Fall semester faculty welcome and updates

Dear faculty colleagues, 

Welcome to the fall semester, beginning today for our undergraduates and ongoing for many members of our professional schools. While the pandemic and pivot to remote learning have forced us to engage at a six-foot distance or more, we remain close in our shared purpose of providing the same high-quality MSU learning experiences. Our commitments to academic excellence and student success persist, in large part because of your good work and your agile and innovative approaches to tackling each new challenge as it has come your way since March.

Engagement in professional development opportunities

The pandemic continues to powerfully impact the university’s functions and your lives as faculty members. Through it all, MSU never stopped educating. Despite the virus’ best efforts, we have continued to teach our students and keep them on track to graduate. I am thrilled that over a thousand of you have gone through intensive professional development experiences focused on how to better design and teach effective online courses. You have also engaged with experts in exploring innovative ways to deliver lab experiences for students, and to continue instruction in the performance arts. In each instance, you have been remarkably creative and thoughtful in devising ways to meet student needs and MSU’s high educational standards.

Just this past week, in ongoing efforts to help faculty move classes online, facilitators from across MSU IT, the College of Arts and Letters, the Broad College of Business, the College of Natural Science, and the Hub collaborated to provide timely and easily accessible synchronous and asynchronous support resources. The level of engagement in professional development opportunities demonstrated by each of you as our valued faculty continues to impress me, though I am not surprised. One of the reasons I wanted to join the MSU community is the steadfast commitment to teaching demonstrated by faculty members I met, and their equally strong commitment to our students’ success. Thank you for your selfless dedication and inspiring work!

Another reason I was eager to join you at Michigan State is our mission as a land-grant institution to share the resources of the academy as widely as possible. I am happy to report that the modules faculty used to enhance online instruction have been provided to K-12 schools across the state of Michigan. We are excited to have the opportunity to provide Michigan school districts with a foundation for successful online teaching and learning. In the years to come, we will welcome to MSU the elementary, middle school, and high school students who were touched by your good work.

Keep Teaching website

I know you have been directed to this resource before, but please continue to check the Keep Teaching website throughout the semester, for both resources and new opportunities as they arise. New mental health resources have been added to the site, so check back to learn more about them throughout the semester. I appreciate your ongoing commitment to our students, and to providing them with the best learning opportunities possible in our remote setting.

Student success mentoring program for incoming students

I wanted you to be aware that we have added a new resource for our newest students. To help incoming students navigate their transition to MSU during a semester that has forced us to engage remotely in a number of ways that usually occur in person, we have created the new Circles of Success Mentoring Program, in support of their academic success. This network of support will encourage an exchange of information about the specific needs new students face, and provide an opportunity to create effective individualized outreach plans to support them throughout the semester. We are confident that this program will help bring valuable resources and services to the forefront, to address the unique needs of new Spartans. Many of you will have incoming students in your classes this fall, and I want you to know that these mentors will be connected to our new students and playing a supportive role in both orienting them and helping them stay them on track.

Review of practices and policies related to academic work

Just as the disruption of our ability to deliver in-person teaching has revealed new ways to engage students and expand the reach of our land-grant mission, the disruption of our usual work practices has revealed new ways to evaluate academic work. You, the faculty, have spent considerable time relearning pedagogies, including teaching with technology. You have invented new ways to stay connected to students who need your support more than ever to continue their studies, and, very often, you have figured out how to pivot or significantly redirect your research when data and subjects are unavailable, funding is interrupted, and time for writing, thinking, and creating has evaporated. I am aware of this extra work and the associated hurdles. I am also aware that many of you are developing new scholarship and have found ways to write, create, and invent. There is no one monolithic faculty experience and I am mindful of the concerns and the opportunity spectrum.  

