Academic Assembly Praises Valencia’s ‘Heavy Lift,’ Discusses Equity and Changes on the Horizon

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

By Claudia Zequeira

Nearly 900 faculty and staff gathered on Zoom on Thursday, August 20, 2020, for the 2020-2021 Academic Assembly, which kicked off an academic year filled with changes, challenges and hope and that also included the bittersweet announcement that College President Sandy Shugart would retire by summer.

Praise, Appreciation and Recognition

Dr. Shugart, Executive Vice President and Provost Kathleen Plinske, and Faculty Association Past President and Interim President Stanton Reed began by praising the heavy lifting done over the past few months, by all departments across the College, that went above and beyond the call of duty during the pandemic.

“The point is everybody here counts. Everybody makes a contribution,” said Sandy. “Students don’t learn unless everybody is in a position to contribute, so thanks to all of you. And I’m grateful that I can thank all of you, because there are a lot of places where not everybody is included anymore.”

Several departments were singled out for outstanding service, but Kathleen gave a special “shoutout” to Student Affairs, particularly as many employees saw their workload significantly increase as the fall registration period became compressed due to the pandemic.

“One of the things that we learned when we were back on campus in normal times is that if students experienced even the smallest hiccup in the enrollment process, many would interpret it as a sign that college wasn’t for them. And the conditions created by the pandemic could have amplified that phenomenon dramatically, but our Student Affairs team has figured out a way to create a sense of personal connection for our new and returning students in a virtual way,” said Kathleen. “Despite the incredible volume, the team has not forgotten that each student is a person, not just a VID.”

Multiple Valencia employees were also recognized for reaching a career anniversary milestone in their service at the College of 30, 35, and even 40 years. Click here to view the honorees.

Dr. Plinske then went on to discuss summer enrollment, which saw an additional 3,000 students as compared to last summer. Part of the increase may be connected to the R20 grade option, which gave students, particularly returning students, an opportunity to retake a course in the summer at no cost and without academic penalty. She also hailed the success rate of students this summer, mentioning it was almost identical to the success rate students experienced a year ago; a testament to Valencia’s investments in online learning.

“I think it’s good news that we don’t see anything dramatic in the data in 2020,” she said. “In fact, isn’t it nice for 2020 to feel normal in at least one way?”

Stanton injected a bit of humor by introducing a special “friend” — a puppet named Gerard — to the virtual gathering to keep Sandy from speaking longer than his allotted time, discussed, in a more serious tone, the accomplishments of faculty over the summer, indicating that 688 faculty members completed their Digital Professor Certification, including 565 part-time and annually appointed faculty. In addition, he said 75 faculty members engaged in course peer review in the summer.

Stanton also praised online-ready faculty for assisting colleagues who were not as comfortable with online teaching. He also lauded the work of Faculty Development, which encouraged instructors to complete the certification well before Valencia went online.

“I’m just amazed at the Valencia College approach to helping each other. We are a team. And as we’ve said before; we thrive through this together.”

Sandy then went on to discuss recent efforts made by the College to secure data as services moved online to do things like processing confidential student records, taking care of payroll and other important functions.

“This experience will probably, in some ways, leaven the way that we work for many years to come as we try to figure out what’s the best of both worlds,” he said.

He also lauded the College’s creativity to avoid furloughs and maximize the work of employees that could not be easily performed online through Valencia’s Talent Sharing Program, which helps connect employees who have availability and capacity with teams and departments that have a need for additional support. Some 500 hours of work per week have been redeployed this way across Valencia.

College leaders also shared via a video the numerous cleaning and safety protocols that Valencia is conducting to minimize health risks to our community. Watch the video here.

As speakers discussed Valencia’s transition into fall, they mentioned a summer calling campaign to students undertaken by faculty and staff, which is credited with helping provide needed personal connection. In all, employees reached out to students who received an R20 grade but did not retake their course in the summer, those who failed a course in spring and stopped in summer, and students with a balance due prior to the “dropped for non-payment” deadline. They also reached out to those who registered in spring and summer but had not registered for fall.

“The feedback we are hearing from our students is gratitude for the opportunity to connect with a human being,” said Kathleen.

Faculty also created videos to demonstrate what online courses would look and feel like this fall to put students’ minds at ease. The videos were then shared via social media. To view those videos, click here and here.

“Our faculty took a heavy lift,” said Stanton. “They have let students know, ‘don’t be despaired. We are going to make online exciting.’”

About 97% of courses offered by Valencia this fall are online, including some offered in a Real-time Virtual format (courses that meet online at designated times). Approximately 200 course sections will be offered in a traditional face-to-face setting due to lab elements, such as courses in nursing, public safety, accelerated skills and others.

