In an interview with The Signal, President Foster opened up about plans for the fall, diversity initiatives at the College and her reaction to the anonymous Instagram accounts that have shaped the College culture this past summer. Here is what she said:
In what ways will online learning be different this semester as opposed to last semester, if any? What kind of training have professors had for online learning, and was it required or just recommended?
FOSTER: They’ve gone to school this summer … The faculty were the ones who drove the decision. They said, “We know that the spring wasn’t what we ordinarily would do, but we can make this virtually remote instruction, we can make it dynamic and personalized, and really collaborative for the fall. We know we can do that, but we need some guidance.” And they went to school. They got some best practices for doing online instruction, how you build a course from the ground up, what are the tools that you would use for effective remote instruction that would enable engagement and active learning.
One of the things we put in place was to extend the 100 percent refund date for taking classes to three weeks into the semester. Our thinking was, students may have trepidation, it’s understandable, they may have trepidation about trying this, they didn’t think the spring went well. We believe the fall will be completely different.
So give it a try, let students experiment and see what it’s like for them, and see what will work for them. So we did put that in place and I think that might be helpful as well.
What are the reasons for keeping tuition rates the same?
FOSTER: Tuition goes for really 3 things: instruction, which is at TCNJ by your faculty, not teaching assistants, credits towards degree which will be in place, and it goes for a wide array of what you might call direct student services — everything from advising and mentoring to library, computer center, I.T. help, wellness programs, tutoring, the writing center, to everything that surrounds the academic enterprise of a school. We absolutely believe that that will still be in place and still be delivered, and that the investment into those areas, with the technology and the classrooms, was a really important part of it.
I want to be really clear about how different colleges are doing this. So some are raising the tuition and fees. Some are raising tuition and fees and then rolling it back to where they were last year. Some are keeping it flat from where they were last year (what TCNJ is doing), and then some are reducing tuition and fees together, and that’s also what TCNJ did. There’s a reduction on the bill for in-state students and out of state students on the undergraduate side for tuition and fees.
For those who have disabilities, what kind of accommodations will be made for them?
FOSTER: Students can absolutely get to the accessibility and resource center. That was a big part of the training this summer, are what are the access kind of things we can do — captions, video capture, posting materials — students with different learning disabilities will be taken care of. My sense is access will be taken care of.
What about the students who struggle with mental health issues, and how that relates to online learning? Are there any resources for them that the College has to offer, such as a pass/fail option?
FOSTER: My understanding is that the decision was, no. We did that in the spring for every class because of the rapid change to online, but with the new teaching and with the new understanding and training about how to do assessment in a class, that it will be for grades in the fall. The assessment of what will be assessed and how it will be assessed I believe is changing in a lot of classes. So, what works in an in-person class for an assessment may not work as well remotely. My understanding is that faculty are thinking about that a lot.
All of the mental health services will continue to be available. What some students found — I can’t speak for all — but what some students found was having the one-on-one, personalized assistant over a remote connection actually worked for them even better; that they felt like they were really getting this connected time, there was no one in a waiting room, and they were working together. So all of the mental and physical health services will continue and those offices are open throughout the year. Students should absolutely continue to reach out and avail themselves for those services.
What kind of accommodations are being provided to the essential workers at TCNJ, like those working in facilities? Have any of them lost their jobs, or will they be working in the fall?
FOSTER: No one has lost their job. There’s been no layoffs. Everybody at the College took about 12 days of furlough, and that means it’s essentially like an unpaid day off where we protect people, and that was to help — that’s true to me, that’s true to the cabinet members, that’s true to everybody through the ranks whether they’re represented by one of the labor unions or not. So everybody did that and I have to say, they didn’t do it because the administration told them to, they did it because they came to the bargaining table and they said we want to share the sacrifice. So I want to give credit to the bargaining units for that.
I also want to be careful about the word “essential workers.” There is sort of a formal definition of what an essential worker is. It’s the people who stay on campus, let’s say, during a snowstorm or something like that. What we’ll have on campus will be a much reduced level this fall, largely because many people who have been working from home can continue to do their jobs really effectively and efficiently from home, so they will be continuing from home. But we do have people on campus. We’re expecting to have, you know, 300 students, let’s say, on campus. All of the things that are associated with that.
