May 7, 2020


Where Do We Go from Here? A Conversation with Dr. Esteban

University campuses across the country have been fundamentally disrupted by COVID-19. At DePaul, courses moved to remote delivery through the end of Summer Quarter and almost all university operations are being conducted remotely. Students, parents, faculty and staff are eager for some certainty about what the future holds. Will in-person classes at DePaul resume in the fall? Will COVID-19 permanently alter the way the university operates? While many details still aren’t known, DePaul President A. Gabriel Esteban, Ph.D., shares his thoughts on these questions and the factors DePaul is considering as the university begins planning for the fall.



LINDA BLAKLEY: Welcome to DePaul Download. I'm your host, Linda Blakley, Vice President of University Marketing and Communications.

University campuses across the country have been disrupted by the spread of COVID-19. By mid-March, the lives of every DePaul student, staff and faculty member changed as nearly all learning and operations efforts moved online.

In a matter of weeks, Spring Quarter classes were switched to remote learning, and a majority of DePaul faculty and staff adjusted to working from their homes.

Even day-to-day interactions have switched from face-to-face conversations in classrooms, offices and public spaces to phone calls, emails and Zoom meetings.

Now, well into the Spring Quarter, the DePaul community wants to hear what the future holds. Will in person classes at DePaul resume in the fall? Will COVID-19 permanently alter university operations?

While many details are still unknown, President Esteban shares his thoughts on these topics and more from his home office. Thank you, Dr. Esteban, for joining me today from your telework station.


LINDA BLAKLEY: How did we get from a regular winter quarter to primarily remote operations and teaching in a matter of days?

PRESIDENT A. GABRIEL ESTEBAN: As you can imagine, it was a herculean effort by a lot of individuals from across campus.

I would be remiss not to thank our COVID-19 Task Force led by Jeff Bethke and Provost Salma Ghanem. But we also had a lot of individuals who were very focused on this and that includes our Center for Teaching and Learning who assisted our faculty, and I would have to call out our faculty as well for what they did in taking these ten days to convert from what they thought was going to be an on campus presence to an online community or remote community almost overnight and also information systems.

So, it was truly a community effort which made it all possible.

LINDA BLAKLEY: And what have you learned about DePaul through this conversion?

PRESIDENT A. GABRIEL ESTEBAN: I'd say one of the things you realize is how strong the mission resides in our community. The dedication to others, and that is exhibited for example by our essential workers who to this day are still on campus every day of the week so to speak. It is the caring I've seen in all of the meetings I've been able to be part of. It's resilience, ingenuity, and it's just the plain overall spirit of DePaul which is we can do this as a community.

LINDA BLAKLEY: And then what have you learned about yourself?

PRESIDENT A. GABRIEL ESTEBAN: One of the things I learned through this whole process is the importance of community, right? We take for granted the importance of community, family, and so on because we get all wrapped up in our own world, especially as we start to live our lives on campus and so on.

And you sometimes forget that the university is this large community, so through all of the Zoom meetings and all of this, I've gotten to know more and more individuals, faculty, staff at DePaul, and you realize this really is a community. So, that sense that no one is an island and that we're all in it, the sense that we have to sacrifice for a greater good by following all of the guidelines, social distancing.

And I think the other piece is you realize what the priorities are in life so to speak.

LINDA BLAKLEY: So, we're beginning to think beyond this quarter and looking forward a bit to fall and asking ourselves, so, what has been forever changed? For instance, will we ever shake hands again?

PRESIDENT A. GABRIEL ESTEBAN: If you ask me, one of the  joys of being in a university community is the closeness we feel to each other, and I remember that as a faculty member, being in close contact with our students, sitting down with them, mentoring them, talking about their plans and so on, to becoming an administrator, dean, and the interaction as president with the community outside DePaul other than the community within DePaul, and you realize that part of that is the breaking of bread, shaking of hands, and all of the other things.

