President Linda A. Livingstone, Ph.D.

Season 3 - Episode 348

December 4, 2020

President Livingstone
President Livingstone

As the year draws to a close, President Livingstone reflects on the factors that led to a successful in-person semester. In this Baylor Connections, she shares takeaways from the fall, looks ahead to the Spring Semester, and examines new programs like the Hord Scholarship Challenge and Trailblazer Scholars Program, which will open the Baylor experience to greater numbers of future students.

Transcript

Derek Smith:

Hello and welcome to, let's get the slightly closer. There we go. Hello and welcome to Baylor Connections, a conversation series with the people shaping our future. Each week, we go in depth with Baylor leaders, professors, and more, discussing important topics in higher education, research, and student life. I'm Derek Smith, and our guest today is Baylor University president Dr. Linda Livingstone. Near the end of a very eventful semester, we appreciate the opportunity to visit with President Livingstone. Students have gone home, finals are upcoming, and the holidays are approaching. Still a lot going on here at Baylor, and President Livingstone, we appreciate your time this morning. Thanks so much for joining us.

President Livingstone:

Glad to be with you, Derek. It's always wonderful to talk about what we're doing here at Baylor.

Derek Smith:

Well, as we said, the students have gone home. There's a couple of days of virtual classes and then finals taking place. For you and your team, what's the feeling like? Obviously it was a goal to get through the semester that people have been working hard for months to achieve. So what's that feel like, broadly?

President Livingstone:

You know, Monday we had a meeting with my president's council, and there was a lot of joy that we've made it to Thanksgiving and we've been able to keep the students on campus during that time. So a bit of relief as well. And then just really thankful that everybody did what we asked them to. I mean, our faculty, our staff, our students were amazing this fall, and if it weren't for all their work, the work of our health management team, and so many others, we wouldn't have done it. So it was a huge, huge campus wide team effort. So unbelievably thankful for everybody that contributed to getting us to Thanksgiving.

Derek Smith:

Does it feel like a finish line or more of a benchmark?

President Livingstone:

We talked about that a little bit on Monday as well. I think it's more of a benchmark or a chapter in the journey that we're on. I think last spring was a piece of that, and then summer as we prepared for fall, and then getting through the fall. But now we're already deep into planning for the spring semester and what that's going to look like, so that will be another benchmark, another chapter in this COVID journey. So we are not done yet, and we still have a lot of work to do, but got great folks working on it. So feel good about where we are and where we're going in the spring.

Derek Smith:

Visiting with President Livingstone, and President Livingstone, you've accrued a lot of data, a lot of insight from the last semester. I know it's not a process of now that it's over, you just start sifting through it. You've been doing that. But how do you? What's that process look like of sifting through what you've learned and figuring out what's important for the spring semester?

President Livingstone:

Well, we've been very fortunate to have some wonderful experts on our campus. I mentioned our health management team, and that's composed of a pretty diverse set of individuals across our campus. Certainly some with public health backgrounds, environmental science backgrounds, as well as folks from student life and our chairman office and on and on. They really process this data regularly and then feed to my president's council observations from the data. But I think some of the things we've learned, obviously we know testing is critically important. The more we can test and the more regularly we can test a larger number of people, the earlier we can identify individuals that have the virus, whether they're symptomatic or asymptomatic, and then that gives us the ability to very quickly isolate and quarantine, and so we can really slow down or stop the spread of the virus. So that has been really critically important to us through all of this. So following that data, following what's happening on our campus versus what's happened in the broader community, we've had some really good success. I mean, the other thing is that if people do what we ask them, if they wear their mask, if they wash their hands, if they social distance, we are far less likely to have outbreaks in cases. And then the other thing we learned is being outside is far less likely to spread the virus than if folks are inside. So that gives you the ability to do more outside kinds of activities and events for students and others. So we adapted throughout the semester as we learned more, and we'll certainly continue to do that as we go into the spring semester.

