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Three lessons from the pandemic that should guide colleges in the future (opinion)

Everything will be different. How often we have heard this sentence over the last 20 years, and how quickly we forget it when we resume old habits. After the attacks of Sept. 11, the people who felt they could see the future were certain that national security, privacy, travel and the military would never be the same. After the Great Recession of 2008, we heard a similar refrain about banking, homeownership and the ways technology companies were thought to drive economic innovation.

And now, as we slog through a horrifying winter of pandemic hospitalizations and death, and while new vaccines have stirred our hopes, those who are confident of their insights into “new normals” and who can feel in their bones that social behavior has been forever changed by social distancing are predicting that that the post-pandemic world will be a brave new one — or at least a brand-new one.

Maybe the reaction of everything will be different is just meant to underscore the importance of what we’ve recently gone through. We want to believe that what’s been happening to us and around us is so powerful that its reverberations will continue long after the events themselves are over. That’s understandable, since it gives more seriousness to what we feel is a life-changing event. And it is painfully obvious that this horrible plague is changing millions of lives around the world — as the death count grows higher, so many more are scarred, sometimes irreparably.

In higher education, some things will be different post-pandemic, especially if we can hold on to what we’ve learned over the past year. As we begin 2021, the pandemic is still at the forefront of concern, but I already see three areas in which we can make a difference at colleges and universities through the lessons we’ve learned over these last several months.

Inequality. Many people have noted how remote education has made extreme inequality among students more visible. Teaching on Zoom revealed more about student living conditions than many students — poor or wealthy — wanted exposed. And while we didn’t discover the digital divide during the pandemic, its effects on learning and mental health were made more obvious. Many schools, colleges and universities were proactive in getting students technological tools, but not all educational institutions had the resources to do so. Without meals at educational institutions, many students just went hungry; this was true in inner-city elementary schools as well as at Ivy League universities.

The reckoning with race that has coincided with the pandemic has awoken more instructors and administrators to the centrality of antiracist efforts to our educational missions. The pandemic experience has only reinforced the obligation of educational institutions to support their most vulnerable students, paying close attention to the intersections of racism and inequality. Just as front-line health workers and residents of nursing homes have been prioritized for vaccine distribution, higher education institutions should direct financial aid efforts to the students whose economic conditions leave them most at risk of dropping out of college altogether.

Connection. While educators are understandably rather suspicious of technology, its power to make connections to students and other colleagues is clear. Notwithstanding all the complaints about Zoom fatigue, attendance at faculty meetings and committee workshops at my institution has been significantly better than it was when everyone was on campus. And from crisis communications to routine governance matters, engagement with colleagues in virtual meetings seemed to allow for new voices to be heard. People reluctant to speak up in a crowded room were more comfortable using the “raise your hand” function.

As for teaching, many instructors who were skeptical about being able to really connect to students online discovered that virtual courses allowed them and many of their students to bring their whole selves to class in new ways. The pandemic experience has shown us the power of virtual connections to enhance learning, governance and community building.

Compassion. The final lesson that I hope we take away from our pandemic experience in 2020 is that compassion can be greater than outrage. Now, we certainly had plenty of occasions to feel offended and to express fury over the past year, and it is clear that, for many people, feeling outrage is a pleasure and a bonding experience. Outrage, to borrow a phrase from Jonathan Haidt, blinds and binds.

But we have also witnessed the work that compassion does as we celebrated doctors, nurses, supermarket employees and countless friends and neighbors who went beyond the call of self-interest and duty to help their communities become more resilient — or just stay alive. We can shake our heads reproachfully at those who congregated at bars or who attacked others for wearing masks in public places. But we should also allow ourselves to be inspired by those who sewed masks for hundreds of other people or who found safe ways to bring food, affection and community to the hungry and lonely.

Everything won’t be different, but by learning a few key lessons from the pandemic, combined with compassionate solidarity, we can make a difference by building a better future at our educational institutions.

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