DePaul interim provost discusses fall quarter, online learning at virtual seminar


Bianca Cseke | The DePaulia

DePaul University Lincoln Park campus.

On July 30, the Downtown Future Series held an online seminar to discuss restructuring the urban university amid the COVID-19 global pandemic. The event was organized by the Chicago Loop Alliance and moderated by David Broz, a principal at Gensler, an architecture consulting firm.

The Downtown Future Series brings together recognized urban thought leaders to discuss emerging trends in Chicago’s downtown

The panel included Salma Ghanem, DePaul’s interim provost, Ron Jackson, past chair of International Town and Gown Association and Peter Isaac, executive vice president of Campus Partnerships for CA Ventures. Isaac replaced Laurent Pernot, chief of staff at Columbia College of Chicago, who was no longer able to participate in the seminar. 

Ghanem spoke first, discussing the steps DePaul took at the start of the pandemic and what precautions they plan to take. She mentioned the switch to online finals at the end of the winter quarter, the move to remote learning in the spring and summer sessions, and the use of a virtual commencement for graduating students.

“At this point, what we are preparing for the fall, is to really reduce the footprint, have alternative teaching modalities, while making sure that our face to face classes are really for those classes that cannot be offered in a different modality focusing predominantly on lab type classes,” Ghanem said. “We have eliminated unnecessary travel for our faculty, our staff as well as our students, and we created a density analysis.”

She later emphasized that the steps taken in the future must be about accommodating the students.

“But what we need to do is really look at education from the perspective of the student, rather than from the perspectivone of the institution,” Ghanem said.

The density analysis allows the university to know how many students are currently in a building or classroom on both the Lincoln Park and Loop campuses. Ghanem also addressed the concerns from the DePaul community involving public transportation, students who may come from quarantine states and international students who may have trouble entering the country.

Isaac then spoke about the price increase for a college education and how this affects its value, especially during the pandemic.

College tuition right now is at an all-time high far outpacing inflation,” Issac said. “By some accounts, four to six percent more than inflation. Student debt is at an all-time high. Last year student debt surpassed auto loans, and is now second only to home mortgage loans.”

Isaac addressed that although the fundamentals of a college education can be done virtually, college students still want an immersive experience in which they can be close to campus and among their friends.

“I think this fundamental value construct of the college experience has been a thread that has kept this industry so strong for so long,” Isaac said.

As universities move to remote learning, Isaac spoke about how university administrations must try to accommodate students and their desire to preserve some elements of the in-person college experience.

On the subject of internships, Ghanem discussed her amazement at how working virtually has become more comfortable throughout the pandemic so far.

“It’s really amazing how a lot of our work that we thought initially can only be done, face to face we’re finding ways to do it in a virtual environment,” Ghanem said. “While that doesn’t apply to every single one of those internships, we find that a lot of our students have continued with their internships, their service-learning via this virtual environment.”

Jackson spoke about the benefits of a virtual environment for the classroom.

“One of the best things about the virtual environment is that you can be more inclusive,” Jackson said. “You can expand who would typically be in the conversation because now you can pull people from wherever they are on the planet, and be able to have that perspective and shared ideas in the room.”

Broz closed out the seminar with final questions that encapsulated the discussion.

“How will this generation the, pandemic generation, lead to innovation of the future?” Broz said. “And how can these universities that we spent the last hour plus talking about with you capture this new generation of passion to become something more than a disadvantage but it actually becomes our springboard for the future?”