Lehigh Leadership Discusses Fall Planning, Academics in First Edition of ‘Community Conversations’

During the discussion, Provost Nathan Urban announced that a decision on Lehigh’s return to campus plan would be made by Aug. 3.

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Lehigh Provost Nathan Urban on Thursday evening hosted the first of a new series of online discussions with the campus community about the university’s ongoing planning regarding the fall semester. 

The first hour-long session of the ‘Community Conversations’ series focused specifically on academics, and how Lehigh faculty are working to make their fall courses as impactful and engaging as possible, despite the challenges posed by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Future sessions in the series will cover community safety, health and wellness, housing and dining and student life. More information can be found on the COVID-19 Information website.  

Urban was joined on Thursday’s call by Elizabeth A. Dolan, deputy provost for graduate education; Jennifer Jensen, deputy provost for academic affairs; Gregory Reihman, vice provost, Library and Technology Services; and Steven Wilson, assistant provost for academic affairs and registrar. The meeting was moderated by Chris Halladay, associate vice president for Human Resources. 

More than 1,000 people joined the discussion. Given the unprecedented demand, Lehigh is working to ensure that more people will be able to join in future episodes by increasing capacity and including live-streaming through social media channels. 

At the outset of the conversation, Urban announced that, as the university continues to monitor the fast-changing situation with COVID-19, including a surge in confirmed cases in many states, a final decision regarding Lehigh’s approach to the fall semester would be made by Aug. 3. 

“I understand completely that ... many people would like to have additional details and additional information [about the fall], and we are committed to providing all that detail,” Urban said. “Clearly over the last few weeks many things have been changing rapidly. We are working as quickly as possible to develop and to finalize those plans, and I assure you that we will get them out to the community as soon as we can, and absolutely no later than Aug. 3.”

Urban noted that Lehigh had announced in June its preliminary plans for the fall semester, which indicated that students would return for the beginning of the  academic semester on Aug. 24 and that in-person instruction would be completed by Thanksgiving.

“We are in the process of updating that guidance, updating that description and updating our information that we can provide to people about what we will be able to do, what we are comfortable doing in the fall, with respect to the health and safety of our campus,” he said. 

“I understand that many people would like that detailed information today or as soon as possible. We feel like given the rate at which things are progressing with respect to the virus, given the considerations about what's happening in the local community, also considerations about the availability of testingthis is something that we want to provide as soon as possible, but at the same time, we don't want to provide it only to have to change it again.” 

All of the administrators on the call talked about the extensive measures Lehigh faculty are taking to ensure that their courseswhether delivered online, in person or in some hybrid mannerwill maintain the high standards of the Lehigh experience. With more than 300 questions asked by the community before and during the event, the administrators did their best to answer the most frequently asked questions. Many of those questions and answers, and many more, can be found in the FAQ section of the COVID-19 site. 

By leveraging important learnings from the spring semester and building off a series of training programs and other initiatives, Reihman said, faculty will have the tools and skills to make their interactions with students truly dynamic. More than 300 Lehigh faculty have participated in workshops this summer aimed at enhancing the online learning environment. 

“I know a lot of questions have come in about what we're doing to make fall different and better than spring, and we learned a lot of lessons and took it quite seriously,” Reihman said. “We're very proud of most of what we did … and we recognized that there were things that we can do better. And so we have a Faculty Senate working group there to analyze the feedback from our students, and the feedback from our faculty, on what went well, and what were opportunities for improvement.”

Wilson added: “We've been working over the last month or more with the academic departments, developing ways to deliver the quality education that you expect from Lehigh in ways that are both safe, and have the integrity of the classroom in mind.” 

Jensen said that a major focus among the academic leadership is to give students "as much as a live experience as possible," even in situations where courses are being offered online. 

"We will have a comparatively few classes that are online and asynchronous, where it's taped or the instructors online at a different time," she said. "The vast majority of these courses are going to be synchronous learning where everyone's online together."

University leadership is also very aware of the unique challenges the current situation has posed for graduate students, Dolan said. As planning continues for the fall, she said that the university is committed to making sure graduate students have the opportunity to continue making progress toward their degrees. 

She also told those joining the 'Community Conversations' discussion that Lehigh administrators recognize the strain on students and families in the current environment. 

"I also just wanted to mention that many of us on your screen have children in college or in graduate school, and really understand the stress that you are experiencing right now as you try to figure out what fall could look like," Dolan said. 

The next 'Community Conversations' session will be held Thursday, July 30, at 5 p.m., with a focus on campus safety, health and wellness. Attendees can pre-register

Each session in the ongoing series will be recorded for those who are not able to attend live. Recordings will be available following each event on the 'Community Conversations' page or on Lehigh’s YouTube channel.  

Learn more about this series and find helpful information and resources on the COVID-19 Information website.

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