Managing a campus under crisis conditions is, well, challenging. All campus leaders, and I mean everyone not just the academic leadership team, have been immersed in the details of health and safety and the related enrollment challenges that came with COVID-19. At the same time, higher education has been grappling with the social injustices laid bare in this environment and heightened by the events surrounding the death of George Floyd. We have been running at high speed from problem to problem for a year now, and our ability to keep running may be reaching its end. Even Olympic athletes need to rest now and then.
So, at this one year mark (our campus closed on March 13, 2020), I am taking a moment to step back and consider our next steps. I’m taking a “balcony view” (coincidentally, I have just finished a course that introduced me to Heifetz and Laurie’s (1997) work on this subject, and now it is in the higher education news), and asking myself, “In light of all that we have experienced in the last year, how should our university evolve?”
Why ask this question, now? Why not just chart a path back to “normal”? After all, the vaccination roll out in Connecticut is progressing well and I feel very optimistic about our ability to be fully open next fall. It would be easy to just focus on that project, attending to the normal recruiting and scheduling questions and reveling in the knowledge that we can finally reduce our dependence on Zoom. But I can’t do that, because COVID-19 was not just an emergency for the last year: it was a powerful tool for surfacing structural issues that were already pervasive in our society and on our campuses. No, I can’t just breathe a sigh of relief. I must help our entire campus community dig into the necessary conversations about equity that have been made abundantly clear in this crisis.
So, as I invite my colleagues to engage in questions of what we should learn from life in a pandemic, I have a list of questions.
First, how should we respond to the access issues laid bare by COVID-19?
Questions about access to education and healthcare are not new, but they sure did move front and center over the last year. Last March, as students, faculty, and most of our staff shifted to remote learning and work environments, it became abundantly clear that the distribution of technology and wi-fi was not equal. We scrambled to deploy resources to students, only to find that our faculty and staff needed them, too. In 2020, this was kind of shocking. The world of work and the work of community has been at least partially digital for many years now, so how could we have found it acceptable that members of our organization did not have the basic tools necessary to interact remotely? As we return to “normal” let’s not lose sight of this fact. As we face the many budgetary challenges ahead, let’s not forget that this access issue is our responsibility. What can we do to reorganize our priorities so that the gap in access does not return?
While we are not in the health care delivery business, we are in the health care education business. The last year has made clear to many what some of us have known all along – not everyone has access to quality healthcare. But there’s more; communities do not just have financial barriers to medicine, they have cultural histories that lead to distrust of the health care system. As we work to educate future health care providers, how might we make those cultural and socio-economic barriers to health care a central component of our student’s education? How can we bring those same issues to the forefront of the education we offer to future educators, social workers, police officers, lawyers, and politicians? Can we become an organization that keeps these realities and histories central to all that we do?
Second, what should we learn from the experience of online and remote learning?
While none of us loved the abrupt move to online everything, it has become clear that this should be available to us for specific audiences and scenarios. Some of our students really benefitted from the flexibility of online courses and are hoping to continue in that modality for more of their education. The string of snow days in February was a good reminder that having all faculty prepared to hold some of their classes remotely is important for continuity. But not all students and faculty thrive online and not all disciplines are great experiences online, so we need to really explore what just happened. Perhaps the most important questions to ask right now are 1. What should we offer online to support our students and, perhaps recruit new ones? 2. How will we discover who is ready for online learning and who is not?, and 3. How can we ensure that our course design for online learning is as robust as it is for on-ground learning?
Third, how should we respond to the social justice issues surfaced by George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movements?
As we struggle to have the important conversations about race and equity in the United States, we must remember that these issues are not new. The differential experiences of communities of color in all social institutions has been real forever. As important as the questions around policing are, and they are incredibly important, the reality is that we should be focused on our own practices, practices that are re-enforcing inequity. So, while I do ask that my colleagues dedicated to educating law enforcement professionals carefully scrutinize the ways in which they are addressing social structures and racism, I am looking in the mirror first.
Among the things we should be considering are differential outcomes that cluster around race (retention, graduation, debt, and, yes, who enrolls in each major). We should be asking ourselves if the curriculum we offer reflects, at a minimum, the interests and histories of our students? We should be asking ourselves why we are still struggling to attract and retain faculty from diverse backgrounds? In other words, we should not let a demonstration last summer, end in a demonstration last summer. How can we keep ourselves engaged in meaningful and frequent examination of our own practices so that we progress toward greater inclusivity and equity?
Yes, it would be easier to “go back to normal” now that we can see the light at the end of the pandemic. But going back to normal is not a good idea. The pre-pandemic normal was not adequate or fair or just. So, I’m looking at this moment as the end of a yearlong sprint and the start of a marathon. We’ll just call that sprint the training I needed to go the distance, because I don’t want to go back to normal. I’ve taken the balcony view and I see at least part of the big picture. Now it is time to get back into the details and work with my colleagues to find some answers.