Published: Aug. 20, 2020

Higher Education and the Mentoring of the Young during a Pandemic

Over the course of decades, as a series of United States Surgeons General have rotated in and out of office, I have never lost hope that one of them would recognize the need to alert the public to a widespread malady. Here is the draft I started preparing twenty-five years ago:


Surgeon General’s Warning on Nostalgia 

While older adults are especially susceptible to nostalgia, symptoms of this serious cognitive disorder have been observed in people of all ages. Contagion is accelerated by the fact that nostalgia can initially masquerade as a distraction from the burdens of the present. Do not be misled by this initially pleasant sensation. Never take the onset of nostalgia lightly, and never make decisions of consequence or operate heavy equipment when under its influence. In the most severe cases, nostalgia for the past triggers a dangerous sense of despair about the present, for which, at this time, there is no known cure. Vaccinations are available, very cheap, and yet rarely requested.

Whether you asked for this or not, you are about to receive a high-impact dose of the anti-nostalgia vaccine via the story of the founding President of the University of Colorado.


Back to the Beginning

Like every college and university nationwide, the University of Colorado is in a perilous state.

The orchestration of the convenings and movements of students on campus and in the town presents endless conundrums and quandaries. A massive experiment in devising and enforcing regulations and rules for student conduct seems likely to generate mixed results. Budget cuts are already in operation, and more are probably on the horizon. There is very little agreement on what constitutes effective educational practice in a time of disorder.

Conditions are right for an outbreak of nostalgia, with dreams of better, less stressful times in a distant past floating through the air, airborne ephemera unimpeded by the contemporary fashion for the wearing of masks.

But a moment or two spent in contemplating the story of CU’s first President, Joseph Sewall, will unleash a flood of antibodies that will overcome nostalgia.

Here’s what Joseph Sewall said when he made a return visit to Boulder and reminisced about the time he spent as President, from 1877-1887:

If you were to ask me, my friends, what ten years of my life were most filled with sadness, disappointment, and sorrow, it is the years I spent upon these premises. . . . . I tried to be hopeful, but it was bitter work.

In his history of the University of Colorado, William Davis offered a poignant tale of the shortages, absences, and deficiencies that its first President faced. A visitor to the minuscule campus said that he would like to see the University’s library. “President Sewall,” Davis wrote, “allegedly replied, ‘Haven’t any library.’” The visitor then asked to see the chemical laboratory. “Haven’t any laboratory.” After several exchanges of this sort, the visitor exclaimed, “What the hell do you have?” To which Sewall bravely replied, “A University.”

As always, historical comparisons require careful handling. The fact that Joseph Sewall had a very tough time getting this University started does nothing to minimize the enormous difficulty of getting a school year started when a pandemic is running wild in the nation.

And yet there is no way to minimize the obstacles that President Sewall faced. The only way to pull off such a dismissal would be to claim that, in his time, Western American universities and colleges were such feeble, frail, and piteous institutions that if one were to perish, it wouldn’t have added up to much of a loss.

But this one didn’t perish.

The contrast between the campus in 1877, with the solitary bastion of Old Main (return to the image above on the “Not My First Rodeo” banner) and the campus today is beyond fathoming. But let’s imagine that we could get President Sewall a visa for time travel and give him a chance to contemplate the abundance of buildings on a scale, sweep, variety, and durability that could never have figured in his wildest dreams.

And then we have to start breaking the news to him.

“Yes, we have lots of buildings, but we are facing a confounding task in figuring out how to put people in them. In fact, you have come at a very bad time. The University is awash in problems, ranging from an uncertain ability to accommodate students safely to a very grim financial situation. In truth, there’s almost nothing in the situation that is working as we want it to.”

At that point, President Sewall might just yawn. If he had the mental agility (probably a necessity for time travel) to adopt the language of a different era, his response would be easy to predict: “Been there, done that.”

But here’s a hypothesis I find convincing: Joseph Sewall loved students, and could not find a way to break himself of that habit.

