As part of our series on South Carolina’s HBCUs and how they responded to the Coronavirus outbreak, we interviewed Dr. W. Franklin Evans, president of Voorhees College. Dr. Evans was also one of the few college presidents nationwide with first-hand experience with the Coronavirus.
What was your reaction when it became apparent that the COVID-19 outbreak was going to be a worldwide threat?
When the news hit the wires, we made the decision to extend the spring break another week. Then we extended it for another week. We decided to move to remote online instruction.
For those students who wanted to come back, we made it optional for them to come back -- but they needed to adhere to some guidelines that we put in place. We had about 100 students who initially said they were coming back. We put in some precautions, such as checking temperatures, getting them to sign a statement that they were going to adhere to the social distancing, and the other safety protocols.
Although we did let some students come back, we ultimately had to make the decision to basically evacuate all of our residence halls.
Did Voorhees College have a plan in place to deal with such emergencies?
We were fortunate because in the Summer of 2019, we went through training our faculty with online instruction. We have been offering online classes for some years now, but we wanted our faculty to be certified online instructors. Last summer, we took our faculty through this training, and about 75% of the faculty members were certified online instructors when it ended.
We continued that process in December to get the other faculty members certified as well. When the Spring of 2020 started, our faculty members already had that skill set. So when we made the decision that we were going to have to go online, we had already implemented a new platform for online instruction and the faculty members had already been trained. It was really a smooth transition for us. We weren't starting from square one. We were able to move expeditiously towards doing what needed to be done because of the forward thinking. We didn't know that COVID-19 was going to hit. We just knew that it was time for us to train our faculty. It really worked well for us. It didn't catch us off guard as it did for some other institutions.
How did the students respond to online classes?
The students were ready to come back after being home with their parents. But I will tell you that for the Spring, our students did better across the board -- higher grades and we had fewer withdrawals. There was an increase in incompletes, but students just didn't withdraw like they normally would in a semester. We found that our students did better academically, despite having to shift to online instruction.
Were there other major disruptions?
In March, we had several international trips that were supposed to occur for spring break. We made a decision during that time that we would not be traveling internationally because of what we were hearing about the corona virus. I was very disappointed because we put forth a lot of effort, money and planning to go to Africa.
We have an emergency crisis team on campus. One of our professors always provide us with information on any emergency or crisis that might be looming. He told the Provost that he didn't think it was wise for us to be traveling internationally.
We felt like the United States was going to put in regulations when it came to travel.
So the sad part is that a lot of the gatherings that we had planned – commencement, Founders Day, the President’s Scholarship, Gala, and even some trustee receptions -- to bring in money, those things could not occur. So it hurt. We were looking at bringing in about $300,000 for the President's Scholarship Gala. Everything was planned and invitations had gone out. When we could not do it physically, we opted to do A Day of Giving. And let me tell you, it wasn't the same as having The Scholarship Gala.
How did it affect graduations?
We were one of the first institutions, particularly in South Carolina, that made the decision to do a virtual commencement. Our Founders Day is in April, and we experimented with having a virtual Founders Day. That gave us a taste of what a commencement would be like. The Founders Day went well, so we began the planning for a virtual commencement.
At that time, I was the only person on campus to be stricken with the virus. So from firsthand experience, I know what it's like to be in the hospital and to test positive I did not want other people to have that experience.
Of course, students still wanted to physically walk across the stage, but we knew that was not safe or in their best interests.
I shared this with other college presidents in the state, particularly those presidents of our independent and profit colleges. Everybody else thought we're gonna have our commencement and push it back to the latter part of May, June or July. But I went ahead with the virtual commencement. I was out there by myself. There were some other presidents who came later and did the same thing.
How did Voorhees approach summer school classes?
We made the decision that summer school would also be online as well. We moved all of those classes to an online format.
How did Voorhees make decisions on how it was going to handle the Fall semester?
I continued to hear the reports about the number of cases that it was increasing, particularly here in South Carolina. I just I did not feel good about it. The questions I had was what's different in August? Is there a vaccine? Is there a cure that I'm not aware of? What has changed for us to now feel that we can go back to normal?
We had an emergency crisis management team that was composed of several people across the campus -- directors, cabinet members, our chief of police, director of health services. We have an array of folks helping us to put together a plan. We actually had three options.
The first plan was to just come back as normal. As much as we wanted to do that, it did not seem to be a viable plan.
The second plan was to have some students back on campus -- observe safety precautions by having maybe one student per dorm room. So we were looking at having about 260 students in our facilities. We thought that we would choose freshmen students, athletes or student leaders to make up the 260, and the other students would have remote online instruction.
