Onsite Higher Education with Debby Thomas - Terminal Value

Episode 14

#14 Onsite Higher Education with Debby Thomas

Doug talks with Dr. Debby Thomas - The dean of the George Fox University school of business administration about the decision to hold the fall semester onsite and its associated challenges.

The objective of higher education is not only learning content. Interacting with professors and students is a critical part of creating a rounded experience that prepares students for the outside world.

<<Transcript>>

[Music]

[Introduction]

Welcome to the terminal value Podcast where each episode provides in depth insight about the long term value of companies and ideas in our current world. Your host for this podcast is Doug Utberg, the founder and principal consultant for Business of Life, LLC.

Doug: Welcome to terminal value podcast. I have Debbie Thomas from George Fox University. She's actually the dean of the school of business and we are co-Rotarians in the Newberg noon Rotary Club and what George Fox did this fall I actually thought was very courageous. They decided to hold a school on campus instead of deciding that everybody was going to go virtual. This was a stark departure from what a lot of universities have done and for me I appreciate the willingness to go against the grain. I'm a you know and in my soul I'm definitely a contrarian at heart and so I just really like to hear these stories and Debbie I'd love to just discuss what's the experience been. Like how have you made the adjustments and how did you come to the decision.

Debby: Yeah well, first of all I am the dean of the college of business and the decision was made way over my head right. So I got to implement the decision but I didn't make the decision. So I can't take any credit or blame for the decision but, I know why the decision was made and it's really that what we have to offer at George Fox University is a small private Christian University  and what we are offering in education is more than just going to class. And so it's really a life-forming experience right. There's a  life transformation that we want to be happening and that has to do with your classes and all the spiritual life types of things that happen on campus and all the activities and the sports teams and right. It is a life transforming experience and so going to zoom means oh you're going to get your classes but it's not the whole experience that George Fox is trying to put together and so it was the decision was made very carefully of course but also recognizing that we really want to be able to give people that whole transformative experience.

Doug: Yeah, I think that. So I am 100 percent in agreement with that because yeah I think that it's at least I guess you. To me it's like if you're gonna because if you're only going to learn over zoom then you might as well just watch stuff on youtube because the effect is going to be pretty much the same. Because yeah, I think the transformative effect of school has to do with the internet is the interaction with other people. It's I mean just yeah just the content you can find on the internet for free. It's the internet. It’s interaction that really makes the difference you know. That’s the thing that’s going to you know that will help people to become transformative people to develop and implement ideas to be able to influence people to  adopt the course of action. That's at least.

Debby: Yeah.

Doug: That's one of the things that I found in my career is that coming up with good ideas is not that hard. Influencing other people to implement an idea that isn't theirs is extremely hard.

Debby: Right and you know Doug one of the interesting  things is we went face to face for the very purpose of being together and experiencing things together and yet we had so many restrictions on us right.

Doug: Yeah.

Debby: So right up until about 10 days before classes started. Everything was set at the university they had a team like everything was up to snuff and ready to go and about 10 days before we started the rules changed. And nothing worked anymore. None of our classrooms worked anymore and so there was a scramble just a mad scramble at the university and what they ended up doing is they transformed our two large gym spaces into four classrooms and they hung like big curtains and put students you know six feet apart in  desks and then they actually used a. It's a program that is used for tour guides and so the professor had a mic and then the students used their phone and they had to tune into the professor that was in their cubicle in the gym. Which created all kinds of problems because one the app didn't work half the time right. The other problem is to your back there's another professor trying to communicate with students right. So literally between one thin curtain you are back to back with somebody else having a different lecture on a different topic.

Doug: Yeah.

Debby: That was problematic. The students were so far apart that if you ask them a question and then with the mask on you can't hear an answer.

Doug: Yeah exactly.

Debby: It becomes a one-way communication  and here we've made all of this effort to be face to face. And then we find ourselves trapped in this one-way communication type of scenario and so we as professors, you know the professors are scrambling because they want to be interactive in small groups.

Doug: Yeah.

Debby: We have small classrooms for a reason right.

Doug: Yeah.

Debby: Small groups and interactive and  discussion and all this stuff and they were going nuts.

Doug: Yeah.

Debby: And so we did all kinds of things to try and break through that. And I think we were very creative without ever getting our students closer than six feet together.

Doug: Yeah.

Debby: Of how we could make some of these things happen but it has not been easy. Think about a cafeteria that has to service 1500 people three times a day and can never be more than 100 people inside of it at a time.

Doug: That sounds like a logistical challenge. 

