GVSU President Philomena Mantella on a year of accelerating initiatives and creativity amid crisis

Though Grand Valley State University President Philomena Mantella, Ph.D. started in her role in July 2019, "It seems like a million years ago," she says. Having spent over half of her tenure thus far leading a major university amid a global pandemic, Mantella is hard at work implementing and accelerating initiatives that she hopes will create lifelong learners through relationship-based teaching, whether this occurs remotely, or in small groups on campus.

Mantella has been working in higher education administration for the better part of her career, most recently spending the past two decades at Northeastern University. There, she worked with vulnerable students who struggled with access or completion, student affairs, enrollment-building, fundraising, and lifelong learning. In her various roles, she frequently supported working college students, adult students, single moms, or those facing poverty.Student wears a mask on campus.

"I got really interested in education as sort of the great equalizer of inclusive opportunity and prosperity," she says. Seeking to fundamentally change educational and career outcomes for college students, Mantella learned that "The biggest opportunity for influence was to influence the system of education."

That's why, when GVSU approached her with the role of President in 2019, she was instantly interested. "This is just the kind of place that I think has the potential to be that kind of high impact player in higher education," she says. Then in July 2019, when Mantella arrived on campus, she hit the ground running, clocking over 8,000 interactions internally and externally, including 50- to 100-people groups of conversational huddles to learn more about the school, its students, and its culture.

What came out of these conversations was a dual approach to innovation at GVSU. By building atop a foundation of the university's education as a lifetime value and the school becoming a diverse and inclusive economic engine, Mantella and her team laid out five foundational commitments: students will learn knowledge and skills for success in the 21st century; students and teachers will engage in the reciprocity of learning; the University will offer lifetime learning for its students; the University will be available to new learners, expanding their typical age 18-22 undergraduate base; and the University will become a talent epicenter.

These five commitments have become even more important amid COVID-19, when most classes have been forced online, and students have been required to adapt to reduced interaction with their teachers and peers.

"I think of COVID as a disruption ... a disruption and an accelerator," says Mantella. "The stakes have increased for us because of the disruption."Student wears a mask on campus.

Mantella points to the University's use of online learning, which has accelerated exponentially since March of this year. She says that when COVID-19 first hit Michigan, all programs temporarily migrated their courses online. Having learned from that experience, "Now we can go back and look at the full portfolio that has been delivered digitally," and increase the amount of online offerings.

This use of virtual learning options has been vital in the fight against the coronavirus, but as GVSU administrators learn more about their students' individual responses to this model, they have determined that in-person learning will continue to play a role in the culture of the school.

Mantella believes in the power of online learning, but "I don't believe in its universal application," she says. Having worked with students from a myriad of backgrounds, Mantella knows that a single solution rarely applies to all learners. "We have to match the type of learner and the constraints in their life and the skills they've built with the digital."

For example, online classes are "A great vehicle for adult learners who are raising their family who have ... life skills and balancing." However, some students may struggle — and are currently struggling — with the fully remote option.

"Some of them are thriving and some of them are not," says Mantella. And she plans to get creative for those who prefer in-person learning. "This crisis is not going away in a month or two. We have to give them some alternatives that are safe that allow them to learn without creating these gaps or big failures for them to overcome."

These alternatives include meeting in small groups face-to-face, an option bolstered by the university's commitment to mask-wearing and testing for the coronavirus. "We don't need a public health order to require masks or limit gatherings," says Mantella, referencing Ottawa County's recent Stay-in-place and Staying Safe orders, the former which grounded GVSU students on the university's main campus in Allendale, and the latter which expired last week.President Mantella at commencement.

And despite the recent upticks in cases, Mantella urges community members to keep in mind the context of the count. "When our numbers were high, people were following the raw numbers. We're a big university in a small county," she says. But with strong testing protocols on campus that test symptomatic, high risk, and random samples of the student and staff population, "We're managing well within the constraints," she adds, and cases are steadily declining.

For most, 2020 has been a year of the unexpected, one that demanded creative solutions and quick thinking to help our businesses, communities, and educational institutions thrive. For Philomena Mantella, the journey has just begun. After almost a year and a half on the job, Mantella says, "I really want people to know that this is a community that I believe in ... both in good times and a time of crisis."
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