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Colleges shouldn’t mistake forced, short-term adjustments to the pandemic for necessary long-term change (opinion)

Since the pandemic commenced in earnest in the United States, colleges and universities have been scrambling to adapt. By necessity, that adaptation has been somewhat ad hoc and reactive as we struggle to understand the nuances of evolving public health protocols, wrestle with the realities of our budgets, attempt to support faculty and staff members, and try to respond to the profound impact on students and their learning.

In an Inside Higher Ed essay, Susan Resneck Pierce challenged university leaders to begin to think strategically and long term, rather than only managing the daunting tactical tasks of the moment. Her challenge caused me to reflect, and to develop a framework for beginning that conversation on our campuses.

Last spring, much was made of the academy’s ability to move abruptly to online learning, seeing it as evidence that we are capable of rapid change if we simply decide to do it. But that assessment was premature — we adapted out of necessity. The work was profound, even heroic, but that does not mean we did so willingly or in a manner that is sustainable. It was akin to driving full speed on the interstate and blowing a tire: we used the spare from the trunk and that doughnut got us to the end of the semester, but no one would mistake it for a permanent solution.

The work of long-term adaptation to a changing higher education environment is still ahead of us. We can and should learn from our forced response to the pandemic, but we should not mistake unplanned, forced, short-term adjustments for necessary long-term change.

Our current state is not the new normal. It is a transition state, and our institutions are reacting as necessary to an environment that is still in flux. Despite an understandable desire to return to work and life “as it was,” we are also not going back to the old normal.

While the new normal is not yet clear, and the old normal is unlikely to return for most campuses, there is much we can do to plan for a more sustainable and more educationally robust future when we emerge from the pandemic. Before the challenges of 2020, most of higher education was already facing intense demographic, financial and cultural pressures. All of those pressures have been exacerbated by the pandemic, the recession and the visible manifestation of racial inequities in our society.

Four essential questions can help us begin to think strategically about the future while continuing to adjust to a society and an educational model in flux.

No. 1: What has proved to be truly essential from our pre-pandemic operations and systems? For example, many campuses are finding that, at least for traditional-age students, the campus experience is essential for student persistence and satisfaction. That does not necessarily equate to only in-person classes, but it does mean that students need, in some basic sense, to “go to college” — to be in community with their peers, faculty and staff.

We are also finding that even — perhaps especially — in a largely remote learning environment, investment in professional faculty and staff development is essential. Higher education is still a personnel-driven enterprise, and any time fundamental change is undertaken, support for the people who must adapt to that change is key to its success.

There are other processes and traditions that do not fare well in a remote environment or social distancing model. Student recruitment without campus visits, the performing arts without a live audience, virtual commencements and distinguished lecture series conducted online are temporary replacements for more meaningful in-person engagement.

No. 2: What were we doing pre-pandemic that was unnecessary? This question is the converse of the first. While many faculty and staff mourn the loss of colleagueship from campus gatherings both formal and informal, few miss interminable meetings or layers of bureaucracy. In fact, some find that more flexible hours and remote work have resulted in a more productive and preferable experience. To be sure, none of these ideas are new to the workplace or to higher education; the pandemic simply forced nearly all higher education institutions into this space for at least a few months. Now is the time to evaluate that experience and adopt new systems and processes that have proved to be effective.

No. 3: Should we permanently adopt some of our newly flexible systems for remote teaching and learning? Many campuses, even those committed to in-person learning and focused primarily on the liberal arts, invested heavily in recent months in online learning systems and faculty development. As a result, faculty members and students are exploring new avenues for hybrid learning, flipped classrooms and remote course delivery. Some of the outcomes have been surprising, as faculty find they are able to engage in multiple new ways with students and take advantage of the possibilities of asynchronous learning. Other courses or faculty members do not adapt as well to the online modality.

Again, these methods of course delivery are not new to higher education, but the scale at which they were adopted across the country has created an opportunity for us to reconsider where we might use educational technology and flexible course delivery more strategically or effectively. In most cases, the answers to this question will be idiosyncratic to the institution and its faculty, but the pandemic has created an opportunity to learn and adopt new approaches that should not be lost once the necessity of remote learning dissipates.

No. 4: What strategic directions developed pre-pandemic should we revise, discard or perhaps even accelerate? The past year has brought into stark relief challenges to the higher education business model, and those pressures are only likely to increase, given the recession and highly restricted state budgets. Meanwhile, the decline in the number of high school graduates and demographic shifts in the traditional student population continue, with more first-generation students, Pell-eligible students and underrepresented students graduating from high school and seeking college degrees. The racial reckoning that has begun in earnest will not abate, and as more students of color enter our institutions, they will rightly expect a level of equity-mindedness that has often eluded us.

Strategic plans that do not already anticipate these changes can no longer ignore such imminent realities and will need to be revised. Programs and initiatives that were not designed to support a diverse student population, anticipated a traditional on-campus staffing model or failed to invest adequately in educational technology may have to be revisited. Those plans that were designed to adapt to the shifting demographic, financial and cultural realities may have to be implemented with greater speed.

Even as the pandemic has caused suffering, trauma and shock to individuals and society, it has made incredible demands on every facet of higher education. As we move through the immediate crisis and plan for the future, we can evaluate what we have learned from this unanticipated and painful experience. We need to face old realities anew, to nurture and revive what remains essential, and to craft a model of higher education that is responsive, vibrant and sustainable for the true new normal that is about to emerge.

Mary B. Marcy is the author of The Small College Imperative: Models for Sustainable Futures and president of Dominican University of California.

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