PULSE ENCOUNTER SERIES
Virinder K. Moudgil, a renowned scientist, who did his post-doctoral training on molecular medicine at the nation’s Mayo Clinic and a former longtime provost at Oakland University, is the president and CEO of Lawrence Technological University in Southfield.
A former visiting scientist at the Boris Kidric Institute of Nuclear Sciences in Belgrade and at the University of Paris Sud in France, as well as a consultant to the United Nations Development Program, Moudgil, not only leads LTU, an institution that has produced the likes of Steven A. Ballmer, the former CEO of Microsoft Corp, but he is also a thought leader. He believes that engaged universities must move beyond the ivory tower to create social transformation.
In this Q&A interview with journalist Bankole Thompson, the editor-in-chief of The PuLSE Institute, Detroit’s independent anti-poverty think tank, Moudgil talks about the death of George Floyd and the need for criminal justice reform. He tackles the impact COVID-19 is having on the region’s premier university of science and technology, and how LTU is supporting students of the Detroit Public Schools Community District prepare for a technological future.
PULSE: How does higher education respond to the death of George Floyd?
VIRINDER MOUDGIL: The senseless and inhumane murder of George Floyd was the latest tragic and glaring reminder of the progress we need to make toward equality and justice. In a note to our campus community on June 1, I said, “Hatred, discrimination, intolerance, and injustice are unacceptable. They have no place in our university community or outside of it.”
This type of brutality simply cannot be tolerated. Mr. Floyd’s reprehensible murder, his untimely death must hit the inner soul of the conscience of America and the rest of the world to agree that we must work together now, not later for positive change.
PULSE: What measures are being taken by Lawrence Technological University that is in line with the national conversation around criminal justice reform?
VIRINDER MOUDGIL: The reality is, Black Lives Do Matter. Our focus is on technological issues but our graduates must reside in the real world. Lawrence Tech has been helping the black community with efforts that really go back decades. More recently, LTU has taken a number of steps to attract and better serve more African American students. Among these are partnerships with the Detroit Public Schools Community District (DPSCD) and Southfield public schools to help students become interested in and succeed in STEM and technological subjects. Our middle college program in DPSCD is the first by any area university. The activities of our innovative STEM Center are also largely aimed at encouraging minority youth.
LTU also has a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Taskforce Report that is providing recommendations for the next strategic plan. Over the past two years, a campus climate survey has been implemented to assess how we are doing. Additionally, LTU’s return to intercollegiate athletics has helped us attract more great students from Southfield and Detroit with all the scholastic strengths that are part of our programs.
However, clearly, we need to do more and will do more. Acknowledging the importance of this, I am appointing a diversity and inclusion officer, reporting directly to me, as soon as possible. In addition, in July, a coalition of students, alumni, faculty, staff, and others, led by Dean of Students Kevin Finn, will convene to begin to examine how LTU can better serve underrepresented minorities and be more inviting and inclusive. We will be seeking broad representation and helpful opinion and commentary as we establish goals and the ways to best achieve them. Most importantly, a fair, thoughtful and humane criminal justice system is long overdue.
PULSE: George Floyd’s death has also cast the spotlight on the institution of policing in universities to review their procedures. What is the case with LTU?
VIRINDER MOUDGIL: Our Department of Campus Safety does not have police powers. We cooperate closely with the Southfield Police Department and have been fortunate to have avoided most serious incidents on campus. I will say that our campus safety officers are empathetic and experienced in working with a youthful population and know how to build and sustain good relationships.
PULSE: As the leader of the principal information technology university in the region of southeast Michigan, what has actually changed in the teaching techniques at Lawrence Technological University in the advent of the coronavirus pandemic?
VIRINDER MOUDGIL: From a technical point of view and support the transition was very easy. All our undergraduate students receive as a part of their tuition a laptop loaded with the professional software that is used in their area of study. This availability of software program made the transition very smooth. The faculty and the students had the same technical support. In addition, our e-learning office that trains and supports faculty to teach online on a regular basis was instrumental in helping all our faculty both the ones that had taught online before and were trained, and the ones that had never taught online to be prepared. We expanded our spring break for one week and during that week faculty members had many workshops to learn how to transition to the new environment. We are proud of our faculty and students for the way they adapted so quickly.
PULSE: Has LTU seen any growth in the area of digital learning since this pandemic started?
VIRINDER MOUDGIL: Our summer term had an increase in credit hours, and is still completely taught online. We believe that both faculty and students feel now more at ease in the digital environment.
