How One University Has Adapted to Online Learning (Part 2)

Image courtesy of Marie Young and Erin McCloskey, Saint Francis University

Interview with Dr. Karan Powell and Father Malachi, Saint Francis University

Dr. Karan H. Powell is the Vice President of Academic Affairs at Saint Francis University in Loretto, Pennsylvania. We worked together at APUS from 2002 through 2017 when she served in various roles as SVP and Academic Dean, EVP and Provost, and as President. Saint Francis University is one of the oldest Catholic universities in the United States with an enrollment of approximately 2,300 students and a Division 1 athletic program. I was curious how they converted from face-to-face courses to online learning, and Dr. Powell agreed to provide me with answers to a few of my questions.

Father Malachi Van Tassell, T.O.R., Ph.D., assumed the office of president at Saint Francis University in May 2014 after serving the university as an adjunct assistant professor of accounting. He is a CPA and prior to becoming a Franciscan, he worked for Coopers & Lybrand in Phoenix, AZ and Arthur Andersen in Albuquerque, NM. I have had the privilege to meet Father Malachi on several occasions and am grateful that he was able to participate in this two-part blog interview as well.

Dr. Boston: As you know, one of the highlights at APUS is our annual commencement. Even though we operate online, we had to announce a cancellation of this year’s commencement. Have you made a similar decision at Saint Francis? Do you have plans to conduct a virtual ceremony or do you have plans to hold the ceremony at a later date? If the former, any advice for other schools looking to hold a virtual ceremony?

Father Malachi: We have decided to hold an in-person commencement at a future date. Initially, we thought of doing both a virtual commencement, on the original date, followed by an in-person event at a date to be determined. After conversation with student government, faculty, and others, we’ve decided on an in-person format only.

The only advice regarding this commencement decision that we offer is based upon what we learned. We listened to our students and the loss they are feeling at missing the end of their senior year, including the multiple end of college celebrations and the athletics season for spring athletes. We heard their need to connect.

Our advice is to listen to the students and their need for celebration and closure. While we do not yet know what the celebration will look like nor when it will be offered, we learned of the ritual and celebratory importance of this commitment to a future date and time. Listen to the heart and voice of your students.

Dr. Boston: Saint Francis has an excellent athletic program. I’m fairly certain I’ve watched your basketball team on television. How did your athletes take the news of the rest of their season being cancelled? Have you made any decisions regarding the NCAA’s allowance of an extra year of eligibility for athletes in Spring sports?

Father Malachi: Amongst the many heartbreaking decisions was the cancellation of the remainder of the athletics season. This is devastating for student athletes who train so hard. It is especially sad for the seniors, who will not have the opportunity for a final competition, closure with their teammates, nor celebration of accomplishments.

Early on the crisis, the NCAA took the lead in the decision-making process. The cancellation of March Madness, including the Final Four, was a sobering moment in the world of intercollegiate athletics. Our athletic conference, the Northeast Conference, wrestled with the issue of postponement of the season, as opposed to cancellation.

However, external events would dictate the decisions made. As multiple state governors mandated closings, stay-at-home orders, and so forth, the cascade effect ended with the cancellation of the spring season.

Student athlete culture is a vital part of our fabric at Saint Francis University. We are searching for creative and appropriate ways to honor our athletes who are seniors.

We are encouraged by the NCAA’s decision to allow an extra year of eligibility for seniors. We are awaiting further guidance from the league (Northeast Conference) as to some of the particulars, given the complexities of the grant-in-aid rules and other NCAA rules governing the student athlete experience.

Dr. Boston: No one really knows when the social distancing and stay home policies enacted because of this pandemic will end. How are you handling your admissions decisions and admissions visits and recruiting? Do you think this situation could impact your fall enrollments? If not, what decisions did you make that give you confidence that the fall enrollments will be solid?

Dr. Powell: Whether or not the pandemic requirements will impact our Fall 2020 enrollment remains to be seen, but to date, applications and deposit commitments continue to yield at a healthy pace. However, responding to the situation in an adaptive way is the only prudent and compassionate thing to do.

