APU President Paul Ferguson sits down for a Q & A with Editor-In-Chief Ruby McAuliffe to discuss the fall transition to online, the hope for a spring return and all the movement surrounding APU. The ZU TV exclusive is paired alongside a further in-depth look into the conversation.
Ruby McAuliffe: I want to ask you first, how did the decision to stay online for the fall semester come to fruition?
President Ferguson: All those discussions really began in March. And it has always been about the balance between protecting the wellness, health and safety of the community. [That includes] fiscal discipline, because obviously you can’t send everybody home and expect an organization to run as well. [But] also staying committed to Christ-centered academic excellence. We don’t want to just give up on that. Under a situation where we’re in a global pandemic, we have to think that through. And so, throughout those couple of months, we really evaluated how to balance community care and fiscal discipline and how we equip our faculty to make sure that they can.
And, you know, Ruby, you and I both agree it’s not ideal. We would all rather be in person. We’d rather be doing it with campus engagement. We had planned for a return to campus. We had developed a return to campus task force of faculty and administrators really trying to say, “How do we get back on campus?” Working very closely with the California State Department of Health, the governor’s office and L.A. County, we had to be very closely monitoring what the pandemic situation was because they were evaluating whether you could even open or not. You just didn’t have the authority to open on your own without the full support and compliance with the guidelines that were set up by public health. So, we were expecting to be back on campus in the fall, but as June progressed and we got to the middle of July, we were seeing that the incidence of the disease was on the upswing again in L.A.
County Public Health was very concerned, and so that red flag was raised. We had to make a decision in midsummer to go out there and say, “Okay. We’re going to make sure we invest in a remote learning option and equip our faculty better than we did in the spring.” We wanted to give everybody as much notice as possible.
Ruby McAuliffe: At least, in my opinion, there’s a clear difference in how it is being handled this fall semester rather than how it was handled in the abrupt spring situation. And you mentioned that it’s not ideal for us to be online. But on the other hand, I don’t think it would have been ideal for us to be on campus because of health concerns. So I want to ask you, what words of encouragement would you give to students? Because [either situation isn’t completely] positive or negative.
President Ferguson: Great question, Ruby, because I think that there is no guide. I’ve been in higher education for 40 years… There really is no guidebook about what to do with a pandemic, wildfires and equity injustice. How do we be Christ followers in the world? How do we do this right? How do we model making decisions for the world? I don’t know how well I would have done learning remotely as a college student. I just have tremendous respect for our students who have adapted and are doing it and engaging. So the encouraging words that I would say is that it’s an unprecedented situation. And I really believe that God really is glorified in unprecedented situations.
My chapel in a couple of weeks is how to live above excuses and challenging seasons. We are going to come up with excuses because it’s too hard, it’s too easy, I can’t handle it and those are tough. Let’s not downplay it. But I really do believe that God can be glorified. How does God be glorified through this and how does he elevate the conversation? I would just say stay close. Stay grounded in scripture. The Holy Spirit will really elevate this in a way that we’ve never seen before. So I would say, seek that daily, because if you don’t, that’s where the discouragement is really going to settle in.
Ruby McAuliffe: That is so true and so good. Now, a cornerstone of APU is community. How are you, and APU as a whole, manifesting community during these virtual times?
President Ferguson: It’s kind of interesting when it first hit, because, as you know, we define how we get together. We have chapels, we have faculty and staff gatherings. I would usually meet with departments. And that was just eliminated, right? That was just gone. So, even last spring, you had to be intentional to connect.
Now, as we’re going into the fall, we’re developing a little bit more town halls just to be able to connect. We had a town hall last week with faculty and staff. We had about 460 people on that to talk about where we were and where we’re going. We’re going to do something very similar within the next couple of weeks to talk a little bit about the budget and where we’re going. But we’ve just got to be more intentional. We need to realize that any [bit of human interaction] allows us to connect and hear and listen and really have more specific ideas to pray.
The other thing I think I would encourage everybody to think about is to touch people through email. I can’t tell you how blessed and encouraged I am when out of nowhere a faculty member or a staff member or an alum will just drop me an email and just say, “Hey, I know it’s tough. Thanks for what you’re doing.”
Ruby McAuliffe: And I think the Presidential Roundtable plays into that community.
President Ferguson: Thank you for bringing that up. That’s a new thing this year. Any time I’m talking to people, there’s always kind of a plethora of questions. And I think that most people who have worked with me in our cabinet know that we really are truly committed to transparency and open communication. So we decided that we are going to convene a series of what we call “Presidential Roundtables.” Six this fall will be dedicated to faculty and staff on the kind of issues they’re interested in and then six to students. The Student Government Association (SGA) will be working with us to announce the topics and let students sign up. There will be about 20 students at a time.
