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President’s Perspective

President Clark sat down on the opening day of the fall semester to talk about the critical issues facing Bridgewater State University and the world these days, specifically the pandemic and racial justice.
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Bridgewater Magazine

President Clark sat down on the opening day of the fall semester to talk about the critical issues facing Bridgewater State University and the world these days, specifically the pandemic and racial justice. Many of the things the president discusses are dealt with in detail throughout the pages of this issue. More information on these topics is available at www.bridgew.edu.

It’s opening day here at BSU and also just beyond the halfway point of 2020. What are your reflections on what this most challenging of years has meant to the institution and its people?

This year has defied description, that’s for sure, even with our long and storied history. I know we’ve had challenges in the past with demographic shifts; we’ve had challenges with recessions and a Great Depression. We’ve even gone through a pandemic, if you think back to 1918. Add on top of this, racial justice, an issue that Bridgewater has faced in the past as well. When you put together all of those forces, along with the budget ramifications, it’s pretty unprecedented. What I would say is that I’m not dispirited. I’m optimistic, and what I’ve observed from the beginning is that we adapt to whatever challenge is in front of us; we don’t succumb to it. It makes us aspire to be better, to improve, to meet the adversity, and to move beyond it by being innovative, working harder and by being compassionate, all of the qualities that have endured here at Bridgewater for 180 years. We don’t have a sense that we just need to survive. We’re boldly confronting these issues, and we have a philosophy that’s embedded in the DNA of this institution that we will thrive through whatever difficulties are in front of us. And what I mean by that is that we’ll come out the other side better and stronger – that’s just the Bridgewater way.

What have proved to be the university’s strengths during these trying times?

It’s all about our people. Our people are resilient, and our people understand when it’s stormy outside we have to come together to weather it. And we have. Our faculty, staff, our librarians, our students and our alumni, everyone, has come together in different ways, whether shifting classes from in-person to online, moving people in and out of residence halls, or raising money for our student emergency funds. That’s what I see – the coming together and never forgetting why we’re here in the first place. We’re not here for any other purpose than to keep the doors of opportunity open wide for our students and to keep them on track and on their paths to success, not only in terms of graduating, but also in life. That mission is always front and center. I’ve seen some institutions forget this, and they lose their way. We don’t lose our way here at Bridgewater.

Can you share some insight into what went into the plan to make sure the campus is as safe as possible?

A lot of hard work. People have clearly been giving their all from the very first moment of the pandemic to today, and I'm certain they will continue to do their best. We’ve involved the entire campus; it was an inclusive process with regard to shared decision making. We were able to build a COVID-19 group that’s helped us, not only with the response, but also with planning. For the fall, the Safe Return Task Force led by Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Karim Ismaili has been extremely effective, because many of the issues that needed to be resolved were academic in nature.

The other key element is that we never rushed to judgment. We knew that it wasn’t important to be first (to make decisions), but that it would be damaging to be last. So, we tried to land in the middle: Observe how others were navigating and try to learn from them, and make sure we paid attention to the best science. Ultimately, I believe we made a lot of good and practical decisions that have served the institution well. Sitting here today, I don’t have a single regret about any (COVID-19-related) decision we’ve made. We may have gotten something wrong – time will tell. But as for the process leading to this moment, I feel extremely positive and confident in what we’ve done and how we’ve done it.

What has been the feedback from members of the BSU community thus far?

We’ve gotten a lot of feedback from our community, but also from the larger community beyond the borders of Bridgewater State. The most important feedback comes from our students and their families, and it has been tremendously positive. They feel as though we’ve done all there is to do to keep them safe and that we’ve left no stone unturned. From faculty and staff, we’ve heard, directly through their unions, that they feel we’ve listened to them and their concerns. As for the town, the leadership is very confident, as well. In fact, when we shared the number of positive test results for students with COVID-19, they were very surprised it was that low. They may have expected the worst, but that’s not the case, at least at this stage.

The other critical issue of our time is racial justice. Looking back, how would you characterize BSU’s efforts on this front?

Well, we’ve come a long way from the days when I was a student here, but we have a long way to go, and the national, local and institutional conversations that have been occurring have really allowed us to hold up a mirror and recognize that all of the good we have done and continue to do isn’t good enough. We need to redouble our efforts.

Honestly, I’ve been extremely proud of Bridgewater over the years. When I was a student, the percentage of students of color was about four percent, compared to today where 29 percent of the incoming class are students of color, as are 27 percent of the overall student body. The days where we had few students of color in the time of the late Paul Gaines, G’68, BSU’s first director of minority affairs (see page 10), they felt more supported, they had mentors and guides. Some of our students today have let us know over the last few months that they feel a little bit lost, that they don’t feel as supported, even though they were feeling welcomed. Obviously, something is missing. So we have to work harder to make our students of color feel supported and feel a sense of community, a sense of belonging. From everything I’ve heard over the past couple of months, that’s probably what struck me the most. I felt that we were doing a lot when it comes to closing achievement gaps, making sure our education was equitable, leaving no student behind. But those efforts aren’t enough if students, as they’re navigating through Bridgewater State, don’t feel a sense of belonging and don’t feel supported. We have to do better in that area.