Saint Francis University’s traditional undergraduate admissions office has and continues to consider changes to admission application decision, visit, and recruitment processes that serve not only the best interests of the university but also the interests of our prospective students. Among those changes are the following:

  • To facilitate application completion during this time when high schools are closed and transcripts are not easy to obtain, we have allowed applicants to complete their applications for an admission decision and initial merit award by providing self-reported GPA and test scores which will be verified by final transcripts before they enroll (with the exception of some Health Science programs and Engineering majors).
  • For Fall 2020 applicants, we have allowed test-optional admission for Fall 2020 and will award merit aid for these students as well (with the exception of some Health Science programs and Engineering majors).
  • We will extend our deposit refund deadline until June 15, 2020.
  • Our deposit is traditionally $200 for all programs except the Physician Assistant program. We have reduced that amount to a $100 tuition deposit for Fall 2020. Additionally, students within a specified EFC range will have the option to complete several short essay prompts to indicate their fall commitment to SFU in exchange for a waived deposit.
  • SFU is providing virtual visits to prospective students. These will cover individual, group, and admitted students’ days.
  • The Saint Francis University community will invite deposited students to enroll in a summer course for no cost, and all newly admitted first-year students to enroll in university courses at a reduced cost – both for academic credit during the summer school schedule of classes. Courses will be conducted in an online environment. The purpose is to prepare incoming Saint Francis University students for academic and personal success as they transition from the end of their high school career to the promise of success moving into university life.

We are being innovative in our outreach and communication, as well as our engagement with our incoming class with the hope and promise of a yield that meets and/or exceeds our strategic goals. Only time and consistent focus and attention will tell the tale.

Dr. Boston: Lastly, there have been discussions about the recycling/rebound potential of the virus before we have a vaccine developed. Has the leadership team thought about its options if school can’t open as scheduled in the fall or if you open and have to operate in a social distance mode? Is the latter a possibility at Saint Francis? Do you have any advice for colleges and universities in a similar situation to Saint Francis?

Father Malachi: The senior leadership team has transitioned from crisis management to planning for the future. In the coming days and weeks, we are looking at scenarios involving online-only education delivered through the summer and possibly into the fall semester. We are building enrollment and budget scenarios based on significantly fewer students to our current enrollment projections, alternative pricing structures, and athletic seasons being altered or postponed.

From a strategic planning and future point of view, this is an exciting time and consistent with our transformational mode of operating for Saint Francis University of the past two years. I believe it is providential that our university is on the cusp of beginning our strategic planning process. As we brainstorm and envision Francis 2026, we can continue to be an institution of innovation and change. Rather than be controlled by eternal events and circumstance, we look for ways to respond, evolve, and thrive.

We are anticipating a future that will involve a new normal and not a return to status quo. Again, we are transforming Saint Francis University for a viable future that for us and for all of higher education and the world is unprecedented.

As for advice for colleges and universities in a similar situation to Saint Francis, I’d propose that:

  • Leadership in higher education act with courage and with faith; that we not be afraid to make the tough decisions needed both for this time and for the future.
  • Strategy grounded in mission with a focus on creativity, reinventing, and transforming the university systems, processes, and personnel is paramount. Status quo can no longer be the norm.
  • Care for students and the integration of technology in all aspects of higher education is the new norm. We will never be the same. Some students may hate technology and only want a face-to-face experience. Some may question the need to sit in lecture halls as virtual learning experiences were positive. We need to hear the experience our students and faculty have had and learn from it to create a more vibrant learning experience for all of higher education for the future.
  • Seize the opportunity to innovate and change! Saint Francis University looks different today than it did when it first opened in 1847, and thankfully so. Embrace the opportunity to “make lemonade from lemons.” The survival of the institution hangs on that.

Dr. Boston: Thank you very much for taking the time to share your experiences and your perspectives. I look forward to continuing to hear about Saint Francis’ successes.

Read Part 1 of this interview

Subjects of Interest


Higher Education

Independent Schools


Student Persistence