University of Minnesota provost manages crisis, plans for post-pandemic future

Ryan Faircloth, Star Tribune
·5 min read

Rachel Croson looked forward to mingling with students and faculty on campus and tackling academic projects, such as curriculum updates, when she agreed to become the University of Minnesota's chief academic officer.

Instead, Croson was thrust into the role of crisis and risk manager when she started as the U's executive vice president and provost last March. From reconfiguring classrooms for social distancing to relaxing grading standards, Croson has made key decisions over the past year that have shaped how the university operates during the pandemic. She has carried out most of her leadership duties from home, only stepping foot in her campus office a couple of times.

"It is incredibly strange," said Croson, 53, an extrovert who has yet to meet most of her colleagues in person. "I love talking to our faculty, I love talking to our students … and not being able to do it is really hard."

Even so, Croson has managed to consult the campus community from afar on many of her pandemic-related decisions, impressing student and faculty leaders. She let faculty choose whether to teach their classes online or in person and compromised with students who sought grading changes last fall. As she starts her second year, Croson hopes to shift from emergency response to long-term planning. President Joan Gabel has tapped her to begin envisioning what academic life at the U will look like after the pandemic.

"Whether we wanted to or not, the pandemic showed us that there were a variety of ways for us to do what we do. … How do we cherry-pick the best parts of that and keep them while protecting our legacy and history?" said Gabel, who's known Croson for a decade. The two became acquainted while working as business school deans at separate universities.

College life has been almost unrecognizable this past year, with sprawling campuses like the U sitting largely empty and thousands of students learning mostly online. For a time, Croson's daily life resembled that of many students; she lived in and worked from a Dinkytown apartment for almost five months until her husband and two sons could move here from Michigan.

The U hired Croson's husband, David, as a professor. He previously was an economics professor at Michigan State University while Croson served as dean of the school's College of Social Science.

The transition from dean to provost of an entire university was jolting. Croson faced early scrutiny from some members of the Board of Regents for her nearly $500,000 salary, which was more than the U's previous provost made after serving for nearly a decade. Within her first weeks on the job, Croson found herself in the middle of planning how to safely reopen the U's five campuses during the pandemic.

She and staff measured classrooms and lecture halls to see how many students could learn in person while maintaining social distancing, ultimately opting for the university to operate at 25% capacity. Some other Minnesota colleges wound up operating closer to 50% capacity.

Croson's decision to let faculty choose whether to teach online or in person was meant to "demonstrate trust," she said. In weekly meetings with other Big Ten provosts, she heard that some faced pushback after trying to dictate how their faculty taught classes.

Phil Buhlmann, a chemistry professor who chairs the U's faculty senate, said faculty members were happy to be given the choice, though he added the building capacity limit was so low that "nobody ever had the option to really teach in person."

Scott Petty, president of the Council of Graduate Students, pushed Croson to offer the same autonomy to graduate student instructors and teaching assistants. Croson "immediately said yes," said Petty, who praised the provost as a clear communicator who values student input.

About 70% of classes at the U were taught fully online last fall. Croson, who's done academic research on negotiation, believes the cautious approach paid off, noting there were no reported cases of COVID-19 transmission in classrooms.

Still, some students struggled with distance learning and stress related to the pandemic. In recognition of the unprecedented circumstances, the U's student association requested that all undergraduates have the option to switch from A-F letter grading to a pass-fail format, even after final grades were posted.

Croson had some reservations about the policy, which was meant to shield students' GPAs but raised concerns about how employers would evaluate graduates' transcripts. But she ultimately signed off on it.

Planning for the futureThe provost will soon begin planning for the next academic year, which will likely resemble pre-pandemic life. On Friday, Gabel announced plans to return to "fully on-campus operations" this fall.

Croson is charged with figuring out how online and hybrid education will fit into the university's academic portfolio after the pandemic. She's convened an informal group of administrators and faculty to review "lessons learned." The group's findings and recommendations could set a new direction for the university.

U leaders have said they hope to expand online and hybrid class offerings in the coming years. Last month, the university announced a new hybrid bachelor's degree program at the Rochester campus that will combine in-person and online instruction in an accelerated year-round format, allowing students to complete their studies in just over two years instead of four.

Regent Richard Beeson cautioned the university must tread carefully into the world of remote learning and not try to compete with large online colleges. "It really changes the personality of a university to do that," he said.

Beeson believes the U can stand out by pursuing select partnerships, like the U's collaboration with Google and the Mayo Clinic for the Rochester degree program, in addition to offering most students a traditional campus experience.

The U will remain a "residential university," Croson said, acknowledging students are clamoring to return to the classroom. But she believes the pandemic has shed light on the untapped potential of online education. Remote platforms such as Zoom may also continue to be used for gatherings such as faculty meetings and career counseling sessions.

"I think there are opportunities for innovative programming and even individual classes where distance modality works better," Croson said.

Ryan Faircloth • 612-673-4234

Twitter: @ryanfaircloth