In a year that required everyone in the world to adjust because of the coronavirus, Tusculum University demonstrated that challenging times highlight the institution’s commitment to civic engagement and a caring Christian environment.
Precautions that reduced group settings provided an opportunity for Tusculum to develop innovative ways to keep the community connected. For example, the university offered seven free virtual book clubs from June to August that were led by faculty and staff members via Zoom.
“We welcomed the opportunity to engage with the community and assembled an excellent group of book leaders who were excited to discuss some thought-provoking books,” said Kathy Hipps, director of the Thomas J. Garland Library on Tusculum’s Greeneville campus.
The university also offered a free six-week class, called “Pandemic! Perspectives,” for community members that enabled residents to learn about the coronavirus situation through history, criminal justice, business and economics, nursing, sociology and public health lenses.
“One of the best ways academia can serve students and the community is to respond to what is taking place in the world and examine the subject across several disciplines,” said Wayne Thomas, dean of the College of Civic and Liberal Arts, who developed the course.
Tusculum fostered its relationship with the community in other ways. Dr. Scott Hummel’s arrival as Tusculum’s president provided the opportunity for him to host community members for a meet-and-greet and hold a separate event to share one-on-one time with area faith leaders. Hummel quickly extended his relationship with the community by joining the Rotary Club and serving as a member of the Greene County Partnership board of directors.
Once the pandemic arrived, Erin Schultz, Tusculum’s costume director, made 6,300 face coverings for people, including 300 for Greeneville High School’s graduation in August. She will make 300 more for the high school’s May graduation.
Tusculum also showed compassion toward its students when the university had to close residence halls and move all classes online during the spring semester in 2020. Some international students could not return home because of closed borders in their home country, and a small number of other students needed to stay as well. Staff members responded by providing snacks, sweets and beverages to supplement meals the university was providing to those 20 students. Other staff members provided some of their personal funds for the cause.
“We want the students to feel at home while they are here and know we are fully behind them,” Ashley Edens, director of financial aid, explained at the time. “A lot of them don’t have cars to head to the store to get additional items they might want, so this is a way to help them.”
Some students experienced difficulties in the online environment away from campus because they did not have laptops or adequate internet access or had financial hardships. Many people donated to the Student Emergency Fund to help these Pioneers remain enrolled and successfully complete the semester.
The long-term goal was to have students return to campus and have in-person classes again when it was safe and the university could enact the necessary protective measures. Hummel appointed a Reopening Task Force, which spent months consulting health experts, reviewing guidance from state and federal agencies and engaging in internal discussions to craft a detailed plan.
The plan enabled residence halls to reopen and in-person classes to resume but with effective protocols, such as face covering requirements, physical distancing and frequent hand washing. Faculty office hours and advising sessions took place virtually or by phone. Tusculum established procedures for any Tusculum family members who tested positive or were deemed a contact.
As a result of the extensive measures the university enacted, Tusculum had relatively few coronavirus cases. Tusculum nursing students are now helping the Sullivan County Regional Health Department with the vaccination process in that community.
In spite of the challenges associated with the coronavirus, Tusculum still achieved multiple successes. The university held virtual graduations for about 350 students in August and about 190 in December. With appropriate limitations, Tusculum was able to hold seven performances of “The Tragedy of Macbeth” on campus in November and host Central Ballet’s “The Snow Queen: A Frozen Adventure” in January.
Students were still able to participate in a day of service work in September. What normally was Nettie Fowler McCormick Service Day was expanded this year to Nettie Week and incorporated many events that memorialized the victims of 9/11, honored first responders and members of the military and called attention to the issue of suicide.
The university has continued to succeed academically. Continuing a string of recognitions for its College of Business in the last few years, Tusculum was picked by study.com as 20th in a listing of the 2020 Best Business Management Schools in the United States. The same website also named the College of Business among the Top 50 Business Schools in the nation. BestValueSchools.org recently selected Tusculum’s MBA program as fifth best in Tennessee.
The good news extended to other areas of the university. Tusculum’s master of arts in organizational training and performance management, which is part of the College of Education, earned accreditation from the Accreditation Council on Business Schools and Programs.
In addition, an evaluation by the Tennessee State Board of Education of Tusculum graduates who are teaching in Tennessee schools showed they are exceeding state averages in their observation scores from principals as well as in student academic growth and levels of overall effectiveness.
Prior to the pandemic, Tusculum was able to hold its popular Theologian-In-Residence series on campus attracting representatives from about 50 churches and 200 participants. This year, the event was converted to a virtual format but still attracted impressive numbers.
Tusculum was also selected for 2020-21 as a member of the First-gen Forward Cohort, a prestigious national group of the Center for First-Generation Student Success. This was particularly applicable to Tusculum because more than 50 percent of Tusculum’s student body consists of students whose parents or guardians have not earned a bachelor’s degree.
“While this year has challenged everyone, we are pleased with the many positive developments we have achieved,” Hummel said. “Our faculty and staff are committed to providing an active and experiential education so that our students are equipped to be career-ready professionals and to use their pioneering spirit. We are also grateful for the community’s support and look forward to continuing to grow our relationship with Greene County.”