The third plan was that we would be completely online and not have any students in the residence halls.
We were debating back and forth, particularly with those last two options. We had some virtual town hall meetings, not only with faculty and staff, but with the students. We sent out surveys, and I met with student government leaders to get their input.
We ultimately decided that in the best interests of our students and for the safety of everybody, we'll continue with online instruction.
What challenges will the college face with remote instruction?
The problem is that financially, there will be challenges. If you're not having students on campus, then you're not going to get the revenue from room and board, and from the meal plan based on living on campus. So that was a major concern for us that we are going to lose those dollars.
The other concern is that you've got some students who really want to be on campus and they really want that college experience. Many of them will opt to go someplace else. Because of COVID-19, it was very difficult for a lot of individuals to take the SAT and the ACT. A lot of institutions waived or relaxed their admission requirements. So if you have the GPA and letters of reference, you could get into many institutions that perhaps you might not have been able to qualify for in the past.
We made our decision knowing that there was going to be some disadvantages to it, but I do not regret it. We kept hearing medical professionals say that another wave is going to come this Fall or the current situation is going to intensify, especially when we're ready to move into the flu season.
Does this have a negative impact on enrollment?
It has affected our Fall Enrollment. We know that there are some schools who had increases or their numbers were stable. Researchers were saying that most colleges should expect at least a 10 to 15% decline in enrollment. Some of our HBCU counterparts told me they were anticipating a 25 or 30% decline. And I was saying, ‘Oh, God. I hope not.’ But now I'm seeing that it was much more of a realistic prediction for us.
So yes, there's a decline in enrollment, particularly new students. You got some students and parents saying ‘I don't think it's safe, so we are going to just wait until Spring.’ Many students who were admitted have opted to just wait.
How do you think the Coronavirus will affect HBCUs?
This virus is very serious. I heard someone say that when PWIs get a cold, HBCUs get the flu. Whatever happens to higher education, our HBCUs are going to be impacted greater.
There's a need for funding. A lot of people are still unemployed. A lot of people have lost their jobs, and the economy is still hurting. A lot of our students were working, doing internships and work studies. Many of them were earning money that they sent back home to their families. You'd be surprised the number of students who are supporting folks back home. So the fact that they're not here and not able to do that is a major concern. When you got students who have parents who are not working, it makes it even harder for them to come to school and get an education.
Unless you have a really good GPA, scholarship dollars are going to be limited. So now you have students having to pay out of pocket, parents paying out of pocket and getting loans to continue to pay for an education. But some of these same parents need dollars just to pay rent to keep a roof over their head. And so all of those things combined has a negative effect on enrollment and morale. Those kinds of things affect our HBCUs in great measures.
How can alumni and supporters help Voorhees?
This is one of those times that we really need alumni to step up. Alumni always want to come to homecoming. They'll pay for a game and a step show and think that they're really supporting the college. I'm saying that it takes more than that. This is the time that we need alumni to financially support the institution.
The other thing that alumni can do is bring students in -- help get students enrolled in Voorhees. That that is a biggie. An alum can give money, and we are appreciative for it. But when an alum can go out and recruit a student, it pays dividends.
And even a step further, we have alums who are gainfully employed. There are a lot of businesses and industry that now feel the need to reach out and to be better sponsors and donors for HBCUs. Alums can serve a critical role in talking to their employers and foundations at their jobs to get them to be sponsors and donors. I always tell alums, ‘Look at your circle of influence. Surely, somebody that you know, your employer, or neighbor has dollars that that could go towards benefiting our HBCUs.
Many of alums serve on boards and commissions. Knowing the right person sitting on a board and reaching out to them saying, ‘Hey, what about our HBCUs?’ What about Voorhees College?’
So we really need alumni to step up with their personal giving, help with recruitment, and identify persons who might be donors to the college.
How can interested students apply for admission to Voorhees?
Visit our website www.vorhees.edu. that's the quickest way of contacting us. We've got tons of information about enrolling. We have VC online where students -- whether they're here in South Carolina or not -- can earn their degree right here at Voorhees College and not really have to set foot on campus.
You can always call at (803) 780-1234 to speak with a live person. If you call us, you will be directed to the right office and the right person to assist you.
Here in Denmark, there are advantages and disadvantages. I like to look at the advantages. We have a campus that is safe by being in rural South Carolina. You don't have to worry about some of the issues that you worry about in the larger urban areas. We put students first and do what we think is in the best interest of our students.
I tell folks that Vorhees College is still the place where life begins right here on our campus. If you believe in the right way, you can become anything your heart desires. That's our tagline -- Begin, Believe Become.