If Joseph Sewall didn’t love students, he would have fled Boulder a month or two into his new job.


In Search of a Silver Lining:

In loco parentis Doesn’t Live Here Anymore

In August of 2020, students arriving at the University of North Carolina (UNC) were greeted with rules and instructions aplenty on how they were to conduct themselves to keep the campus from becoming a hotspot for Covid-19. The eagerness of students to socialize prevailed over those rules and instructions. Next, the virus prevailed over the administrators’ plan for a return to in-person education. UNC courses are now all online.

Of course, UNC’s test run at campus reopening does not predict the outcome for every such experiment. CU’s enterprise in reopening the campus may work.

Nonetheless, there is every good reason to think creatively about what to do if rules and instructions fail in Boulder, as they did in Chapel Hill and in other college towns where neither the students nor the virus would hold still.

If face-to-face education does not prove viable, and if education has to retreat to its refuge online, is there a way to use this setback to strengthen the tie between students and this University?

A well-earned humility requires me to declare that the proposal I am about to offer may not be particularly original. For all I know, it might already be under discussion in every arena where people gather to deliberate on the future of higher education. This could be an example of “independent invention” or “multiple discovery,” with a bunch of us, worldwide, simultaneously exclaiming, “I’ve got it now!” (I urge readers to scope out a persuasive op-ed piece, Lisa Feldman Barrett, “College Courses Online Are a Disappointment:  Here’s How to Fix Them,” in the New York Times, July 8, 2020)

As thousands of commentators have observed, the massive disruption wrought by Covid-19 has presented an extraordinary opportunity to rethink old habits and sort through old traditions. In that spirit, if there is even the slightest chance of my statement here proving helpful, even if it only reinforces compatible proposals made by others, I will peacefully accept accusations of having reinvented the wheel.

So here we go.

If it turns out that the University of Colorado has to back away from the restoration of in-person courses and from the repopulation of campus by students and faculty, let’s take advantage of this extraordinary chance for a fresh start.


Why not have CU offer the world a chance to learn from a pace-setting and consequential experiment? This adventure would be premised on the recognition that the digital platform of Zoom offers a lot more than an alternative for “face-to-face education.” That term is traditionally understood as an arrangement by which professors are stationed in the front of rooms, crowded with students arrayed in rows before them (on those rare days when attendance is robust). By contrast, Zoom has given a different meaning to “face-to-face education.” Two people meeting in Zoom are literally face-to-face with each other. (Well, yes, there is the temptation to let your vision drift to the image of yourself, but that is a temptation without much magic or staying power!)

Here’s what I did not see coming: the framework of Zoom goes all out to maximize the prospect for students and faculty engaging in intense and wide-ranging conversations. In other words, Zoom supports mentoring in a way that a lecture hall does not.

To make the case for directing more professorial time and attention to mentoring, I turn to a statement written by one of my comrades in Zoom chatting, CU Student and Army Veteran Zach Guiliano.

Zachary Guiliano served five-and-a-half years in the United States Army as an Intelligence Analyst. After completing training, he was assigned to the 101st Airborne at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. In 2013 he was deployed to Afghanistan under Special Operations Command, and during this time he was promoted to the rank of Sergeant. Shortly after returning to the states, Sergeant Guiliano was assigned to the 4th Infantry Division at Fort Carson, Colorado where he finished his enlistment.

One of the most jarring aspects of my transition from military to civilian life was lack of mentorship. Throughout my service, I was lucky to have not one, but four mentors who changed the trajectory of my life and my character. Military mentorship is mandatory, and any military leader worth their salt knows that mentorship is the most important way to pass on experiential and generational knowledge to future leaders. 

Why is mentorship —a critical ingredient for any kind of success— so elusive in academia that many students seem to go through the entirety of their undergraduate studies without ever finding mentors? 