Derek Smith:

You mentioned, President Livingstone, the community, and we talk a lot about Baylor, but we are part of the broader Waco community. What's that relationship look like over the last few months and continue to play out as you think about how the virus is moving in Waco, Baylor's interaction with the community, and just being a good neighbor and all of that.

President Livingstone:

Well, we work very closely with the city and the county and the public health officials, the city and county officials. I'm on a call two or three times a week with the other leading educators in the community. The mayor, the county judge, city officials, the leadership of the key health providers in the community, and we talk about what's going on in the community. We each report out on what we're doing, what challenges we're having, and it is a huge community-wide effort to really try to address this. We've learned from others in the community, they've learned from us, particularly because we've done so much testing on our campus. We brought Dr. Birx to campus, a part of the White House COVID Task Force, and we included the community in that visit. She was unbelievably helpful, and then we were able to partner with the community on the surge testing that was done, that she really made happen for this community, which was so critical. So we've had some of that on campus, but the majority of it was done in the broader Waco community. They're still using some of that surge testing in the broader community. So it is really a joint effort across all aspects of the city and the county to really try to manage this and control it. So we learn from each other, we work together, and we share lots of information.

Derek Smith:

We are visiting with President Livingstone here on Baylor Connections, and as we pivot a bit to the holidays, we just had Thanksgiving break and Christmas break's approaching. I know students are home. You've talked a lot in your messaging to the Baylor family about the idea of Bible verses, talking about not growing weary, not growing weary in well-doing. Obviously we got to this point. You complimented students and faculty at the beginning of this program, but what does not becoming weary in well-doing, if you will, look like over the holidays? Because I know people do have, we've heard public health leaders express some concerns as we head into the winter months.

President Livingstone:

Well, we know that at the holidays naturally, particularly Thanksgiving, which we of course just finished, and Christmas, which is upcoming, that people get together with family, with friends. There's a lot of socializing. There's a lot of time together that you might not normally spend with folks except at the holidays. One of the pieces of data that's pretty clear out there is that the vast majority of the spread of COVID happens in these more personal private settings in homes. We've seen weddings, we've seen funerals, we've seen get togethers in homes, and we saw that with our students too. Much of the spread was students in off-campus living arrangements where they'd had friends over to watch TV and Netflix and eat pizza, and then one person might be positive and not know it, and the next thing you know, the entire group had tested positive or had to quarantine. So there's a high level of concern that over the holidays, people will do more of that getting together, and that they likely, because they're with close family and friends, be less likely to wear their masks to social distance. So you want to talk about not growing weary of doing good, we really want to encourage everybody, even when they're home over the holidays with family and friends, to continue to practice the health measures that we've had on campus that were so effective. We know that's hard to do around family especially, and close friends, but it will do so much. Not just to protect yourself, because our young people are least likely to have really difficult symptoms from it, but it really helps protect the broader community. Parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and others that might be at higher risk. So we just encourage everybody to continue the behaviors that were so successful on campus when they're off campus with their families over the holidays.

Derek Smith:

You mentioned that you talk about holidays naturally have those gatherings. So with that, if we think about maybe students in the summer spending time with family and friends, then coming back, is there any more concerned during the holidays that sort of situation, or are there similarities?

President Livingstone:

Well, I think there certainly are some similarities, because in the summer you do get together with friends and family and do vacations and you have 4th of July. But we do also know that in the summer, it's more likely that those activities are going to be outside, which as I noted are far less risky than indoor activities. We also know viruses like this tend to be more likely to spread in the winter, and a lot of that's because you're inside so much. So we would probably have a higher level of concern in the winter, because so many more of these activities are indoors than they are outdoors, and even sometimes larger groups of people are getting together around the holidays. So just wanting people to be careful and safe and smart about what they choose to do.

Derek Smith:

This is Baylor Connections. We are visiting with President Livingstone. President Livingstone, I know before students went home, students and faculty were able to take advantage of COVID testing, the opportunity to receive a COVID test before you went home, that goes beyond the randomized staff and faculty and student testing that took place. What does it take to be able to put something like that together and offer that? What was your sense of people taking advantage of that?