What will Welcome Week look like for incoming students? I know you mentioned in your email to the campus that there would be events where incoming students can visit campus in a socially distanced way. What will these look like?
FOSTER: Welcome Week itself, it looks like they’re going to be from Friday the 21st to Monday the 24th. It’s a series of virtual activities, and it’s a combination of mandatory — so there are some mandatory sessions, whether it’s on equity and inclusion or Title IX, or different expectations of being on campus — there will also be some social components. What those social components are in terms of remotely. And then there is an opportunity in September and October to do different kinds of in-person stuff with small groups, but the thinking now is that they may bring people on based on their FSP.
There’s a “Spend a Day at TCNJ” opportunities to bring in the first-year class where they’re on the campus, seeing the services and getting around. Some icebreakers and welcomes and things like that. We’re well aware that it’s different, but … we’re well-aware of the importance of it, and trying to make it kind of meaningful and worthy. There will be, starting in the second week of September, there will be small group tours for prospective students. Up to 10 people in a group largely outside, but at least an opportunity to see the campus and be around.
What was the reasoning behind mentioning the William Green House in your missive about diversity initiatives?
FOSTER: So first of all, we weren’t hiding anything. About three weeks prior to that, I got an email from the research team that was working on the William Green house, which they were calling the William Green Plantation. … They made some discoveries. They’ve done some archeological research, and now they’ve done some social and cultural life, historical and economic research. But that’s a really exciting thing. That’s an important finding. That’s what research and applied research is all about. When I had a missive and it fit in appropriately, I said, ‘Well, let me tell that story.’ So I went back to the researchers and I said, ‘Are you comfortable, would you like to have this announced?’ And they said that they would love to have it announced … So I did. I did, and I think some students took it as, like, that there was something that was hidden. To the contrary. This is an ongoing research project. It’s been going on for several years, and this was a new discovery.
What is true, though, is that what was reported to me and that what I then turned around and reported, turned out to not be true. There was not slavery on that property. There was an indentured servant. That’s what they found so far, I should say. One of the truisms of research … is that you’re continually learning more, making discoveries, having findings, getting outcomes and then adjusting what your priors were so that you can go in and ask new, important questions.
Is there an update to what will be happening with the William Green House?
FOSTER: What the team of researchers said is that they thought that when they have a little bit more, they thought it could be turned into a learning center. We had talked about having seminar rooms named for maybe that first indentured servant, have some classes take place there, be able to fix it up … as a learning space, maybe with some displays. I think that’s great.
Do you think there’s an issue of racial inequity at TCNJ?
FOSTER: If you talk about inequity in terms of outcomes and opportunities, yes. I think it’s true not just a TCNJ, I think it’s true in our society. I’ve been doing, personally, a tremendous amount of reading, I think a lot of people have, too. This is the moment of reckoning. So yes, I think we’ve got inequities, I think they’re built in, I think they’re been baked in for years. And I’m very, very committed to, and absolutely know the Division of Inclusive Excellence is committed to rooting them out, identifying them, disrupting them and dismantling them. We’re on that with a really committed group of faculty, staff and students right now. I don’t think it’s come out yet, but the campus diversity council is working on an inclusive excellence manifesto. And I believe it will come out within the next couple of weeks, where it’s sort of a bold set of ideas, it says, this is how we’ll need to do this work, and it’s everything from curricular change, to workshops, to trainings, to mandatory kind of activity that we would do on campus, to policy audits, to equity dashboards, to all these sorts of things. I can say that the equity outcomes are not where they need to be here and elsewhere, and by that I mean retention rates and graduation rates based on for students of color. It’s an individual story, but we added it up and looked at it in the aggregate, and it’s … top priority. Anti-racism is a top priority. All of this works is a top priority right now.
I know you’re aware of the various anonymous accounts that have popped up on Instagram. They’ve gained quite a following and have really shown the ways in which the campus community can improve. Were you surprised at the overwhelming amount of posts?
