The 2019-20 fiscal year, much like the past academic year, is a tale of two different worlds, divided by the onset of the global COVID-19 outbreak. During the pandemic, many businesses across various industries were hit hard. Some businesses managed to stay the course despite the challenges, and others, against all odds, have thrived.
At Carroll, we came together to devise and execute a quick response to the onset of the pandemic this spring and then crafted a well-thought-out plan to return to campus for the fall. The focus was on giving our students, faculty and staff the best experience possible, while also ensuring their health and safety was a top priority. That preparation and groundwork have also ensured the health of the university and helped us rise above the obstacles posed by COVID.
To give you a better glimpse into how decisions regarding COVID were made, and an update on the state of Carroll University, we sat down for a conversation with Carroll University President Dr. Cindy Gnadinger.
In what ways has COVID impacted the university and how have we responded?
COVID has impacted our university in nearly every way. Certainly, that starts with enhancing and implementing safety measures, but it also forced us to think differently about the ways we interact with one another, meet and instruct. This past summer, we installed learning capture systems in every classroom across campus, spending close to $1 million in new technology. A part of our strategic plan was to move the university toward more state-of-the-art technology and implementing this initiative in 2020 helped us accomplish that goal earlier than expected. The university also had to alter how we conducted student activities on campus, including athletics. We still wanted to create meaningful experiences for our students and address their needs as it related to activities, but doing so in a way that fostered safe play.
We lessened density in our Main Dining Room and added additional dining spots on campus, including several “grab and go” venues. The density in our residence halls was reduced due to COVID and we provided single rooms for all students to further enhance their safety while living on campus. This resulted in the need to rent out a nearby hotel for an additional residence hall.
Why was the decision made for students to return to campus during the pandemic?
There were many meetings on this issue. We put together a team this past spring composed of senior leaders and administrators from around campus and looked at all our options. The “Fall 2020 Task Force” unanimously believed that at a liberal arts institution there is so much to be gained from in-person learning. We needed to put in place clear safety protocols and guidelines. So, we worked diligently all spring and summer to establish and communicate those safety measures to students, parents, faculty and staff via virtual town halls. In these town halls we also communicated our plan and expectations for returning to campus. Some of our students even created public service announcement videos on the measures we all would take upon our return. Due to all these efforts, including regular COVID testing, we had a safe return to campus, and I’ve been very proud of how well our community has played their part in ensuring everyone’s safety. They have adhered to all of our safety protocols and guidelines and been wonderful and respectful to one another every step along the way.
What do enrollment trends look like for 2021 and how do they impact other areas of the university?
The outlook for the 2020-2021 school year was in question for all universities. Many of us pondered and were concerned about how COVID would impact enrollment. I am pleased to say that, for Carroll University, enrollment numbers have remained steady. In fact, our enrollment in 2020-2021 is slightly higher than the previous academic year. When we returned to campus in the fall, we gave students the option to continue their education virtually, or in-person. Only a small percentage of students opted for virtual learning. A large majority of our students returned to campus for in-person learning, including first-year students.
When enrollment is good, our finances are good. Our financial situation at Carroll is strong thanks to our consistent donors whose support helps to provide needed scholarship and operational support through the Carroll Fund. We made it through last spring, being thrust into the pandemic, without any layoffs or any mandatory furloughs. We ended the year with a positive bottom line, which is something very few of my presidential peers can tout. What makes us unique when it comes to our financial status is our debt. We have virtually no debt, which is unheard of, especially for an institution of our size with a $75 million-dollar annual operating budget. Carroll University is a solid institution but a goal of ours that would help increase our financial status is to increase the endowment. While it has improved over time—3.5 years ago when I arrived it was $58 million and today, due to the generosity of our donors, it is $73.5 million—there is room for growth. Our goal is to reach $100 million and I have no doubt we will get there in the next few years.
What are the most important initiatives at Carroll right now, and how will they impact the university in the future?
Our new strategic plan has several main goals, but a key goal is building a School of Business and Technology, with new academic programming, increased enrollment, new faculty and a new facility. We have an incredible history of developing business leaders and we plan to build on that success. We want to mirror the same level of investment and resources that went into the College of Health Sciences. To showcase our commitment to this endeavor, we hired a new, energetic dean for the School of Business and Technology, Dr. Hamid Akbari. Five new faculty also joined the school in the past two years, and new programs were added along with updated curriculum with an emphasis on data analytics. Currently, we are working with architects to design a beautiful, state-of-the-art facility that will educate the next generation of business leaders. I often say if you want to be the best, you must have the best. This new facility will rival other Business School facilities and will help us attract the best and brightest faculty, staff and students to Carroll.