President Livingstone:

Well, it's certainly a team effort between our health center staff and then our health management team, as they plan that and really prepare. We've been doing a lot of testing prior to that, because we've done so much sample testing across our campus. So we really have the capacity to do that, but we were pleased to see a lot of students and faculty and staff take advantage of that. One of the things we did learn during that time, we actually had more asymptomatic cases show up during that time because people were just testing to be careful, and not because they necessarily felt that or anything. So it does remind you that there are a significant number of people that have the virus, and don't actually realize that they have it because they feel perfectly fine, but yet they can still spread the virus. So we were really happy to have folks come in and test, because at least that way, if they were going ahead and going home, they knew they had the virus and had to be careful once they got home and isolate themselves. So it was very effective, we think, and we were pleased with the number of individuals that chose to take advantage of it.

Derek Smith:

As we, as students head home, they'll start to think about the spring semester at some point. I know you have been, and I know you'll be communicating a lot more to the Baylor family as the weeks go on here. But are there any aspects of the spring semester that people should begin thinking about now, as it relates to whether it's safety measures, or even the adjusted schedule, how that's going to protect students?

President Livingstone:

Well, we are starting this semester a week later than we had originally anticipated. So we will start classes on the Tuesday after Martin Luther King day. We are also going to do required testing of students before they come back, and it'll be a two phased process that it's looking like right now. We'll certainly announce this more formally, but we will do the mail testing that we did similar to the fall semester, and we'll continue to work with that company. We learned some things from that, the company did, that I think will work out some of the kinks we had in the fall. And then when students return to campus that week before school starts, we are going to ask them to test again here on campus. We've ramped up our capacity to test. We are working on partnering with a company to have a lab on campus that we can actually process the tests on campus, so that gives us much greater capacity at a much lower cost. One of the things we learned in the fall is when students took the test at home, by the time they got to campus, even though all of them most of them had tested negative., By the time they got to campus, there was a whole set of students that had contracted the virus in that gap. So we want them to test before they leave, and then we'll test again when they get here, and then we will do more regular testing throughout the semester. Our ability to do that will, over time, allow us to one, we think control the virus more before a vaccine is available, but also then be more flexible in what we allow students to do. We're not going to host any kind of gatherings and events on campus those first, I think through February 7th to the first two and a half, three weeks of the semester, because we do anticipate a spike in cases as everybody comes back. We had one in the fall, so we anticipate the same thing. So we want to do everything we can to get that under control really quickly, and then begin to open back up after that. We will be requiring masks again. Our classroom structure will be very similar, given that that's still the CDC guidelines, and certainly if those guidelines begin to change, we will begin to adapt. But a lot of this is going to be dependent on how long these things continue with when there's a vaccine that's available.

Derek Smith:

For you, President Livingstone, and the individuals you work with closely, when you think about, we're talking about the spring semester now and I want to ask you about you how you and your team have been able to find some rest in the midst of this. Is it surreal, or as you think back to the point that we are here at December now talking about the spring semester, how was time moved for you and your team in the midst of all this?

President Livingstone:

That's sort of interesting. It's an interesting question, Derek, because there are times you think it's like Groundhog Day. You just wake up and every day feels like the last day, because you're on zoom calls all day and you don't travel, you don't get out and do the events like you used to. So in a way, there's this feeling of, "Oh my gosh, every day feels like the last day." I had someone tell me that there's only three days of the week now, there's yesterday, today and tomorrow, and they all feel the same, but yet now we're in December. I think, "Oh my gosh, this has been almost a year since." I mean, honestly we started working on this in January, because we had students on international trips. So we were having to figure out what to do with our students that were traveling internationally way back in January and February, long before we really began thinking about the issues here. So we're almost a year into that, and it almost feels like it was just yesterday that we were doing that. So it's this real strange, every day feels the same, but yet I can't believe it's been almost a year since we started dealing with these issues.

