reflect the diversity of the community that are embedded in. And they're connected to the system, if you will. So is there any way to leverage that ? And one of the things that I've reflected on, I think it's a little early to come to a conclusion, but the pandemic has really shifted things. SCHULZ: Yes. SANDS: So now when we have a, when I have a meeting, I have a cabinet meeting about three of my cabinet members or are not in Blacksburg. Before the pandemic, they would call in and they'd be in this little box on the table and no one could see them. And so we didn't really know they were there until they spoke up. And I occasionally forget to to ask who's on the line. And you get halfway through a meeting and someone would say, clear their throat on the voice line and like, Oh, we should have engaged you. Sorry. Yeah. Now it's very different they're in Zoom we're doing hybrid meetings. I have a sense it's brought us closer. So whereas, they may not be hear. You may have very different profile of your faculty and staff at a different location. It kind of feels like they're more in the room than they were. That's not an excuse not to keep pushing. It's quite the opposite I think, but it's, it is an interesting dynamic. I'm wondering if that has changed your you're thinking, or impacted your decision to restructure the Washington State University system ? SCHULZ: Yeah, it certainly has. It's been interesting in January pre-pandemic, we elected as a sort of senior leadership team at that point to go with Zoom. And for, for all of our meetings because it had nothing to do with the pandemic. It was that people in different campus locations, they had different technology and we had a speaker phone. What would happen is I would travel somewhere else and I'm doing donor visits and and then I was kinda calling in and I just thought, what a terrible experience I'm having. This is what some of my leaders have almost all the time. So we shifted the that and the idea was everybody's the same box, same size. Everybody can get together as leadership team this way, regardless of where they are, where they're traveling, what they're doing. And that's, that worked really well. The caveat I would give to that is there is some value to the in-person leadership experience. And so what we're going to try and do is a little bit work in progress. We've kind of picked several times a year that aren't necessarily a retreat, but there may be a little extended meeting that we're going to commit to do in-person and actually not do at hybrid. So that we sort of say, if you're going to be at this leadership thing and we're going to talk about some tough stuff here where we need people around a table, we're going to do that. So we're trying to balance that out. And what we found at the faculty level is now a lot of departments have shifted to do in faculty meetings that way, Because they've got faculty at four locations and they find that it feels more, more cohesive. SANDS: So this was before the pandemic. SCHULZ: Some of this was we did as leadership team before the pandemic, post-pandemic now we've been back in-person all academic year. We're finding some of the departments have said; You know, I'm not sure we're going to go back to four of us around a table and three online and somebody kind of calling in. So we're seeing some behavior shifts. And what I'm challenged with is though, how do I, how do I get something that creative energy? I mean, if I'm just giving information, that works really well. But if we want to kind of discuss something and I've got 25 people on a Zoom meeting. You'll have the same five or six maybe say something and people are just kind of maybe checked out a little bit. So we're thinking, how can we be creative with our technology to make sure that we're doing some stuff with almost like a virtual whiteboard that we're doing some of those kind of things. So I would say for us is still work in progress. But the other question that we have is do you have to locate all of your senior officers on one campus ? And we've got certain areas for us, for example, we have a very good Vice President for Information Technology. But I suspect he'll be the last VP for information technology that ever is resident in Pullman. I think the next one will be somebody that probably is say, you know what, I'd rather be in an urban setting and be one of our campus locations there. And I think we gotta start looking at do all the senior officers have to reside in Pullman, Washington or not? The pandemic has helped us really think through that kind of clearly. SANDS: Well, we're not ahead of you on that. I think we're dealing with all those issues, but I think you're exactly right. We've noticed that in some areas, the administrative areas, we've already hit this point where it's difficult to recruit here post-pandemic. It's easier to to go to the metro market and then let them be fully remote. And I think that it's working pretty well. But, I agree with you completely. I think you've got to build relationships in person and you have to tag up. And then the remote part can deal with in between, but you can't just stay remote. It's difficult. SCHULZ: Yeah, my core kind of leadership team had been there for most of the time I had been there and so we already had these relationships. So we can go on Zoom and we know each other well enough. You start bringing new colleagues on board and they haven't gotten to know everybody the same way. And that's, I think in the next year or two where we're most concern is how do we then there's electronic environment, make sure that people come and they feel a part of the place and not all the relationships are transactional in nature. So I think, all of us are going to be dealing with different vestiges of this over the next year or two, and figure out what works and what doesn't. And I've talked to some of my industry colleague CEOs and said that that are all doing all this for my work. And I said; How do you manage creativity? How do you manage on-boarding ? new people that truly hadn't been part of your organization or culture that, that are coming in and that's their experience at Washington State or Virginia Tech, is that online thing ? How do we do that ? Well, after a glass of wine or two, almost everybody goes, yeah, we figured it out. SANDS: Well, one of the things I bet you've had this experience too, that I'm in various chambers of commerce type groups and higher ed went back in-person far well before anybody else did, or well, almost anybody else. So we had that couple of months where we w