The best way to shake off the intellectual miasma of students and instructors alike is to recalibrate the tools and methods of learning. The COVID-19 pandemic offers a unique test environment for such a recalibration. The place to begin is by connecting our researchers and instructors with students, empowered by Zoom to convene anytime, anywhere. Mentorship does not necessarily have to connect directly to a student’s desired career path or field of study. The impact of having someone of experience —any experience— in your corner and encouraging your best efforts is immeasurable and is almost always life-changing.


The Unexpected Capacity for Change in an Older Academic

Five months ago, there was not the slightest reason to think that I would turn into an enthusiast for online conversation as a vehicle for full engagement with talented young people. On the contrary, I seemed fated to suffer a bad case of withdrawal when I was denied the opportunity to sit in my office in Macky, look up to find a delightful young person in the doorway, instantly discard any obligation or task that I had mistaken for my priority, and pitch into a conversation, with the student’s in-person company giving force and intensity to the encounter.

Anyone who knows me would have had good reason to predict the onset of much moping and bemoaning as I tried to live without office visits from students, while also surrendering the great pleasure of having my house periodically crowded with students attending the Center’s Grace Arrington Kempton Dinners.

But then Zoom came to my rescue. The moping and bemoaning never got a foothold. While I thought that I would sink into a swamp of nostalgia for the “old normal” of frequent contact with students, I ended up feeling enormous gratitude for the “new normal” of chatting up a storm with talented young people. Zoom has kept me in conversation with both CU students and with young scholars from around the country who are participants in the Center’s Mellon supported program in Applied History.

Within a few weeks of the lockdown, here’s what I had learned:

Talking with a student on Zoom provides—for both student and professor—
an interlude of coherence and focus in a disordered world.

Without Zoom, I would live in a world of alienation, and maybe even despair.

With Zoom, I live in a world of possibility.


A Rationale for an Experiment

“The ideal college is Mark Hopkins on one end of a log and a student on the other.”
U.S. President James A. Garfield, speaking of the legendary President of Williams College 

Here is my proposal.

In response to the stark emergency in higher education posed by the coronavirus, professors are positioned to put hearts and souls into mentoring. To update the oft-quoted definition of “the ideal college” as the gifted nineteenth-century teacher Mark Hopkins and a student seated on a log, higher education can—for an interlude— be reconfigured as a professor on one side of a screen and a student on the other. Faculty could be deployed to spend two or three hours every day in half-hour Zoom conversations with individual students, or with pairs or trios of students who are at ease with each other. And teaching assignments could be adjusted so that, in a semester’s course load, each student would have one course arranged as a Zoom-based tutorial (with 4-5 students enrolled, or with 20 students enrolled but meeting in five different groups for two hours a week).

And now for a quick tour of the premises that support this vision of what the University could do if the restoration of in-person education hits major speed bumps.

