S.1 E.2 Pandemic Provost

Learning for Life @ Gustavus host Greg Kaster interviews Provost and Dean of the College Brenda Kelly.
Posted on May 27th, 2020 by

Provost Brenda Kelly talks Gustavus leadership amid COVID-19. The former chemistry professor discusses plans and decisions, stresses and successes, uncertainties and jigsaw puzzles from the College’s transition to online teaching and learning.

Season 1, Episode 2: Pandemic Provost


Greg Kaster:
Learning for Life at Gustavus is produced by JJ Akin and Matthew Dobosenski of the Gustavus Office of Marketing; Will Clark, senior communication studies major and videographer at Gustavus, who also provides technical expertise to the podcast; and me, your host, Greg Kaster. The views expressed in this podcast are not necessarily those of Gustavus Adolphus College.

Imagine you are the provost of a small residential liberal arts college recently joined by two newly hired associate provost from other institutions, and a global pandemic hits, suddenly halting in-person teaching and learning at your institution and necessitating a rapid shift to online education, which is antithetical to the whole point of a liberal arts college—small in-person classes, a close-knit community, students and professors collaborating on and off campus.

What is it like to be that person in those circumstances? What steps do you take? What leadership is required? And how do you stay focused and sane amid circumstances changing at warp speed and with all the attendant confusion and uncertainty?

Well, who better to speak about all this than our own provost at Gustavus, Brenda Kelly, who has been in that office since 2016. Before that, Brenda was busy teaching and researching as a professor in the Gustavus Chemistry Department.

Provost Kelly, Brenda, I’m delighted to welcome you to the podcast, and thank you so much for making time to be here amid all the other unimaginable demands on your time at this kind of crazy moment.

Brenda Kelly:
Thank you, Greg. I’m really happy to be here. Thanks for inviting me.

Greg Kaster:
Yeah. Well, thanks for coming, and my pleasure. So let’s just dive right into it. I mean, I can’t even imagine. The learning curve must be so steep.

But on the other hand, Gustavus has experienced disaster before, and this is a disaster, I think. In 1998, you were there, I think. In 1998, we suffered—we in the town and the area—terrible, terrible devastation from a tornado.

But I thought we could start just by asking you to talk a little bit about what Gustavus, not only you in particular, but Gustavus, the leadership team, has been drawing on to work through what you’ve had to work through thus far.

Provost and Dean of the College Brenda Kelly, PhD

Brenda Kelly:
Absolutely. Thanks for asking, Greg. I would say toward the middle to the end of February, we were starting to get these glimmers of COVID and how it was coming into this country.

And again, that was probably about mid-February, and so the Infectious Disease Committee was created or was re-invigorated during that time, so we had an opportunity with a larger group of individuals. This committee is a group led by Heather Dale, who’s done an excellent job leading this group.

We had a little bit of time prior to it really hitting hard in the state of Minnesota to do a little bit of planning and a little bit of conversation about how we would plan toward a pandemic, but I don’t think that any of us thought would actually happen or hit Minnesota in the way that it did. So that was the first kind of leadership group that helped to inform, I would say, initial planning. And it was really driven from a public health perspective, that initial group, but it involved lots of different people on campus.

Once we started to make really rapid decisions, and that started to happen somewhere around March 11, we were really looking at CDC guidance and the Minnesota Department of Health guidance on how institutions of higher ed should be responding to this particular situation.

So we had phone calls with the Minnesota Department of Health to ask Gustavus-specific questions and receive responses about that, and have been actively participating in weekly webinars with the Minnesota Department of Health to continue to hone our plans as we moved through the initial transition to online for a two-week period, and as we made the decision to go online for the rest of the semester, and as we’ve been considering our plans for both the summer and the fall 2020 semester.

And so the cabinet has been meeting daily for many hours a week, as we’ve gone through this decision-making process for how are we, as Gustavus Adolphus College, going to respond to this situation and still maintain who we are, that residential liberal arts community that really values the face-to-face, the in-person, the student-faculty relationships, the co-curricular activities alongside curricular activities? How can we maintain that when we are in this distant environment from one another?

