To say this has been a difficult year is an understatement. In fact, the events of this past year are beyond any we thought possible, any we imagined. The confluence of events, circumstances, and where we find ourselves as a nation and a planet have led to an unimaginable set of challenges – distinct and mutually amplifying, pressing and urgent. But we have also witnessed unimaginable resolve, resilience, and acts of humanity. We are facing challenges that call upon the best of humanity to address. We do so in against odds, in the face of fear, and profound loss. But we push forward, we adapt, we persevere, we respond with humility and humanity.
So-called “circuit breakers” are being used to stop the spread of the Coronavirus on college and university campuses. Specifically, schools are making the decision to pause in-person instruction to stem the spread of the virus, mirroring the success similar moves have had to spur decreases elsewhere. It is becoming more evident that the return of students to campuses and in-person teaching have both contributed to local outbreaks. The temporary pause in in-person instruction – what has come to be called a “circuit breaker” – has become “the new favored tactic of colleges and universities trying to curtail the spread of coronavirus.”
As university presidents, system chancellors, boards, and even governors have weighed in on the pandemic response including campus re-opening plans, strategies for keeping people healthy, and even policies around testing and quarantine, it was inevitable perhaps that criticisms would be raised and attacks on leadership would follow. Less obvious, perhaps, was that those criticisms and attacks would come from virtually every direction and from every constituency…
Communication has taken on much broader meaning and greater significance for organizations of late, both inward- and outward-facing. Nowhere is that truer than for colleges and universities, as the higher education sector struggles with long-needed change, financial and organizational constraints, volatile public perceptions about cost and value, and now the impacts of COVID-19.
In recent months, colleges and universities have expanded their communications, both in terms of frequency and content, to all their constituencies. They have done so to provide timely and vital information about response plans and changes in operations, as well as to maintain confidence and support in the institution, its leadership, and its plans for the future.
In 2019, I published a paper entitled “Defining Resilience” that framed the critical questions engineers must ask when considering resilience among the performance requirements for infrastructure systems such as buildings, bridges, highways, ports and harbors, and so forth. This at a time that concepts of resilience were front and center in the minds of engineers, facilities owners and operators, bankers, and insurers, largely as a result of losses (primarily financial but also human life) and other challenges faced following recent natural, technological, and anthropogenic disasters. Resilience was a relatively new concept in structural engineering design, but one that was quickly gaining recognition as a critical design consideration if not requirement, particularly when considering networked or interconnected infrastructure systems built in regions subject to natural hazards.
The sudden shift to remote teaching and learning following the COVID-19 outbreak and global pandemic has been a remarkable experiment for students, faculty, instructional staff, IT staff, and colleges and universities. We are learning on the fly, from one another, and through trial and error, about how to teach online, how to maintain communications with students in and out of class, and how to maintain continuity in a severely fractured academic year. Whether by collective intention or not, schools have largely stayed away from assessment of teaching during this crisis and our ‘transition semester.’ This is not the time, that time will come later. What are the five key lessons learned through this great experiment in online (remote) teaching and learning? (Remember, it’s not just online, taught in purpose-specific digital production studios. Faculty are teaching from their homes.)
As we continue to navigate what may be one of the most challenging and disruptive times in higher education – with hope, with optimism, and with a new-found spirit of unity – we begin to turn our collective attention to what’s next. For university leaders and their teams, this means focusing on the fall 2020 semester. Summer provides a natural bridge between the shuttered spring semester and what we all hope will be a return to normalcy by fall. This means we must start thinking NOW about how we will ramp back up, what we will look like as an institution, and how we can best serve our students.
Those who know me well know of my profound respect for our nation’s public and land grant universities and systems and both the knowledge and the opportunities they create – through mission and mandate – for their communities, the State, the nation, and the world. Never has the role of our great public universities – in teaching, research, and service – been more important or more needed. We are called by the grand challenges around environment, climate, food, water, energy, national security, poverty, and human health, and population health. But we are also called for leadership and light around democracy, justice, civility, and peace. The greatest of our public universities and systems will rise to these challenges and callings, rally their intellectual and human capital around finding solutions and pathways, engaging those resources and harnessing collective energies for the greater good.
Two words that have permeated academic culture, only slightly behind other industry sectors, are innovation and entrepreneurship. Yet experience has shown resistance by faculty frequently results from efforts to create, foster, leverage, or even promote innovation and entrepreneurship opportunities at some universities, particularly those that identify as primarily liberal arts institutions or those that have strong liberal arts traditions or intellectual cores. These terms are generally associated with STEM disciplines, business, and perhaps academic medicine. At first mention, these terms appear foreign to some, crass to others, and decidedly corporate to more still.
Reflecting upon many years of discussion about the state of American higher education, we noticed that it is often the very structures and principles that have made our model great that are potentially holding us back. How do we keep alive our traditions and all that they stand for – namely the foundational value of free inquiry as the source of true liberal education – without letting them inhibit our ability to respond to new intellectual and social contexts?