FOSTER: Social media is so effective at this. I think I was anguished at them, saddened by them. But at the same time, really grateful, if you can use that word there, grateful for them, because by sharing stories, by telling their experiences, students are able to individually say, this is my experience of this campus. And it forces all of us to have that reckoning moment. So I think I’m mostly grateful for it. These are testimonials. They share a lot of ways in which racism presents, and a number of other “-isms.” It shows the distance that we have to go and the work that has to be done collectively and together. I think those testimonials are essential. I think they’re essential for awareness. We have plans to use them in orientation as prompts for difficult conversations, as opportunities for intercultural competency and connection, for trainings, for other discourse, for driving change. So it’s a valuable site. There are some limitations on reviewing and investigating what’s there, so we continue to encourage students that we have sites, like the Bias Reporting site, we continue to encourage students to put their reports there. That’s what will trigger things like reviews and investigations, and that’s really important. I think some students want that. I think some things that students are writing about have already been reviewed and investigated, and I think in other instances, some students may not want that, may not want to go into an investigation, they want to share a story and tell a story. But whatever the writer wants, we can make happen.
The Truth About TCNJ has really created this platform for students to speak about their negative experiences with various professors at TCNJ. Is there an accountability system, or a process at all to investigate these claims that have been made about professors and administrators?
FOSTER: There are two. One, if it’s a case about bias, not being treated well, it’s a bias report that goes onto the Bias Education and Support Team. It’s right on the Inclusive Excellence site … That kind of gets into them, a group of people saying, either talking with a student about how we can create a better situation here, or if it’s anonymous, at least take it in, report the numbers, make sure that people know that we’re monitoring that. The other one, that where I think that there has been sort of a violation of misconduct, and a violation of college policy, whether it’s Title IX or discrimination, retaliation, student conduct, faculty employment conduct, those can be reported through a site that I can get you the link, it’s sort of the ethics site that we would report that. And then it would go into immediately a review through our Affirmative Action and Equal Opportunity. They would do a review to see, to learn more. First thing they would typically do is they would talk to the reporter. If the reporter wants to remain anonymous, there are ways of managing that as well.
If there are violations of college policy, that’s really important for us to identify those and be able to investigate those. So absolutely there are opportunities to do that. Students can report anonymously, but there are non retaliation protections as well.
There was an email sent to administrators and faculty members about these posts, but nothing to the campus community. Is the administration planning to acknowledge the anonymous accounts that have recently gained attention from students and alumni?
FOSTER: We wrote a statement on inclusive excellence on social media. And one of the challenges is that the statements that are coming out are sort of being pulled apart and ripped apart. It doesn’t seem like a dialogue situation. It’s very oppositional right now.
We want to make sure that students know where to report these things. I think a lot of people are very aware of the sites. … It’s been hard to know how to have dialogue in ways that are helpful and driving change right now around that. We’re aware of the sites. I think the bottom line is that the College is so committed to being diverse, equitable and inclusive, and Vice President Felton has laid out some of the actions so it’s not just words. But the individual cases I think we have to treat individually, and collective is the work we do this fall with the Inclusive Excellence Agenda.
In light of issues we’ve seen with police brutality across the country, how can we prevent issues like this at the College? What kind of police reform is in process?
FOSTER: The Campus Police and Inclusive Excellence have been working together on a series of workshops and the intention of having students and police get into encounter groups together, intergroup dialogue, it’s really important. So our police are committed to having what is known as the community policing model. It’s a very different kind of model. It’s not like being out in the community, if you will. It’s very campus-oriented, educationally focused. We do everything we can to root out discrimination like that. I think it’s anguishing to the police themselves, when that happens as well, and to the students. It’s a situation where Vice President Felton has done some really successful work in these areas before, and we’re going down that path as well, to say, ‘We’ve got to figure this out. This is not OK. It’s not part of our values. It’s not part of our system. It seems at odds.’ So I just want you to know that that’s begun already, and as soon as we get some students back we’ll be able to do some more work in that area.