  1. If this restoration does not proceed smoothly, the fiscal well-being for higher education looks uncertain, with the threat of faculty lay-offs far from unimaginable. This perilous situation puts a premium on demonstrating that faculty are “essential workers,” engaged in activities that make an indispensable contribution to student well-being, and that thereby justify the retention of professors, lecturers, and instructors in something close to their current numbers. Don’t do lay-offs of teaching personnel; instead, expand their importance and value.
  2. Over the last five months, the sudden relocation of courses from classrooms to online formats has revealed a wild range of professorial capability and talent for adapting lecture classes to online formats. Long before the pandemic set in, some professors had moved far ahead of others in this arena, embracing innovative ways to engage students, both in and out of classrooms, with digital technology. For others, relocation from lecture halls to screens has tested both capability and patience. But professors—to a person–know how to draw out and engage young people in conversation; otherwise, we would never have accepted jobs as teachers. Nationwide, thousands of professors are already showing amazing pluck in learning to construct online courses. But the emphasis on mentoring has the big advantage of playing to their existing strengths.
  3. There is much testimony to support the idea that the formation of a lasting tie with an older adult is the essential component of student satisfaction with a college or university, and therefore of student determination to continue in that institution through to graduation. In a Zoom conversation, a student gets a full dose of feeling that a professor knows her or him. That sense of connection gets constantly reinforced, without risk of fading when the school year comes to an end.
  4. While the jobs of professors have many satisfactions, the hands-down, most rewarding aspect of these jobs comes into play when professors know that they have arrived at the right place at the right time to meet, engage, and encourage students for whom those encounters may well prove life-changing. For professors, successful encounters in mentoring deliver the sensation of fulfilling a purpose and mission, a feeling that will last a lifetime.
  5. The compulsion for “coverage” has been an ever-increasing burden for decades. Important new findings in Western American history, for instance, appear constantly, and yet the duration of a semester remains set. Shifting more attention to tutorials adapted to the needs and interests of particular students, and taking a break from coverage-driven lecture courses, would offer a refreshing and restorative change of course (literally!).
  6. Adding to the pool of mentors and augmenting the teaching force would be a crucial feature of an enhanced emphasis on mentoring. A significant percentage of retired faculty might well welcome the chance to return to serving as an anchor and point of orientation in the lives of students. Practitioners in various professions and occupations would be enlisted as an auxiliary force of mentors. In the professional terrain I know best, people working in the management of land and natural resources are often enchanted and energized by the chance to advise and guide the young. Moreover, these folks often have a profound sense of how their own college years opened the door to satisfying careers, and they are correspondingly eager to keep that door open for an up-and-coming generation. Plus, there is every reason to scope out and celebrate alliances with the existing corps of academic advisers on campus. University rules and procedures are very complicated, and nearly every professor has made a misstep and misled a student on some arcane matter of prerequisites or graduation requirements. Experienced advisers will stay in the picture for mentoring students, while also helping faculty navigate the twists and turns of the paths toward the degree.
  7. In lecture classes, students are rendered self-conscious and jumpy about how they might be judged by peers. And so, if a professor says something that is pretty funny in a lecture hall, there is a good chance that the students will look nervously around the room, wondering if anyone else is going to laugh. But if a professor says something funny during a lightly populated Zoom call, students laugh easily and comfortably, and often respond with some witty remarks of their own. (OK, this is not the most compelling of the arguments in favor off this proposal, but It matters to me!)


Readers will have noticed that this proposal presents a major weakness:  it demands an enormous investment of time from professors.

But remember:  this proposal is a response to an emergency, to be reconsidered and reevaluated when the emergency ends. Under those terms, this weakness comes with a clear solution.

How to find and allocate the necessary time?

Place a moratorium on the “research” component in the evaluation of faculty for promotion or merit raises.

Evaluations of professors are structured by these proportions: 40% teaching, 40% research, and 20% service. Thus, this moratorium would contribute 40% of a work week for intense Zoom interactions with students. The category of service would also be susceptible to redefinition for the duration of the emergency, thereby redirecting nearly 60% of a professor’s work schedule to this escalation in time spent mentoring—with this rearrangement lasting only through the duration of the Covid-19 emergency.

Of course, the moratorium does not mean anything close to a prohibition on participation in research. But it does mean setting up a framework where the requirement to publish in academic venues (the legendary “publish or perish” mandate) is temporarily suspended. And yes, of course, in the sciences and engineering, a significant amount of mentoring occurs through the incorporation of students into research enterprises that are funded with inflexible timetables for performance. That reality must be part of this emergency-related rethinking of the allocation of professorial time.


Mentoring by Zoom, from the Recipient’s Point of View

As a new arrival in the world of Zoom-dependent communication, I began with the assumption that this was working so well because I already knew the students with whom I was speaking.

That turned out to be a misguided assumption.

Zoom works fine as a way to get to know someone I am meeting for the first time.