I think what I miss the most, actually, is the sense of the touch I guess among other things. Just meeting people and shaking hands, hugging and all of that which are all no-no's under today's environment.

And I hope and I plan that in the future we'll be shaking hands again. We'll be breaking bread with each other, enjoying great conversations over breakfast, lunch or dinner, and going in some sense, back to normal knowing that it will also never be the same.

LINDA BLAKLEY: But are there things that we've stopped doing that we shouldn't resume?

PRESIDENT A. GABRIEL ESTEBAN: I think sometimes we, and I'm not sure if this answers the question – you can tell me – is we sometimes take things for granted, right? And I say that because I find great joy when my wife and I, when Jo and I get out either early morning when there is no one up and about or late. We go out with our masks and all of the other things. We have gloves. And just walking and just spending time with each other.

We spend a lot of time physically in our apartment but then we're separate because she's doing something and I'm doing something. And you forget that the small things really matter. Just walking, just chatting and so on. So, that's something which I think sometimes we forget is really important.

In terms of not resuming, I think it's just not taking things for granted and just keeping in mind that we're all in this community which involves a lot of people, some of whom are more vulnerable than others. And I think that is one thing I realized.

I was just in a meeting earlier and one of the things we talked about was – and we assume that with Zoom and so on, hopefully it is a leveling environment for some of our students who may not be able to come to campus for this and that, they're working and this and that. But then you realize also we're hearing now from our students who say that you know what? I don't have the technology at home. Or I don't really have a good Wi-Fi connection. I'll have to find one.

So, all of these things which I think sometimes we forget, we always have to keep in mind that there is always someone who is suffering more than we are and we always have to keep that person in mind.

LINDA BLAKLEY: I think this time has also made us question what things are essential, and what things aren't, and it's part of the self-discovery that I think we're all going through in such a trying situation.

But I want to ask you too; has this experience prompted DePaul to reorder the university's priorities?

PRESIDENT A. GABRIEL ESTEBAN: I'm not sure if you might use the term reorder versus strengthening our priorities. Students have always been at the forefront of everything we do at DePaul and I think this experience has even fortified or strengthened that commitment to our students, especially to the students we say we want to serve.

We have always seen higher ed at DePaul as a mechanism, a vehicle to change the trajectory of the students' lives of the students we serve. We're big into saying that we want to increase the social mobility of the students we serve.

And I think what has happened with what has been happening, it has only strengthened our resolve to find ways to serve our students in maybe new and maybe intriguing mechanisms, for example this remote or online environment we're operating in and providing students services. Are there other ways we can even strengthen that commitment?

So, that commitment that we have has become stronger. The focus on trying to provide access to a quality education that leads to social mobility I would say has become even stronger moving forward.

LINDA BLAKLEY: The unexpected can force reflection and conversation on very serious questions. In recent weeks, one recurring question has focused on protecting the vulnerable among us as we weigh the risk involved in opening up again. How have these discussions affected you?

PRESIDENT A. GABRIEL ESTEBAN: One of the things which troubled me early on was the strong push to reopen or not even close to begin with and saying that oh, losing X number of lives is acceptable for the sake of the economy.

And that is troubling to me in that we're basically saying that there is an economic value we should put on human lives and that is troubling as a society if that is the direction we're headed.

I realize that at some point, we need to open up. But we also have to have that guided by the best science and information that is available and not do it for purely economic or purely political or any other reason other than that it is time, science says it is safe if we practice certain things.

And it is challenging. It was very disturbing to me that we even engaged in these discussions about well, it's okay. It's almost like you go through a war and it's okay to have 50,000 or 100,000 fatalities. It's just the cost of going to war and so on.

That really disturbs me and I think as a Catholic Vincentian in this situation, that is not consistent when we talk about Vincentian personalism and the dignity of life.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Another topic for you; many high school seniors are making decisions about college without having set foot on the campuses they are considering. What is DePaul doing to help prospective students get to know our university?

