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Dean Ann Brill: 'We're a bunch of can-do people'

As dean of the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Kansas, Ann Brill was tasked with leading a massive community through the COVID-19 pandemic. The isolation that this pandemic created was especially difficult because Brill prides herself in leading a tightly knit community. 

Brill and her team did their best to overcome this: they sent gift packages to some students, offered resources for students who have been affected by the pandemic, and tried to stay connected to students.

Brill also set up several task forces that worked to combat areas that COVID affected; one worked on branding, another worked on student retention and the final was a general recovery team, which looked at the logistics of reopening. 

Looking to the future, Brill and her team learned from fall semester 2020. They have plans to implement changes in spring 2021 that will effectively eliminate the hybrid model of classes and make the School of Journalism safer for everyone. Brill is looking forward, trying to determine what will be best for KU journalism students, while also taking this pandemic day-by-day.

► Listen to the audio version here.

Emma Bascom: This is Emma Bascom. Today is Nov. 4, 2020. I am interviewing Ann Brill for the William Allen White School of Journalism Pandemic Oral History Project. So, Dean Brill, going back to March, what were your initial reactions when the pandemic hit? Where were you when you heard the news that KU was closing?

Ann Brill: Oh, Emma, that’s a really good question. So, it wasn’t one announcement. I mean there was a – there were a series of communications coming out of the provost’s office. So – and that was right around the spring break time. I was obviously here in Lawrence, and we were starting to hear that things were not looking good, that a number of other universities in the state, the region, the country – well, actually, in the world were, you know, making this adjustment, you know, for the sake of everybody’s health.

So, when we actually got official word, I’m thinking – said that – I’m not remembering that as much as – that whole process over a course of probably at least five days in which we were having these conversations and really watching and seeing what was happening. But it certainly felt like an emergency even though – so we had a number of days to talk about it.

Emma Bascom: So, how has this semester been different when you compare the spring semester with the pandemic to the fall semester with the pandemic?

Ann Brill: Well, there’s quite a few things that are different, and let me give you a little context if that’s OK.

Emma Bascom: Yeah.

Ann Brill: So in, you know, when the situation got more dire in spring, you’re familiar with the idea of triage, right? You know, so we really went into triage mode, which is kind of -- that felt like an emergency. We had to get everybody off campus, we had to figure out how to get all these classes online, get resources.

And, you know, the journalism school we pride ourselves and, you know, we say it’s our first value that we are a student-centered environment. So, our first consideration was, “Well, how was this going to work, and what do we do to ensure that the students are going to be okay and that everybody’s health is our first priority?” So, it really felt like, like I said, an emergency.

And then in the summer, it felt more like now. We had to really – we had some time, and we had to make some plans even though things were changing so much. We’d hear something one day and the next day it would be like, “No, that’s – you know, the numbers are up, the numbers are down. This, you know, university decided to do that.”

So, we were planning even though we knew things were moving rapidly and our plans may or may not work out. So, what we did in the school during that planning phase, the second phase, we set up three task forces and the first one was called the Recovery Action Plan, and that was chaired by Associate Dean Scott Reinardy. And they were the ones that were doing things like, “Okay, so where do the hand sanitizing stations need to be? What equipment do the faculty need? How are we going to set up our schedule, you know, so that students can continue to make progress through the curriculum?” All those questions that really needed to be answered in very specific ways.

Our second task force was on recruitment and retention. We were really concerned, and Eric Thomas and Himée Kamatuka chaired that. And we were really concerned that freshmen, first-time students in particular, would not come back, or would not, you know, join us in the fall, and again, lots of reasons. I think if you’ve never been to KU and coming back into this kind of strange environment that we had in the fall, you know, what would you be thinking?

And so we wanted to get in touch and stay in touch with all of our students under the retention but – and with some particular attention to those students we were recruiting. And that team decided that they were going to send out these little boxes of where, you know, open up KU and had all kinds of cool things in them.

And then the third task force was on branding because it just seemed to us that things were going to change not just in the fall but probably for a long, long time, and maybe even alter not just the school, certainly, but the university and the country. So those were our three task forces.

So that – I think they kind of mirrored that idea of the emergency and the planning stage. And then we get to the stage which really is looking at and changing how we do things for the short-haul and maybe mid-haul, maybe the long-haul, and that’s where we are right now.