PULSE: What has been LTU’s biggest challenge during this coronavirus crisis?
VIRINDER MOUDGIL: We miss our students and faculty, but it was important to make this decision for the safety of all. Like any other university our expected revenue was impacted since we decided to reimburse students for part of their room and board. But we have capacity to work it out. We will have to continue to adapt to our physical environment to ensure our faculty and staff are and will continue to be safe. We are thankful for the CARE Act that will provide the support buffer with respect to the revenue challenge mentioned earlier.
PULSE: For students who are facing difficulties in this pandemic, what measures are being taken to address their challenges?
VIRINDER MOUDGIL: Our counseling services have continued throughout the pandemic, but online. Our councilors are as busy just as when they were physically at school, and many students have taken advantage of their services. In addition to consultations scheduled in ZOOM, we also have 24/7 service available to students that are having a difficult time and need to talk with someone.
PULSE: LTU being a private college depends a lot on philanthropy. Where does that support now lie in the wake of the pandemic?
VIRINDER MOUDGIL: We continue to seek and obtain gifts and grants to supplement resources for operation, scholarship to students and invest in developing innovative new programs.
PULSE: This virus is the first of its kind where technology is being used to keep people safe as well as to make them stay connected. What does that say about the future of technological education?
VIRINDER MOUDGIL: We believe that although digital education will have an increasing role, especially in hybrid and flipped classes, that the face to face education will still continue and be attractive. However, the style of teaching and learning will continue to evolve with the delivery of the content being online, and the class time spent on important interactions involving group discussions, and academic and research projects.
PULSE: Is LTU engaged in any COVID-19 related research?
VIRINDER MOUDGIL: We are not directly doing COVID-19 research, but our on campus business accelerator has been very involved in fabricating with 3-D printers, and delivering face shields to nursing homes. LTU received two grants to continue to help with this important endeavor. Some of our professors will do research associated with the pandemic models.
PULSE: The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs in a statement in April noted that digital technologies are critical in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic worldwide. What is your take on that both as a medical doctor as well as the president of a technology university?
VIRINDER MOUDGIL: LTU has many firsts in innovation in technology. Our faculty in partnership with students built autonomous vehicle, and we are among the universities who achieved this feat initially. We have the capabilities, and given adequate UN and support from similar agencies, we are capable to of developing strategies and programs related to COVID-19 as supplements to our programs in Nursing, Biomedical sciences and related health care programs.
PULSE: COVID-19 has exposed the digital divide in education in terms of students who don’t have access to technology and those who have. How do you see digital access to higher education playing out in this pandemic?
VIRINDER MOUDGIL: I agree that COVID-19 exposed the digital divide especially in K-12 education. Although we do not see the divide directly with our students because all our students are provided very powerful laptop computers aligned with industrial and manufacturing design level capabilities. We do recognize that this is a challenging problem for many universities.
PULSE: COVID-19 is moving us to a virtual economy where higher skilled workers have more opportunity and job security. What role in your view should higher education (both public and private institutions) play in training the unskilled workforce that are on the frontlines, majority of whom are black and other minorities?
VIRINDER MOUDGIL: We recognize that skilled workers are and will be in demand. COVID-19 has increased interest in innovation and entrepreneurship at higher education institutions. Whereas degree programs at universities take time to complete a program, a time requirement that is in conflict with many who are unable to take time from family and their current jobs to achieve the benefit of higher education. LTU had developed many industry-based certificate programs that can be completed in a relative short time span. We are also investing in our outreach communities in Detroit schools to prepare future workforce that is technically competitive and progressively in demand.
PULSE: This pandemic has exposed the deep levels of inequality and poverty that are endemic in our society. What is the lesson for those who are entrusted with responding to such global challenges?
VIRINDER MOUDGIL: I am a biologist and believe all children and adults have potential to be innovative and creative, but in different domains of our society. All we have to do to equalize that potential is to give them the tools of success and opportunities of a supportive academic, economic and social environment.
PULSE: Does LTU plan to reopen this fall? If so, what is the risk management strategy to minimize contact between faculty and students?
VIRINDER MOUDGIL: A hallmark of LTU education is reliance of Theory and Practice model of education. Being a STEM/STEAM focused university, many programs require hands-on practical experience, while lectures can be supplemented by online lectures. Laboratory exercises, architecture studios and workshops when properly spaced can be taught in-person mode. Pending State and or federal regulations, we hope to open the fall semester in a variety of teaching methods: on ground, online and hybrid mode offering both in-person classes and remote learning. All standard procedures of risk management would be in place for in-person classes.