The University Committee on Faculty Tenure wisely and unanimously approved to delay by one year the tenure clock for any faculty member due for reappointment/promotion during academic year 2020-2021; similar provisions were adopted for other academic staff in probationary positions. Work that is novel and creative most often emerges from a positive, steady, and supportive work environment, and only rarely from a work environment characterized by uncertainty, ambiguity, and strain. I applaud the decision of the University Committee on Faculty Tenure and call upon each of us to be part of a positive evaluative ecosystem, both now and when we emerge from operating within the constraints dictated by the pandemic.

Provost’s Office Honorifics Program

In my initial greeting to the MSU community in early August, I mentioned a new Provost’s Office Honorifics Program that elevates the stature of the University’s intellectual work to national and global prominence.

I have begun meeting with offices across campus to sort out the mechanisms needed to move this initiative forward. My aim is to increase national and international awards for you, the deserving MSU faculty. Discussions about current departmental and college practices for matching prospective candidates with awards, for advancing nomination processes, and for soliciting new ideas on how to increase awards are being scheduled. The intent of this program is to recognize your outstanding accomplishments and achievements.

We need to recognize and respect the extent to which our academic lives have been changed. And even as we work as a community to let not one member fall off the path, we are finding ways through the provost’s office, Faculty Senate, and each day within the colleges and units, to support each other and invigorate the intellectual vitality of this great university. I ask you to join me in thinking about what can be, and what should be, as we turn toward a post-pandemic academy.

WorkLife support

With many K-12 districts delivering online instruction this fall, I want to remind you that the WorkLife Office continues to compile a broad range of resources and information regarding family care issues during the coronavirus pandemic. These include quaranteam tips, unraveling the childcare crisis and parenting and returning to work. I know many of you have put in many extra hours and added new responsibilities associated with the pivot to remote learning. And I know that this work can feel like a sprint at times, and a marathon at others – and sometimes like both at the same time. Please explore these helpful resources and continue to visit the WorkLife website throughout the semester as new offerings are added. 

Upholding academic standards

I am aware that some faculty members have expressed concerns about upholding academic standards in an online learning environment, including verifying student absences and enhancing academic integrity precautions. While it is possible that some small segment of students may take advantage of the extraordinary circumstances surrounding this semester’s work, please grant your students the benefit of the doubt and exercise flexibility and patience with them this semester. 

Students may request consideration for time zone differences, differential technology needs and access, and challenges finding the time and space to concentrate. They might get sick or struggle with the anxieties of the moment, to say nothing of the real possibility they may have family or friends who need their help. In all of these instances, we do best to offer support first. If you have a student who signals need or who drops off their course engagement, please reach out to them through as many channels as possible, including by letting their advisor or relevant associate or assistant dean know.

Extending grace and empathy

As we begin the semester together in this remote learning environment, I thank you for extending grace and empathy to one another, and to all members of our MSU community. Much is new to all of us, and there will be missteps along the way. Thank you for being supportive of one another! 

Our students may feel the strain of remote learning in new ways as well. Jon Ritz, who serves in the College of Arts & Letters as coordinator of student health and wellness, and Sam Hardey, a graphic design intern in College of Arts & Letters Marketing & Communications and a Residential College in the Arts and Humanities major with minors in graphic design and entrepreneurship, have developed an outstanding resource that I would like to share with all of you. The document, entitled Addressing Student Mental Health Concerns in Online Courses, provides thoughtful directions in support of remote learning and student success. I hope this material is helpful and can be incorporated as you teach and interact with students this fall, and as you take care of yourselves as well.

In closing, please continue to reference the wise words at the end of the Addressing Student Mental Health Concerns in Online Courses document. “Be mindful of the extra stress you are under as an online educator, and reach out to colleagues and friends to share your experiences and ask for support. Remember MSU’s Employee Assistance Program is also available to help support faculty. Taking on this additional burden on behalf of your students is hard work on top of an already demanding job. Don’t forget to take care of yourself as well.” 

With gratitude and best wishes for a successful fall semester!

Teresa K. Woodruff, Ph.D.
Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs
MSU Foundation Professor