So again, we looked at all of our classes and said, “What can be online, what can be this hybrid class, and what can be taught in-person?” And, in particular the broadcast classes, we thought, “Well, if you’re going to learn to use the consoles and do all those sorts of things, you really need to be able to put your hands on those things.”

So, we looked at all of our classes and said, what’s the best way to deliver them in this situation? And that was – and again, you know, I’m thinking the leadership team, Scott Reinardy and Kerry Benson and Lisa McLendon, who we just – so many variations of the schedule that was put together and, and surveys that went out. We kept asking students, we kept asking faculty, “How are you doing? What are you thinking? What would work best for you?”

So we did a lot of surveys and a lot of research into what was going to work, and we’re still doing that. One of the things we learned, and that became, I think, a more painful lesson as time went on, is that the whole idea of the Zoom class. While it was convenient, it was not popular. And I say Zoom even though -- there were a lot of other things. But anyway, we found that that’s just not optimal for learning and students said, “You know, put us online or in-person, but this hybrid thing is just not the best approach.”

So, for spring we are doing either online or in-person. And we’ll work with students who, you know, can’t come to class for one reason or another, if they’re ill or been exposed or whatever. But we really think that we’re going to give it a shot anyway for spring.

So, we’re still learning. We’re still trying to figure out how – what is the best way, you know, to do all this. We don’t have all the answers but we really, again, trying to stick true to our values, so what is going to work out best in this student environment.

So, long answer. Sorry about that. A long answer to what you were asking.

Emma Bascom: What has been the biggest challenge of adapting to the changes on campus?

Ann Brill: Ah, I think there’s several. One is certainly, you know, it just doesn’t feel like the university with people not being there, you know? And our remodeled building and all of the things we did and the emptiness and not being able to see people face-to-face. That’s, psychologically, it’s been a real challenge. And I think, academically, it’s a challenge to try to meet people where they are when they’re not really there. Um, but I think also assessing the student learning. I had a faculty member come in – I’ve been in and out of the office and I was in on Monday. Actually, I was in most of the week, but he came in and he said, “I’m just really struggling to get my students motivated and invested in what’s happening right now because there’s so many distractions,” you know, people being sick, trying to figure out the loneliness people are feeling, the mental health issues, all of that.

So, we talked for about an hour about that and I don’t have a magic potion for him, but I said I think it’s – you know, somehow, we just have to keep caring, keep going one day at a time. But it would – you know, we’re all in this together, but yet we’re not together, so that’s – it’s been a challenge.

Emma Bascom: How has your workload changed as a result of the pandemic?

Ann Brill: Well, that’s another good question, Emma. I mean the dean’s job is not a 9 to 5, 40-hour-a-week job anyway. So, I find myself working late at night, early mornings. If I’m working at home on a particular day, I have to get up and walk around and just go outside between Zooms because in – when you spend all that time staring at a screen, your eyes can start to hurt.

But I think probably the area where it’s in – changed the work for the most is in fundraising. If we had a donor we were going to visit, say, in California, you know, and get on a plane, take most of the day to get there, check into the hotel. The next day go visit, have lunch, maybe see a few more people and then the next morning, get on a plane and come home.

So, it was easily three days out of your schedule to make a number of endowment visits. Well now we can make the visits in an afternoon. And the donors seem to have really adjusted to that as well, having Zoom meetings instead of traveling to places. And, from what I understand, endowment has basically said there will be probably no travel this entire academic year.

So that’s been a really – and, you know, it’s actually been sort of interesting because, when you’re not traveling to a place, you can actually focus much more on what needs to be done, and conversations seem much more personal because you’re just there, you know, sharing the computer world, but there are no other distractions.

There’s not, “Oh well, so take the time to order, you know, take the time for the, to kind of catch up on things more.” And sometimes even the distraction of, if you’re in a person’s home, you know, their family or what else is going on there. But you really can have a much more focused conversation with Zoom, so that’s been – that’s been something that I don’t think we really talked about, but it’s certainly been a reality.

Emma Bascom: So, during these massive changes at KU, how has your job as dean changed? Can you talk a little bit – a little bit about what kind of decisions you had to make, etc.

