What will the pandemic do to higher education?

April 14, 2020 • 1:15 pm

I can’t be arsed to analyze, much less summarize, the many statements in this Chronicle of Higher Education article in which faculty, administrators, and staff were asked how they thought the pandemic would change the way colleges and universities operate. (Click on the screenshot).

There are 23 statements, some optimistic, some pessimistic, and some off the topic.

That latter class is one of the reasons this series irritates me. For more than a few people use the question to advance their own social-justice agendas, pretending that the virus will help enact their personal ideologies—which of course pre-date the pandemic. In other words, they don’t answer the question, but rather blather on about oppression. But what else can we expect when you ask a cross section of liberal academics a question like this? Here are a few examples:

This crisis should finally force higher education to confront its deep social inequity. As the pandemic spread, elite colleges closed quickly, sending their mostly wealthy students home to secure environments with plenty of food and computer access. Other institutions serving large numbers of low-income students faced difficult choices about how to keep some lights on, so that students could still get essential services.

This crisis demands that colleges step back from self-absorption and focus on how we can better serve our neighborhoods and the larger community. Let’s reclaim our moral purpose as sources of knowledge, service, and even hope. By serving the needs of those in crisis, we will better secure our own futures.

But should the purpose of college be to serve neighborhoods and the larger community? I thought it was to learn. And what the pandemic should do was not the question; the question is what it will do.


We must care for our students in ways that recognize that they are more than students, and that their capacities to be students are interconnected to insecurities — of housing, food, and access to health services — and vulnerabilities — racialized, gendered, class-based — the structures of which we must study critically and aim to dismantle as we adapt to our new world.

We are in a position to think of our pedagogy as a form of mutual aid. We can learn together to push past our fear and isolation and inspire deep reflections on the power and fragility of our human and ecological interdependence. We can think through concrete strategies for surviving — and for living better.

Yes, of course you have to make sure your students have food, healthcare, and shelter, but note the call for dismantling “racialized, gendered, and class-based” aspects of society. Well, that’s all well and good, but has nothing to do with the pandemic. Here the authors are just saying what they normally say, but using the question as a springboard to do so. In fact, this is not an effect that I believe will come from the pandemic. The dispelling of inequities, inequities that many argue are exposed by the pandemic, will come from other wellsprings. What we have is not a prediction, but wishful thinking.

or (from someone characterized as an “anthropologist, custodian, and labor-and-community organizer”:

While labor leadership around the state put the screws on Governor Inslee to issue a shelter-in-place order, we organized a phone blitz on Ana Mari Cauce, UW’s [the University of Washington] president, to demand hazard pay, stronger personal protective gear, and/or quarantine leave with pay. This is just the beginning. I’ve been asthmatic since I was 8 years old, and I’m terrified of a bronchial death fever, but I’ll tell you one thing: I’m sure as hell not afraid of the bosses anymore.

Fine; that’s a change in a person, but not a change in higher education.

Another thing that strikes me is how poorly these academics write, and how shallow and unoriginal is their thinking about the future. If you don’t have anything to say, don’t answer the question. An example of shallow thinking and poor writing comes from one of the three college presidents who answer: Joseph Aoun, president of Northeastern University, who seems to specialize in the anodyne and the obvious:

But as with most disruptive events, this one brings opportunity. The institutions that will thrive in the future will be the ones that embrace online platforms, not just a hastily assembled, short-term replacement for classes, but long-term expansions of classroom instruction, campus life, and off-campus learning.

. . . Some students and their parents will justifiably want a full residential experience for at least part of the time. And a university of the future might offer three options: entirely residential, entirely online, or a hybrid of the two. All three options would keep students engaged with people and cultures around the world, making a global education more attainable and affordable for all.

Universities will remain vibrant, dynamic, diverse places. But bricks and mortar don’t propel these exchanges. The institutions that thrive postpandemic will be those that understand how humans cross the boundaries between the physical and digital — and back again.

Umm. . . what’s new here? Well, I am worried, as I’ve said before, that universities will use this period, and its lame “successes” (i.e., the university survived) to erode the brick-and-mortar structure that gives one a real college experience. I don’t think a purely virtual university can in any way come close to, much less exceed, the experience of face-to-face learning by interacting not just with faculty, but with your fellow students. What about the small seminars, the late-night bull sessions, the one-on-one interactions between mentor and student? Gone.