Greg Kaster:
I didn’t even know we had an… You just mentioned an Infectious Disease Committee. Is that since COVID, or was that already in place or some version of it was in place?

Brenda Kelly:
That was a group that had not been in place, or I guess I should say it had not been active. So the last time that that group had been active, it’s my understanding that it was last active during H1N1, so there was a pandemic planning committee that actually put together a pandemic plan for Gustavus at that time of H1N1 and SARS, kind of in the late 2000s, early 2010-11, that period of time.

And so when the Infectious Disease Committee started meeting, we were really using as our starting point, dusting off of those plans and seeing what still applied and what needed to be adapted for a situation that now was happening about 10 years later.

Greg Kaster:

Podcast host and historian Greg Kaster

That leads me… Oh, actually, first, I should just mention that you mentioned Heather Dale, who I think we all agree has done an outstanding job, who’s sort of head of health services at Gustavus.

Do you find yourselves, you, the president, other members of the cabinet, find yourselves, not just thinking back to 1998 and the tornado, but drawing on any lessons from that recovery?

Brenda Kelly:
So definitely among cabinet members, particularly the beginning of the initial stages, I would say, the first week or two of this situation, there were lots of reflections and comparisons to the time of the tornado because it was an event that happened suddenly, kind of like our transition to online.

It was an event that really… where the whole community had to pull together in order to overcome and make decisions. So there were lots of comparisons and reflections about how Gustavus handled, managed, overcame that situation, and what lessons could be learned and applied to this situation.

I think more recently, there’s been a lot more reflections about, well, what makes this different? And I think one of the aspects… well, two things, that make this very different are the community piece during the tornado. Everyone could physically come together to help. Our alumni… everyone came to campus.

And here, we’re trying to find that community gathering space in a virtual environment, and so it’s so different than that particular situation. And then I think, as you’ve noted and others have noted, the tornado was a very Gustavus, Saint Peter, centralized specific event.

And this event is affecting everyone. It’s affecting our alums, it’s affecting our families. To use an analogy, there’s a lot more tails. The tail is much longer to this particular situation, and so we can’t reach out or count on all of the networks that we were able to count on during the tornado, because those networks and individuals are also being deeply impacted by the COVID pandemic.

Greg Kaster:
Right, and you’re making me think also, the other… I mean, another difference is, as horrible as the tornado was… And my wife, Kate and I, Kate taught in the history department, now retired, but we were not there when it hit, we were visiting family in New York City.

But as horrible as that was, and it was horrible, it was a finite event. I mean, we sort of knew, okay, the tornado’s over, the destruction is done. Now it’s about recovery, where we really don’t know where we’re headed with COVID-19. There’s so much uncertainty ahead.

Brenda Kelly:
Yes. I would fully agree with that, and I think that’s one of the unsettling pieces around this particular situation. As we made that decision to go remote for the first two-week period, beginning on March 30 through April 13, that was the initial decision-making process.

And as soon as we made that decision to go online for that two-week period, then individuals wanted us to make the next decision was, the next question was, well, are you going to go online for the whole semester? And that question came up five minutes after we made the first decision. And what we’re finding now is, as soon as you make one decision, then the next decision has to be made there. Everything is interconnected.

So there’s a lot of unrest right now about both this summer at Gustavus, as well as the fall at Gustavus, because people want us to just decide because it’s much easier to just know exactly what we’re going to do and have all of the plans laid out.

And as you know, Greg, the fall semester doesn’t start for four months. And if you would have asked me four months ago, “Guess what, Brenda Kelly? You’re going to be living in a pandemic four months from now,” I would have laughed and said, “You are absolutely insane.”

And so, although we were projecting what the state of Minnesota and the Saint Peter region might be like on September 1, we can project, we can model, we can look at data, we don’t know exactly what the environment is going to be like on September one.

