Hear from Provost Dunn: Ice Storm, Plans for the Fall, and More

The following article documents an interview between Sara Snelson and Provost Keith Dunn. Provost Dunn discusses the effects and impacts of the February 2021 ice storm from his perspective, as well as what he expects for the 2021-2022 academic year. 

Sara Snelson: “How were you impacted by the ice storm? What were your experiences?”

Provost Dunn: “Personally, I live in Madison, and we literally could not get out of our driveway. We only lost power for a couple of hours, so we were stuck for five days. Other than that, we weren’t really impacted. I was able to work from home the entire time, and I felt very fortunate. So, the personal stresses were not significant at all.”

“The entire impact for me was my responsibility as the Chief Academic Officer. We made several accommodations in response to student feedback we got in the fall about how we could make the spring different. We put rigorous limitations on what could happen on rest days, we put a dead week in, and we started a week and a half remotely so we could get some space between New Year’s celebrations and welcoming students back for the pandemic. All of those things were the right decisions to make, but those decisions that we had already made really handcuffed us when the unexpected event of the ice storm came.”

“From my perspective, the real challenge was to try to make decisions as the Emergency Response Team multiple days in advance. When it became clear that the ice was not going to melt, we went virtual for the entire week. We were trying constantly to look four or five days ahead. But, the information we reacted to changed up to three or four times a day. It was incredibly stressful to maintain some sense of normalcy in the academic program when the information we were getting changed three to four times a day, as well as trying to think four or five days in front. I think we did a pretty good job with the information we had, but that was our motivation all along. As soon as we realized it was not a 24-48 hour issue, we wanted to give students the opportunity to go home when they could safely do so, with a large enough window of remote learning so everyone feels safe and supported. Health and safety were our primary motivation.”

Sara Snelson: “What did an average day look like for you?”

Provost Dunn: “We would often start emergency meetings at 5:30 or 6:00 in the morning. That didn’t happen every day, but there were days when we had to try to make decisions that early. We probably spent three hours a day in emergency response meetings. We were giving updates, watching the weather forecast, watching the news, and contacting our contacts at the City of Jackson for the water issues. For me, the vast majority of the rest of the time was trying to communicate updates to faculty as quickly as I could get it to them. Between the times that the emergency response team was able to make a decision and when the formal announcement came out, I was constantly sending out messages to the faculty to say, ‘here’s what I think is going to happen, the formal announcement is coming soon.’ 

Then we had to figure out how to communicate first to faculty, and then to students. Our Office of Marketing and Communications did a great job with formal updates. I think we did a good job of getting information out to faculty as soon as the information came.”

Sara Snelson: “What was working with the City of Jackson like?”

Provost Dunn: “Coleman Bond was our main connection to the City. Our partners in the City of Jackson did everything they could. They were working around the clock. What was frustrating, was what they didn’t know, and weren’t able to get quite done. The entrance screens for water intake got clogged, and the mechanisms that clean those entrance screens were broken, and contractors had to be brought in to fix those. That caused the water pressure to come back on not nearly as quickly. I know it was frustrating for them as well.”

Sara Snelson: “If this happened in the future, is there a plan in place?”

Provost Dunn: “We are already considering different contingency plans, and we had actually began considering those plans before this situation even happened. We don’t have a hard, extended freeze like that very often. For the last two or three times that has happened, there has been a water outage for more than a couple of days. So, recognizing that, it is important for us to figure out what the best contingency plan is. We don’t know what that is yet, but, we have been actively planning if something like this were to happen again.”

“What people didn’t understand from an emotional and fundamental standpoint, although they understood from an intellectual standpoint, was we were in the middle of a pandemic, so, we already made so many changes to the academic program. We made the right decisions going into the term to deal with the pandemic and the stress levels. But, that tied faculty’s hands in terms of when assignments could be due, what kind of assignments could be given, and it limited the number of in-person assessable moments in the calendar.”

“I would ask students to recognize that we reached the seventh week of the term before we had a single week without a disruption. We went six weeks into the term with at least some disruption every week, that caused us to either cancel or cut short lab and studio time. That’s what we were trying desperately to avoid, because that’s half of a term that was completely blown up. If you miss a Tuesday meeting, that group is a week behind the other lab sections. Those were the things we were wrestling against.”

