Photo by Elian Richter
By Joe Bailey, Managing/Features Editor & Lorena Grajales, Editor-in-Chief-
For The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga’s Chancellor Steve Angle, the Fall 2020 semester and its complications brought challenges that pushed him and his colleagues to find solutions through the new semester, which could preserve university spirit amid a pandemic.
Following the controversy in early January that surrounded UTC’s ex-assistant football coach, Chris Malone, Angle shared how students can rest assured moving forward with the knowledge that UTC is an institution that promotes inclusivity and racial equity.
“So, this is a place where students need to feel comfortable, no matter what their background is. So, our job as a university is to open as many doors as possible…”
Angle referenced his “UTC Stands Against Racism” memo, and asserted his trust in the discussion and dialogue activities that UTC has provided, such as Mocs Move Forward and the Black History Month events, that have allowed for comprehension and diversity on campus.
“I think [these] are all things that I would hope our students are looking at and feel like ‘oh this campus takes everyone seriously.’”
Times of crisis are often cited as seedbeds for creativity. For Angle, creativity in the fall was a necessity. For the continuation of university operations, change was needed.
However, successful implementation of socially distanced scholarship and engagement was not the end of the story.
These solutions brought with them their own set of problems. Last semester, many college students developed a sense of inescapable isolation, resulting in declining mental health and academic performance on a national scale.
According to Angle, students that went into quarantine found it as an unpleasant experience. He stated the university is actively trying its best to compensate for the unusual circumstances due to the switch to online classes, which may have caused profound impact on students’ mental health and academics.
To attack this problem from a variety of angles, UTC’s higher-ups allowed counseling sessions to be held virtually, performed wellness checks and conducted surveys to better serve the UTC Mocs.
Addressing the university’s attitude toward the use of these mental health support systems also became a priority as demand for them increased.
“We’ve tried to destigmatize it, so that it’s not a sign of weakness if you need to talk to someone,” Angle said. “You’re showing maturity and great wisdom knowing, ‘Hey, I need to talk to someone.’”
As Chancellor Angle reminisced on a Covid-free campus from years prior, he shared that what he missed the most, like most students, were the face-to-face interactions that unfortunately faded rapidly.
“We know students need contact, you can’t just sit in your room, you got to be able to talk with people and interact.” Angle continued, “…the informal interactions are what I miss. Where you just run into somebody and start talking, be relaxed and not have to stay so far away and you’re muffled through a mask, you know? It just isn’t quite as comfortable,” he said.
Angle said that the previous semester continually reinforced for him the power of collaborative efforts in the face of shared struggle. He stated that shared interests might be a sufficient substitute for shared spaces, at least until conditions are safer.
Through communities of shared interest, Angle saw that students can confide in one another about daily struggles, be they academic or social.
“When I look at what some of our students are going through, it’s hard to succeed in college, but then if you have a mother who has cancer, or a father who has a heart attack, or some other thing, it can really lead to you losing focus. Cohort programs provide a network of support where it’s kind of an extended family.”
The rollout of a Covid-19 vaccine suggests the virus situation may improve in the U.S. over the next six months, but the state of Tennessee has consistently landed behind the curve in its efforts to halt the spread.
Given the experience gained in 2020, Angle said he is confident in the university’s current handling of the virus, and recent evidence suggests that confidence might be well founded.
Rapid testing showed less than 0.5% positive cases in students, before they returned to housing for the spring semester. With this in mind, the chancellor explained the best and worst-case scenarios that the university could find itself in.
With an optimistic outlook, if the university can sustain a low Covid infection rate, social distance and wear masks, Angle said he hopes they can expand student life activities.
On the contrary, students may be subjected to return to face-to-face essential courses only and less in-person events if health protocols are not implemented outside of the classroom.
“…It’s the social interactions afterwards where people kind of relax a little bit too much sometimes. And we all want to be able to do that, so it may make it more difficult for people in a worst-case scenario…” Angle commented.
Looking ahead, UTC is also looking to provide vaccinations when possible. The chancellor said he wants this process to be as quick and painless as the rapid testing.
“Our health center has applied to be a vaccine distribution site,” Angle said. “We have to follow the guidelines of the state of Tennessee about who is eligible to be vaccinated, but, as soon as we can, we’ll be able to do this.”
Based on his personal experiences and the data the university has collected, Angle made a bold prediction about how fall 2021 could look at UTC.
“We’re planning for a fall that looks pretty normal,” he asserted.
Although it is not a given, the current trajectory looks promising. Angle assured effective communication in the next few weeks between the university and students, for what Fall 2021 could look like.
“We certainly will have plans, if Covid rears its head back up, of how we would step back so that we would ensure we would protect the health and safety of this campus community.”
Angle said future success comes down to balancing quality education and safety, but that having both requires cooperation from everyone.
Just as small cohorts of students can develop around shared interests that give way to academic and social betterment, these larger goals call for students, faculty, staff, administrators and chancellors to band together to preserve the cohort we call UTC.