So it’s a lot of contingency planning and thinking about, well, what are the three most likely scenarios for us? And maybe we can lay out those three plans, but we won’t actually be able to choose a plan until something like August 1, probably, or July 15, because we just don’t have the data in front of us to know where we’re going to be at that point.

Greg Kaster:
Right. You’re making me think also, two words that often, well they don’t scare faculty, but don’t make us happy, “strategic planning,” which we all engage in. But my goodness, if ever planning was important, it’s now. Both the planning done well before anyone knew this pandemic was coming, and the ongoing planning.

Amid all the chaos, amid all that uncertainty you described so well, what are you doing to stay sane? How are you getting away from the pandemic, if you can, and all the decision making and discussions around decisions?

Brenda Kelly:
That is a great question, Greg. I would say I, for the first two to three weeks, so from about March 11 through March 31-ish, I was not getting away from it at all because I was working every day, I was working every night, I was thinking about it every night, I was thinking about it all night, I was thinking about it all weekend. And that is not a sustainable model at all, as you know.

Starting at the beginning of April, what I really tried to do is intentionally say, “Brenda Kelly, you are taking Saturday off. You are not doing Gustavus work on Saturday because you need a break, and you have to have a break from video calls,” because I am Zoomed out by the end of a week. On Saturday for about, I’ll say a 24 to 36 hour period, I try to totally unplug.

On the weekends, I tend to walk probably about 10 miles on both Saturday and Sunday so that I can get outside. I like to cook. Many people know that. So on the weekends, I try to make two or three new recipes every weekend because that exercises other parts of my brain.

And I also like to do jigsaw puzzles, so we’re on the third jigsaw puzzle since COVID began. This one is a 1500 piece one. This one is a challenge, so I’m kind of hoping that maybe the Minnesota stay-at-home order will be lifted at about the time when I’m done with the jigsaw puzzle and I put that away.

Greg Kaster:
Oh, very good. It sounds like you’re doing smart things, I mean, important things to take care of yourself, and really, it is important. I think about this. I mean, on the one hand, we’re so fortunate it’s not 1918, we have all of this technology, we can be plugged in. But boy, it just could become a 24/7 situation, which is not good.

Let’s talk a little bit about your personal history, your history as an academic, namely, how you… How did you find yourself drawn to chemistry? When did that start? Why? Just talking with another faculty member earlier about it on the podcast, Dwight Stoll of chemistry, and how people typically don’t wake up and decide, “Ah, I’m a chemist,” or, “I want to be a chemist.” What led you to pursue chemistry?

Brenda Kelly:
Sure. Great question, and this one was a surprise to me. I didn’t expect that you’d take me back in time. As a high school student, I was a music theater kid. I loved math. I did not love science. I did not like chemistry at all, I did not physics at all, and I thought that biology was okay.

So I went to college. I went to Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, and one reason behind that is because of the community. It was a really good fit for me. During my campus visits, I remember just thinking, “This is the right place.” And took a variety of gen eds in my first semester, took general chemistry, I took the philosophy of human existence, took a writing course, took a sociology course. And my two favorite courses in that semester were general chemistry and philosophy.

I continued with general chemistry too and the second philosophy class in the sequence, and also liked them both the second semester, and was leaning toward either a philosophy major or a chemistry major.

Because I liked chemistry, my third semester I took both chemistry and biology, and it happened to be organic chemistry, and I believe the philosophy course was maybe… I actually don’t remember the name of my third philosophy course. And I absolutely loved organic chemistry. I loved it, which seems absolutely crazy to 99% of the world’s population. But that’s the course that turned me into a chemist, was organic. Yeah, so that’s how I became a chemist.