Derek Smith:

Wow. For you and everyone on the president's council, obviously the holidays are going to provide some opportunity for that. But I noticed we have the faculty meeting, that was one of the questions several faculty asked. How are you guys taking care of yourself? So how is that for you? Are you able to find some times to unwind and unplug a little bit so that you're recharged for the tomorrow or the next day or the next thing?

President Livingstone:

Well, everybody's been so thoughtful. I'm always touched when we get those kinds of questions in those meetings. I have meetings with parents and they oftentimes ask those questions as well, so I think that's part of the joy of being in a place like Baylor, is the concern everybody has for each other. But I've really encouraged my team to make sure they find some space and time for themselves and for their families. It's been hard for everyone to do that. I do think that Thanksgiving break was good for everyone to rest and recharge. Most folks didn't take too much summer vacation, so I think the other thing, because we added some extra days off over the holidays, we normally give off between Christmas and new year to our faculty and staff. We added four days before that. So the 17th is really our last official work day until January 4th. So I think those extra days for folks to spend time with family and friends, resting, recuperating, and reenergizing themselves for the spring is going to be really, really important.

Derek Smith:

I don't speak for all the faculty and staff, but since I have this opportunity, I will say thank you for that. I think I'm speaking for everyone and saying thank you for those and to everyone who was involved in that. That is a nice added bonus here at the end of the year.

President Livingstone:

Well, everybody just went way above and beyond this fall. We know it was very weary for folks, and so we were pleased to be able to do that. Thank you for saying that.

Derek Smith:

No, that's great. No, yeah, thank you. We visit with President Livingstone here on Baylor Connections. Shifting gears a little bit, it's not all been COVID. A lot of exciting things have been happening at Baylor, a number of exciting initiatives. We've seen Illuminate and Give Light continue to move forward. It was last month that we had a, a really big announcement, the Hord Scholarship Challenge, $30 million for student scholarships. That's one of a number of exciting gifts to the university, but obviously that stands out. Besides the eye-popping number, the amount, what is it about this gift that makes this gift unique?

President Livingstone:

Well, we're so grateful to Dan and Jenny Hord for their generous gift to the university. They've been so generous for many, many years, and are wonderful friends of the university. Dan's a member of our regents as well. I think this a gift is really critical on a couple of levels. One, student scholarships are so important. We want students who want to be at Baylor, that are qualified to be at Baylor, that are deeply committed to our Christian mission to be able to come here and not to have financial issues that keep them from being here. So student scholarships are just a very high priority for us. This is wonderful, because now it's a matching gift. So another donor could give us $50,000, match it with $50,000 from the hoard, and have a $100,000 endowed scholarship. So it really leverages what someone else gives in a really important, valuable way. So we hope that many, many members of our Baylor family will come alongside us and be matched by that gift from the Hords. And then all of this is going into our endowment. It's endowed scholarships. So that will also help grow our endowment, which is a critical goal in our Give Light campaign and in support of our strategic plan, Illuminate. So we're deeply grateful to the Hords, and this is just a tremendous opportunity for us to raise funds to support our students very directly.

Derek Smith:

That's one exciting new opportunity. Another program that we saw announced last month was the Trailblazer Scholars program that is going to really welcome a lot of new students to Baylor in some exciting ways. What can you tell us about that program?

President Livingstone:

The Trailblazer Scholars is really to help support diversity on our campus, and it is designed to do two things. Students who are interested in diversity issues who want to work on those while they're on our campus are the ones that we want to have apply for the scholarship program. So there's two aspects. There'll be a scholarship, so a financial component too that will help them to pay for their school, but then there will also be a leadership development element to it as well that we're building out this year, so that they'll have opportunities to engage in activities that they're passionate about that help enhance diversity on our campus. So we're really looking forward to it. We're recruiting those students this year. We'll have 20 students in our first cohort of Trailblazer Scholars next fall. The university's committed $5 million to this program, and then we are certainly looking for members of the Baylor family to come alongside and contribute to that as well so that this can be fully funded over time. So eventually we'll have about 80 Trailblazer Scholars on our campus at any given time. So it's a wonderful program. We're really excited about it. We've had a lot of interest in it, and look forward to having that first cohort of students on campus next fall.