Robert Draughon has just arrived at CU after three-and-a-half years in the United States Army. He was a member of the 3rd Battalion 75th Ranger Regiment based at Fort Bennington, Georgia; during his service he was deployed in Afghanistan and Syria. I have only been in Bob’s company on Zoom. While I treasure the encounters I had with students in the pre-Covid-19 past, my conversations with Bob continue my liberation from nostalgia for the days of the “old normal.”

I conclude by bringing him into the discussion to provide this proposal with down-to-earth meaning.


Mentorship and Covid-19

By Robert Draughon

It is certainly no secret that this upcoming semester is going to be an incredibly difficult situation for professors and students, certainly for first-year students such as myself. Until recently, the uncertainty in the days ahead was a massive concern for me. I found myself asking how I would make friends, stay motivated, and talk with my teachers outside of online class. Individuals experience education in very distinct ways under any circumstances. During the COVID-19 pandemic, identifying how best to make the most of our individual learning techniques, in a mainly electronic environment, is an even bigger challenge. Although I have only recently had the pleasure of meeting Patty Limerick through the University of Colorado Boulder’s Veteran Bridge Program, already she has been more than happy to help mentor me through this frustrating change in the COVID-19 era of CU education. We were able to have several very humor-filled and relaxed conversations just to allow us to get to know one another, discuss beliefs and values, share stories, and relate on a deeply personal level. This is obviously a very strange circumstance of meeting as we have never once seen each other in person; moreover, at face value of age, gender, education, or work experience, we have very little reason to relate.

But that’s okay! Zoom meetings have allowed us to replicate, as closely as possible, an in-person connection where we can find that common ground (such as a mutual value in avoiding unnecessary conflict and spreading grace to those who may think differently than oneself). Here is the unforeseen benefit: despite me not having started classes as of the time I am writing, I already feel leaps and bounds more prepared and encouraged for this school year. For this change, I owe my thanks to the ability to form a meaningful relationship with Patty, several other faculty members, and other veteran students through Zoom. (I gave it a good try, to call her “Dr. Limerick” or “Professor Limerick,” but as anyone who knows her would recognize, at a certain point, giving up and going with “Patty” comes to seem like the only sensible move.)

For students who want to become more well-rounded individuals, education demands far more of us than taking notes and studying materials just to earn a degree. It must include debating new and old beliefs, asking life’s hard questions (expecting a lot when other people answer, and expecting even more from our own answers), and making personal connections that will challenge us to grow as people as well as grow our networks. Particularly in our current online climate, it is my firm belief that seizing opportunities for one-on-one, or small-group, interactions with professors, as well as practitioners in various occupations and professions, to discuss topics outside of class in a relaxed environment of informality and personable discussion, is an absolute necessity. Seeking counsel from superiors is a skill I learned well in my time in the military, and it is one that I value highly. It allowed me to better understand the task at hand as well as critically analyze situations by drawing on the perspectives of others. More important, surrounding myself with great mentors and peers taught me how to be a better man and leader. In higher education just as much as in the military, all parties involved gain a great deal when they have candid discussions with others who have different lived experiences or thought processes. A better understanding of coursework is one important gain, but it is by no means the sole benefit.

I greatly look forward to continuing to meet with Patty and other faculty members, not just during online learning but throughout my time at CU, and on return visits (both material and virtual) in the years ahead. I have found my discussions with Patty to be not only enthralling and educational in a multitude of ways, but to be exceptionally energizing in all parts of my life, particularly in a time when human interaction can be limited. Regular mentorship meetings, beyond quick visits at office hours, add up to an activity I would highly recommend to all who are involved in academia. These meetings not only provide advice and answers to questions on academic work, they also foster meaningful relationships where we can truly be our own unique selves. It’s my guess that this is as true for the professors as it is for the students.

photo of Patty Limerick and Robert Draughon on a zoom call

And that’s all, folks. For now.

photo of Patty Limerick's signature

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Photo Credit: Banner image photo of Old Main – Built in 1876, Old Main is CU’s first campus building. Courtesy of: