“We Trusted Our People”: How Colleges are Weathering COVID

By Keith Witham, PhD, Managing Director, The Aspen Institute College Excellence Program

Some of the most vivid stories I’ve heard over the past few months from Frontier Set college leaders are the retelling of the first few weeks of March 2020, as campuses—and the nation—were just beginning to grapple with the seriousness of a terrifying new global pandemic. Across their stories, there was one word that captured the feeling of those weeks: “chaos.”

Lisa Armour, Vice President for Assessment, Research, and Technology at Santa Fe College, described some of the chaos of the first week after the college made the decision to shut down: “We were dismantling technology in some places to reinstall it in others; there were people in masks running across campus with monitors under each arm, getting equipment to faculty at their homes so they could keep teaching ... decisions were being made individually on the fly, but we trusted one another to do what was right for our students.”

Across all of the Frontier Set, college leaders’ stories about how they made it through those first few months of the pandemic and continued to provide not only high-quality teaching and learning but also academic and non-academic supports for students, that one theme reverberated: We trusted our people to do what’s right for students.

We shouldn’t take that for granted. It’s easy to assume that all who work at colleges and universities are driven by the missions of those organizations and would make heroic efforts to do the best for students under difficult and uncertain circumstances. But that’s not true at every institution. Nor does the collective willingness to problem-solve and “make it work” for students result, at every institution, in the kinds of herculean pivots many Frontier Set colleges made in order to sustain learning and support for students. What sets them apart?

The kind of strong culture that enabled faculty and staff—often with limited advance planning and direction—to effectively recreate the student experience virtually was built over many years through intentional practices, structures, and policies. Over the course of the Frontier Set work, we’ve learned how those colleges have built trust and a culture of empowerment and alignment through strategies that are instructive for other institutions. For example:

Hiring and onboarding

Several Frontier Set colleges have focused intentionally on redesigning hiring processes at every level of the institution, to select attributes that are aligned with student success and equity goals—by screening specifically for “growth mindset,” for example, or for experience with and commitment to equity and anti-racism. At San Jacinto College, the hiring process requires interviewers to screen explicitly for equity-mindedness and fit with the college’s values on diversity, equity, and inclusion. For example, hiring committees are required to ask questions from a protocol focused on advancing DEI at the college, such as: “How has your background and experience prepared you to be effective in an environment that holds inclusivity as core to our mission and values?” “What efforts have you made, or been involved with, to foster cultural competence?” Candidates for full-time faculty positions are also required to complete a statement that demonstrates their perspective on student success and its relationship to student learning and outcomes, which reviewers then assess to determine if the response is in alignment with the college’s values and mission. And the college provides robust onboarding, including a year-long New Faculty Academy that includes in-depth training on implicit bias and cultural competence. During COVID, San Jacinto saw the benefits of those hiring practices in the strong sense of shared purpose and willingness among faculty and staff to do what was necessary to support students.

Professional development

Through the Frontier Set and the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence, we’ve observed that one of the institutional strengths most strongly correlated with continuous improvement in student outcomes is a robust professional development structure that enables colleges to build capacity college-wide around strategies for more effectively and equitably serving students. For example, for over a decade Miami Dade College (MDC) has had an in-house professional development department, the Center for Institutional and Organizational Learning (CIOL). CIOL’s focus had shifted in recent years to primarily engaging faculty in holistic student support, through both pedagogy and student interactions outside the classroom. Of the pedagogical strategies, online teaching and learning strategies were among the most prevalent. At the onset of COVID-19, MDC was readily able to activate that strong existing infrastructure to ensure traditional, classroom-based faculty could quickly “train up” to provide remote learning. MDC launched additional sections to train faculty in using the institution’s learning management system, remote instructional design, and online engagement of students.

Data to support real-time adaptation

One of the most critical capacities colleges have relied upon during COVID is the ability to assess and respond in real time to students’ needs—with respect to technology access, health, and personal and family circumstances that impacted their ability to stay engaged in learning. The ability to get critical data into the hands of faculty and staff to enable them to adjust their work quickly required an existing capacity for collecting, distributing, and acting upon data. For example, at Sinclair Community College, faculty, staff, and administrators regularly use data to decide which programs to scale up and which to sunset. At an annual Data and Completion summit, several hundred employees receive professional development on the use of data, and they examined disaggregated student success trend data showing the greatest increases in graduation rates were for minority students. These events continued through the COVID pandemic, and that well-developed infrastructure for disseminating data—and the broadly shared skill for using data that’s been built over time—allowed college practitioners to quickly home in on students hit hardest by the pandemic: students of color and low-income students. The college did targeted outreach to those students, and launched a calling campaign that brought 400 students back to Sinclair to continue their education.

These same strategies will help Frontier Set institutions emerge from COVID—hopefully, in some ways stronger and more student-centered than before—and navigate the uncertainty of the coming years in its wake.


Keith Witham is Managing Director of the College Excellence Program, where he oversees efforts to advance equity and student success through research and community college executive leadership development.

Thanks to Kathleen Cleary, Interim Provost and Senior Vice President, Sinclair Community College; Lenore Rodicio, Senior Fellow at the Aspen Institute and former Executive Vice President and Provost, Miami Dade College; and Laurel Williamson, Deputy Chancellor and College President, San Jacinto College, for contributions to this piece.