The other observation, even though we have about 27 percent students of color, only 19 percent of our faculty are men and women of color, so there’s a mismatch there. Meanwhile, only 10 percent of our staff and administrators are people of color. So we have a lot of work to do on the hiring front. Whether it’s curricula changes, investigating implicit bias or privilege, or ensuring that we have racially just policing policies, I’ve charged the Special Presidential Task Force on Racial Justice with looking at everything. Nothing is off limits. What we seek is a set of recommendations, some that we can implement immediately, while others may take a little bit longer, but I don’t want to miss anything. The task force is charged with listening, being introspective with a critical eye, looking at wise practices from around the country and around the world, and making recommendations that are implementable, practical and helpful for Bridgewater State to move to the next level in its evolution.

“So much has happened that’s positive on this campus. I keep saying that we won’t let this pandemic define us. We are moving this campus forward even as we navigate the pandemic and other challenges… The BSU spirit remains strong, and the banners are hanging in front of Boyden Hall… We’re very proud of that.” 
– President Frederick W. Clark Jr., ’83

I know you’ve committed to addressing this issue in an ongoing and holistic manner. Can you speak to some of the plans that have been put in place?

The overall philosophy guiding the task force’s efforts is that we can do better, and we realize it. The group is wonderfully inclusive, and I know we are going to do great work. As one example, I think we can do more in the community. We serve all of Southeastern Massachusetts, but we have a particular warm spot in our hearts for the gateway cities (Brockton, Taunton, New Bedford and Fall River). Of all the students in those cities, on average, about 60 percent are students of color. But if you look at the teachers, only eight percent are teachers of color. Now if we’re the state’s largest producer of K-12 teachers, we have a role to play in trying to diversify the pool of new teachers. We’re working to create a pipeline between BSU and these gateway cities, a grow-your-own teacher program, and I’m raising funds specifically for that purpose. Because if students don’t see at the front of the class a person who looks like them, they may not have someone to follow as a role model. You won’t become what you don’t see. We need to address that issue. This is one area of focus I’m hoping will be part of our action plan going forward.

What are the hallmarks of progress you’d like to see?

We’ve already begun to assemble constituencies around campus to listen; I’m very focused right now on making sure people know that their voices are being heard. In addition to the work of the task force, we’re also dedicating the entire academic year to the theme of racial justice in partnership with the task force and the Martin Richard Institute for Social Justice. Our provost, Dr. Ismaili, is a champion of racial justice, and he’s focused on this issue. We plan to have academic programming that will be part of our efforts, as well. We don’t want to miss an opportunity to engage the campus around this important theme. As for outcomes, what I care most about will come from the voices of our students of color, and what I’m hoping I hear them say after we’ve implemented a new agenda is that they do feel more supported, that they do feel more a part of a community, and that they have the guides and mentors that they need – that all students need – in order to succeed here at Bridgewater.

The fall semester is officially underway. What are your thoughts and hopes as we continue through the second half of this unprecedented year?

At the end of the day, in order for us to succeed, it’s going to come down to our individual and collective responsibility with regard to our health protocols and guidelines. Following these guidelines will allow us to remain physically together as a community. But without that adherence, we’ll have to go through another painful separation like we witnessed in March, where I’d have to send students home, and I desperately don’t want to do that for many reasons. The fact of the matter is, you can do everything possible with regard to planning and execution, but individual responsibility is the key. I trust and have faith in Bridgewater State. And that faith is borne from 41 years of involvement here. I’ve seen us overcome challenge after challenge. We
will do so once again.

COVID-19 Brings Changes, New Protocols and Preparation

Prior to the start of the fall semester, the university undertook a large number of precautions and instituted new protocols to safeguard those who come to campus. Much of the planning was done by members of the Safe Return Task Force.

Steps taken include:

  • Face masks are mandatory for everyone on campus.
  • A robust COVID-19 training, testing and tracing protocol has been instituted, and as of the first week of October, nearly 5,000 tests had been completed with only a handful of positives.
  • Most courses for the fall semester are being taught remotely.
  • Cleaning and public health protocols have been implemented in all buildings.
  • Employees must complete mandatory training on how to stay safe and healthy during the pandemic.
  • A special Student Emergency Fund was set up for those in need. With the support of the university’s generous donors and the federal CARES Act assistance, BSU had, as of early October, helped more than 1,500 students, disbursing approximately $1 million.
  • A rapid notification system was established through the Wellness Center to help identify anyone who may have shared physical space with a newly diagnosed member of the campus community, with a priority placed on protecting the privacy of all involved.
  • A Code of Public Health Training was developed to provide students with critical information and training videos for current best practices with respect to COVID-19 safety and prevention as informed by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

For more information, visit www.bridgew.edu/covid-19.

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