A discussion about fall enrollment then ensued, with event hosts sharing that Valencia’s enrollment has remained healthy and is comparable to last fall. Sandy said he expects enrollment to either remain stable or grow up to 5% this term as students make decisions later in the semester. This is happening in the context of other neighboring colleges experiencing significant enrollment drops as well as budget cuts and layoffs.

He added that Valencia’s enrollment is healthy, in part, because enrollment is not our primary mission.

“Enrollment is a business outcome,” he said. “It’s not a purpose, it’s not a mission … Our mission is learning and student success.”

He added that the state is holding back 6% of funds budgeted to state colleges, including Valencia, against a future cut.

“We anticipated that. We’ll be fine,” he said.

Sandy then addressed our “conditions to reopen team” as well as our partnership with Orlando Health and its experts. Based on those conversations with infectious disease specialists, he said we should not expect a complete absence of COVID cases this fall and that Valencia has protocols in place for multiple scenarios. He encouraged all employees to access the Roadmap for Reopening website and other COVID-related information the College has made available online.

Although the big peak of illness seems to be behind us in Florida, with hospitalization and death numbers down, the sense, Sandy said, is that we will continue to see significant levels of transmission and will continue to make plans based on the science of the public health crisis.

He also said a decision about how spring courses will be offered will be made by Valencia by the end of September, a month prior to the beginning of registration to give, students, faculty and staff time to plan and prepare.

Opportunity and Equity

Kathleen then discussed Valencia’s next Strategic Impact Plan, which will focus on expanding opportunity and equity as they relate to access, graduation, transfer and workforce goals for students as areas of mission, with data disaggregated by race and ethnicity.

Metrics surrounding each goal will be developed in coming months, she said, and she provided examples such as the college-going rate of high school students in our area or how long it takes a Valencia graduate to earn a bachelor’s degree at the University of Central Florida. She added that Valencia will present the plan to the District Board of Trustees for approval in December and that more concrete plans for how we plan to reach those goals will be developed in the spring.

Sandy then discussed the history of community colleges and said the idea of opportunity for all has been in Valencia’s DNA from day one, though not yet fully realized.

“We’re at a unique moment in our history in that conversation; I hope a turning point,” he said. “I’m leaning in. I think we have a moment to do good in the area of equity, racial equity in particular. And I want to claim that moment for Valencia.”

After Stanton asked exactly how things will be different this time, Sandy answered that, beyond creating real opportunities for students to succeed and examining practices such as the effectiveness of student discipline and academic probation, the College will closely examine equity in its employment practices. He announced that a team would be created to evaluate policies and procedures and how those have an “impact on people.”

“We’re going to name outcomes,” said Sandy, “who gets hired, who gets promoted, how does development work here … This College was built 60 years ago. It’s not possible that we don’t have built-in problems.”

Sandy added that there are areas of the College that are “behind the curve in diversifying their faculty and staff.”

He added we have effective programs already that are known to create opportunity and access, such as Bridges to Success and Valencia Horizon Scholars, and that those should be expanded. He also said “bandwidth” should be added to efforts such as SEED and the Peace and Justice Institute.

Sandy also mentioned one of the best gifts he received this year were multiple emails from employees who wrote him in the aftermath of the George Floyd killing sharing what it was like to be a Black employee at the College.

“They were thoughtful, they were touching; they were deeply personal and authentic,” he said.

Stanton said he was appreciative of the opportunity to continue the discussion.

“You’ve opened the door for both positive and other conversations that a lot of people aren’t comfortable to have because they don’t want to make mistakes,” said Stanton. “So, I thank you for that.”

Retirement Announcement and New Leadership on the Horizon

Following the discussion on equity, and perhaps one of the most surprising aspects of the assembly, was Sandy’s announcement that he would be retiring by the end of summer and that he has asked Valencia’s District Board of Trustees to begin a search for his replacement beginning this fall and to be completed in December. He also mentioned searches for three permanent campus president positions, which are currently filled by interims, will begin in spring.

Regarding his timing, Sandy said he felt a new College president would be better able to build that leadership team for him or herself, so with that in mind, he said he felt he should leave a little earlier than anticipated.

“I’ve tried to make this decision in terms of the stewardship of Valencia only. So, before I get emotional, let me just tell you I love you,” said Sandy.

He closed by saying generations are typically defined by challenges and that COVID-19 is one such challenge.

“It seems quite likely to me that what we’re in right now will be a generation-forming event,” he said, adding that he wondered how our current students will remember COVID-19 and its lessons.

“I would just say this: I hope what they learn is that, one: endurance comes from enduring,” he said, paraphrasing the Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke. “Two: that we’re all in this together and that human beings were made to flourish in community and cooperation. I think we have this incredible opportunity to demonstrate that to our students.”

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