PRESIDENT A. GABRIEL ESTEBAN: A few weeks ago, we put up a microsite where prospective students can just go to one site for everything. You can look at everything from virtual campus tours, all of these things, financial aid information, talk to an admissions counselor. It's an all-in-one site.

The other thing is we recently had an open house so to speak, a virtual open house. I think the first time we've ever done this. We had about 1,400-plus register for it and it was done via Zoom so to speak. And we had 886 show up. These were students who had deposited, students who were not deposited, freshman for class of '21 or '22. And 886 just refers to the number of students. It didn't include parents, guardians, friends who were sitting next to them since we couldn't count that.

And in this open house, we talked about – Jo and I gave the welcome and Carlene was there from admissions and then we broke them up into different sections where they got to meet with faculty. They could talk to financial aid counselors. They could talk to just about anyone that we normally have them talk to as if we were doing it in person.

And we're exploring the possibility of doing that again in the future because we were pleasantly surprised. When you do these things and you see that 1,400 registered, you say well, you get 20 percent show up. So, when we were watching it because we could watch how many were in the waiting room, it was kind of exciting to see oh, there are 300, 400, 600, 800, then decided to let people in and the number kept going up.

We have a number of mechanisms. We also have a lot of correspondence with students in our database who filed for admission at DePaul and haven't deposited and we're directing them to all of these resources.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Well, some good is coming out of this. What would you anticipate will be some of the budgetary impacts of the pandemic?

We've had meetings with faculty leadership as well as staff leadership and joint council among other groups, and we've started to talk about what next year might look like. We've also been looking at what is happening across the country. And some of the estimates we see are anywhere from 15 percent, 20 percent drop in enrollment on average for universities across the country, and that doesn't include international enrollment.

And it's a combination of high school seniors deciding not to go to college and also continuing students and maybe not having the resources to go to college. And that's a very sobering thought for an institution to look at 15% to 20% drop in enrollment.

We know states are having difficulties with the loss of revenues and as an institution, we rely on the state for MAP grants, the Monetary Assistance Program. So, as an institution, we're planning for different scenarios which may include anywhere from maybe a 10 percent to 20 percent drop in revenues and planning around a fifteen-or-so-percent drop in revenues. And just starting to think in terms of what the implications of that might be.

We plan to engage the larger community in these discussions and we're going to be forming groups to start to think of these things.

LINDA BLAKLEY: So, what you're telling me is that we will likely be returning to a different DePaul. What advice do you have for a university community living through the rapid change that we must travel on the road to the new normal?

PRESIDENT A. GABRIEL ESTEBAN: I think we have to continue to play on our strengths. We have always shown that we've had the ability to be very flexible, adaptable, that we are realistic, that we take in what is around us and we make adjustments as appropriate. And we have seen that with COVID-19 response.

One of the things we know is we've always invested in the future. So, even as we made a swift transition, one of the things we quickly realized is we have this learning platform and the vast majority of our faculty were already engaged in that platform or were familiar at least with that platform. And when I contrast that to my colleagues across the country, they were starting from maybe 20 percent, 30 percent of their faculty knowing about their online or distance platform.

So, we've always been very forward-thinking. So, as we move forward, we have to be adaptable, flexible, but we also have to think longer-term. The plan – the time to plan for longer-term growth is now and today. Yes, you take care of the short-term which is next year, but then you also plan for the longer-term which is unfortunately two, three years out so to speak. So, that is the biggest challenge.

So, I think the new normal, even for the fall as we look at what we plan to do for the fall, we hope to be able to make decisions on that front in the very near future. Right now we're tentatively setting around mid-June as the date by which we make a decision. But we still have to have more discussions on that and what form and format our presence might be moving forward.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Thank you, Dr. Esteban, for taking some time today to speak with me about this all-consuming topic. It has been quite a unique journey for the entire DePaul community these past few weeks. I look forward to seeing you again on campus, hopefully sometime soon.

I'm Linda Blakley. Thank you for listening to this episode of DePaul Download, presented by DePaul's Division of University Marketing and Communications.