2021-2022 Series Foreword
Posted on August 25, 2021Download as a PDF
Download as a PDF
Crises are also crucibles—exacerbating change, releasing energy, and testing bedrock principles and assumptions. At this moment, as we roll up our sleeves to be vaccinated and cautiously remove our masks, many of us are wondering what 15 months of crisis has wrought for higher education. How have we fared when exposed to the high heat and pressure of the multiple and intertwined crises of COVID-19, racial reckoning, political polarization, and economic uncertainty? What assumptions have been upended and what needs to be reclaimed?
There is much about which we ought to worry, but there are also hopeful signs and opportunities for higher education:
- On many campuses, a decade’s worth of faculty development was accomplished in months. The speed and dedication with which faculty learned and deployed new pedagogical techniques, as well as the lessons learned about what can and cannot be accomplished with technology, offer tremendous opportunities to improve teaching and learning.
- Staff and faculty found new ways to collaborate, creating a more holistic intertwining of academic and social support for students. These new relationships can foster improvements in retention, access, and student success.
- Shared governance and collaborative decision-making guided responses on most campuses, even as the processes became more streamlined and nimbler. Campuses that were successful in using the mechanisms of shared governance to advance COVID-19 responsiveness have demonstrated that transparency and collaboration need not slow down good decision-making.
- The contribution higher education makes to communities, individuals, and the nation became more visible.
Significantly, the role of the college and university president has taken on a renewed cultural symbolism and visibility. After years of declining public confidence in higher education, college and university presidents have once again emerged as shapers of public opinion.
College presidents were among the first to recognize the importance of the COVID-19 virus and the need to make radical decisions on behalf of public health. When we announced that Rhodes College would be moving to remote learning on March 11, 2020, it was shocking enough that we held a press conference explaining our decision-making and its impact. Within a few days, I had received calls and notes from dozens of Memphis leaders letting me know that our decision caused them to take the virus more seriously and develop health and safety plans of their own. My experience was repeated in cities and towns across the country as college presidents boldly stepped forward with far-reaching goals for maintaining educational quality and student support amidst a national quarantine. In a time of great stress, our communities looked to college and university presidents for expertise, action, advice, and leadership.
During this same period, activists on campus and off ushered in a new era of accountability for racial reckoning. State governments turned college curricula and tenure decisions into political litmus tests. We saw a growing divide in the voting patterns and civic decisions between those who have graduated from college and those who have not. And “truth decay” (as the RAND corporation has termed the blurring of fact and opinion) increased in tenor and import. That so much of our public dialogue revolves around what happens on our campuses means that college and university leaders are continually called on as thought leaders and change makers.
We can applaud and appreciate the renewed attention to the presidency as a force for social change and societal good, but we must also recognize the intense responsibility and pressure this places on individual presidents. The demands for intellectual heft, moral wisdom, and attunement to the zeitgeist arrive amidst the ongoing drip, drip, drip of fiscal worries and demographic change. If presidents are to continue to wield influence, they will need to steward their own energy and attention with the same care as they steward institutional resources.
I am grateful to the presidents who have contributed to this volume for finding the focus and energy to take stock of lessons learned and the generosity to share those lessons more widely. They are helping each of us imagine what might be next. I am already tired of the phrase “new normal,” preferring instead to focus on the “new future” and the horizons that have been opened up as we adjust to the seismic shifts we have witnessed over the past 18 months.
Successful institutions will need to do more than merely tote up the gains and losses. They will discern the meaning and value of these changes. They will need to recuperate things that matter and allow things that don’t to stay fallow. So, too, for each of us individually.
I have developed a simple tool to help me think this through for myself, my family, and my institution. I start by making two lists: What has been lost/disappeared/set aside? What has been gained/added/taken on? For each item, I determine if the new way or the old way was more fulfilling. Do we internalize the new way, or do we return to past practices? Those decisions reveal the path to take:
INTERNALIZE THE NEW
RETURN TO PAST PRACTICE
|1. Resources to redeploy||2. Traditions to restore|
|3. Opportunities to pursue||4. Lessons to be learned|
When we decide to hold the course on things we have given up doing, we free up resources—human, psychological, financial, temporal, or spatial—that can be redeployed elsewhere. The items in quadrant one will need to be mourned, but their absence is the ground for new creative ideas and projects. For example, the pandemic forced many campuses to reckon with failing majors or programs, and those campuses are now in a position to meet emerging student needs more successfully.
In the quadrant-two cases, something was lost but can now be reclaimed. These are moments for celebration and ceremony. At Rhodes College, the most visible example is face-to-face instruction and vibrant residential life. The renewal and restoration of a return to our normal way of teaching and learning also gives us a moment to revive a tradition and lift up all that it means for a campus. Returning to things that we value and love gives us a chance to reflect on our deepest values and identities.
The items in quadrant three—those things that we developed in response to the needs of the past year that we will maintain—are opportunities for new growth. One campus discovered that remote summer school classes are helpful to students and provide an enhanced source of revenue for the campus. Another learned that Zoom was an effective tool for connecting minority applicants and their families with current students.
And finally, we come to quadrant four: those recently discovered skills and practices we will be putting back in the box for the next crisis, which need to be acknowledged with respect. New skills and activities have become good friends during the pandemic. If they aren’t going to be part of the new future, we have to say “goodbye” and aim to learn as much as we can from the experience. The Council of Independent Colleges, for example, learned to produce compelling remote conferences. The staff “skilled up” to make this possible. As we return to in-person gatherings, we will need to apply what has been learned and channel that energy. Archiving knowledge, preparing for the next crisis, and recognizing the ways new skills might be transferable to a transformed future will be important parts of our work.I know you will enjoy the essays in this volume, and I hope that you will find them helpful as you craft a new future for yourself and your institution.