“I remember a Thursday conversation, when we were about 80% sure the water was coming back on over the weekend, but the safest thing to do would be to continue remote until Tuesday of next week, because we weren’t 100% confident we’d have water back on Monday. But if you do that, you flush an entire week’s worth of lab and studio time. So, we made the best decisions we could at the time. Telling faculty that their plans have to change in the middle of a term, while knowing there’s a dead week and a rest day coming up is a hard thing, but we still made the decision immediately to have remote class. I got some pushback from faculty, because they had to change the entire structure of their course multiple times throughout one semester. But, they understand.”

“However, the students here were extraordinary in the ways that they supported the College. There were a group of students that picked up pizzas from Manship and brought them down to the facilities crew, who had literally been living here for over a week. Students were extraordinary in the way they were understanding, and the way they supported. And, I get it—you were living through really stressful times, and asked to continue rigorous academics. That’s not easy”

Sara Snelson: “Do you have any key takeaways or memories from this experience?”

Provost Dunn: “The key takeaway is that this is a remarkable community that comes together to solve problems creatively. I know it did not seem always like we were communicating well enough, but the way that the community came together, the way that the faculty adjusted their plans and continued to engage students, the way that students were amazingly adaptive to not having working toilets without flushing buckets—that’s just extraordinary. I was really impressed with the entire community. We were able to keep going and make some semblance of a reasonable semester, when things were knocking us off the horse every time we turned around. The loss of a sense of normalcy didn’t keep us from doing the best we could.”

Sara Snelson: “Do have any idea of what next year will look like?’

Provost Dunn: “We’re fairly confident that everyone in the community will have an opportunity to get fully vaccinated before the fall term, and maybe even the summer term. That is the real key. I don’t think we’re going to require vaccinations, but we haven’t made that decision yet. It is important for the safety of the entire community that everyone has access to those vaccinations before we engage back in the full residential experience. I expect that in the fall we will have all in-person classes. Faculty will still need to support students if they are in quarantine or isolation, but I don’t expect that we will offer the option to take every class remotely. We may still have social distancing protocols in place, but I think we’ve been able to work with the facilities that we have and cut down on the enrollment in some classes so we can have them in-person.”

“I think it will be a return to somewhat of a normal experience, where every class will be an in-person opportunity. We’ll still have to work through whether we have live visitors, speakers, and events on campus. But, we’ve shown we can do that safely through athletic events with very limited crowd participation. We’ll just have to wait and see whether the encouraging numbers that we’re seeing now continue to decrease in terms of number of cases in Mississippi.”

“One of the exciting developments we’ve seen is that we can incorporate these things we’ve learned by necessity to enhance the experience that we had previous to the pandemic. I would guess that probably only half of our professors even used Course Connect in their classes before the pandemic. They didn’t even use a learning management system, and we shifted in one week for everything to be remote and the learning management system to be what unified courses. So, we’ve learned how to meet students where they are: when they’re away for sporting events, or activities, or at home. We’re going to be able to engage wherever they are.”

Sara Snelson: “Is there anything else you’d like students to know?”

Provost Dunn: “I get the frustration when things don’t match your expectations, but it’s never because we haven’t heard your requests. A clear example is the dead week. That came from the student forum in the fall. When the question became, ‘why did you take our spring break away,’ it’s because we don’t think it’s safe for you to travel and come back. And, I asked folks to think creatively about other ways to accommodate the stress and anxiety—the dead week was completely a student suggestion. I don’t know anybody else that did that.”

“The efforts that made the rest days came from student suggestions, as did the suggestion that we consider suspending Comps again the spring. We went through most of the fall ready for Comps, but we noticed the anxiety wasn’t worth it from the pandemic.”

“I get this a lot from students, ‘you’re not listening to us’—but we’re listening carefully to everything, and we value your input. That doesn’t mean that you’ll like every decision we make. We always aim for student wellbeing and success first, period. Every single decision we made was made with student wellness and success as the primary consideration. We recognize that you’re the reason we exist, and we want to accommodate you as best we can.”