opens IMAGE file 2 min read February 2021 —As a smaller, private school, Lenoir-Rhyne University has been able to respond and adapt quickly to the changes imposed by the pandemic, while also addressing the needs of the community and its students, according to President Fred Whitt in an interview with Invest:
How did the university evolve in the past year?
Just like at many universities, the past months have been incredibly challenging. It is always difficult to deal with uncertainty and ambiguity, and a worldwide pandemic creates both of these issues and more. We had an incredibly positive fall semester. Our enrollment remained strong and we developed a comprehensive COVID infection and disease prevention and control plan to guide our approach. A university-wide task force developed guidelines and procedures, called “Protecting our Den,” which included pre-arrival and surveillance testing during the semester. As a result through October, we had one of the lowest numbers of positive COVID cases in the region. Our classes were delivered in a hybrid format so each student was in face to face and online for each of their courses. We used a flipped classroom model, where you do a lot of course content online, and the face to face classroom time was utilized for more engaging activities. This included working with groups, problem-solving and content application. This approach allowed us to physically distance in the classroom by having no more than half the classes meeting at any one time.
We followed that model throughout the semester, and will continue into the spring semester. While it’s a change, it was best given the cards we were dealt. Students and faculty prefer to be face to face as they embrace the interaction and engagement that is so unique to the Lenoir-Rhyne experience. The silver lining in all of this is that we have discovered some new and innovative teaching methodologies using technology that will continue long after COVID is behind us.
What are the advantages of being a small school in terms of communication?
We have about 2,700 students. About 900 of those are graduate students and, of course, in addition to being here in Hickory, we have a graduate center in Asheville with about 200 graduate students. We also have the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in South Carolina. One of the things that I noticed right from the get-go is how much more nimble we can be compared to my experiences in state universities. We’re in a unique position to pivot in a short period of time and adapt to change. Our mission is to meet the needs of the community at large, including business, industry and healthcare agencies. For example, getting a new program approved at a state university can take up to two years even when a proposal leaves the local campus. At our type of university, we have as few as two to three months for approval once the proposal is finalized on campus. The same may be true for revising an academic calendar and other quick decisions that may need to be made to adapt to changing conditions, such as the pandemic.
We are able to chart the strategic plan that is best for our university and community. In terms of COVID, rather than making decisions unilaterally, we collaborated with our community partners and allies, such as the Catawba County Health Department, our city and county, as well as both local hospitals, which advised us regarding our plans and implementation. We also stayed in continued communication with the NC Department of Health and Human Services, the CDC and other medical contacts affiliated with Lenoir-Rhyne.
What opportunities has the school developed for extended learning, away from the classroom?
We really think that extending learning outside of the traditional classroom environment is critical and a huge part of the educational experience for all of our students. Many of our students study abroad — what we call “study away.” In the Charlotte area, we also rely heavily on internships and opportunities for students to get valuable experiences in job-related duties and expanded cultural experiences.
Outside of Hickory, Charlotte is where we have some of the greatest number of Lenoir-Rhyne alums. We have strong relationships and partnerships in and around Charlotte. Probably some of the largest employers of our graduates are in the health sciences and business school. With accredited programs at the undergraduate and graduate levels in nursing, public health, physician’s assistant, counseling, occupational therapy, exercise science and athletic training, we are a significant draw for employers who desire to recruit our students. We’ve recently launched the Equity and Diversity Institute and many businesses in Charlotte as well as Asheville and the Winston-Salem area have taken advantage of these programs. This Institute offers programs to help individuals and companies learn more about justice and equity, and we thought that was very timely in view of some of the events that have happened in the United States during the summer of 2020 and this fall. That’s been very well-received.
Does the university work with the business community to provide opportunities to students?
Absolutely. The business opportunities are critical for us in Charlotte as well as the Hickory metropolitan area. A few years ago, we launched a Business Advisory Council that meets on campus months. They are leaders in the broader community that advise us as a university on how we can best meet the short-term and long-term needs of the business community. In addition, they help us develop and promote opportunities for our students and help improve our network in the broader community.
Lenoir-Rhyne University is unique. We have been located in the same place in a beautiful residential area just a mile from Downtown Hickory for over 125 years. We have remained a private Lutheran university since our founding. We’re very proud of our roots and future. Many people are surprised to learn that while we remain committed to the liberal arts and liberal learning, we also have graduate accredited programs in health sciences, business, education and many other areas.
The Charlotte airport is only a short 45-minute drive from campus, which is about the same or a few miles shorter than Gardner Webb, Catawba College and Wingate. The Hickory community is one of the top places to live, work and play, and is rapidly becoming a desired residential community for many of Charlotte workers. Our community partnerships have never been better. As Charlotte and Hickory grow, so does Lenoir-Rhyne, and we look forward to our continuing and new partnerships
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