Park University Interim President, Shane Smeed shares his thoughts and experiences of the COVID-19 impact on Park University and its students.

Straub partnered with Park and WSKF Architects on the new Plaster Center, opening at the Parkville campus this fall.

How has Park University adapted to the “new normal”?

We believe that our greatest and most valuable resource is our people. Two fundamental principles have guided the decisions we have made in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. First, we maintain an ethical obligation to keep our students, faculty and staff safe.  Second, we remain committed to our mission of transforming “lives through accessible, student-centered quality higher education.” Fortunately for our students, Park had a 25-year head start over other colleges and universities when many of us moved all our classes online last March. For some historical perspective, we taught our first online course in 1996, months before Google was launched.  In preparation for the 2020-21 academic year, we put into place social distancing guidelines, cleaning protocols, blended (partially in-person, partially online) course scheduling, limited residence hall occupancy and athletics spectator restrictions. To better serve Park students, parents and fans, we offered free online streaming access to all home Park Pirates games. A post-COVID Fall 2021 will not look identical to a pre-COVID Fall 2019.  We learned from experience that some of our employees could be equally or even more effective in doing their work from home.  Like other employers, we will continue to embrace a more flexible work environment. Our students will also benefit from a broader array of choices of in-class, blended and online courses.

How have Park’s residential students been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic?

After leaving their residence hall room, the student would need to wear a mask at all indoor and outdoor locations. A visit to the Pirate Café for breakfast would be different too with students no longer able to serve themselves food. Some of the student’s classes would be in a socially distanced classroom. They would return to their room to enter an online classroom for the others. Student club meetings and lectures had moved to Zoom. A trip to the Breckon Sports Center to watch our nationally-ranked women’s volleyball team had been replaced by a streaming experience on a laptop. In short, the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted much of what my generation took for granted when we were college students.

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Considering COVID-19 and awareness around social justice, what are some of the lessons learned that all Higher Education institutions should be incorporating into future strategy and operations?

The events of 2020 reminded us that we had not fully learned the lessons of the 20th century. Once COVID-19’s toll fully set in, we came to understand how choices made during the 1918 pandemic affected communities and our nation, both positively and negatively. Simply celebrating MLK Day and Black History Month does not address inequalities that still exist on- and off-campus. When we made the decision last March to send most of our students home and move our classes online, we did not grasp the full meaning of the digital divide within the Park community. Access to a computer, let alone dependable broadband access, prevented some of our students from making a smooth transition, and we quickly intervened to provide them assistance. As higher education leaders, we should expect the unexpected, work tirelessly to put into practice the core values which our colleges and universities have adopted and strive each day to leave our institutions and communities better than when we inherited them.

Thinking back over the last 12 months, what accomplishments by your staff, faculty and students are you most proud of?

I could not be prouder of all our staff, faculty and students. Our cleaning crew has done extraordinary work ensuring that our classrooms and offices remain safe every day. Other staff members ranging from our admissions team to our counselors have continued to provide students the services and support they deserve. Our incredible faculty converted hundreds of courses to a blended format, maintaining academic rigor in the process. We talk a lot about resilience at Park University, and our students have demonstrated it this past year. They adjusted to new learning and residential environments. Our student-athletes accepted both frequent testing and a limitation on spectators, driven by a commitment to support their teammates and represent our university. Their loyalty and determination motivate me to treat all our staff and faculty as true colleagues and to put maximum effort into every day, regardless of how many people are on campus.

Ten years from now, what does Higher Education look like?

Park’s history has shown us time and again how much can change within a decade. By the end of the 1970s, Park offered evening courses to adult learners in downtown Kansas City and on military installations across the country. Ten years later, Park had moved its library and many classrooms to a spacious underground facility beneath its Parkville campus. When 1990 arrived, no one could have anticipated that Park was shortly to become a pioneer in online education. Some of the changes I expect to see ten years from now have received wide-ranging attention in the higher education literature. Our campuses will become even more diverse. College and university students will choose how, when and where to take courses. Higher education institutions will supplement their traditional degree programs with shorter duration upskilling and reskilling offerings.  “Agile” will become a buzzword everywhere.

What will be interesting to witness over the next decade is how generational differences impact campus culture, particularly as Baby Boomers retire and are replaced by younger Millennials and Gen Zers. Imagine new ways technologies might be used inside and outside the classroom! Can a desire for a work-life balance peacefully co-exist with a demanding academic tenure system? Will tomorrow’s employees seek more from a total compensation package than compensation and traditional benefits? Will today’s middle school and high school students experiencing Zoom fatigue seek a more interpersonal collegiate experience than the students we are educating today? Thinking about future trends can be simultaneously daunting and exciting.

What are you most excited about in 2021?

The beginning of an academic year on any college or university campus is a special experience. You can feel the excitement in the air when students return to campus. At Park, our Move-In Day has become an annual tradition with our athletes pitching in to unpack cars as new students begin their higher education journey.

As September turns to October, the trees on our historic Parkville campus begin to exhibit their vibrant colors, and they will help frame our new Robert W. Plaster Free Enterprise Center which we will formally dedicate on October 1.