Debby: Right. So we have tents all over campus because hello it's Oregon. It rains a lot. 

Doug: Yeah.

Debby: Like it it rains.

Doug: Yeah exactly.

Debby: So we have tents all over campus where the students actually order their meal on their mobile phone. Come through, pick it up. Take it to a tent where they sit outside six feet apart from everybody else and eat their food right.

Doug: Yeah.

Debby: So we have gone to incredible expense and the workload has doubled and tripled for everybody.

Doug: Yeah.

Debby: To make this happen.

Doug: Yeah well that's I mean. Well and I guess the other thing I keep thinking is that I mean there's not really you know. It's again I’m going to risk. I'm going to risk spiraling off into personal theories but I have not really seen anybody with anything resembling a plan for how things are going to kind of you know, to revert back to sort of past normal or at least regress back in that direction. It's not necessarily that there isn't one although I see no evidence that there is a plan. But in your view kind of what do you think there's some of these practices that are going to carry over to whenever theoretically in the future somebody decides that you know it's not a dire emergency anymore.

Debby: Yeah and I think, I think we're evolving you know, in how we deal with it. So like we use gym spaces and we thought that was a good idea and then we found the restrictions in that and although we became creative we've also decided that's not the best solution right. So this year, this next semester in the spring we're going to be looking at hybrid classes.

Doug: Okay.

Debby: So half the class comes one day. Half the class comes the other day, use of zoom and to get face to face and have conversations with students and to be closer together without ever getting six feet apart right.

Doug: Yeah.

Debby: And and so I think that we're getting better and we're coming up with better solutions as should be expected. I think that we're also recognizing. Especially in our graduate programs. You know in our MBA program in our DBA program we have people come face to face.

Doug: Yeah.

Debby: Once a week. They come, you know face to face and we're doing those through zoom. So we're still meeting for the four hours.

Doug: Yeah.

Debby: And we're still face to face. We're just doing it through zoom and it's beginning to help us think about well what if we could have MBA students who aren't from the Portland area.

Doug: Yeah.

Debby: Who did come to class through zoom and we're still a cohort and we still communicate with one another we still look at each other in the eyes when we're having conversations

Doug: Yeah.

Debby: But you know what, what if we could expand our boundaries a little bit and so I do think that some of what we're learning. I think we'll be better.

Doug: Yeah.

Debby: When we come out the other side of it. I do think that we will leverage some of these things. I think that our graduate programs will become more flexible than they have been in the past .

Doug: Yeah.

Debby: Because we see that we can do a good job at being more flexible. I think that on the undergrad side we are just going to be so relieved when we just get to be with our students and we just get to have our classes with activities and discussions and small groups.

Doug: Yeah.

Debby: And presentations that you know when we get to have all of that again but again I think we are becoming more aware of how we could include people that aren't physically in our space and you know that that might become an option in the future just because we're getting pretty good at it.

Doug: Yeah. Well and you know because I know one of the things that actually you know one of the things that I could foresee is actually a method that a lot of corporations use. Which is where you and in a lot of companies you have distributed teams right like when  I was at intel I think I usually have people. Some people were in Oregon, some people were in Arizona. I usually had one or two people in California and then there'd be a per some dotted line people over in Costa Rica.

Debby: Yeah.

Doug: And so what would happen is we'd meet virtually almost all the time and then about once every month or so. Actually it's usually about once every two months we'd get everybody together for about two or three days.

Debby: Yep.

Doug: And so I could actually see something like that working in an education cohort.

Debby: Yep.

Doug: Which is where say you're virtual for you know say for four days out you know four of your five meetings and then what you do is you meet like every year once a week.

Debby: Yep.

Doug: Every year or every other week or something like that.

Debby: Yeah.

Doug: Then I think you really, you can expand the footprint of you know of your school quite a bit because you know in that case then instead of just drawing locally or on campus. You know now you could draw people from say Seattle or Idaho.

Debby: Yep.

Doug: Or even as far down as like northern California just because you know if you're within about a four hour drive and you know well then what you can do is you can drive up and stay overnight.

Debby: Yep.

Doug: You know do your you collaborative day and then head back. I mean I remember when I did my MBA  in 2002 up of course I did my so the listeners here may or may not already know. I did my masters of business administration through George Fox University but I did it at the Portland campus which is actually in a city called Tigard. This is before the building was renovated. So it was, it smelled funny back when I went there. But anyway the way that we did it was we had an evening class and then about once every month or so we'd have about a six and a half hour Saturday session. Well if you do something like that especially for if you're talking like a graduate cohort or something where your virtual essay a couple times a week and then you basically have ostensibly an all-day an all-day session that could actually be very helpful or or very productive. You know probably you probably wouldn't notice that much of a drop-off versus having people in person all the time. I mean.