Greg Kaster:
That is interesting. In all of these podcasts, that’s just another example of people tend not to have a nice, neat, straight line, right? That, I went to college to be this, so often, we don’t…

Even in my case, I know I’d loved history, but I had no… I don’t remember thinking, “Oh, I’m going to be a history major.” As you just said, there are courses one falls in love with, or professors one really enjoys. And I think that’s an important message for all students, right? That you don’t have to have it all figured out at the start.
What about teaching? You were a teacher, you were a member of the faculty, and still are, before you became provost. Do you miss teaching? Do you get a chance to teach?

Brenda Kelly:
Oh, Greg, when I have time to think about it, I miss teaching so much. When I first became a faculty member at Gustavus and during the early career years as a faculty member, I… even my mid-career years, I just thought, “This is it. This is what I’m doing. I love teaching. I love Gustavus students. I do not want to pursue administration in any way because I have found my niche. I love student-faculty research, and this is such a great environment for teaching and learning.”

One of the pieces that I love about teaching so much is really the Gustavus students. The Gustavus students just make teaching so invigorating and just keep you alive. Their interest, their passion, the questions that they ask, how hard they work, when you set high expectations and how they strive to achieve them. It is really just a special, special teaching and learning environment for faculty and students.

And so, yes, I absolutely miss teaching, and it’s amazing that I found my way via a random series of events that I found my way into this provost position.

Greg Kaster:
Well, we’re glad you did. You’re doing a great job. Sorry about the terrible circumstances. And maybe I shouldn’t tell you this since you miss teaching. None of us want to be teaching online. I think that’s a given, at least at a place like Gustavus, but I have to say, what I am doing… I’m doing a fair amount of synchronous and I am having the best discussions online, no different than the best discussions in the classroom, and I have that same feeling of just being utterly absorbed in the moment.

That’s one of the ways I stay sane. I’m certainly not walking as much as you are or cooking, but that is really helping me to keep my balance, to be talking with the students and listening to the students. As I always tell them, “I look forward to seeing and hearing you,” and they really are stepping up.

Just to kind of wrap this up, what about Gustavus in this moment, do you think is really noteworthy?

Brenda Kelly:
Yes. I think the way in which we so quickly were able to pivot in making the decision to go online for that two-week period initially, and really giving our faculty two weeks of planning toward that… And so I think that has really distinguished Gustavus and has helped to make the online transition.

It’s been hard. It’s been hard for both students and for faculty, but I think that time toward planning has really assisted both the faculty and students in making the transition successful.

I think, Greg, the care and compassion of our faculty for our students has been a top priority. And faculty have continued to prioritize the needs of the student, and have adapted their course content based upon where their students are at and based upon their student needs.

And what I’m hearing from students is that they feel that. They are excited to engage with our faculty, they’re excited to see their classmates. We have very few faculty who are just kind of posting assignments online and having them turn their assignments in online. We have so many faculty going above and beyond to ensure those synchronous opportunities for connection, both among students and between faculty member and student. And I think that’s really set apart our experience at Gustavus from some other institutions.

Greg Kaster:
Yeah, the second-

Brenda Kelly:
So thank you for being part of that.

Greg Kaster:
The second point you make, I hadn’t really thought about. Yeah, that’s interesting. I don’t think I could do the online if I were just doing asynchronous or mostly asynchronous.

The other point you made at the start, I think is incredibly important. I don’t know if we just got lucky, but having that period of two weeks to… for both faculty and students, but especially for the faculty as we had to redo our courses, that made a huge difference. We all know schools where they had to do it in a weekend or something, and I am grateful that we had that time.

Thank you so much for taking the time, speaking of time, to chat. I know you’re incredibly busy, but tomorrow is Saturday so you’re going to unplug and walk and cook, etc. And I know I speak for all the faculty. We’re really grateful for the leadership, yours and President Bergman’s and others, to get us through this. And we will get through it, that’s for sure. So take good care. Thank you so much.

Brenda Kelly:
Thank you so much, Greg. It was a delight to chat with you, and thanks for the great work that you’re doing with our students.

Greg Kaster:
My pleasure. Take care. Bye, bye.


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