Dr. David Evans in an Interview for Profit.bg: How did AUBG Change during the Pandemic
Bulgarian business news website Profit.bg spoke to AUBG Interim President David Evans about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The article is part of a series of interviews with experts that discuss the challenges they faced in 2020 and the way forward.
Despite the challenges caused by the pandemic, AUBG remains a leading university in all five disciplines evaluated by the Bulgarian Ranking System. How did you achieve such success during these difficult times?
We were fortunately able to move very quickly and effectively to online instruction last spring thanks to the good work of our faculty and academic leadership, and our students, who were flexible and willing to work hard to keep learning in the middle of technological challenges and overall disruption. I give a lot of credit to our Interim Provost, Dr. Robert White, who provided exemplary leadership and planning as he worked with faculty to ensure that our strong academic programs continued in the best possible way. During the summer we had more time to plan and were able to create a flexible strategy for hybrid and online courses that both protected the health of the campus community and gave students useful options for pursuing their studies this fall. With more advance notice, the faculty were able to adapt their courses more thoroughly to mixed delivery methods, and while everyone looks forward to returning to a more normal campus life, I believe that our students have continued to have an educational experience that lives up to our, and their, expectations for quality and challenge.
Are there any new trends/changes in higher education that emerged because of the pandemic?
In the U.S., it is likely that a significant number of colleges and universities may close, simply because they are not financially sustainable under the new circumstances and will have lost a great deal of revenue and financial flexibility this year. AUBG, I am pleased to say, is in solid financial shape and will emerge from this pandemic with some interesting new strategies for fulfilling our mission. All around the world institutions, including AUBG, and faculty members have been forced to rethink how they operate, and I expect that we're going to see global advancements in distance learning, blended on- and off-campus courses, and other newer forms of course delivery. For AUBG, the pandemic has shown just how valuable and important our campus life is, and will inspire us to figure out how to use these new forms of instruction while also maintaining one of the things that makes an AUBG education stand out. We believe we can offer increased flexibility for international students, students who may be taking internships away from Blagoevgrad, and others through our new investments and expertise in different forms of course delivery.
Life at AUBG is never boring – that's a quote from your website. What kind of activities do you plan for next year that would provoke the interest of students and prospective students?
Assuming that there is an effective and generally available vaccine, my first hope is that we can return all our great normal activities to campus, from our opening picnic through the amazing spring events we usually have, such as the Broadway Performance Club's musical production, the AUBG Olympics, the International Food Fest where students share dishes from their home countries, and some major activities that are shared by current students and alumni. This fall we have been successful in maintaining activities that could be done safely with social distancing, masks, and/or meeting outside, but still, with restrictions on gathering size, close physical contact, and similar matters, student life has not been the same. Our vibrant campus life, where something good is going on all the time, is a very attractive part of the university, and putting that campus life fully back together will be a great thing for our students.
Do you think the pandemic can change the ranking of the most attractive majors?
It's hard to say at this point. AUBG doesn't offer programs in medical subjects nor in chemistry and biology, and I suspect that some students will be newly interested in such fields as a result of the pandemic. However, the pandemic has also certainly shown the need for high-quality, well-planned government action, and has highlighted how agile businesses can profit from adverse circumstances. Our education stresses teamwork, broad knowledge, and intellectual flexibility, and all of these have been great advantages for people to navigate through the pandemic. These are the skills that never become obsolete, and I'm inclined to think that preparing versatile, thoughtful problem-solvers, no matter what their major, is really the critical goal we should be pursuing.
What part of the "new normality" in education imposed by COVID-19 could/should be continued in the future?
Again, while I am a true believer in campus life and face-to-face instruction, which have worked for centuries, the reality of higher education now is that it needs to provide flexible learning options even for traditional-aged college students. COVID-19 has shown all of us that it's possible to do good things with technology even in an institution like AUBG, that strongly focuses on close student mentoring, small classes, and a supportive campus community as part of its identity. We can use these technological means for teaching without compromising the fundamental identity of the university, and I suspect that many similar institutions have found much the same thing. That said, those critics of higher education who are saying that traditional campuses are dying or dead are clearly wrong: for the right students, campus life and all it brings add tremendous value to their education, and help students develop valuable "soft skills" that lead to personal and professional success.