Dean Dr. Susan Gooden: Takes on COVID-19 and the Worldwide Pandemic

Counter terrorism officers in parade crowd are on alert for domestic terrorism threats.

Transitioning into her new role as Dean of VCU’s L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, Dr. Susan Gooden brings with her decades of experience. Dr. Gooden’s hands-on approach to teaching combined with her determination, optimism and social literacy makes her the ideal leader to elevate the institution and its nation-leading programs. Be it the pandemic or the recent focus on social and racial equity across the nation, Dr. Gooden’s knowledge and professional background affords her insight into the most important issues facing our nation today, an insight that Dr. Gooden is eager to share with the VCU community.

You saw the threats that COVID-19 posed before many others. What actions did you take at VCU to address the virus early on and how did your peers and professional colleagues respond?

Based on some of my connections internationally with others scholars and friends, I became very sensitive to the fact that this was a serious situation and felt that it was only a matter of time before it severely impacted the United States.

At the Wilder School, we did two things at the onset of COVID-19 that I thought were really helpful. First, we had a practice remote work day and did a survey of experiences from that day for all of our staff prior to the university fully moving to remote telework. This allowed us to troubleshoot various tech problems and connectivity issues for our faculty and staff, and allowed everyone to get the supplies that we needed in advance of the rush.

Then, once everyone was fully remote and settled into a routine, the second measure we took was that we surveyed all of our employees about their telework experience. One of the things that was most interesting was that people felt okay from a connectivity point. However, many noted that they missed the interaction with others. That was a huge signal to me: there are going to be a lot of folks who are going to miss that interaction, so we built on that insight early on. I started this newsletter called The Communique, and it became a daily newsletter because I wanted to keep everybody communicated to and in the loop. We also started some virtual events, like “TGIF.” Attendance at our virtual TGIF has been higher than our regular faculty meeting attendance, proving that remote community building in a digital space is entirely possible if you listen to the needs of those around you.

How did you go about reaching people in the broader VCU Wilder Community who may have been less aware of the virus’s threat early on?

I think folks within the Wilder community were pretty prudent; keep in mind, you’re dealing with a bunch of academics, so we’re all watching the news and seeing things unfolding. On the whole, I think the university did an outstanding job. The biggest challenge, of course, was transitioning all the classes in the middle of the semester to online. But you know, our Center for Teaching and Learning effectiveness did a great job. The university was fully committed to providing faculty with the support that they needed to successfully transition their courses, and I think they made it as seamless and easy as possible. Huge kudos to VCU for providing that for all the faculty, because otherwise, I think it would have been far more difficult and we could have encountered far more resistance. Instead, the school provided the support that was needed not only for the change to be effective, but also, to be embraced.

I actually taught a five week graduate course online myself early this summer right after the semester ended in May. One of the reasons I did it is because I didn’t want to ask faculty to do things that I’m not willing to do and I thought it was important to have that experience.

I was looking at our summer course offerings at the time. And we did not have anything related to COVID-19 and I thought: we need to have this. The last thing I wanted was to reach out to faculty who had just finished transitioning their courses and already had summer schedules, so I taught a course called Social Equity COVID-19 in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

It was great. It was in real time. We had guest speakers who were looking at COVID-19 as it unfolded, day-to-day. I had all kinds of folks that I reached out to to come and speak. And it was simple for them; they didn’t have to leave their offices and the students got to learn how local governments were responding.

Five years down the road, how do you think education in America will have changed as a result of COVID-19?

Wow, five years? I don’t even think I can think past December (laughs). A lot of these changes – certainly online education and online learning – have taken a huge leap forward. And I think that online learning is going to be more accepted and less stigmatized than it has been in the past, that’s a major change.

Talking “five years from now,” I think we’re going to have a much more accurate and thoughtful assessment of what works well in teaching online and what works best to teach in person. As a result, I believe in-person instruction will become appreciated more. We’ve learned that there are certain things that we can do online, even more, perhaps than people envision, but there are still some things that work better in person. This knowledge can help us integrate more virtual experiences, and, at the same time, reserve in-person for certain disciplines. Urban planning, for example urban design, GIS mapping and that sort of thing – that functions so well in-person. When you’re doing urban design you need to take in the sights and the smells. Those can’t be captured just by video.

I think it’s encouraging that all this remote learning out of necessity has allowed online learning to be less stigmatized. Higher education has come around to accepting remote learning a lot faster in recent months than I imagined possible.

Now, the question is, will we ever go back? Ultimately however, the bottom line is this: as an institution of higher learning, Wilder must be willing to evolve and to respond to the times.

Assuming we get a handle on COVID-19 for an extended period and then a proper “second wave” of COVID-19 hits, what are your expectations of how that plays out? What might you do differently, knowing what you know now?

First, we need a unified strategy that is embraced by both political parties at the federal, state and local levels. I believe that would help us move forward. On an encouraging note: I think we have learned some important things that I hope we will take with us, like how the coronavirus is transmitted. I think we’re in a better situation overall relative to PPE. You know, our awareness and understanding of online learning and the things that we can do remotely, like effective telework – I think we’re in a much better state.

My concern is, of course, is that as coronavirus fatigue sets in, it’s only natural for people to get a bit more casual with their behaviors. It’s a natural thing; people are tired of wiping everything down. How long are we all going to stay at home? At some point, you have to make a judgement call about what you’re comfortable with. Should I go see grandma and grandpa because they’re getting older and have health issues, or should I sit this out for two years and not see them in their old age? These are very real and understandable questions that Americans are grappling with. As we learn more about what is working, hopefully we will deploy tactics so that we can weather what’s ahead of us.

I am concerned about the winter because we know all evidence suggests that the winter could be worse in terms of transmission, not to mention regular pneumonia and colds and flu and everything else that tends to spike in the wintertime. I hope that we will take the best knowledge and the best practices that we have gained and deploy them into an action plan.

Were there any unforeseen vulnerabilities, be them relating to healthcare or social equity, that have been exposed that you or your colleagues were surprised by?

Several. One statistic I saw the other day is that only 16% of the Latino community is able to work from home during COVID-19. Part of what the coronavirus has done is really exposed the vulnerabilities that were already there. For low income individuals, individuals without health insurance, racial minorities, individuals living in rural areas without broadband access, the coronavirus really brought these issues and put them on center stage. All that said, I’m very hopeful that something like broadband, for instance, is going to be like electricity where every home has it, and it’s just no longer even thought about. Hopefully, there will be the resources to say, ‘Hey, we’ve got some issues that are fundamental equity issues, and that we need to solve and there’s no reason that we can’t do it.’ And so I think having these issues front and center, and people being able to pay more attention to them, that gives them a real fighting chance to be solved.

Let’s face it: we’re all staying home more. We’re reading more news online, we’re watching more TV. As a result, our collective awareness has gone up. Things that we didn’t focus on as much before because we were out and about, we now have more time to focus on them which, I hope, will lead to behavioral changes and widespread improvements for the fabric of society.

What advice or message might you offer to individuals considering enrolling in the HSEP program?

It’s important to realize that we’ve been online for a while. This isn’t anything new. Our master’s program in Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness was the first complete online program in homeland security emergency preparedness in the nation. And so that was the program; we didn’t have to transition because it was already in an online format. We’ve got top notch instructors; we’ve a great mixture of academics and practitioners, people who have been involved in emergency management for years, on state and local, and federal levels.

An online M.A. in Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness from VCU can give you the tools to advance your career and make an immediate impact on your community and your nation. If you think the HSEP program could be the right fit for you, don’t wait. Apply here today.

Read Part 2 of the interview with Dean Dr. Susan Gooden here.