We asked Isiaah Crawford about two topics that are on the minds of many Loggers: the coronavirus and the Black Lives Matter movement. The interview ran in shortened form in the Fall 2020 issue of Arches; below is an expanded version.
Interview by Tina Hay
I’m curious what campus feels like to you these days. You do most of your work in your home office, but occasionally go into Jones Hall. What’s it like to walk across campus right now?
Well, as you know, we decided to remain virtual for the fall semester. We made that decision in July, and that was the right decision for us, and we feel good about that. But we have a few hundred students with us on campus in our residence halls—students who hold important leadership roles, as well as those who may have issues of food or housing insecurity, those whose housing situation doesn’t lend itself to participating in a virtual format, and of course some international students. It’s not as busy and as vibrant as we would have in a normal year. But people are at it. They are engaged in their work, and it’s a positive experience. The faculty are focused, and they’re prepared. You know, in March we had to really pivot quickly to virtual learning, business operations, student support services. Now, over the course of the spring and the summer, our faculty and our staff have had more time to prepare for this. So it’s a much richer, more comprehensive and fulsome experience for our students.
What are you hearing from faculty about how they’re rising to the occasion during the pandemic?
One thing the pandemic has done is allow us to embrace technology, in a way that I don’t think we would have on our own accord, to promote student learning and student engagement. Faculty have been able to take their computers into their labs, into the classroom, create multimedia presentations, create chat rooms for students to be able to gnaw on concepts and questions to keep them engaged—you just name it. They’ve really stepped into this in a way that has been very creative, very thoughtful.
What feedback are you getting from parents, students, alumni? Are they generally supportive, or are you answering a lot of grouchy people?
I would say to a great extent, Loggers near and far have been supportive of the decision that we made. Some were disappointed, obviously, and wished that we had gone in a different direction, but I think the idea that came across very clearly for them was that we place the health and well-being of our faculty, staff, and students as number one. It’s the lens through which we made all decisions. I think people appreciated that. Some may have felt we’ve been overly conservative; some heralded it. It’s been mostly positive. I think people now are beginning to turn their attention to the spring semester and what that will hold.
What would the conditions have to look like in order for you to resume full-fledged, on-campus instruction in the spring?
We’ll look at a variety of metrics and also take heed of the counsel we get from our public health officials. But certainly the rates of infection, hospitalizations, and our capacity for testing and contact tracing will also be very important, so we can make sure that we’re able to monitor the health and safety of our campus community.
At this point, we hold out hope that we will be able to have more modified normative operations for the spring semester, with more of our students back on campus—perhaps a combination of face-to-face and remote. Right now, we are seeing a reduction in the number of infections in Washington state and Pierce County; it’s moving in the right direction. We’re also optimistic with some of the forecasts that suggest perhaps the flu season might not be quite as dire as initially forecast. So maybe we’re going to finally catch a break.
But if we aren’t able to bring everyone back on campus, we’ll continue to do well in this virtual format. We are not paralyzed by COVID-19. We are leaning into it. We are not treading water; we’re moving forward. We’re looking to continue to pursue our goals associated with our Leadership for a Changing World strategic plan. I believe in this whole construct of “to the heights,” that you’re constantly striving for that next thing, you’re undaunted by what may be around you—you’re stepping forward and pursuing your goals, your aspirations, your dreams. We’re not wavering from that.
Can you picture ways in which the school will change permanently as a result of this—ways in which you won’t go back to the way things were?
Well, it reinforced something that we already knew: that we must take our emergency response planning very, very seriously. We have done that over the years, and I think that assisted us in being able to respond as effectively as we have to the disruption. Again, we have come to recognize how technology can be utilized in the learning experience—and that, for some students, it’s actually better than face to face. So that could become part of our toolkit. That’s a genie we will not be able to put back in the bottle—nor should we. I think, too, that we’ve come to recognize that we can carry on the business of the university in different ways, particularly as it relates to telework or virtual work. With the complex lives that we have, and our desire to make contributions around environmental justice and sustainability, we don’t perhaps need to have everybody making a 30-, 60-, or 90-minute commute to campus. We can help save people the stress, the time, and the environmental impact associated with that. Finally, we may change how we reach Loggers across the globe. It’s great to travel and be with you in person, but we also recognize that we can be in closer and more frequent contact with you through this virtual medium. We have hundreds of people in Logger nation tuning in to town hall meetings and lectures. So that’s going to allow us to engage our alumni and friends in different ways.
Let’s switch to the Black Lives Matter movement and what’s been taking place nationwide. You attended the march that the three students organized in June. What were your impressions of that?
I was just so very proud of them. My heart was so full. They did a magnificent job with that—it was just wildly successful. It spoke to and demonstrated for me what we try to instill and support and nurture in our students, to be able to offer their voice and to mobilize and to express that in thoughtful ways. When you have the platform and you have something to say, say it. They were able to do that, and they galvanized this North Tacoma area and spoke with passion that was meaningful and moving.
Mimi Duncan, one of the organizers of the rally, has an essay in this issue. She writes that when she first got to Puget Sound, as a Black person, she didn’t always feel comfortable here. A number of students of color in this summer’s Race Matters seminars also said that they don’t always feel welcome on campus. Do you hear that too? What can be done to change that?
Yes, students have talked with me about that as well. It’s one of those aspects of our campus community and our culture that we need to continue to work on. I very much want this to be a community where everyone—everyone—feels they can be their full and unfettered selves, that they have a sense of belonging, that this is their place. I think we’ve gotten better than we were in the past, but some of our students are still sharing with us that we have notable work left to do.
We’re looking to continue diversifying our faculty and staff, and continue to work on ways for our faculty, staff, and students to have enhanced understanding about issues of race and bias, especially unconscious bias. Also thinking about how our community looks. It’s a beautiful campus. It’s stunning. But there some things we can do with the art we have on campus that are more representative of the diversity that is here, of our history as an institution, and the indigenous nature of this area. I’m also very excited about the search now underway for our new vice president to lead our institutional equity and diversity efforts. Our board of trustees in fall of 2019 approved the elevation of our chief diversity officer position to a vice president position, and we were preparing for the national search in early 2020. Then the pandemic hit and we had to put it on pause. So we’ve just relaunched it, and it’s one of the most important things we’re going to do this academic year.
For you personally, as a Black man, what do you think when you look at what’s going on nationwide—the tensions and the strife, and at the same time, the way people are coming together to work toward a better future. Do you get frustrated or discouraged, or is there reason to be hopeful?
In these months since the death of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, and Manuel Ellis here in Tacoma, among others, I’ve felt everything you just described: a mixture of heartache and anger and sadness—seeing the loss of life, the murders of these individuals, the ways in which others have been accosted. They are all experiences that ring very close to me and my own lived experience. I know this territory well and recognize how fragile life can be, based on the situations that you might find yourself in. At the same time, I think that this Black Lives Matters moment is singular in our generation, and it’s an extension of the great work that was done throughout the civil rights movement. This is a new iteration of that. It gives me great hope.
I also feel as though people of a certain age, like me, are recognizing that we need to step out of the way and let our young people move forward. We need to try to clear a path for them and to support them as we know how. I’m trying to think about how I can best do that. Both in my role as president, in which I’m very honored to serve, but also just as a Black man in the United States, what does that look like? What does that mean for me? I think there’s a moment now where the youth are stepping up, and we need to support them and let them move this forward for us.