AUBG President David Evans: We achieved success with our hybrid strategy
BGlobal Magazine interviewed AUBG President David Evans on the challenges and opportunities amid the global pandemic, the international environment at AUBG and the success of its alumni. Read the interview, which was originally published in Bulgarian, below.
For a second academic year now, the pandemic is changing the methods of education at universities across Bulgaria. How do you balance face-to-face and online learning at your university?
In general, we prefer face-to-face learning, as the close connection between faculty and students in and beyond the classroom is one of the hallmarks of an AUBG education. During the pandemic, our course delivery has varied from fully online to hybrid online/face-to-face, depending on the circumstances and the current orders from the Ministries of Health and Education. Both last fall and this fall, we were successful with a hybrid strategy that allowed for social distancing in the classroom and for students and faculty for whom it was necessary to attend fully online. The rules changed in the middle of both of those semesters, but fortunately the system we devised has enabled both semesters to continue in compliance with government orders. In the longer run, though, we hope that we can resume the central mission of the university, which is intensive, direct interaction between faculty and students. This spring, we are instituting a full “Green Pass” campus, which should allow a much more normal feeling, but we continue to allow students to attend fully online for the time being if their personal circumstances suggest it.
Are there also benefits of the COVID-19 restrictions? For example, lecturers have increased their digital-communication skills and students appreciate live lectures and seminars much more?
Both of these are true. Our faculty have learned a great deal about remote and hybrid delivery, careful, flexible planning for course sessions, and how to engage students across different instructional modes at the same time. Our students have been great—though most of them would obviously prefer our traditional mode of attending courses, they have been flexible and reasonable in their responses as we have had to change our approaches multiple times since March 2020. Once we return to a more stable sense of the “new normal,” whatever it may be, the university will be very well positioned to take advantage of the lessons of the last couple of years to increase our reach and allow more students to access our educational offerings according to their specific circumstances.
Have COVID-19 restrictions financially harmed your university? What is its current financial situation?
We have been fortunate that our financial situation has been stable over the past two years. Our enrollment has increased slightly both of the last two fall semesters, and while we have lost some revenue from auxiliary services (housing and dining, primarily) we have budgeted conservatively to accommodate those reductions. We have been able to reduce some obvious costs such as travel, which has also been helpful. In each of the last two fiscal years we have run a surplus, and are on target to do so again this year. However, what we have not been able to do is make significant strategic investments in new programs and infrastructure, which would normally be a priority for us, and such investments are a key part of our current strategic planning process. We look forward to having more financial flexibility in the future to make these investments in a responsible and fiscally stable way.
How is the university adapting to the job market? What new educational programs do you offer?
We have many close connections in the business community here and abroad, and maintain regular contact with our friends and alumni in business, NGOs, governmental service, and higher education. We monitor our students’ job searches closely to determine their competitiveness and currency, and fortunately continue to see that our graduates are in high demand across all sectors. We are currently looking at a number of new programs for strategic investments that will help keep our graduates aligned with market needs—these may include increased offerings in cybersecurity, digital marketing, cultural heritage and tourism, and other areas, depending on our evaluation of demand and our capability to offer top-quality programs consistent with the university’s mission.
How are you attracting more international students and faculty?
Our enrollment of new international students over the past couple of years has, regrettably but predictably, declined somewhat. At the same time, our new enrollments from Bulgaria have increased by about the same number. This has been an understandable outcome of the pandemic, with both official travel restrictions and greatly increased inconvenience in crossing international borders, not to mention family’s anxieties about sending their children far from home for university. Similarly, our ability to recruit international faculty has been impaired by the same factors, though we have nevertheless hired a few who were already located in places that allowed relatively easy travel to Bulgaria for interviews. (For example, this year we have a new American faculty member who was previously working and living in Cyprus.)
In order for us to attract international students and faculty, we really need to have them visit our campus, either in person or, as a modest substitute, through intensive digital tours. We continue to work on optimizing our virtual visit experience to increase the attractiveness of AUBG to international constituencies, but this is an ongoing process and all the world is still adapting to the new way of doing business.
Are international ratings and rankings important to your university? What are you proud of?
A major challenge for AUBG is that most international rankings and ratings are primarily based on an institution’s research output, and because AUBG is both small and primarily teaching-oriented, this emphasis counts against us in those rankings and ratings. (A comparable situation exists with even the very best liberal arts colleges in the United States, which are highly ranked by venues like US News because they use different factors, but which do not really show up in international rankings either.)
I commonly say that the real test of an undergraduate institution’s quality is the success of its graduates, and by this measure AUBG is clearly an outstanding university. We are small and we are young, but we have numerous leaders across all sectors even though our oldest graduates have not yet reached the age of 50. Just in the past few months, two alumni-founded businesses have had their commercial value assessed in the hundreds of millions of dollars, and we have similar successes in sectors like political leadership and social organizations. So, what I’m most proud of is our incredible alumni, and our wonderful current students who are following their lead in finding their best places to become leaders, entrepreneurs, social innovators, and builders of their countries and the region.
What are your biggest concerns for 2022 as a President of AUBG?
The COVID pandemic has, of course, imposed enormous wear and tear on every member of our community. As I’ve already suggested, we have done very well in coping with the ongoing crisis, but there is a limit to even the strongest community’s ability to endure continuous uncertainty and frequent externally imposed changes in operations. I am hopeful that more people will get vaccinated and that the virus will, at the very least, fade into something more like the seasonal flu, which we’ve been living with routinely for many years. Whatever the “new normal” may end up being, I hope we arrive at it sooner than later.