Ruby McAuliffe: I love that. So it will be over Zoom?
President Ferguson: Yes. If and when we get back on campus, we would have those discussions around the table.
Ruby McAuliffe: Propelling a bit forward, are there plans to return for spring? And if so, what does that look like right now? What are the steps being taken?
President Ferguson: We are really right in the middle of that planning… Things are looking good from the county viewpoint. Our disease rates are going down. We’re not quite out of the woods yet. And L.A. County is not giving us a green light. We’re expecting some real insights in mid-November when they’re going to say these are the guidelines for higher education to be open… and here’s what you got to do.
We also are planning to have a focus on strategic plans for both options. We want to be back on campus in the spring, but we have to plan if we stay remote. I’m not sure which it’s going to be yet. We’re going to be planning for both. So in November-ish, I’m hoping we can really pull the trigger and be ready to go one way or the other. But it really is going to be depending on how the pandemic is looking and how L.A. County is open to working with us.
Ruby McAuliffe: And what about fall commencement and the past spring commencement? What does that look like now? Is that kind of a waiting game as well?
President Ferguson: Well, I mean, it is uncertain. I think we have concerns if we can do it in person. I just don’t know if we’d be allowed to bring in a full graduation or commencement. But I think depending on what the guidelines are, we do want to do something because we want 2020 to have a commencement. But I think probably in the next two weeks, we’ll have that [information] out.
Ruby McAuliffe: I will be on the lookout for that! So, tomorrow is the strategic plan and it’s launch. Can you tell me a bit about that?
President Ferguson: Well, I hope you tune in at 10 a.m. It’s going to be about a half hour to 40 minutes long.
As you know, all last year, we were in the middle of planning the strategic plan, fully engaged with the APU community, students, faculty, staff and alumni board. APU has such a long legacy of academic excellence and serving the Lord in so many different ways. It was just time to really strategically see what we want to look like over the next seven years. How do we bring all the strengths of who we are? How do we make sure we’re wisely using what God has brought to us? What programs do we need to make? So this is a consensus based plan that provides about five grand initiatives to change in a bold way.
I’m going to share [the vision]. You’ll hear it tomorrow. We really do aspire to be the premier Christian University for our culture and times. In this country now, what does that mean? We really do want to be a model university for Christ centered academic excellence. And the phase in our culture and times doesn’t mean that the gospel is not timeless, but these are difficult times. The Christian university for 2020 is a different Christian university than it was in 1920. We’re a more diverse community across the world. There’s just different issues and stresses. How does APU strive to be on the spears’ edge? How do we engage our community with virtue to help solve these problems?
“Renewal” is the title of the strategic plan. It’s just that we need to be renewed. The university passage this year [Romans 12] is the theme of the strategic plan. “Renew your minds and then you’ll know the perfect will of God.” So renewal is about how do we really invest our resources? What kind of programs do we need? How do we really optimize spiritual formation in an environment of Christ centered excellence?
Ruby McAuliffe: That is so exciting. I want to ask you a fun question. So everyone’s calling it “Zoom University.” What’s it like being president of “Zoom University”?
President Ferguson: It’s “ZU-oom University”!
Ruby McAuliffe: There we go!
President Ferguson: Well, it’s certainly not something I anticipated ever doing. I mean, I became a university professor because I loved engaging with students. I loved class. I love research. I love my colleagues. You go every day and you engage and you kind of spur and challenge each other. But I’m just so blessed and grateful that we have a wonderful leadership team, [and for] the adaptability and resilience of the faculty.
As the leader, I have to look at new ways to engage… I have to figure out ways to stay connected with everybody. Otherwise, you disconnect and your level of engagement becomes a little bit less clear. And you just have to strive to do it broader, better and differently. It’s easy to become distant and Zoom. You have to fight that. And I’m hoping that we all debrief at the end of this, like, “Wow, what a challenge that was. But thank God and to God be the glory we got through it.”
Ruby McAuliffe: Yes. If you could leave the APU community with one word that you would like to see manifest itself throughout this season, what would it be?
President Ferguson: Trust. Trust Him. Trust God. We’re in such uncertainty. But trust in God to guide us. Trust your brothers and sisters to be there for you. “Trust” and “renewal.” I just have to use it!
Ruby McAuliffe: Thank you so much, President Ferguson, for joining me.
President Ferguson: It was great. See you soon, I hope.