Recently we opened our Idea Lab, a place for innovation where the business community can come and gather for programming and collaboration. At the lab we help businesses with training, upskilling, and retooling for their employees. We also offer businesses a seven-week data analytics boot camp and visualization course.
Another important initiative for the university is to enhance and grow the number of student-athletes. In increasing this number, we also want to enhance our athletic facilities.
We recently created our first living learning communities for honor students and nursing as a way for them to continue to build upon their successes and support one another. We hope this will help us attract and retain some of the most talented students. The goal is to create similar communities across campus for like-minded students.
Some new academic programs are on the horizon, including a master’s in behavioral health psychology and a minor in business analytics. This year we also launched a 100% virtual, online MBA program to accompany our existing MBA program.
One of the last initiatives I’ll point out is our plans to grow the resources and offerings in our career center so we can better support students on their transition from the classroom to the workplace.
Going back to pre-pandemic, how was Carroll University then and what were we moving toward? Are we still on track?
While the pandemic has certainly prompted us to act and respond differently during this time, it has not slowed us down. We continue to push ahead and move forward on our strategic goals. We opened the new Education Hall, a new esports center, and a new health clinic in Waukesha. The esports center lends itself to a growing recreational sport and a number of interested students from across the country of all academic majors.
Is there an indelible mark Carroll will leave as a result of this pandemic?
Yes. It is our contact tracer program. The program is a great example of how Carroll is always responsive to the needs of our community. When the pandemic first hit, we donated PPE to healthcare providers. Then, we became aware of the need for more contact tracers. Immediately, we contacted Waukesha County and proposed to assist as a training site for contact tracers. Now, we offer a certification program that develops contact tracers, which is a new and emerging field that was needed as soon as the virus started to rapidly spread. We stepped in to help fill this need and since then have been approached by other counties to duplicate the program. Carroll is always ready to serve in any capacity to help meet the needs of the larger community.
What community initiatives were implemented in the last year that were significant?
Partnerships with community agencies, area schools and the development of pipeline programs all happened within the last year. Most of these initiatives target first-generation college students, and we are now working with the Boys and Girls Club, All In Milwaukee and College Possible. Some of the schools we have partnered with are Cristo Rey Jesuit High School, St. Augustine Preparatory Academy and Carmen High School for Science and Technology. Our students are also working with the Boys and Girls Club to offer its members virtual tutoring and literacy coaching.
We also opened the Waukesha Free Clinic at Carroll University, a place that provides medical services to people in the county who are underinsured or uninsured. At the clinic our nursing students also provide free COVID tests.
We have a presence throughout the greater community and look to enhance that presence even more in the years to come.
Where do you see the most need and how can the Carroll community help?
I love this question. One of my goals is to ensure we raise the awareness of all the wonderful things happening at Carroll University. We want to share our successes and make more people aware of this hidden gem right in the heart of Waukesha. As we approach our 175th anniversary, we see this as the perfect opportunity for people beyond Wisconsin to know about all the great things happening here.
Help us spread the good word! Talk about us to people you connect with. Encourage young people in your life to consider us as a place to seek higher education. Represent in your orange and blue and join us as Carroll ambassadors.
What are you hopeful for in the upcoming year?
I am hopeful that the pandemic will be under control and we will have less worries in our lives. The pandemic has taught us a lot and made us miss being in community with one another. Though we have been coping with the increase of virtual communities, it is nice to be together in person. I look forward to the opportunity to bring our campus community together, for our students to engage in activities again, and cherish the memories of being on campus that so many of our alumni can relate to.
I also look forward to hosting our alumni on campus again soon, as I miss seeing them in person and visiting them in their homes, and listening to their captivating Carroll stories. I always learn new things about Carroll from our alumni and I miss our face-to-face conversations.
The opportunity to connect and to continue to learn from one another is a gift. The gift of going virtual is special as well because it has allowed so many more of us to connect, especially with our alumni who live further away.
We will continue to hold on to our virtual offerings, as I see it as an enhancement to our in-person events which allows us all to convene together.
Lastly, I hope our friends and alumni are as excited as I am about the future of Carroll University. We have many powerful and exciting things going on and we are thankful for the continued support of this institution.
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