Debby: Yeah.

Doug: I'm just spitballing here tell me if I'm going off reservation.

Debby: No that's true and I do think that we so what I think is going to happen is we're going to be so grateful to be back in. You know we are in this business because we love our students right. We get so excited about being with our students and seeing that light bulb come on right. And so the masks and the distance it's hard on our spirits. And on our souls and we're doing the very best we can to still connect but students have to come through more barriers to connect. We have to go through more barriers to connect. It's just hard so I think we will have the sense of relief and just absolute abundant joy that we get to be back with our students but I also think we're going to come out the other end more skilled. I think that we're going to have some of our thinking will have been stretched about what we can do. The other thing that's happening in higher ed, which I'm sure you and everybody else in the world is aware of is we're in a real crunch. We were in a crunch before covid right and our president of George Fox University, Robin Baker, was telling us regularly as faculty and administrators you know higher ed is  going into a different time. We have got to change people. You know we can't just be how we were traditionally. Change can't move slowly and I am telling you George Fox is doing things and changing so quickly. We are becoming, we are learning to become a nimble organization.

Doug: Yeah.

Debby: And right now we are going through processes of change in George Fox that would usually take us two years. We are doing them in two months. Will we make some mistakes, sure we will.

Doug: Surely.

Debby: We’ll become a more nimble organization. Will we become the kind of organization that can change more quickly? I think we will. So we are working hard to become leaner and meaner. What do the students really really need? How can we absolutely serve them the best we can? How can we be producing people who have what the job market is asking for? How can be right on track to getting these students the skills and the knowledge they need to get great jobs and do a great job? In those jobs and how can we do it effectively and efficiently as far as the student is concerned and so I am an active part of this change process of course you know. My PHD is in leadership and organizational behavior. I teach change management  all the time.

Doug: Yeah this is by the purely.

Debby: So I'm jumping on I'm like hey change allows us to be better right and not seeing it as oh my gosh we have to change. We have to and we do we have to let go of things and there is some pain. There's always pain and change but also focusing on we can be better at what we're doing. We can be leaner and meaner and that means we get to stay around for the long haul right. When so many universities are closing. We get to be a university that continues and we get to be a university that learns how to be what we need to be in this environment. So I do see this change process as an opportunity. It's hard. It's very hard, it's been hard. We've been in the change process now for over a year. We've had to let a lot of very good people go.

Doug: Yeah.

Debby: Which has been extremely painful for the university, but we are learning. We're learning how to be more nimble and we're learning how to deal with what we need to deal with and become what we have to become. And I just don't think that the environment we're in is going to calm down and be like oh you changed good now, you get to stay there for the next 10 years. I think that we are learning. That we need to be more nimble in the future and I think a couple years down the road we're going to have to be changing again and again and again as anybody in industry knows. This is the new normal and educational institutions that are going to be successful are just they're going to need to get better at change.

Doug: Yeah.

Debby: And they're going to need to get better at the change process moving more quickly and I think we at George Fox are doing that.

Doug: Yeah well and I think that's actually probably one of Fox's principal advantages in the current environment. And just kind of you know for context I've actually been an observer in the Portland State University adjunct negotiations Because I was an adjunct. You know I've previously been an adjunct at Portland State teaching finance information systems. But the problem that Portland State has is that the adjuncts are carrying a bigger and bigger proportion of the overall workload. You know but you know but the adjunct compensation is not adequate to be able to be anything except a you know essentially a second job or fun job. And so but the problem is that model is you know that that model is basically fundamentally broken you know but of course you know the university is reluctant to commit too much more funding because you know they're concerned about you know about their their entire their whole funding ball and this this negotiation has been going on for a really long time. And of course me being from the outside looking in I'm like okay why can't you just agree on terms and meet in the middle .

Debby: Yeah.

Doug: And then just or you know meet in the middle or somewhere between the 40 yard lines and then just be done. But no, that's not how it works and I think that the, you know the smaller kind of a smaller nucleus at Fox means that you can go through that faster change process so that you can evolve to develop and maintain a unique value proposition for your students. You know because of course as a small college, you're obviously going to be more expensive than the state schools and so you know, so that means you  need to really develop and continually maintain that unique value otherwise it'll become difficult to you know to attract...

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