Ann Brill: Well, we had to make a lot of decisions about just, I mean, the building itself, in terms of safety. We had to make decisions about curriculum that normally we are, you know, have a pretty set schedule that we have in spring and fall and summer. Well, this year we had to look at every single class, every single instructor, every single requirement and say is this going to work? So, the intensity of that was really something that is not typical.

I think another way it changed is that most of the staff went home to do work. And so Cade Cruickshank, our network specialist, our chief engineer was there most days, making sure that things were working. I was in and out. We have some faculty with underlying health issues and so, you know, they were told you just don’t come to campus at all. But if they needed anything, you know, I was putting stuff in the mail for them or doing what needed to be done.

And, as I said, most of the staff was working from home, so – instead of walking outside my office and talking to people about things, e-mail just blew up in terms of the quantity of what needed to be processed that way.

And not going to any meetings in Strong Hall, not really getting to know the new provost in person, all those things that typically, you know, you would have been doing -- going to meetings to welcome new students, just walking around the building. I walk around a lot. That’s kind of one of my management things. And I could still do that, but it wasn’t very helpful. So those are a few of the ways, Emma, that things are different.

Emma Bascom: So, one thing that I think the School of Journalism has pretty much always prided itself on is how tightly knit we are and, I just, I’m curious about what it’s like to be dean of, of a school like that where we’re communicating, we’re doing all of these things, but we’re also so isolated. Is that strange to be in a communications profession where everything is changing like this?

Ann Brill: Yes, it is. And, you know, interpersonal communication is a big part of what we do, even though we are professional communicators, you know, through media of audiences. But I think you’re right in that we’ve always thought of ourselves as sort of a, you know, an extended family and we know each other. We care about each other. I spent a big (inaudible) over the summer raising money and, and getting gift cards and cash to students in need. And that was really – that was really not difficult to do, but it was emotionally a challenge to think about our students out there. In one case, we had a student who was about to be evicted.

You know, we had other students who said that the roommates left and this person couldn’t leave town, so was stuck, you know, in the paying rent and not having any money. Students losing their jobs and trying to figure out is there a way we could help with employment, especially after July when the new fiscal year started.

So, not being able to see students, not being able to talk to students, just even walking to a classroom. One of my favorite things is donuts with the dean. You know, what I really haven’t had the opportunity to [do is] talk to a lot of students who just wander by looking for a donut and we chat. Weren’t able to do that.

And I think in some ways it was even more painful because we had just remodeled and created these various spaces, you know? The idea was like the KUJH kids, and the Crossroads kids, and the Kansan kids would all be sort of intermingling, and then people hanging out in the lobby. And that’s, you know, so far, we haven’t been able to do that. Although, yesterday it kind of did happen and that was neat to see. That was really neat to see yesterday.

Emma Bascom: How do you feel about the School of Journalism’s response to the pandemic?

Ann Brill: I feel really good about it. I mean I always knew we had just amazing people, you know, hardworking, dedicated students. The faculty who -- we were so competitive, you know, to hire the faculty we did in the staff because they’re just outstanding people who have reputations that are global.

So, I always knew that, but to watch people, you know, say, “OK, how do I make this work?

What’s going to be in the best interest of the students?” Even people who, for their own health reasons, I thought, you know, maybe you shouldn’t be here, but they were like, “No, I want to be here. I want to try to teach in-person."

Some of the funny things that happened where people said, you know, all of a sudden, they realized that, because of the mirror image, they were doing funny things or students would make a comment about, “What’s that on your wall behind you?” You know, “Oh, I made that.” So, little things like that, too, but, yeah, I mean the school has just come through.

And, in some ways, we’ve shown real leadership. We didn’t really wait for KU to do things like – we’re in Plexiglas screens, we ordered masks and some of the branded stuff that we had: our school masks and our school little bottles of hand sanitizer. But even in terms of the curriculum, we didn’t wait for KU. We just went ahead and did what we thought was going to work out best and then we made adjustments when KU said we needed to do this – some things differently.

But we’re a bunch of can-do people. You know, we’re a team, we mobilize well, you know, we meet our deadlines. And so, the – all those things that – those skillsets that we teach students kicked in to help us make the best of this, too. It’s like, I mean, I couldn’t be more proud of the reaction from students and faculty. And I know everybody – it was a real challenge.

Somebody said to me, you know, “Well, how long have you been dean?” And I said, “Well, I’ve been dean a long time, but this is my first pandemic.” So, we were all learning. I think where the sense of, you know, when we did learn something to share it with people and communicate. That really helped us.

