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Under leadership of a new president, Gaston College prepares for a fall semester shaped by COVID-19

John Hauser assumed the presidency of Gaston College on June 1, an inauspicious time given that our state and country were months into the fight against COVID-19.

But Hauser was no stranger to leading a college through a pandemic. He served as president of Carteret Community College when COVID-19 hit the United States this spring. 

That experience, Hauser says, has helped him hit the ground running at Gaston, and it has shaped his vision for virtual education this fall.

Hauser recently shared with me some of the thinking that keeps him up at night: “Moving forward, our plan does not mean that certain populations have access to our programs, to our campus; it means that everybody has access, and it means that we understand situations in the more rural communities.

“So how do we partner with our public schools? How do we partner with public libraries to have hotspots? And how do we give those access that might not be as fortunate as others?”

Dr. John Hauser, president of Gaston College, June 2020. Courtesy of Gaston College

The college’s safety plan for the fall was shaped by Hauser and his leadership team, but also by the experience of those who were involved in the college’s response to COVID-19 in the spring.

“I’ve touted it as perhaps the greatest team building experiment in modern history,” Todd Baney, Gaston College’s vice president for administrative services, said with a wry grin when asked about the impact of COVID-19 on the college this spring.

The plan kicks off on Thursday, Aug. 20, when the fall semester begins. As with all of the 58 community colleges in our state’s system, Gaston will use multiple modes of instruction, including online-only courses, in-person instruction, and hybrid courses that include both. The plan also outlines specific safety measures for in-person classes and labs, including new seating layouts to promote social distancing, enhanced housekeeping offerings, and new disinfecting protocols. 

Baney told me that Gaston had a leg up when the transition to virtual education occurred in March due to its investments in a quality enhancement plan it had launched more than a decade earlier. Over the past decade-plus, Baney said, faculty and staff had invested in significant professional development to hone their skills in online education.

President Hauser and his leadership team. Courtesy of Gaston College

Hauser and his team have used August to build on the foundation of the professional development undertaken by staff over the previous decade, as well as the crash course from the spring.

The professional development for faculty and staff in the weeks before the fall semester has included a “how-to” in communications and communications strategy, including considerations around when to text versus email and other modes of communication, diversity and equity training, and more. 

The college is also focused on communications with staff and the broader Gaston College community to try to maintain their culture, Hauser said — and to show it off. “It’s a culture of caring,” he explained. “It’s a culture of understanding, and listening to other perspectives, and caring about that individual. We do not know every situation our faculty and staff are under right now. We do not know those personal situations they’re dealing with. And so that communication and demonstrating true care for one another is important for us.”

Baney interjected to say that consistent, timely communication is a “golden objective” for the college this fall — driven, in part, by the need to focus on one-to-one communication with both students and prospective students around enrollment in the run-up to the fall.

Enrollment is always a key indicator for community colleges, but it is particularly being monitored as it appears to be a concern for institutions of higher education across the country. During our conversation, Hauser shared that he hoped the North Carolina General Assembly would consider a “hold harmless” provision for colleges because the pandemic will affect enrollment.

“Preparing our manufacturers to be able to continue forward within this economy requires us,” he said. “And if the legislature wants the economy to survive, they have to fund us at a higher level.”

Hauser said funding will remain a challenging issue as he considers the role of Gaston College in bolstering economic mobility for the communities it serves.

But it isn’t just funding that will shape the future, he said, but innovation. Hauser’s emphasis on innovation is keyed to collaboration, including the potential for sharing faculty with other colleges in the region, potential partnerships with area companies around course delivery through virtual reality, and leveraging new resources, including the school’s new veterinarian tech program.

One other positive innovation from COVID-19 could come from a pilot around “short course” delivery this fall, where the typical 16-week course could become a five-week sprint. “And if we can prove this model out be beneficial,” he said, “we might have a cost saving associated with that, and it might increase our completion rates. 

“We’ve got to … try new things. And I think that’s part of who we are.”

Nation Hahn

Nation Hahn is the director of growth for EducationNC.