Finally, I note that of 23 people who gave statements, not a single one was in the sciences. There are two social scientists and an economist, but the only person characterized as an “assistant professor of science, technology, and society at Virginia Tech,” is in fact not a scientist, but someone who studies the effect of science and technology on society, and who has degrees in philosophy, history, and policy. It’s a big flaw to omit those working in biology, physics, chemistry, and other STEM fields from answering, because they’d have something to say about the effect of remote learning on education in the sciences.

I’d hoped for more from this long piece, but having read it, I realize that I wasted my time. My thinking wasn’t stimulated, I didn’t learn anything, and have forgotten most of it already.


17 thoughts on “What will the pandemic do to higher education?

  1. The shutdown will damage many public universities, resulting in the firing of staff and an increased pressure from administrators to switch many course to online instruction. I hope that I’m wrong, but there was already pressure building for these sorts of changes before the pandemic.

  2. “wokes gonna woke”…

    Seriously, I think that these sorts of things cause people to double down rather than to engage in introspection.

    What I think will happen: we will be ok IF we can have face to face classes in the fall. but if we can’t; well, people aren’t going to pay big bucks for correspondence courses. They will take the semester off.

    What I find amusing is that some Big Ten football programs are offering season ticket specials for the fall season; it sure appears if they are trying to make money “interest free” (in the event they have to refund that money).

  3. A former colleague of mine has a son who is a high school senior. He is wondering about waiting for a year to start college.

  4. The tendency over the last couple decades has been away from education. The direction has bifurcated, to one side, the university-as-job-training-center, all else be damned, and to the other side the university-as-ideological-indoctrination-center.

    Both of these, in my opinion, are misdirected.

  5. In the UK there is still uncertainty about how students starting university in the autumn / fall will meet the entrance requirements now that their public exams have been cancelled. The replacement result is apparently going to be some mix of earlier test results, teachers’ predictions about the grade the student would have achieved, and how the student is ranked in the class by the teacher. This is then going to be adjusted to reflect how the school’s last set of students performed in the 2019 exams. How steps taken by schools to improve on last year’s results will be taken into account, or how students sitting exams the school hasn’t previously offered will be adjusted, is still yet to be decided. In the meantime, some current students are being held liable for accommodation rental agreements for the remainder of this academic year, especially by private landlords. https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/apr/14/will-gcse-and-a-level-students-get-a-fair-deal-when-coronavirus-has-cancelled-exams


  6. Word that I have is that enrollment at my university for the fall has dropped by 4%. Not enough to be of concern, but as it becomes clearer that this will still be the “new normal” in the fall, I expect students will start to withdraw. Meanwhile the ability of the state to do their part in supporting our university and others will need to shrink dramatically. And this will probably continue in the winter.
    Lay-offs will start as this drags on and on.

    That is my pie-in-the-sky “vision” for how this damn thing will change higher education. Pie-in-the-face is more like it.

  7. “What about the small seminars, the late-night bull sessions, the one-on-one interactions between mentor and student?”

    Sure, all this virtual interaction does make these things harder in the short term but I suspect people will get much better at doing these things. Right now the technology one must become accustomed to really gets in the way. It is viewed as a substitute for the real thing. One day soon my hope is that it will become a lot easier and the pluses will far outnumber the minuses.

    All those things you mention (small seminars, late-night bull sessions, student-mentor interactions are doable now. What we’re missing in some cases is bandwidth and infrastructure. As commenters on your recent post noted, there are a few things that are hard. Anything involving lab equipment is probably going to require everyone to be physically in the same room with it. But that’s a small fraction of higher ed interactions.

    There’s so much that could be done when all are working through a computer. Moving documents between participants, working on a common model, diagram, or document. All of these things already exist in some form but aren’t smooth, not generally available, and people aren’t familiar with them. That will change.

  8. In a general Email dealing with the use of the Zoom technology for on-line teaching, one UW faculty member added the following gratuitious gem of thought: the TSA screening at airports stimulated her to think “Why don’t we just stop bombing countries around the world, thereby reducing the interest in hijacking our airplanes?”. This faculty member is in the School of Public Health, but does what is basically sociology,
    focusing, as her webpage puts it, “on social justice determinants of public health”.

  9. I’ve always held up plant identification courses as the kind of thing one can’t teach on line. Now I’m doing it. But am I doing it well? Possibly not. Sigh.

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