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Inclusiveness in Higher Education as a Pandemic Response: Lessons Learned in Innovation

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Emily Devereux
May 2, 2020

While there will always be room to become more inclusive in what we do, we currently see more individuals putting aside previous barriers to come together and contribute to public service in helping fellow community members meet needs during this time. Systems and values are reflected through these elevated approaches that are more responsive to the whole of the community. Innovative response with more thought to inclusivity in public service is being reflected deep and wide from local and state systems, with an increased focus from media on their k-12 and postsecondary educational systems adjusting to remote learning.         

Higher education has certainly not been spared during this time, but has been hit rather hard as we have witnessed thick barriers break and ideas soar to meet the needs of campuses and the surrounding communities they serve. Institutions of higher education have been required to address social distancing in an atmosphere that has traditionally been based on campus experiences built by social environments and tight-knit communities. As the media has kept us informed of institutions closing their residence halls, physical classrooms and office spaces, we see institutions learning a new normal with remote operations to carry out lectures, meetings, special events and a heightened sensitivity to keep their sense of community. Behind these efforts are the public administrators of higher education, who are exercising intentional and innovative ways to be inclusive while they address the needs of their students, faculty and staff. As if this task was not already hard enough, having to implement such plans in a short time, as little as one week, has made it even more difficult.

We have seen our share of equity gaps since the time of recession when a convergence of federal and state funding for higher education resulted in a decrease of funding distribution to campuses across states. Those of us in higher education have had to learn how to do more with less and to be creative with leveraging resources so that we arrive at impactful outcomes, all the while making sure we are inclusive in all that we do. The gap has kept growing wider, and a bit deeper, but those who have creatively leveraged their expertise and resources with each other to make something bigger than any one person or office could ever do by themselves have defined the act of resilience. The resilience that has been cultivated and developed over the past years has prepared us to keep pushing through barriers to serve more effectively during this challenging time.

An opportunity to push this resilience arrived with a generous three weeks to plan and implement a way to carry on with our university’s student research and creativity program’s cultivating event of the year, [email protected] Nestled in the heart of the Arkansas Delta Region is Arkansas State University, or better known as A-State, home of the Red Wolves. The [email protected] Symposium is the single largest event of A-State’s community that closes the loop on student research and creativity for the year, bringing students, faculty, staff, alumni and stakeholders together for multiple days of engagement and student presentations. While it was apparent we could not have our face-to-face event on campus, we set out to find a way to give the students the symposium they had both earned and deserved in order to showcase their hard work. Something special about the symposium is that it showcases student research and creativity from a diversity of students who are on-campus, online and distance learners, and those who are professionals by day and students by night.

While all students are given the chance to present in [email protected], whether in person or through technological accommodations, a fully online version of the symposium was going to have to take the place of the traditional event. A challenge to taking the event fully online was making sure the presentation platform could accommodate all disciplines and presentation categories. Oral, poster and creative presentations all had to have audio and visual platform capabilities, and students also had to have the capability of incorporating multi-media into the presentation. Leveraging expertise and resources, we were able to teach the students and faculty mentors the technology tool, turn each of the presentations into videos, and carry out the symposium as three days of streaming on ASU-TV that reached homes throughout the region, as well as a live stream on the [email protected] YouTube channel.

This medium also gave the students YouTube videos that they were able to share on their professional and social networking sites. Their recorded presentations have also been featured on the [email protected] weekly podcast and vodcast. In the midst of the pandemic, a silver lining forced inclusiveness to another level due to all students having to learn a common technology tool and present through the same mode during the short time we were afforded the transition. We were able to incorporate new alumni and stakeholders to engage and judge student presentations and performances that had not been able to come to campus for earlier showcases. This event ended up proving to be more inclusive for all constituents than any other student research and creativity event in the history of our university.

The [email protected] Virtual Symposium ended up being a culmination of collaborative efforts by an expanded team this year that was truly built on service. We realized how we could be more creative and make it even more sustainable for future innovative events that are going to build from this year’s lessons learned. Inclusiveness can teach us a lot in public service, and the more inclusive we become, the more effective we are for those we serve.


Author: Emily Devereux is executive director of research and technology transfer at Arkansas State University, is the director of the [email protected] program for student research and creativity, and is a DPA candidate at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. She is a certified research administrator, serves as immediate past chair of NCURA Region III, and serves on the Arkansas State University’s MPA advisory board. She can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @EmilyDevo.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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