Derek Smith:

That's great. Very exciting. Number of exciting initiatives taking place. We're talking to President Livingstone. President Livingstone, another area where we're seeing growth is Baylor is beginning to announce, to hire, to organize searches for endowed faculty positions through the Baylor Academic Challenge. We've talked about that before on the program, but for people who don't know a lot about the endowed chair position, what's exciting for the university about positions in this manner, besides just bringing great new faculty to campus?

President Livingstone:

Well, endowed faculty positions are critical to the longterm success of the university, because they provide funding for really perpetuity to support a position. That money sometimes will go to salary or to enhance a salary that we already have to be able to bring in a really top scholar. It provides research dollars to support the work they're doing. It can also help provide support for PhD students and graduate students and undergraduate students to do scholarly activities with this professor. So it really is a way to provide stable long-term funding for a faculty position that then allows us to attract really top scholars from around the world that are committed to our Christian mission, that are excellent teachers. They're doing really interesting research that they can engage our students in. So we had this academic challenge last year that we're continuing. We funded I think 10 last year. We've already funded three more this year. We're starting to recruit for, I believe the first three of those that are now fully funded, and so hopefully we'll have some of those new folks on board next fall. They will attract other faculty. They will attract top graduate students and PhD students, and add tremendous richness to the academic climate on our campus in the years ahead.

Derek Smith:

That's great. So thinking through that a little bit, we're trying to attract, I was talking to Jason Cook, a top tier free agent or recruit. That endowed funding says to them that the infrastructure is in place, that they don't have to worry about the variances of economics, or even just demonstrating during COVID that we're going forward through all this.

President Livingstone:

Yeah. It gives stability to the position and gives them some flexibility and resources they have. It really sets them up. Most of these folks that you bring in are also going to be doing a lot of funded research from grants and contracts that support their research, but this provides the infrastructure that they need in order to be able to do that grant writing, to go out and seek those grants, to come in and then fully fund the research that they're doing. So it's critically important to hiring really some of the best faculty, and particularly those deeply committed to our Christian mission that would love to be at a research university that allows them to live out their faith in their work each day.

Derek Smith:

This is Baylor Connections. We are visiting with President Livingstone. President Livingstone, as we head into the final couple of moments here, we'll wind down here as we think about the Christmas season. I know the Baylor family is celebrating advent together. We've seen some of the devotionals and the Bible verses online, and people can check that out if they you just Google Baylor advent, or see it on social media. One way the Baylor family is staying connected. But for you, as we head into this, you've touched on it a bit, but what are your hopes for the Baylor family during these a few weeks as we head into Christmas and look ahead to 2021?

President Livingstone:

Well, I hope for the Baylor family that you will have time to rest and relax safely with your friends and families after a really a challenging year, and that you will really have time to reflect on the gift of God's Son to us, and just what that means to us in our lives. It gives us the hope that we can get through all of this, and knowing that our hope is in Christ, not in the world, I think gives us the ability to work through these issues in different ways. So we wish hope and joy and good times with family in a relaxing way over the holidays for all of you.

Derek Smith:

Well, good words. Well, we wish that for you and the first gent and Shelby as well together, and your whole team. Well, President Livingstone, thanks so much for your time. Great to visit with you.

President Livingstone:

It's good to be with you, Derek.

Derek Smith:

Thank you. Baylor University president Dr. Linda Livingstone, our guest today here on Baylor Connections. I'm Derek Smith. A reminder, you can hear this and other programs online, baylor.edu/connections, and you can subscribe on iTunes. Thanks for joining us here on Baylor Connections.