And, you know, and the campus media, too. I mean I think the Kansan has done some of its very best work in a long, long time. And just watching and seeing how the Kansan was covering the community, yeah, went campus and beyond was really impressive. And, you know, when you see your students doing that, it’s just really a sense of pride that, gosh, you know, they’ve sort of learned what we – what they needed to learn and they’ll be able to go anywhere and do anything.

Emma Bascom: So, you’ve already answered this a little bit but maybe you could analyze this in a broader sense or an atmospheric sense, but my next question is, how has the pandemic changed the William Allen White School of Journalism and KU as a whole?

Ann Brill: Well, we’ve certainly got our lessons about how people are learning when you have to go online. I mean we’ve been – especially in the school, we started the winter semester online classes and so we’ve been doing this for five or six years, so we had, you know, people who really understood. Plus, our faculty know how to present things in different formats, I mean especially when it comes to video, so we – we’ve had some experience with this.

But --, in terms of like putting things out there and whatever, but I don’t think we still have a really, really good handle on how to assess the learning that took place, and we need to figure out new tools, maybe different tools to say, “Okay, so when we – when you have mediated communication like this, what are the various processes?”

I’m concerned that some students seem to be sort of, you know, checking out. And when you don’t have to sit there in a class,  when you’re not face-to-face communication and you start to do other things around your house, or whatever, you’re not really paying attention. And the research has shown that multitasking doesn’t really work very well when you’re trying to learn how to do something. So, we’ve got to figure that out.

And then there’s all kinds of research that says different age groups respond differently to this environment, so your typical, you know, 18-to-24-year-old college student. But then we’ve got a program at the Edwards campus that’s adult learners. Well, that’s a little bit different. And then we’ve got another master’s degree in digital strategies that’s entirely online.

So, when we look at all that we – there’s just a lot going on and we just I don’t think are still doing as good a job assessing it all as we need to.

Emma Bascom: How do you think KU will be better from everything that’s happened?

Ann Brill: Oh, I think KU, first of all, is already better in the sense that we came together. We had to, but we did come together in this, you know, to say, “What are we going to do to get through it?” And any time you’ve got a real challenge and it brings people together, there’s also some people I think were divided.

I mean, if you look at all the other things going on right now, Black Lives Matter movement, the election, all those things. I mean it’s just – it’s not just the pandemic that is having an impact on all of us right now. I mean, you look at all that and you think,  “How do we help people to become resilient and to get through things?”

And right now, we’re still, I think, in a matter of, we’re still planning, but we’re changing, we’re getting through it. And we’re going to be stronger because I think we’re – when you are – when you have all those things facing you, too, Emma, you start to realize what are we doing and what are we doing well, and what are we maybe not doing so great that we need to let go of.

Then I think all that evaluation is, is taking place to some extent, but -- and the financial fallout from all of this is going to force KU to make some decisions about really seeing what, what are we doing well and the things that maybe we don’t need to keep doing.

Emma Bascom: What advice would you give to someone 100 years from now who may be dealing with another pandemic?

Ann Brill: Well, I think one thing is -- try to figure out as soon as we can what are the safety protocols and to make sure people follow them. I’m not just speaking of KU, but ‘we’ as a country. You know, the approach was just so scattered, and yet we knew from the 1918 flu the things that happened. We knew some of the safety protocols. I mean, health and survival have to be the very first thing we all talk about.

But then, I think the other things to think about is, you know, just understanding that even though we’re all in this together, people are going to have very different reactions to it, and some people are going to be more susceptible to all this, too. So, again, trying to figure out how do you take care of everybody knowing that all lives are, you know, are at stake here, but that some people are more vulnerable than others.

But I think 100 years from now, hopefully, we’re going to have better tools for assessing things and getting things to people sooner. We just are kind of in a perfect storm, and that is to say then, a perfect storm is usually a bad thing in terms of everything that’s happening right now.

You know, I mean if this – if this happens again, with all of this – all of the things going on in society and political year and a flu, well, I wish them luck, and maybe they’ll have learned a lot from us.

Emma Bascom: This is the -

Ann Brill: I think they’ll be learning a lot from your oral history project.

Emma Bascom: This is the conclusion of this oral history.

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