March 18, 2021

SEC Seizes Opportunities to Expand Academic Programming Amidst COVID-19 Pandemic

By: SEC Staff
SECU (Twitter: @TheSECU)

The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly been fraught with challenges. Cancelled conferences, rescheduled seminars and marathon Zoom sessions were, and remain commonplace. The Southeastern Conference (SEC) was not immune to the shocking situation, what with its renowned sporting events being cancelled in spring of 2020 and last fall’s competitions occurring under heavy monitoring and testing protocols.

But, in the midst of it all, the SEC managed to turn the interrupted calendar and other hurdles caused by COVID-19 into opportunities to expand its already robust portfolio of academic programs and events.

Shortly after last March’s shutdown, members of the SEC staff began working with their various constituency groups to understand what academic programs or events could continue, what needed to be adjusted and what new opportunities could be explored.

“We were no different than anyone else. We were trying to figure out what to do next once we accepted COVID-19 wasn’t going to be a two-week issue,” said Dr. Torie A. Johnson, SEC Associate Commissioner for Academic Relations. “When we announced all athletics competitions were being cancelled on March 12, it was not necessarily applicable to our academic programs because the organizational structure is different. So rather than having that singular, monumental decision, we had to gather each program’s administrative group to make a decision – for that program alone.”

SEC enrollment and admissions offers conducted a virtual SEC College Tour in fall 2020 for school counselors from the greater New York area.

What Can Continue? What Must Stop? How Can We Adapt?

According to Johnson, who has been in charge of the SEC’s academic efforts since 2011, the initial conversations happened relatively quickly since each of the SEC’s 14 member universities had been monitoring COVID-19 for several weeks already and were anticipating the need to pivot in a range of operations.

“The decisions we needed to make were not easy, and the fact that all of our universities were in the throes of emergency decision-making for campus functions complicated matters, but everyone was as attentive as they could possibly be,” Johnson said.

The first undertaking for the SEC was to work with its universities to determine what activities could absolutely not take place versus what could possibly be transitioned to a virtual setting. Ultimately, both of the SEC’s late-spring 2020 events were postponed to the spring of 2021; one summer conference was slimmed down in a virtual format, while another was postponed to 2021 and will be conducted virtually; and two events scheduled to occur during the 2020-2021 academic year were postponed to 2021-2022, in hopes they can be held in person.

Eventually, the SEC and its members agreed on a slate of academic programs and events for the remainder of last year and all of this year with COVID-19 as a backdrop, and it is working better than Johnson could have imagined since it allows for more opportunities during a restricted budget year.

Panel sessions held during the traditional in-person SEC Academic Leadership Development Program workshops were recreated in a virtual setting in November 2020 and March 2021.

Professional Development and Student Recruiting Programs Expand

One of the first decisions the SEC made dealt with its academic leadership development program, which has been operating for more than a decade and is designed to prepare early career administrators for higher positions within the academy. Although the program’s signature in-person workshops were postponed, the SEC distributed the workshop funds to each university to use at its discretion to arrange for professional development for those individuals impacted by the decision. Also, with Zoom taking hold, the SEC launched a virtual forum for fellows who had already completed the program, and administrators expect the virtual forum will continue indefinitely.

“This was a terrific session, and I want to thank the SEC for organizing it,” said Dr. Fran Hagstrom, Associate Professor of Communication Sciences and  Disorders at the University of Arkansas, following the inaugural virtual event centered on communication during a pandemic.

The SEC also adjusted its longstanding student recruiting events, which date to 2009 and provide a way for the SEC’s admissions officers to introduce their institutions to students, parents and school counselors around the country. In light of COVID-19, both went virtual, and the fall iteration that focuses on counselors welcomed more participants than any of the previous in-person versions. Much like the SEC Academic Leadership Development Program, the SEC forecasts some type of virtual option to become a permanent part of the SEC College Tour.

“While we missed traveling with our colleagues this year, we think the virtual experience was meaningful and beneficial to participants,” said Dr. Amanda Sale, Interim Executive Director of Undergraduate Admissions at the University of Georgia and organizer of the virtual SEC College Tour. “Afterall, what a great way to hear about the extensive opportunities available to students at institutions throughout the Southeastern Conference.”

Auburn University senior mechanical engineering major, Zac Young, won the virtual SEC Student Pitch Competition in fall 2020.

Virtual Student Competitions Expected to Return to In-Person Format

In an effort to continue to provide opportunities for students, Georgia facilitated a virtual SEC Student Pitch Competition last fall, which was won by Auburn University senior mechanical engineering major Zac Young. All 14 SEC universities competed, and the winners still accessed the same level of awards. Since no travel was involved, judges from around the country were able to lend their expertise.

“The competition has helped me make connections, and it was a great experience,” Young said. “More than anything, I still can’t believe people would listen to me talk about power lines for 10 minutes.”

Right now, members of the SEC staff and program administrators are organizing the virtual version of the spring SEC College Tour, which will continue to include parents and students alongside school counselors, and the virtual SEC MBA Case Competition, which will be facilitated by Auburn next month.

“The SEC remains unique in its commitment to supporting the academic missions of its 14 member universities, and although we are adjusting, we are fortunate we did not have to eliminate anything last spring or so far this year,” Johnson said. “We are looking forward to building upon some of the virtual events in the future and to bringing back our in-person opportunities – as soon as it is practical and safe to do so.”