What will the campus of Middlesex Community College on Springs Road be like in September?
It’s too soon to tell, said Dr. James Mabry, college president. But two things are certain: it won’t look like it does now, which is deserted. And it won’t resemble the college one year ago. The same goes for the Middlesex campus in downtown Lowell.
“We are preparing for multiple options in the fall,” Mabry stated. “We have been in very close contact with our students. There will be multiple modalities and multiple scheduling options.”
“We still don’t know what the impact of the pandemic is going to be in the fall,” he emphasized. “Most of our students are uncertain about that. It is an evolving situation; we are being creative and flexible.”
“Some students say this online really works better for me—I’ve got a family, a job, I can do this online,” the president said. “We are reaching out and understanding what our students are asking for, and our students are asking for a number of options. We want to be flexible, to accommodate whichever way the student body wants to go. We could add more online, more hybrid, depending on demand.”
The college sustained significant enrollment loss during the pandemic year and is eager to rebuild its student population.
“There are some students who would love to come back and participate in campus activities and more engaged in social learning in and out of the classroom,” the president said. “We also will have a mix of hybrid for students who want to get the best of both worlds.”
But even if all traces of the Covid-19 virus are eradicated, there will be a major difference. “Post-pandemic, we’re going to see more of our classes online than we did before.”
When Mabry says “we,” he is not speaking literally. The president—the fourth in college history—will be retiring at the end of June. His successor will be announced in May from a field of five finalists.
“The real key to the enrollment is the recovery, and how deeply the recovery and the pandemic have affected our student body,” Mabry testified. “If the pandemic is under control and the economy comes back, kids will be back.”
But the other side of the coin, Mabry said, is the student who says, “We have been out of work for a year. We are struggling for food and shelter right now and we are going to have to wait.”
The pattern won’t be clear for a while, and that’s not different from the norm, Mabry said. “A lot of our students don’t register until the last month before school starts. It’s not unusual for a community college student to wait and make sure they have the money.”
“We have learned a tremendous amount over the past year,” Mabry observed. “We have a much deeper schedule of online courses. Our faculty have gone through extensive training that really honed their skills in virtual classes.”
He pointed out that Middlesex has also developed virtual admission, enrollment, and advising processes. “We will never go back to the way we did things before.”
Mabry is upbeat about public health prospects. “As the vaccine rolls out, more of our students will get back to their service and hospitality and clerical jobs. I think we are going to see a tipping point in the community psychology as more people get vaccinated, feel safe, get out and see their families, and get back to work.”
The president is also anticipating a positive impact of anticipated federal aid. “The first two rounds helped out in limited ways. The third round includes significant aid for higher education, and that will help us to be able to help our students more.”
Mabry chairs the state Community College Presidents Council. Plans for the fall are at the top of the agenda. “We talked about this extensively at the weekly presidents’ meeting, and I talked about it to the Board of Higher Education last week. We are all on the same page.”
A Bedford resident, Mabry announced last May his plans to retire.
“My goal is to be there at the end of the selection process to help transition the new person,” he said this week. “Until we know who the successor is and what the start date is, I can’t say exactly how the transition is going to play out or what the timeline is going to be. I will help the person get off to a good start.”
Mike Rosenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 781-983-1763