And Now for Something Completely Different

In his latest column, Director Vince Durnan asks readers to consider how the school might operate post-pandemic and with a new Director following his departure in 2022.
If you’re wondering whether it feels to me like I’ve been writing the same letter to our community for 18 months, the answer is yes — but a qualified yes. The basic message — we need to pull together, do what’s safe, and weather the demands of the storm — has not changed. Importantly, though, we’ve now covered plenty of ground, learned from experience, adjusted in response, and seen conditions improve, substantially. And we’re nearing the time, here on the eve of Fall Break, based on the data sets we track so assiduously, when we can lift our gaze to the horizon and think big about what’s next.

The search process for a new Director provided a perfect invitation to that exercise, especially against the backdrop of COVID-19 case numbers declining 50% in the past month. The prospect of vaccine access for all our students very soon, of boosters for all faculty and staff right now, and the success of our protocols since opening day in August confers on me a higher degree of optimism than at any time in the whole pandemic odyssey. In the spirit of looking forward, of imagining USN as it can be, here are what seem to be the big questions ahead (just putting it out there as a deeply interested constituent who will be loving this school for the long haul):
  • Will anything remain from the COVID-19 adjustments and inventions, or will we flush it all away, cleaving to the familiar routines of our people-centric educational model? How will teaching and learning evolve at USN?
  • Will USN expand enrollment, and if so how, in response to the growth of our city, especially as it’s clear that relocated families from far away find special appeal in what we do?
  • Will we seek to bend the tuition curve downward, or less rapidly upward, to provide relief as the cost of living increases, or will we move closer to the highest fee-chargers in town, given the quality of experience we strive to provide?
  • Will we change from granting need-based financial aid to 20-25% of our students to a higher proportion, more typical of colleges and universities?
  • Will we commit to another wave of capital projects — whether here on our seven Midtown acres, at the River Campus, or on another site altogether? To what extent will schools of the future be defined by buildings?
  • Will we develop alternative assessment models in response to standardized testing rapidly losing prominence in college admissions, and to high school transcript grades escalating across the landscape?
  • Will we find ways to be a draw for the very best faculty and staff, in the face of declining numbers choosing this profession and the education sector?
  • What will we embrace as the identity of our school, locally and nationally, building on successes across generations, to meet this historic moment, defining ourselves by what we are rather than what we are not?
I recently saw a piece by the past president of Macalester College, Brian Rosenberg, who’s president-in-residence at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, asking in the college’s own magazine “Is Harvard Complacent?” Pretty bold for that publication to include that article. It has long struck me we’d benefit from regularly asking that same question, guaranteeing that our respect for our predecessors (or for our current practices) does not preclude an emerging, potentially essential, set of initiatives. Rosenberg took pains to affirm the good that colleges clearly do for students and society — he just asked whether fundamental assumptions and elements of their model would not benefit from “putting aside fidelity to the status quo and thinking about impact.”

He questioned whether the Ivies, so long revered and with so much to lose if they choose wrong, would be forced to wait for others to provide and test transformational ideas. Not to compare us to that august group, but we would be wise at USN not to be prisoners of our own good outcomes so far. What a perfect moment for the school community to seek and find consensus in support of a new Director and the planning that will accompany that next chapter.

So think of what our ongoing journey through COVID-19 has made possible — and necessary — for us to consider and to launch. And while we still need to get those public health challenges right, we’re getting beyond it being time to just make the donuts. We’re earning our way to the chance to broaden the menu. 

Please commit to wise choices through the hiatus ahead next week, and if trends continue, look for us to carefully relax our protocols in combination with your help at home. One big indicator of times changing is the prospect of in-person Artclectic, complete with great parties and thoughtful guidelines, bringing us back together in celebration of the creative process and in support of our dear school, all courtesy of USNA, the resilient center of all our volunteer energy.

Stay well and stay dialed in,
Director
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